Day 64-65: When we woke up at the campground, we packed up and walked out to the little cafe back in town, drank coffee and ate a cooked breakfast, hanging out for a while, enjoying the quaint atmosphere with outdoor seating under the trees. St. Arnaud is not really a full town, but a collection of buildings necessary for the support of the park, it’s visitors, the park employees, the handful of wealthy vacation-home owners, and the locals whose families have lived here for generations. There is a lodge across the street from the cafe next to the fire house, another smaller one up the road next to a motel and a very small school building, and another really swanky one farther down the highway. A long corridor of hills towers over the valley and a layer of trees separated us from a view of the lake and the bigger mountains in the distance. The cafe was also a gas station, and most of the inside looked that way- small snacks, car stuff, drinks, and hot pies- but there was a coffee bar in the corner near the glass door that led to the outdoor seating and eating area, where 20-25 people, mostly drivers but one or two of them thru-hikers, sat and talked. There were many habituated little juncos keen to pick up the scraps left by the sloppy humans, and a little library inside the old British-style red phone booth in the corner of the yard. We talked and laughed a lot, and left late in the day. We must have stood outside the park entrance for 3 hours trying to hitch out, yet again being cut in line by 2 seperate hitchhiking couples that came out of the woodwork. We made a sign, danced around, jammed, and told jokes until finally we were picked up a couple from Guangzhou with a 5 year old son. He is a businessman, his wife was working for him when they met, and they have traveled all over the world as a family, their son having already been to more countries than Xena and myself combined. We told them a little about our adventures, but on the windy mountain road, Xena was starting to feel sick. They dropped us off in Murchison and we went to the I-site to steal wifi. We went to the Four Square across the street for some food, but Xena couldn’t hold it and went around the corner to the public restroom to blow chunks. When I pulled out my food bag to organize our resupply, it was all covered in some kind of sauce- curry or something really sticky and smelly, and it took some time to wash it off. Then it began to rain, and we walked a little ways down to the road to a bakery where we could get some drinks and step out of the rain for a minute. We went back to the road and only waited about 5 or 10 minutes before we were picked up by 2 Israeli dudes who were driving around the country together. They were super cool, and had traveled a bunch already for dudes in their 20s. The dude driving was more outspoken, the one in the passenger seat less so. They both had beards, the dude in the passenger seat had a longer one and wore glasses. We talked about music, bonding over Snarky Puppy, and they showed us a Israeli jazz musicians like both Avishai Cohens. Xena was feeling sick, so we stopped so that she could hurl on the side of the road, fortunately for the last time today. They offered to drive us to the campground they were staying at in Berlins, we agreed and ended up staying there for 2 days while we waited out a storm. The Buller River was right across the road from the campground, a big blue/white river that reached flood stage during the super heavy rain that fell the first day. I wanted so badly to try to run the rapid right across from the road, but trusted my better judgement- it would have been way over my head in that little boat. The campground was neat- a little cafe and restaurant with surly service from a tattooed group of mostly old country dudes. With a trailer building that worked as a bathroom, an outdoor sink set up on the wall near the RV sites, chickens running around, and lawn games in the front, it felt like a hostel on the AT. We talked with the dudes from Israel about the Israel National Trail and how many people hike it when they get out of the military, but not many international tourists come to hike it. We jammed a bit on Dave Brubeck’s Take five- the dude with the shorter beard also had a Martin Backpacker guitar- and he was a great lead player. He played some Antonio Carlos Jobim stuff later, singing in Hebrew. They cooked us some delicious rice and veggies with tahini and let us sleep in their tent while they slept in the car, so that we would be more sheltered from the rain. The sand flies were absolutely everywhere and completely inescapable. Xena made sure we sprayed up with DEET, and even though I normally wouldn’t use it, I was glad I did. Each night we would kill the dozens of them that made it into the tent in the few seconds it took us to climb in and zip up the mesh door, and hundreds more clung to the mesh through the night.
