Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 2

We last left our intrepid heroes at the trailhead of the Otago Rail Trail in Middlemarch. Apologies for the delay getting to part two because one of the hard things in reconstructing this tale is that the websites I used in 2003 have dramatically improved and it’s hard to recreate my old errors. Pretty sure I figured out all the places we stopped correctly.

Anyway, I need to take a moment to describe the backpacks we were going to take on this trip. I had a 70L North Face pack that was a hand me down from Mark, who had taken this pack on hikes/climbs to pretty much every 14k peak in Colorado. It was in remarkably good shape despite the mileage. I’d never done much backpacking so this was a rather nice starting place for me. Mark was well experienced with it, could help with adjustments, and it was large enough to hold all the gear I was bringing with me for my three post-Antarctica weeks in New Zealand.

Mark and Tony had both purchased new packs. Mark’s was a 80L that he’s ordered months earlier and it was waiting for us at the Antarctic Deployment Center. He expertly packed that thing and it was half empty as he’d purchased an upgrade for future long climbs, not simple hikes like this. Tony had gotten the largest pack that Kathmandu sells which I swear was like 110L. It was a goddamn wearable steamer trunk, though it looked proportionally correct on him as the 70L did on me.

When we were unloading the packs from the car, I reached for Tony’s and that fucker didn’t move. Despite a winter of weightlifting and being in the best shape I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t budge his pack. Tony hefted it with a grunt and put it on. I made a joke of being happy he was carrying that one rather than me. Mark, a former Army Ranger, pointed out the old adage that the pack gets lighter with every mile as you slowly eat the food you’re carrying. Tony, a former Navy meteorologist, said that this sounded like some Army bullshit but that he hoped so.

Otago Rail Trail Map with kilometer distance between landmarks. Follow along to track our misery. (courtesy of otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz)

And so we began walking from the former Middlemarch train station toward our first navigation point, Ngapuna. As I previously, mentioned a little girl with a camcorder captured our departure. As we later discovered, this was the mayor’s daughter. The mayor wanted to make sure there was documented evidence just in case we died. That’s New Zealander courtesy and hospitality right there.

An hour or two later, we took our first snack break off the side of the trail at Ngapuna, leaning against a fence, we cracked open our packs. I brought out my Swiss army knife, some cheese and a salami I’d picked up in Dunedin that morning. Mark had an energy bar of some sort. Tony took out a full bottle of red wine, three camping wine glasses (this being very decadent at the time), silverware, crackers, cheeses, terrine, and his first mini baguette. Mark and I boggled at him and I asked if that bottle was going to last him the whole hike. He looked at me like I was a dumbass, “Pfft, no. I figured a case worth on the trail would last us until we got to wine country and can restock.” Now I knew why I couldn’t shift his bag. We finished up and got moving down the trail again.

This is where things get tricky as the maps my memory recalls from 2003 had a different name for a town at the next stop than what is on the current map, Rock and Pillar, but I do not remember what that name was. The planning we had done said here was a small town we could stop on the trail after a leisurely 14km before some of the longer days ahead of us. A beer or three, some dinner, maybe camping outside, maybe there’d be rooms at the pub.

There were no rooms at the inn. There was, in fact, no inn. There was nothing but a small shed and the plains of Strath Taieri, overshadowed by the tall granite hills that we were just starting to notice had a persistent, maddening wind down blowing from. It was here that we realized that the maps we had might reflect historical towns that weren’t there anymore. We took out the maps to figure out what the next place with definitively stated lodging was and, this was key, that all the maps agreed existed. This appeared to be the town of Hyde, another 14km away, a surprise doubling of the distance of our first day. The point of the short first day was to ease us into it, especially me who wasn’t really accustomed to long distance backpacking. With heavy hearts and packs, we resumed the hike but without quite the same spring in our step.

