Friday, September 22, 2006

Our Otago Central Rail Trail Trial

The two of us taking it easy for a change!

Since the start of the new millenium Mami and I have established a tradition of sorts evolved: every summer we set out on a trek. During the holidays of the last six or seven years we’ve walked, run and cycled the lengths of New Zealand and Japan. In 2006 the opportunity arose to join some of my cousins, nieces and nephews and cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail. We’re so glad that we did.

The Otago Central Rail Trail plaque. The trail itself has only been operating since 1995

What a resource! Mami and I live in Dunedin, but we’d had no idea that such a fantastic hiking route is there for the doing, virtually in our own back yard. As we cycled along, we were inspired by the wide open spaces, the stillness and peace, the scarcity of hill work, and the total absence of traffic. Right away I decided to travel it again as soon as possible, this time on foot,.

Walking and I go right back. A quarter of a century ago, I once walked from Gisborne to Wairoa, a distance of 100km, in one day. I did it in winter and slept for a few hours in a shed at the side of the road. Ah, the impetuousness of youth! How audacious I’d been. Still, what a memory to have; I’ve remembered the experience often. Got a lot of mileage out of it, you might say.

Almost 50 now, I’m a little longer in the tooth, not so green and impulsive. You wouldn’t see me repeat such a feat. No sir, no way. Instead . . . I’m going to top it! This time I shall set off in better weather, and I won’t wimp out by sleeping. This time I’ll aim for one-hundred-and-fifty non-stop!

I learn that in a couple of months’ time, on the 25th and 26th of February, a duathlon will be held on the trail. Great, I’ll aim for that and do it in company. The trail is never closed, and I read that competitors are instructed to cooperate with other users. Yeah right.

In the meantime I train. Yes, ‘training’ to complete the Rail Trail sounds fitting. I am reasonably fit to begin with, but it is important to get used to longer distances. I need to get to grips with what’s required – for me ultra-distance is new territory. I suspect that the walk will be a mental game, and so it proves. I needed to psyche myself up. Every weekend I undertake to do a long walk, with a little jogging mixed in. Intensifying the effort ought to shorten the time I require to build up my endurance.

On my first attempt I churn out 30km and learn what not to wear. The wrong shorts may chafe – I had to turn a pair seam-side out. I discover that cotton tee-shirts aren’t comfortable when wet – the cotton doesn’t easily wick away the sweat. Certain foods and drinks work better than others – I experiment with water, orange juice, condensed milk, and honey and peanut butter on white bread (luncheon and chow-chow is tasty but causes indigestion). In terms of mental training I learn that a huge distance is best not considered as a whole. You need to tackle it one step at a time. One must walk in the instant.

I do 31km on my second attempt. My coasting walking pace is 5km per hour, double that if I jog. The orange juice goes down better when diluted, and to stop a constant stream of philosophizing – prattling – it is good to read a book on the hoof.

Long walk #3, and I manage the marathon distance of 42km. Occasionally I get a niggle in my knee or calf muscle, but this generally comes right. A stretch every hour or so helps. You don’t work against the pain but accept it rather.

With just a month to go, I do my longest walk. Again, I use the 2.2km circuit around Logan Park where I encounter Shireen Crumpton, training for the Commonwealth Games. I once did a marathon of my own here. For an hour, I go barefoot to break the monotony, then incorporate the 6km way home into today’s effort. It takes me just over ten hours to clock 61km.

A week or so later I get up in the middle of the night to experience a four-hour walk when it's dark. The atmosphere is very different, and I have rowdy university students and drunken casino revelers to contend with. It’s good to get back home and into bed.

You prepare for a walk such as this as if it’s an expedition. I’ve still got the original scrap of paper on which I noted my needs: sunscreen, water, sugar drink, sandwiches, book, raingear, watch, pen & notebook, sunglasses and handkerchief.

On another sheet I planned my itinerary:

Clyde 0
Alexandra 8
Chatto Creek 25
Omakau 35
Lauder 44
Oturehua 67
Wedderburn 78
Ranfurly 92
Daisybank 113
Hyde 124
Middlemarch 150

The aim is to start at 6.00 a.m. and finish up the next day at 12.12 p.m., but you know what they say about plans.

“Wake up! We’re late!”

Oh my God, I’ve overslept! We’d camped out the night before at Clyde, all booked out, naturally, with duathletes. They’d taken over the hotels and the main street too, overflowing from the pubs onto the footpath. Mami and I had driven out to the end of the road onto a reserve. She slept in the car. I tried to, failed, gave up, put the tent up in the dark, and then slept much too soundly.