Day 66: When we left, it was sunny and clear and we drove up to the seal colony in Tauranga Bay with the dudes from Israel. It was cloudy and cool on the coast and we were all a little groggy- waking up early and cramming into a full of sand flies is a mildly rough start to the day. We followed the walkway up the hill from the fairly crowded parking lot, short, steep, and rocky cliffs just past the edge of the trail, a maintenance crew 4 or 5 strong, each with a set of 2 or 3 hand tools, and a little diesel powered compactor to flatten out the dirt and rocks they brought in with wheelbarrows, working above the long grey beach below that extended across the bay in a wide arc. As we got to the top of the short hill, perhaps a tenth or a fifth of a mile in, there was an overlook with a view of the jagged bluffs that rose from the tumultuous sea. There seemed to be no flat spot on Wall Island, the largest of these hunks of rock that appeared to be thrown haphazardly by some great Maori god of eons ago into the surf, and yet the interpretive sign described it as one of the most important seabird rookeries on the west coast, home to thousands of birds: mainly Fairy Prions, a type of small, bluish petrel, but also Sooty Shearwaters, the bird that migrates nearly 40,000 miles each year to and from the North Pacific, blue penguins on the lower slops, and red-billed and white fronted terns in the summer. This densely populated sea-stack exists only for the abundance and diversity of foods that facilitate the niches to be filled by each species, and for the absence of rats or mustelids that would make the island rapidly inhospitable, feeding on the easily accessible burrow where these birds nest each year. A little farther up on the path was the wooden overlook platform by the seal colony. A few dozen seals lazed on the rocks, mostly females, and a few young pups played with each other amongst the rocks, or on top of their parents, aunts and uncles. A weka wandered around the flax and across the trail and almost everyone stopped to try to snap a photo of it. Girls ooed and ahhed at the pups with their every move, and everyone laughed when it stumbled or climbed over one of the adults. Their faces are so human, or at least we are inclined to feel that way. The sea was more than rough, it was violent and unforgiving; whitewater for acres along the edge of the sea-stacks and all behind them, swirling in strange eddies and hydraulics, continuously churned by the ceaseless tides pushing them toward the shore, crashing in 3 or 4 foot waves against the rocks, forever and ever. And yet, a few males came up onto the rocks through a small opening in the surf right against the shore, hurdling themselves onto the wet rock without hesitation during the highest point of a wave. One had caught a fish, and the playful pups soon wiggled and crawled their way over to inspect it. The male seemed intently focused on devouring the fish, at first so much so that it hadn’t moved out of the splash zone and continued to be soaked by the froth. This kept the pups at bay, but only momentarily, as the male moved into a more comfortable position on a dry, algae covered rock, and the pups came rushing in closer, but not all the way, for despite their inexperience, they know the social hierarchy. Eventually the male lost interest and another smaller male took over. Perhaps the pups will get a nibble or two, or when they’re older. The Israeli dudes dropped us off in Westport at the Countdown, and we picked up some food for now and for later, snacking outside under an awning as it rained. We walked about a mile out of town, across the bridge and to the intersection of the 2 highways in cold, cold rain. We stood there, trying so hard to embrace the type II fun, until we got picked up in a campervan with a young hippie dude that started his own surf school, and was now going on a long surf trip. It wasn’t a very long ride, and he dropped us off at the turnoff towards Greymouth, back into the rain. We were losing moral, and desperately I tried to sing and joke and do anything I could to keep our spirits up, when we caught a hail mary. A 30 foot long coach bus stopped and when we boarded, Terry greeted us with his warm smile. He was about 50, bald with stubble that probably grew back within an hour of his morning shave- a Maori guy, father, basketball-coach-looking-dude with a sweatshirt and sweatpants. He worked as a truck driver for years, saved up his money, had kids and got a house, then got cancer a few years ago. With his family’s support, he sold his house and got this 30 foot bus which he’s converted into an RV with a queen bed, kitchen, bathroom, and even a rear view camera to keep an eye on the Subaru he tows behind it. I took shotgun behind the big, sprawling windshield, feeling like a kid in a spaceship, and Xena promptly curled up in a seat behind us, falling asleep after I pulled out my sleeping bag for her so she could warm up, and Terry and I talked about everything: mountain biking, his eye-opening brush with cancer, his kids, all the hiking and touring and hitching Xena and I have done and some of the adventures I had been on beforehand, and of course, Donald Trump. He was a super amiable dud. We stopped at a rest stop along the beach after driving for an hour or so on a windy, narrow coastal road with the clouds parting and the brutal surf of the coast, and the steep jungly cliffs and waterfalls of Paparoa National Park on either side of us. Xena woke up for the stop and Terry made us each some tea, and gave us some granola bars, the sun now high and bright. The waves were tall, strong, and steadily crashing against the jagged black rocks of the peninsula, louder than a train. A station wagon in the same pull-out had been converted into a camper and a couple was having a picnic with their coleman stove at the picnic table above the beach. When we got going again, Xena fell