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Papatowai, New Zealand

Oct 25 – 26

The bus ride from Te Anau to Gore was pretty short (only about 1 hr 45 min). It was freezing outside and it was a huge relief when Sam showed up in the car to pick us up. After burning her CDs on a disk, finding some fuel for the stove, and repacking our bags with only the things we’d need for our hike, we were on our way. The roads were not very well marked, so we got lost several times along the way and didn’t get to the start of the trail until around 2:00 (we had estimated 12:00). Still, it was a fun drive with pretty scenery and it was just really nice to be traveling in a car with friends rather than on a bus.

Top Track is a 2-day, self guided hike through a private trail in Papatowai. It starts at the home of the land owners (Mary and Fergus) and the $45 dollar fee basically pays for permission to walk on private land and for our accommodation in a fully equipped bus at the top of a hill. The track just opened that week and we were the first hikers of the season. The first day is a 6 hr hike and the second day is slightly shorter, taking about 4.5 hrs to complete.

On the web site, the owners make a big point that hikers must be at their place and ready to start the hike at 10am. When we showed up at 2:00 they were a little nervous that we wouldn’t make it to the bus before dark and were showing us shortcuts we could take instead of doing the whole track. They also warned us of terrible weather and gave us each a pair of waterproof pants to borrow.

The Catlins is often described as the place “where the forest meets the sea.” It was beautiful, with wild and rugged beaches, windblown forests, windy dirt roads, bright green pastures, and heaps more sheep than people.

The kelp on the beach was really thick and looked like aliens.

And some of the tree stumps looked like crazy statues.

Our walk felt like more like a legitimate trek because we had to endure some extreme weather conditions:

Hail.

Crazy wind.

Freezing rain.

and clumpy mud up to our ankles. The waterproof pants proved themselves to be very useful, as I didn’t have to worry as much each time I slid around in the mud.

Wanting to see everything, we skipped the shortcuts and did the entire track. This was basically the routine: We’d start the day’s hike with all our layers, hats, scarves, gloves. About 10 minutes into the hike, we’d have to climb a big hill and end up huffing and puffing up to the top. We’d stop, peel off all our layers, and continue on….only to end up in a dark, shadowy, windy place. We’d instantly get cold again and have to put all our layers back on. Then we’d get some rain or hail and have to pull out all our wet weather gear. Then it would stop and we’d get hot and have to take it all off…only for it to rain again a few minutes later. We repeated these steps over and over throughout the day.

The instructions in the track guide lead us on desolate farm roads where we had to hop over fences in various sections, weave up and around hills and hills of farmland, then down into gullys, then back over a fences, then onto a beach, then through a forest, then over a river, then through some more farmland, then back onto another farm road, then back into a forest. Sometimes it felt like they were sending us in circles just to make the track longer…but that was ok with us.

And just when we felt like there was nobody around for miles, an old man in a red truck appeared behind us. He wanted to chat with us and he seemed to know the track well. He offered to give us a ride up the hill, but we politely declined – half because we wanted to do it ourselves, but mostly because we were disturbed by the idea of riding in the truck bed with the dead lamb.

With so many sheep, I guess a few fatalities are to be expected.

Anyway, once we started walking the track, we could understand the owner’s concern about us getting there before dark: There is no actual trail for most sections of the track and we were relying on a book of detailed instructions to follow, along with some tiny orange markers that were not easy to find – even during the daytime. It would have been extremely difficult to find our way in the dark. It felt like a scavenger hunt. And our prize? The bus! We kept thinking we’d see it around the corner, but it was very well hidden.

We made it to the bus just as it was getting dark.

Top Bus was a fun place to sleep for the night, but it was cold in there (there was a heater, but it wasn’t very strategically placed – it was near the kitchen and not near the beds). And since we were at the top of a hill, the bus was fully exposed to the wind – big gusts of wind that would rock the bus back and forth. We made some hot soup, hot tea, some warm vegetable goulash, and went to sleep early so we could cuddle up in our sleeping bags.

