The day began as usual, with nothing too taxing on the schedule. Having kayaked the Abel Tasman the day before, what remained for Elise and I to see of the national park was the coast itself. We couldn’t devote the whole day to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, but we wanted to see at least some of it. There were several options before us, one of which included taking a water taxi up the coast and walking the entire way back, but we decided just to do a return loop up from the park’s entrance up to Apple Tree Bay and back.
Most of the track was level ground, thankfully, following the beach and weaving up the coast. As we walked, I found it as if we had stepped through a mirror and were now on the reverse side of an image, looking out on the bays and coastline we’d already kayaked along. While from the kayak, we’d looked from the water towards the tree-lined shore, from the track, we looked out from the forest onto the bays and water. I found the vegetation along the path familiar New Zealand territory, most especially the ferns, with their leaves arching iconically and the new fronds curling into the famous Maori symbol, koru. It didn’t feel like new ground, somewhere I hadn’t been before, which in turn lessened my curiosity to see what awaited us around the next bend.
When we reached Apple Tree Bay, there was a large group of sixty-somethings and their young guides sitting around having lunch. Before moving on, Elise and I sat on a few logs away from their general area and watched as two more couples in their group pulled up in kayaks. “Ahoy, mate!” they all yell out, every one of them holding up their fist in what looks like a “c” in sign language. I don’t quite get it, but one can never tell with large tour groups and the weird bonds they develop over their trip [I speak from experience.]
As we retraced our steps back towards the entrance, I looked out across a bay at what looked much like Tonga Island, well-known home to the seal colony we’d explored the day before. When we got back to the main building of the park, I checked the map only to find we’d seen Adele Island, Tonga being much more northern. In a way, though, it made sense to confuse the two – we found much of the park looked remarkably similar. The same forest, the same beaches and bays, the same minute orchids growing along the path. It affirmed our decision not to hike further. Not that it wasn’t beautiful, by any means – just that the sequence of scenery seemed to repeat itself and we couldn’t imagine there being anything too new or different in the parts we didn’t see. On to Nelson it was, where we planned to spend the night.
On the advice of Joe, our kayak guide-in-training, we took the Old Moutere Highway, a more inland route from Motueka to Nelson. Joe had said there would be farms and vineyards all along our path at which we could stop and enquire about seasonal work – undoubtedly our chief goal of the day. As much as I had been enjoying the week – the new little towns and the new experiences – I was also getting a little antsy, a little anxious, the way I always get when traveling before my next work experience. I’m not good at indefinite travel – I like my plans and our plan for the next week had always been seasonal work in the Marlborough area, which would give my savings account a much-needed, much anticipated boost.
About ten minutes down the highway, we came across an apple and kiwifruit stand run by Morrell Farms. As Elise pulled off the road, a woman walks around the stand with bags of fruit, restocking the baskets. This is looking promising, I tell myself. I get out of the car and ask her about a job. She tells me regretfully they’ve just filled all their positions last week – why does it always seem to work that way? And to worsen matters, she goes on to say she knows of no other farms in the area that are hiring. “Head back into town and go up Riwaka way,” she says, essentially pointing us back to where we’d just come from – can anyone say déjà vu?
I’m not feeling it by this point. Elise, however, seems to be a bit more resilient than I when it comes to setbacks and promptly turns the car around. We stop at a packhouse and are greeted by a ghost town of a factory and an empty office to boot. I go poking around a cherry farm – nothing but a phone number posted on a sign. More vacated offices. Granted, it was Saturday, but I’d hoped to find more activity. At the very heart of the search, I felt like a useless door-to-door salesman, purveyor of plastic tupperware or knives or religion, cold-calling these farms and getting nowhere.
The day before, the owner of our hostel in Marahau had told us to contact PickNZ, a government-sponsored organization that coordinates seasonal work. I called both the Blenheim and Nelson offices, only to hear the same pre-recorded message, “There are no jobs available in this region…please leave your contact details if you’d like to be placed on the waiting list for work beginning in February.” February! More dead-ends.
Elise and I didn’t know what to do…largely because there was nothing we could do. There was no work. It’s the weather, they say, the grapes haven’t grown fast enough, and as we all know, you can’t fight the weather. Slowly we accepted the change of plans and decided to head to Picton the next day, and from there, to Wellington – a week early. As discouraged as I was – not just about the missed financial bonus, but simply the missed experience itself – I told myself this was yet again just another lesson in the flexibility that is so crucial whilst traveling. I can plan all I want, but in the end, it’s how I deal with changes in those plans that really matters.
We decided to stay in Nelson for the night, rather than driving straight through to Picton, and figured the place we’d stayed before, Shortbread Cottage, would be as good as any. We returned to it, however, only to find a whiteboard sign propped against the door reading, “Very sorry, no vacancies.” Two guys kicking a rugby ball around in the street ask, “What are you girls up to?” While I myself was fully prepared to ignore them, Elise replies, “Looking for a hostel.” You gotta love her honesty. “We have a bed we could rent you for a couple bucks.” I bet you do, buddy. From Shortbread to the Green Monkey – where do they get these names?” – where a sign informs us one dorm bed is available. At the Bug Backpackers, again – no vacancies.
We’re on a serious losing streak and like an army losing battle after battle but still in the war, morale is taking a nose-dive. A man at the Bug offers to call other hostels for us but asks us to tell him which ones. “I’ve called around for people before and end up finding a hostel they don’t even want to stay at. You tell me.” I couldn’t find a more direct way to say it to him – by the time we met him, my standards were out the window. I wanted a bed and I wanted it now.
He made a series of phone calls to other hostels in the area – bad luck after bad luck – until some place called the Paradiso says they’ve got two beds, but in different rooms. I was skeptical about the name – surely, with this many hostels all booked-up, a place truly like paradise wouldn’t have vacancies – but I was beyond caring. “Taken,” I say before I can hardly ask Elise. I felt as desperate as Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve.
We arrived at Paradiso, however, only to discover a party hostel. It suddenly all makes sense. I remember a friend from my bar in Queenstown telling me, “If you want to party in Nelson, stay at the Paradiso.” How had I forgotten? The hostel itself was nice enough – an old converted villa, a big, well-equipped kitchen, lounge area, and even a sand volleyball court, hammocks and a pool. But the people – oh, the people – were everywhere. What should’ve been a large kitchen felt tiny with groups of people clustered all over. And this mass of bodies just happened to hail from several tour bus companies – which explains the inexplicable influx of people in the town and utter lack of vacancies.
Swinging their bottles of beer and gin around, the party-busers were the antithesis of who I wanted to be around at that moment. Mentally tired from the day of no’s, I wanted quiet; what I got was pulsing music blaring from the speakers. The description of Paradiso in our New Zealand hostel brochure read that it offered free soup every night. As we checked in, the woman handed us each a pack of chicken-flavored instant noodles. I could only laugh and ask myself what I really expected. In the morning, Elise told me she walked into the TV lounge to read only to find people – all still fully dressed in their clothes from the night before – passed out on the couches and floor. I think it’s needless to say we didn’t stick around the next day.
Sometimes, like in Collingwood at the Innlet, you connect with a hostel, actually feel at home, or at least yourself. But sometimes, a hostel is nothing more then a bed to sleep in for the night. And so you pack up in the morning and hold out hope for the next town.
It’s the backpacker’s way, really.