As soon as I stepped through the doors of the backpacker hostel in Picton, my heart sank toward the half-digested meal of greasy fish and chips I had eaten on the ferry. It wasn't the fault of the heavily-tattooed and ear-pierced young man at reception. He was friendly and efficient enough and at least found my reservation after poking around on an ancient computer. However, the place as a whole looked unkempt and dishevelled. If it had been a car, it would have been a rust-spattered bomb, sputtering along on two cylinders, not four.
My heart sank further when I entered the dorm room. Four blocks of two-level bunks lined the walls and three single beds stood side by side taking up most of the floor space. Clothes and travel items spilled from backpacks and the beds and covered the rest of the floor. It might have been teenage bedroom heaven but to this middle-aged "empty-nester" it looked like hell on earth.
I picked my way through the traveller detritus toward the sole bunk that looked empty, cleared a footprint on the carpet for my pack and decided to flee into the centre of Picton and take stock.
"The toughest part of this walk is getting from one wild place to the next," I reflected while surveying the shops, eateries and tourist advertising that lined the street. The cold evening breeze blowing straight in from the harbour whistled past my numb ears. I felt lonely, displaced and out of sorts. It had been a long day of travel and this was not the welcome I had hoped for.
So, what does a chap do in these circumstances? In my case, buy a bottle of red wine, some cheese, bread and pate and wander down to the park to eat and swig in the shelter of a cupola before calling a friendly voice.
"I hate it here," I said to Rosa, protecting the mouthpiece from the stiff breeze.
"What are you going to do?" she asked with an uncharacteristic lack of sympathy.
"Move on," I said.
"Where?" she asked.
"I need mountains," I said, taking a stiffening swig of cold Shiraz.
An idea had taken seed in the Tararuas across the strait on North Island and now I voiced it.
"I'm going to catch a bus down to Mt Aspiring National Park in the heart of the Southern Alps and do a really long tramp there."
"What about the Heaphy Track or the Abel Tasman Track near Nelson?" she asked, naming two "Great Walks" that would definitely suit the clients I hoped to take into nature's therapy room next year. "Weren't you going to walk those?"
"I want to save those for you and I this winter," I said. "It would be fun doing them together without the crowds or the expense."
Her voice sounded warmer.
"When are you coming home?" she asked with just a nip of frost. "You might need mountains but I need to know a date."
"April 3rd," I replied spontaneously. "Just over a month away. I'll be back in good time for your birthday."
"Oh, darling, that's wonderful!" she exclaimed happily.
We rang off on the high note that flowered unexpectedly between us and I walked back to the hostel, clutching the bottle by its neck and in my imagination, circling Rosa's waist with an embracing arm. Yes, I felt sad that this trip now had an end date. However, as compelling as this free-wheeling life is, it couldn't go on forever. And I desperately wanted to see Rosa again. It had only been about three weeks since I'd left Auckland for the third time. On the trail, however, you cram so much into every day that time distorts in ways that simply don't occur in the take-life-for-granted, day-to-do routine we all slip into to.
On the trail, it is easy to forget that time can hang heavily for one person while the other wears it lightly.
And the routine of bed-time and those reassuring rituals we all go through to prepare for sleep can be sorely missed on the trail. That evening, the dorm-room filled with other backpackers, young men from France, Spain, Germany, America and Israel. At 11.00 PM, the last arrival, a tousled chap from Holland blinked owlishly in the light as he stumbled towards his bunk. Clearly, he had found more in Picton than most.
At 1.00 AM, I awoke in the over-heated dorm-room to the sound of strident, rhythmic snoring. It came from the Dutchman's bunk, of course.
After five minutes, I shook his shoulder. The snoring stopped. I opened the window wider and climbed onto my pallet.
"Merci," a voice whispered gratefully from another bunk.
At 2.30 PM, I did it again.
"Bastardo," another voice whispered, with Castilian passion.
An hour later, I was up again.
"Ve should strangle him," a German voice growled.
"Be my guest," I said with British courtesy.
And so it went on, until magically, at about 6.00 AM, the snoring ceased.
However, by then it was too late for me. At 8.00 AM, utterly destroyed, I slipped out of the hostel to haunt the Information Centre until it opened. When it did, I booked a ticket on the first bus heading south out of Picton.
Take my advice. Avoid a night in Picton. Avoid businesses that don't feel right. And carry ear-plugs on the trail.