back asleep until we started talking about politics, specifically about John Key, the recently retired Prime Minister of NZ, and his successor, Bill English- notably how John Key was pretty well loved and no one was sure what Bill English would do once John Key decided to spend more time with his family. When we talked about Donald Trump, we mentioned that he had won in the electoral college but not the popular vote, after Terry made a comment that he was shocked when he learned that the Americans had voted for him, and we had to explain how the electoral college worked, and how the house and senate were created to balance state’s rights, but how this led to a democracy with unequally distributed representation. When I asked about how representation works in NZ, and his take on it was that it was relatively well balanced, although because there are proportionately far more people living in Auckland than anywhere else, the city had a tremendous amount of sway. Check out this short video, which I think explains NZ government pretty well. We drove through Greymouth and Terry explained that it wasn’t hard to find a spot to park his bus for the night, pointing out a few places in town he might try out as examples. He dropped us off at Kumara Junction and we got a picture with him and his bus before he left. Then it was sunny and pleasant again. We got a quick ride from a middle aged woman about halfway to Hokitika, then another quick ride the rest of the way from 2 dudes from Finland in their camper station wagon, who dropped us off at the gas station, we got some drinks then walked to the south side of town. She hooped and I played guitar and soon we were picked up by a young woman from one of the Carolinas in a campervan. She was very friendly and talkative, loud and dominant in her personality with a sprinkling of unstable emotional insanity, but very nice overall. She moved her new solar panels so we could put our backpacks in the back, telling us how she had just gotten them and is stoked to get them set up. She works as a sales associate at an art gallery/gift shop in Franz Josef and travels to Hokitika every few weeks to stock up on food at the New World, this time getting a bunch of pizzas for all the people she works with too. She talked about how when she first came to NZ, she found work at another store in the nearly nonexistant town of Ross, but she hated the housing she found there, because even though it was cheap, the town only had about 100 people and everyone knew everyone and privacy was not a thing. The gig in Franz Josef is nice because there’s always new people in and out, but she made time to complain about the woes of retail, like people trying to take pictures of the prints that cost $500-$1000 who aren’t willing to buy them. She pointed out the helicopters in the yards of big houses as we went by and told us about how she knew the people that owned them. The mountains we were passing grew bigger and bigger and we went through dense fog and clouds on the windy mountain road, getting glimpses at the steep,thickly vegetated foothills of humongous glaciated peaks, but nothing above the wall of white. Still, the occasional view was afforded us when the clouds would part slightly and the true majesty of the mountains revealed itself. Around Whataroa, the land became flat and agricultural, the mountains to our left, and the great fluvial plain of glacial rivers like the Whataroa and Waitangita, with their grey beds of worn rock sent tumbling down from high in the mountains towards the ocean, to our right, which starkly contrasted the lush green vegetation all around us. And the water! So Blue! Bluer than any ‘ve ever seen, even the springs in Florida or the alpine lakes in California. And the lakes Wahapo and Mapourika, both surrounded by densely forested dark hills, both flat and still on this calm and dreary day, reminded me of the “ponds” of Maine with their remoteness, lack of beaches, and their brutal beauty. As we pulled into town, it was quickly clear that this place was tourist mecca. It was a small enough to walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes and yet it was packed with cars and people. The main drag on the highway had hotels, a brewery, a four square, heli-tours an scenic flights, a skydive center, gas station, a cafe, gift shop, and a fire station. The back streets have more hotels and hostels, a wildlife center, restaurants, a kayak shop, glacier guides, hot pools, and the national park visitor’s center. Half of the town is adventure tourism and the other half is food, lodging, and accomodations for the tourists and employees. We got dropped off by the hostel, though we never intended on staying there. It was fairly late already, so we got some water and hiked up the Tatare Tunnels Walking Track about a half mile, turned onto a side track, scouted out the forest on the side of the track, which was steep, dense, and soggy wet with moss, then ended up setting up on an open grassy patch along the track, only to have possums linger around us. I threw rocks at them, but I wasn’t sure they would stay away from our camp, so we packed up and settled on another spot further up the trail, set up an A-frame with the tarp over lots of rocks that were too hard to stake into and not big enough to anchor with, but we made do. After a hearty dinner, we cuddled up close and crashed hard, rain coming on and off all night.