Circle Loop Track to Pelorus Bridge
Pelorus Bridge to Motueka: hitching
Motueka to Marahua: bus
Marahua to Coquille Bay
We wake up early and already warm, and as we are drinking our coffee a truck drives up the other side of the field. Immediately assuming we must be in trouble, we watch the truck slowly nudge a line of cattle up the road. It never notices us.
We break camp and hike the last 1 k and change along the circle loop track, which promptly dives into a beautiful shady forest. We cross the Rai River on a bridge, the bright water rushing past below, tumbling over great white boulders, careening off the ledges of the sculpted walls that corral the water ever downstream. The Pelorus River is a larger version of this. If this is any indication, I predict the Richmonds will be beautiful.
We pop out on Highway 6, next to the campground, and stick out our thumbs. I write ‘Nelson’ on an obsolete sheet of paper with a sharpie, and in less than ten minutes a car has stopped.
“We always see people going to other way, to Picton,” the woman says. “We always want to stop, but this is the first time you want to go our direction!”
Their names are Lisa and Mark, and they moved here from the UK ten years ago, looking for a quiet piece of land to homestead. “Mark is upset that they are straightening this road,” confides Lisa. “He likes driving the curves.” “Haven’t you noticed the kiwi drivers are insane?!” insists Mark, as he gleefully pulls several g’s around the the inside of a long bend. What I have noticed is that every time I get in a car over here I become motion sick, this time included, but from the roads, or the drivers, or the combo, I don’t know.
They drop us off in Nelson at the large Countdown across from a Warehouse. Perfect! Now we can replace the other charge cord for our battery pack. For some reason, this trail is hell on electronics. We do a double time resupply, and I have a short circuit when I am trying to guess our dinner portions. We can’t end up with much extra for the Richmonds- I am genetically pathologically unable to throw food away. The tread on the Abel T is easy, we are doing less miles. I also have had several mini-crises where I mentally flog myself for how much food I am carrying- I go back and forth between acknowledging it is wise and even enjoyable to have cushy margins, and berating myself for not tapping into my potential as a hiker that further deprivation and rationing could bestow. Am I prudent? Am I weak? I don’t know.
We repackage everything on the bench in the entryway, and I try to juggle a conversation with Captain Bigfoot Mouse, who is somewhere in this town, with the multi step planning for getting to the trail. I want to meet up with her and meet her boyfriend, but how much time will we need to hitch? I want to be committed to our plan to make our campsite tonight, but does it make sense to change it again so we can hang out with them? I don’t know. I realize it is only 8:30 and I am already so tired of not knowing today.
Everything stowed, we head out to the main highway. Where to stand? We want a spot where we are easy to see, where there’s not something else vying for the driver’s attention, where there is adequate space for them to think for a second and still be able to pull over. We choose just up the street from a gas station, and stick out our thumbs.
Hitchhiking is an exercise in rejection, more than anything else. Each car that appears on the horizon blows on a tiny spark of hope, and every car that zooms by throws a big handful of wet dirt on the tiny spark. We start out optimistic, trying to interact with the drivers, making jokes about where they are going that they can’t pick us up, and what it would be like to get to ride in the fancy sports car on the trailer of a semi hauling new cars to the dealer. Not wanting to be a nuisance to the gas station traffic, we move down street of the turn in, in front of a row of half a dozen big painted boxes that I assume are empty parking spaces. Car after car goes by, vehicles empty except for the driver. We have a sign that says ‘Motueka, Marahau, Abel Tas’, so if tourists don’t know which town connects to which, they can see we want to go through all of them. Is that too much info? Half an hour goes by. I write ‘HWY 60’, our next crossroads, on the back, and flip the sign over. Pickup trucks with empty beds don’t even slow down, RVs with empty space don’t even glance at us, and campervans blow by, disregarding The Code. An hour goes by. The optimism dies.
What is wrong with us? I wonder. Do we look unsavory? Has everyone in this town had bad experiences with hikers? Where are all the tourists sightseeing by car? “Good luck,” says a woman, speedwalking by. “Is there a better place to try from?” I call after her. “Nah, looks as good as any.” Some of the drivers wave happily, some give us a thumbs up in return; some pretend to look past us, some squint at the sign we are holding; some look confused, some gesture vaguely off the road, which I interpret to mean they are turning soon, and many spread their hands as if to say, ‘there’s nothing I can do.’ An hour and a half goes by.
We take turns hitching solo while the other eats lunch, which thankfully we got from the grocery store. I could literally eat this amazing hummus and fresh bread every. single. day.
2 hours down. I’m on deck, thumb out, attempting to Jedi-mind convince the drivers they want to stop while questioning whether this is the universe saying “just stay the night in Nelson” when Prana shouts my name. “Haiku!” I look over and he is gesturing at a battered pickup truck that is in the parking lot of the business behind us. It takes me several seconds to realize they are offering us a ride. I recognize the truck from driving by earlier. I also recognize the kid’s face in the passenger seat, simply because he had been unafraid to make eye contact. “You probably don’t know,” says the woman amiably as she makes room in the back bench seat, “but the dashed yellow lines by the curb mean no stopping for any reason.” I glance back and the yellow dashes are painted all the way along all six empty parking spots that I thought were such a fortuitous landing strip. “Thank you so so much,” I sigh deeply, trying to convey the pit of despair from which she had rescued me.