Hastily I bundle up the tent and toss it into the boot. I stuff on my shoes, grab for my daypack, then drive off in search of the rail trail (we had only a rough idea). It’s still dark at 6.15 a.m. by the time that I stumble off. I’ve had nothing to eat, I’ve not done my morning stretches, and I’ll walk in the clothes that I slept in. This isn’t ideal in terms of preparation, but at least I’ve had no time to develop any jitters. We agree to meet up at Alexandra where we’ll have a bite. I’ll change my gear, and we’ll see what’s what. A quick kiss from Mami and then she’s off. Her taillights disappear down the road . . . and I’m alone.

This was not taken at the start, but it does give the impression of setting out. Mami took it at Omakau

I take stock of myself and the situation. Okay then, the weather is calm, cool, and there’s a sliver of moon to see by. An acorn moon, I always think. My feet crunch satisfyingly on the gravel. I discover that I’m walking too fast. What’s this? Trying to make up for lost time!? This isn’t a race, you know. I force myself not to rush. An extra kilometre per hour doubles the wear and tear on one’s body.

The first people I see are some men in overalls putting out orange cones for today’s race due to start in a few hours’ time. I’ve got the jump on the field; if I stick to my pace I should finish at the same time as the leaders. Wouldn’t that be something? Theirs is a two-day team event. They will pass me by round about midday, but I’ll overtake them during the night.

After an hour I come to a sign: 3km. What!? Am I even later than I think, or slower? That can’t be. It clicks that there are 3km to go to Alexandra. The Otago Rail Trail has its own original distance markers, starting from 215 at Clyde, and these count down all the way to Dunedin. Every 11 minutes, I pass one, which means I’m walking at 5.5km/h. Later it will take me 13, and I’ll take the odd break. I need to eat, stretch and relieve myself. The longest time I’ll halt is for 20 minutes.

I arrive at Alex where I cross the main road. Mami is waiting for me with a pizza-pie. I cram it in while I change into my long-sleeved tee-shirt and cycling shorts. Now at least I look the part. Off I go.

I’m feeling great. I will continue to feel energized for the first 20 or 30 km after which my bum and hips start aching. It’s a good pain, though, that encourages me to walk with precision. Steady, steady, all the way, is the name of this game: crunch, crunch, crunch . . .

Feeling strong (and slightly chubby?). The camel has it's hump, and me my tum

Since it was opened a few years ago, they say the gravel of the trail has compacted; it’s now much easier on the feet than it used to be. I’m wearing well-worn running shoes. The only thing is that when I strike the ground, the stones shift ever so slightly. My heel slips a couple of mm with each step, which causes a blister to form behind each heel as the day progresses. I adapt to this a little by keeping my weight more on the forefoot, as when walking barefooted.

The long and (un)winding road . . .

At 10.30 a.m. the first cyclists zoom by, and then others for the next two hours. There’s even a tandem. I receive loads of comments; they are cheerful and supportive as they read the ‘WALK 150’ I’ve printed onto my back. Even my brother and his wife are taking part. There are those, though, who scream by much too close. They’re riding two abreast and show little consideration. I feel that the race organizers could have briefed these guys better.

Some sheep like people. Some people are like sheep

Overtaken by cyclists. I stayed to the right and they stayed (usually) to the left

I text Mami to let her know I’m almost at, where? Chattanooga Junction? No, Chatto Creek. So, 24 km, that’s a decent day’s walk so can we stop? They have a roadside café there, with picnic tables and the like. Mami is preparing our lunch, and it’s quite a spread. I feel guilty having to eat and run, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. No time for mucking around. I really appreciate Mami’s support and help, but I grow impatient when everything is not instantly ready. I’m aware of this urgency within myself, and try not to let it show. Extra effort to be nice.

It has turned into a hot day, but I can manage. As long as I wear my cap and sunglasses, and carry a water bottle, it’s okay. When you’re on a bicycle you get that wind chill factor, but not on foot. The slowest cyclist is faster than the fastest walker. Later on in the afternoon the last competitor, a hefty woman, grunts her way past me up the trail’s only real incline – I won’t dignify it by calling it a hill – followed by a DOC support vehicle. I pick a few wild apples from a tree and munch one.

Alone once more, I think about life, training, journeying and work. I decide not to do any more marathons, only halves and 10kms where I can be mildly competitive. I love to show off what this old body can do compared to others in my age group.

As for traveling and journeying, I’ll set myself personal goals and targets as I desire. I’ll no longer do them to achieve externally-recognized firsts and bests. Cycling I’ll do more of, for sure. I read a paperback as I walk – Robert Fulghum’s All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. It has a promising introduction but it falls short in many of its homilies. I know that my own writing has no flair, but I do know what reads badly and am able to avoid it. My expertise, in my modest opinion, lies in living-the-life, and I’ll try to document that adequately. My effort and the zeal will lie in the doing and being. Finally I grow weary of my thoughts and distract myself by going through the Beatles repertoire, humming and whistling.