The bus had enough space for 4 single people and either 1 couple or 2 people who don’t mind sharing a double bed. But we had the bus all to ourselves.

Even Micheal Mouse was gone (probably to find somewhere warmer during the winter).

The next morning, it was sunny again.

And we could actually see the pretty view out of the scenic loo.

We got a late start and hung around the bus drinking tea and eating breakfast. I added potato flakes to our lentil veggie leftovers and made little patties. We ate them with some marmite spread on top.

That day’s hike was almost as long and just as muddy. Walking through the mud was always a gamble. I tried so hard to stay clean at first, grabbing on to tree limbs while edging my way down the steep, slippery slopes….but at some point I’d either slide down or fall over. Then I’d carefully step from tussock to tussock….but every once in a while, one of them would prove not to be very sturdy and squidge down deep into the mud – almost causing me to lose my shoe. After a while I just stopped caring and allowed myself to get really really dirty.

Once out of the mud, we ended up on grassland. We passed a car graveyard, walked by some farmhouses, and saw a giant sheep resting on a tractor. He was the only sheep who seemed sure we weren’t out to do him any harm and he had no intention of moving just because we were walking by. All the other sheep we encountered would stop and stare at us curiously. Then as soon as we’d look back at them, they’d gather all their babies and run in terror.

It was about this time when I realized that I need to get new shoes – mine are old and start to hurt my feet after any constant walking lasting longer than 3 hours.

After about 4 hours of walking, we crossed a bridge and ended back on the main road – the start of our track. We made it out of the track alive and in one piece.

On the way back to the house, we passed a The Lost Gypsy Gallery and figured we’d just have a quick peek inside.

The guy made amazing things!! They were all really intricate and so much thought went into each one. Lots of windy toys and other inventions. We talked to him for a while and he told us about the larger creations he’s been working on. Once he completes all the finishing touches, he’ll open the rooms up to adults only (kids won’t be allowed because he spends too much time having to fix all the stuff they break) and he’ll be charging $5 admission (well worth the money in my opinion). He let us have a sneak peek and I was amazed! One room was a piano where each key triggered a different object from somewhere in the room.

The caravan stop consumed much more time than we expected and it ended up being the highlight of our trip. We finally made it back to our car around 4pm. We still had about a 3 hour drive to Dunedin…which, with two distracted girls handling the directions, turned out to take quite a bit longer. It was a nice drive though – called the Southern Scenic Route.

Getting from Papatowai to Dunedin is very easy. There is only 1 road. Really hard to screw up. You take a right to go to Dunedin, you take a left to go in the other direction – to Invercargill. Sam and I were talking so much that neither of us thought much of it when she took a left. After an hour of driving, we got to the sign for Invercargill and thought “Uh oh.” So…we turned around and retraced our steps an hour back the way we came, crossed back through Papatowai, and finally on the way to Dunedin. We thought the entire thing was hilarious, but I’m not sure poor Malte was as amused. It’s funny how when you’re traveling and you don’t have any worries or concrete time frame, a pointless 2- hr detour doesn’t seem like a very big deal.

We passed lots of hills lined with bright orange gorse. Apparently it’s a weed – but a pretty weed, at least. Sam told me all of the gorse facts she learned from a bus driver. Here is one: Gorse takes over because it’s spiny and gross tasting and no animals will touch it. The Weta like to live in the gorse because they know they’re safe there.

On our drive, we also saw a Pukeko crossing the road (a strange bird that looks like Doctor Seuss’s version of a chicken), but I didn’t get a picture.

Just as it was getting dark, we stopped at a beach to stretch our legs.

Some Notes:

  • Mullets seem to be really popular here. I’ve seen many amazing mullets in New Zealand, but sadly didn’t get any good pics of them.
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2 Comments

  1. Rhianon

     /  November 5, 2008

    That metal work is amazing!!!

  2. Malte

     /  December 8, 2008

    Hey Cristen,

    Thank You so much for uploading these pictures! And my best wishes from cold Germany…

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