We trudged away from the Town That Wasn’t, following the trails through another 14km of farms. Not long into this next leg, we encountered some sheep and we were clearly the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to them. I know this because they ran ahead of us, shitting in abject terror, most of the way. I had no idea sheep contained that much poop but that smell has never left me after following, collecting more and more sheep, and frightening an entire flock for quite some time, as the unending wind blew the smell into our faces. I managed to forget it for a few years until I had my first glass of bad scrumpy in Exeter, which was like drinking the smell of that hike. Somewhere around kilometer 18, I started noticing a twinge in my right hip which got progressively more and more painful as my iliotibial band slowly seized up. I started dropping further and further behind Mark and Tony, but we were already well past the point of no return. This is when it officially became the Otago Rail Trail Death March in my head, as I had to make it to Hyde or die trying.

Unfortunately, what was waiting for us in Hyde was the GLORIOUS FUTURE, except that in the present the Hyde Inn was closed for renovations to greet all the bicyclists doing the Orago Rail Trail next season. The despair really hit when we crossed the highway and learning no town was there either. There was a picnic table on the side of the road as this was effectively a trailhead. So, we put down our packs, sat down at the table to look at the map and see what the next step was and saw that the next town was another 20km+ down the trail. This was the critical error for me as ceasing movement caused everything that had been protesting for the last 10km to lock up and fail. The attempt and immediate failure to get back up, gracelessly falling onto my pack rather than kneeling down in the process, meant I had to call hiking for today. There was no hope to get to the next town for me and I was quite happy to camp and/or die on the shoulder of the highway if needed because I wasn’t able go any further.

Mark and Tony decided that the only answer was to try to hitchhike. I pointed out that no one in their right fucking mind was going to pick us up. The highway running from Dunedin to Queenstown is comparable to Highway 50 running from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, if it also spent half it’s time going through the wine country of Napa & Sonoma. There were a hell of a lot of two-seater BMWs and Porsches moving at high speed to get to the slopes and wineries. They sure as hell weren’t stopping for three sweaty backpackers that still had South Pole Madness in their eyes. While Mark and Tony tried to hitchhike and argued about the best ways to do it, I saw a building nearby and I limped down to what I discovered was a sheep transfer station in hopes of…anything. Really, I have no idea. There was a building with other humans in it and I was broken. I hoped for mercy of some sort, even if it was just a swift death to end the increasingly excruciating pain. Instead, what I got was an ice cream sandwich from their freezer as they asked what we were doing. The humorous exchange of “We’re hiking the Otago Rail Trail”, “Bike?” from the Fisher & Paykel store repeated itself here as I tried to explain our failure. The very kind station manager said “Bruh, you fucked up” (oh, I knew) and told me to go get the other guys because they’d give us a ride back down to Middlemarch in a sheep truck, as long as we didn’t mind the mess from the last load. We most certainly did not.

As we rode in the back of the truck bouncing back down the highway to Middlemarch where the driver lived, he radioed ahead to the town and had them open up one of the empty houses for us to crash in and light the water heater. When he dropped us off, the driver told us to walk over to the Middlemarch Pub if we were up for it after we had a chance to clean up and rest. Let me tell you, I have never had a more luxuriant, pain easing hot bath in my life. With great difficulty, despite the long hot bath, I hobbled over to the pub with Mark and Tony. As we entered, it was a full house and we were welcomed with a shout of “STUPID FUCKING AMERICANS!!!” because yes we were. Even the little girl that filmed us departing was there. At this point, I have to admit that memories of the evening get a bit foggy because I was exhausted and was introduced to the second beer I’d ever liked at that point in my life called Otago Strong. No idea who makes it, never saw it again, but it was flowing freely from that tap once I got put behind the bar by the publican after Tony mentioned I’d been the bartender at Pole.

We left the following day after breakfast on the entirely reasonable basis that if we didn’t leave, there’s a good chance we never would. Mark had already gotten an offer to do some electrical work on a farm and we’d been introduced to the Middlemarch Surfing Club. (NOTE: Middlemarch is nowhere near the waves, and it’s really just an excuse for farmers to go drink beer and smoke weed in a shed.) In an alternate timeline, I’m probably a plumber and still running the pub in Middlemarch. Tony is probably an exotic dancer in Queenstown as you can’t keep him down on the farm.

As I learned later, I had strained the iliotibial band on my right side by overexertion. This gave me a slight limp for the rest of my time in New Zealand and it still acts up to this day if I overdo it or go too long without enough sleep. It’s my little reminder that thorough research and paying attention to cues is important. You’ll end up crippling your dumbass if you don’t.