Food keeps me going. At Omakau under an awning Mami awaits, dozing. I go through half a pecan pie (and I wonder later what happened to the rest). Later, at Lauder, she is there for me with a hamburger and chips plus a bread roll for the road. I often walked wearing my pack on my front, both to show off the WALK 150 on my back, but also to get at my supplies. At Oturehua I only have the appetite for a milkshake; although we’d been thinking of a meal I’ve neither the space nor the time. It’s getting on in the day – only about an hour of daylight left.

The gloom descends and it grows dark. From past experience, I know that dusk will be a low point – a fabulous sunset notwithstanding. It’s to do with circadian or diurnal rhythms. There must be some deep instinctive urge to seek shelter, warmth and rest when the sun goes down. By the time I arrive at the marker at the trail’s highest point, 600m above sea level, it is comletely dark. I sit down to slip on extra layers, Backyard dogs bark. I bark back at them, then pick my way carefully further. The torch I’d taken won’t go. I aim for the middle of the trail that is slightly less inky.

And then gradually I feel cozy! The stars join me on my vigil. Out here in the clean, clear Central Otago night air, I count ten shooting stars, and the outlines of the Magellanic Clouds are easy to trace. The next stop is Wedderburn, when I’ll have walked further than I’ve tackled in training. I’ve fun and games in the dark, trying to operate my cell phone – I can hardly manage the thing in daylight – but I finally manage to meet up with Mami beside the Grahame Sydney’s Wedderburn goods shed, relocated there in 2002. I urge her to grab a few hours’ sleep at Ranfurly, where the duathletes are roosting, if she’s to walk with me during the rest of the night.

At Wedderburn. Taken by Mami just before dark prior to our meeting.

The longest unbroken dead-straight stretch is into Middlemarch, but the next longest is coming into Ranfurly surely. Here is where I start having hallucinations. At first there are a bunch of fireflies, swirling in a cloud directly in front of me and travelling at my pace, as if they are my guardian angles or guides. I check by looking to the sides where they disappear. At one point they turn into the headlights of oncoming cyclists, and I yell out a warning. This lasts for between thirty minutes and an hour. I see sheep on the track that aren’t there, and phantom gates. Just when I think I’ve got it sorted out, I walk into a fence post that is not a mirage. Careful now!

I text Mami at Ranfurly from inside the public toilets. She is sleeping in the car parked a little way from the town centre where we’d arranged, because it is quite rowdy, but this necessitates an extra hundred yards that I begrudge. I hide my irritation, because it wouldn’t do to start off with her this evening on the wrong foot, as it were!

Hand in hand we set off – I’ve been looking forward to this for hours. At Hyde, 32km further, we’ve stashed the bicycle that Mami will return by. When we did the length of NZ on foot 30km would be a good day’s effort. I can’t believe that I’m trying five times that today!

In fact, I won’t allow myself to dwell on the task. I’ve read up on ventures such as these. No matter what distance a person chooses, the first third is always easy, the next third is a steady effort, and the last third is hell. My ploy is to persuade myself that I’m actually doing three hundred, which means that my walk will end unexpectedly halfway through the second steady phase, the idea being to save myself 50km of torture!

In front of us hangs Venus. We share a sliver of moon. I pass Mami one of my cheese sandwiches, but it sits in her stomach like a lead weight. She is quietly nauseous and dizzy for her entire distance, but doesn’t dare to complain in case it distracts me from my mission. As it is, her presence makes my day; when we set out I actually feel fresh, even after having walked 92km! I’ve now gone the greatest distance I’ve ever done without sleep. Later we crack the 100km, and after 24 hours I’ve reached 108km. I figure that I’ve slowed slightly from 5km/h to four.

I stride through the 24-hour barrier. Still determined

The best scenery comes at dawn as we see the sky starts to brighten over Lake Taieri. Absolute magic! There are mists as we approach Daisybank, where I share with my partner my best hallucination of the trip.

What a wonderfully imaginative idea! Some farmer must have taken it into his head to create a sort of Disneyland out here in the boondocks. Mechanized cartoon cutouts 10m high of zebras, rhinos, giraffes and dinosaurs bobble on the way on rail tracks around and around his fields. “Look at that,” I exclaim, “Isn’t that amazing?” Mami has no inkling of what I’m on about, and when I turn back to point the animals out, they dissolve into trees.

Noticeably listing. Come on my son - think of Enter the Dragon, I mean 'Tunnel'

The lowest point for me comes not much further, when a sign informs us that there are 14km to go to Hyde. Suddenly I realize that I have nine hours still to walk. Psychologically, the daylight had tricked me into thinking that I was almost home. Ouch! That hurt. And I’m worried that Mami feels cold; the coldest part of the day is not at dawn, but after. I try and set a faster pace to get it over, but that is a mistake and we soon slow down.