Her name is Michelle and her son’s name is Ollie; they love the outdoors and Ollie has done the Abel Tasman Track twice this year. They are so friendly and sweet and good hearted, I wish we could spend more time with them. “Is the Cleopatra’s Pool worth the trip?” I ask Ollie. “It’s great,” he assures, “and be sure to climb up the rocks behind it and follow the river back to the main waterfall. It’s maybe 15 minutes. You’ll know when you’re there.” They drive us all the way to the corner of highway 60 and drop us at a potentially strategic spot. It’s 12:30 now, and if we can make it to Motueka by 3:00 there’s a bus that goes the last leg to the trailhead. We start again.
The despair seeps in more quickly this time, but after 20 minutes a van pulls over before it can really take hold. We approach to see a woman emptying the middle seats by armfuls into the very back, two little kids’ heads poking out of the third row. We thank her and get in. Her name is Anj, and the adorable tyke riding shotgun is Jack. Desmond and Charlie are the young grade schoolers in the back. They start out shy, and I quickly realize I should have left it that way. Instead, I ask questions to draw them out, hoping to illustrate that this communal sharing of rides is a fun habit to aspire to when they’re older. Once over his shyness, Desmond quickly starts playing a game of giving me things- a toy, an apple core, a pair of need-laundered socks, an empty McDonald’s cup. Prana watches me with a guarded expression of humor. I play along for a bit, but once I realize Motueka is farther away than I thought, I try to withdraw from the game. No can do. The game graduates to Desmond attempting to stick pieces of trash to the side of my face, balance them on my head, and finally, brush my hair. Where he produced two hairbrushes from, I have no idea, but the joke’s on him- I haven’t washed my hair for a week. Prana’s expression has changed from humor to incredulousness/horror, and my inner mantra becomes, ‘they are doing us a favor. they are doing us a favor.’
Anj drops us at the I-site in Motueka, and it is before 2:00. We made it! As she drives away, Prana observes, “maybe she needed a break from entertaining the kids.” “It was a trade,” I agree. “Distract them in exchange for a ride.”
We walk into the I-site, and a girl named Martina helps us get booked onto the bus. She also gives us a lot more info on the Heaphy Track, which we deliberate doing instead of the inland portion of the loop we have planned. “Is there anyway to make the Heaphy Track a loop?” I ask, thinking that will seal the deal to come back to it after the end. She then shows us a map of Kaihuranga National Park. It is sprawling, and covered in trails. “I think we’ll stick with the plan for now,” Prana says. We chat with Martina a little more, and when we go outside to sit in the grass next to the bus stop, Prana says, “you know, there aren’t many places to go hike in our winter…it sure looks like there are plenty of things to do if we came back here again.”
The bus pulls up fifteen minutes til, and miraculously has usb outlets for charging our phones and battery packs. We are two of only four people riding to the coast this afternoon. The bus driver is friendly, and talkative, and passionate about the place. He keeps turning around in his seat to make full eye contact with us while we are talking- polite, yes, but it continues even once he has started driving. He is a quirky character, and he wants to go to Africa, to see the big game. “I’m scared of lions,” he tells us. “Terrified of em.” The coast comes into view and it is lovely, unbelievable, stretching away into a blue infinity. The tide is out and the flats are a glittering opaque mirror reflecting fragments of the sky, tidal creeks cutting the scene into compartments like leading in stained glass.
The bus stops at the exact start of the track, and we pull our packs from beneath. “Enjoy,” says the driver, whose name is Warren. “You lucky things.”
I search for water in the parking lot/ kiosk area, but there is none easily found, and camp is in only 3 kilometers anyway. The first part of the trail is a series of boardwalks over the large estuary Marahau borders. I can’t stop taking pictures. It is so beautiful. We pass a few beaches, and a few chortling creeks. The patterns left by the absent ocean are mesmerizing. We explore a few of the coves at leisure, and Tinline Bay has some beautifully fluted granite walls and boulders. The sand is a a gorgeous coarse-grained gold. We make our way back up and the next cove is ours, Coquille. We follow the path down.
It’s a gorgeous cove, with a small white beach, and a few flat sand shelves nooked into the trees. The water from the spigot runs muddy, so I go back up the trail to the last clear creek while Prana starts dinner. When I return, he is almost beside himself, harassed by hordes of ground hornets that appeared as soon as he started cooking our favorite celebratory meal, and being chewed into hamburger by sandflies. We dart into the besieged dinner spot and remove things, until we have everything stashed by the tent, then dive into our screened refuge to eat dinner. I can still see my favorite rock pillar, the offshore island, and the surf rolling in from the open vestibule door. We stay in the tent the rest of the night, unwinding from the stressful uncertainty of the day, trading foot rubs with arnica ointment and cracking each others’ backs. We have made it to the Abel Tasman.