It can be a long way between shops on Te Araroa Trail but dotted between towns, a handful of remote businesses have become important supply depots for hungry hikers. By Tracy Neal
A hiker’s request for condoms and another who asked for the removal of rotting avocados from a package posted weeks earlier are two things Bill Trolove did not count on having to do when he diversified his backpacker business.
Te Araroa hikers have generated a welcome spin-off for the likes of Trolove, who runs The Sanctuary backpackers in Arthur’s Pass.
Trolove says they have propped-up turnover now running at between 10 to 15 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels.
“Three years ago, I threw my hat in the ring with the Te Araroa Trail and it’s now my main market,” he says.
The ‘bounce box’ service is available at only three locations on the trail; all in the South Island, according to Brad McCartney’s online Te Araroa Resupply Guide and confirmed by the trail’s executive director, Mark Weatherall.
These are the Alpine Lodge at St Arnaud; Boyle Outdoor Education Centre in Lewis Pass and The Sanctuary in Arthur’s Pass.
Trolove has turned vacant space at his backpacker accommodation into a dedicated storage area that hikers can access 24-7 via a security keypad.
Prior to Covid, which has halved his bounce box business, he was handling up to 300 boxes each season. He has adapted an inventory app to log details of each box, which is photographed, the sender’s details recorded, and the box stored for a $10 flat rate.
It has also generated another handy spin-off; an additional resource for search and rescue organisations.
“We had a search and rescue incident recently and because I’d taken a photo of the person’s bounce box and I had all the contact details, the police were able to get on to it immediately,” says Trolove.
Police contacted the overdue hiker’s family, who were following her via a GPS tracker.
“The police were able to find exactly where she was, without getting up from their desk,” he says.
Trolove also offers a grocery shopping service for those short on the essentials. On occasion, that has included buying condoms for hikers.
“I’m 70 and I know the shopping aisles pretty well but some of the strange packets people want are in aisles I’ve never ventured down before,” he says,
Trolove says for reasons around reliability, he uses his home address in Christchurch as a collection point for the boxes which he then drives to Arthur’s Pass. Among the more interesting included one that arrived from Taihape, without the sender’s name.
By process of elimination and a frantic phone call from the owner upset that her bounce box was missing, he was able to reunite her with it.
“I had a guy send me a box and then I got an email saying, ‘can you open the box? I put two avocados in it and I don’t think they’ll hold until I get there’.”
Co-owner of the Alpine Lodge, Leighton Marshall, reckons he will soon need to buy a dedicated storage container.
Demand for storage has grown to such a degree, boxes are now spilling out of a baggage room at the lodge and into the manager’s office.
Last season, before lockdown, the lodge stored 648 boxes. The season just gone saw that figure halved.
Marshall says dedicated storage is needed not only to free up space, but to protect hikers’ treasured supplies from hungry rodents.
“There was the time we were overflowing and I had to fill up my office with a couple of hundred boxes. If they aren’t sealed properly, they make good homes for rodents,” Marshall says.
“We’ve had a couple of occasions when someone has eagerly opened their box to find ‘Rodney’s’ been in there and eaten all the yummy bits.”
Marshall says the cost to replace the items was well above the $15 storage fee.
He says some days they are gathering and storing up to 20 boxes at a time.
“It’s really a handling fee,” he says. “It keeps us busy, but we enjoy these hikers coming through. Some might spend several days in a hotel room here and eat in the restaurant. They carbo-load before heading into the hills again.
“It’s good business for us.”
The service has also become an important resource in checking hikers’ whereabouts.
“We tell people to let us know when they’re planning on coming through and it helps us track anyone who’s late.
“If they don’t pick it up, we’ll contact them to find out what’s going on. We’ve had a fair bit of contact over the years with police, helping to track overdue hikers either booked into the lodge or through the bounce boxes.”
Mark Weatherall says an uncollected bounce box is likely to trigger a search, so it is important that hikers ensure they tell the right people if plans have changed.
Nick Chapman of the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre says he was left with several unclaimed boxes when lockdown struck last year, with many overseas tourists leaving the country quickly.
The centre, which opened in 1978, is run by a charitable trust. It was initially set up as a “tin shed in the high country” aimed at introducing young people to the outdoors.
Conveniently, Te Araroa goes right past its front door, and walkers, requirements have helped grow a handy revenue stream over the past five years.
Chapman says they usually arrive five to seven days after leaving St Arnaud. They stop for a break and collect their supplies before heading on to Arthur’s Pass.
“By nature of our location, we found the hikers were mixing in with our core business which is schools and we wanted to provide them with a service where they could be looked after, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of our school programme.”
Chapman says growth has been steady, but Covid has triggered a 50 per cent downturn in business. Last season, they handled about 340 boxes but this season, about half that.
“It got to the point that in 2016 we employed a full-time warden over summer – that’s a full-time service looking after TA trampers.”
Chapman says they have also branched out to offer accommodation and a package deal including wifi, laundry, pizza and a can of fizzy drink.
“It seems to be exactly what trampers are after when they reach us.”
The centre, which is about 60km from the nearest store at Hanmer Springs, offers basic supplies like dried meals and fuel for stoves.
“By the time the hikers reach us, those bounce boxes are pretty important,” Chapman says. “We do offer to buy fresh produce for them if needed, which we bring in from Hanmer.”
Chapman says it costs $10 to store a box at the centre, for however long a hiker needs.
“Some have been with us since November and we’re still holding them,” he says.
“We follow up any boxes still here and generally people are responsive.”