Breaks on through to the other side

Really, I’m going well. My calves are fine, as are my thighs and hamstrings. My body is not malfunctioning, and my mind is still lucid. I do notice that my shadow is listing to the right, but when I straighten it up I feel that I’m overcompensating to the left. Ah, don’t worry! The second most scenic part of the trail takes us across a footbridge and through the Price’s Creek tunnel. The wind is blowing for only the second time of the trip – just half an hour as night had fallen and now, late in the morning.

Mami returns via tunnels and underpasses too

Finally we arrive at Hyde, before any of the cyclists. It had been cold, very cold, and windy too, so I keep my coat, long trousers and jersey with me, little realizing that the thermometer will shoot up in the next few minutes. As well as the bicycle, we’ve stockpiled some water and peanut slabs. Mami isn’t up to eating yet, and I’m not either, but on a walk like this you’ve got to keep up your energy. During this day-and-a-half I’ll have gone through six chocolate bars, scroggin, cheese sandwiches and a heap of fast food – chips, hamburgers and pies. And not forgetting those apples from the wild trees along the railway – seeds spat out of the window in the past.

On a bicycle built for one

Within the hour the cyclists catch me up. If I’d finished as planned I would have finished amongst the medals. Oh well, next time. Next time!? One or two ask whether I’m okay, and a colleague from work stops also. I guess that I don’t look completely hunky-dory. Cyclists keep cooler by generating their own breeze. The thing is, there’s no relief from the weather in these last twenty miles – not a tree for shade of, not a house or a tap to obtain water from, and it’s dangerously hot. My one-litre supply rapidly dwindles.

I remember that Mami had told me that at Lauder, at a café where she’d just ordered coffee and toast – cheese and butter, yuck! – she’d asked for some water. Instead of granting her request, the woman directed her outside to a garden hose in the sun. The tap didn’t work, and when Mami has to ask again, the woman begrudgingly filled the bottle . . . but only halfway!

Don’t these people realize that under such a sun drinking water is a question of life and death? I don’t subscribe to the notion that a customer is God, but neither do I accept that water here is in such short supply that a visitor cannot drink. Every time a toilet is flushed that would use enough water to quench the thirst of a coach load of tourists. Come on now, Central Otago!

Safety on the trail is promoted. It is all very well to insist on cycle helmets, but really, something needs to be done in terms of shelter. A hut every 20km is not sufficient for walkers – that distance represents four hours in real time. I can’t help thinking that these facilities have been set up by people with a motorist’s conception of speed and time. An emergency phone here and there could save a life. More responsibility needs to be taken by those who would promote the trail. At the very least, the missing distance markers ought to be replaced. It is crucial for a traveler to know how far he or she has walked.

Stretching in the only bit of shade for miles

I do find a bridge with about 20km to go, and I clamber down the bank to the stream where I take off my shoes. Two blisters have formed next to my big toes and then migrated to the top, like a camel’s hump. I dip my feet into the water I dare not sip. The last cyclists trundle overhead every few minutes, and I feel like the troll with the three Billy-goats Gruff. During the last 20km I shall stop half a dozen times for several minutes each.

All I need to do at this stage is to keep those mountains on my right . . . and keep moving

I’m starting to hallucinate even during the day – in the peripheral vision through half closed eyes. I see flower pots along the trail, and buildings. Every time that I stop for a few minutes I start to stiffen. It is best to keep an iron grip and concentrate on my form. Every step is now an effort and I’m aching all over. I can only face the thought of an hour’s walking at a time, and I plod on, plod on one more . . . one more . . . just one more.

No, it's not the glasses. You are just hallucinating!

I text Mami with 6km to go, desperate because my water has run out. She reaches me within minutes by bicycle, and then accompanies me for the last hard interminable yards. I complete the trek a few minutes shy of 35 hours, five hours behind schedule. The first thing we do is buy an ice cream and eat it across the road in the shade. I fall asleep in the car on the drive home, and miss Monday at work.

Everyone needs a story about a war wounds to boast about

And don't we deserve them? Make mine a double!


iacinta said...

hey dad!That blister on your toe was MASSVE and sort of a strange colour.but anyway really great story and some cool pictures too(good job mami!):)

John said...

heres one for you not far from where you were with rail walk
up in Danseys pass is the longess water race in the world it was built by the chinese as you look up in the hill to the left going around Mt Buster you will see it its not easy and it travels for around 120km could be 150 it was dug by hand and theres some erosion in places it starts in a valley near the top of the pass in places its just tree trunks high on a scree face Ive walked a bit of it and its not easy going but its a bloody adventure a word of warning though I personaly dont think its been walked in around 20 years and even then we had a bit of a struggle with what we did do but the views are astouding and you will pass over some of the most valuable gold diggings in new zealand a lot of them unless you know what your looking at you will never see they are just scratchings in the ground

Anonymous said...


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