Monday, March 29, 2004

Thursday 25 March, midnight, having finally gotten everything packed into the car...

I was a little anxious about taking the car onto the ferry, it being the first time I'd done it. Would I get there in time, find the right place, have the right ticket, park in the right spot? Everything went ok at first - I got to the ferry terminal, checked in, and parked in the right queue. But I was so focused on doing the right things that I neglected to give the attendant my boarding pass when it was our line's turn to drive up the on-ramp. He gave an anguished yelp as I eased past in second gear, and I braked guiltily. He wandered over to my window, shook his head, held up his stack of plastic orange boarding passes and said "I've been doing this for fifteen years, and everybody always gives me one of these"

The tiny number of people on the ferry were an odd assortment of creatures, like refugees from a socially-inflicted gulag. Examples: a short, thin, bearded, fiftysomething man in short shorts and a cardigan, his legs covered in tatoos. An extremely obese family, shuffling along with difficulty, like reluctantly migrant tree sloths.

"Cruising on the inter-islander" is totally a misnomer. A great viewing platform on a clear day for the Kaikouras and Marlborough Sounds the ferry may be, but otherwise it's threadbare, draughty and uncomfortable. The Railways tearooms of travel. People travelling on the ferry are almost always predominantly weary or sleepy, yet there seems to have been some kind of "sleep-disallowing" clause in the original interior design spec. Serried rows of thin, stiff-backed chairs joined together with metal arms which dig into your back if you try and curl up in any way. I was so exhausted that in the end I took my pillow and lay down on the floor between the seats. I managed almost two hours' fitful nap there, as the boat gently pitched and yawed. Surprisingly, no one came along and told me I was creating a fire risk.

Picton 4:30 am and the cars rolled off the ferry, heading south in a procession of headlights. At Blenheim the lit-up strip of 24/7 service stations signalled blessed relief for my serotonin-deprived nerve endings - I was suffering from the feeling that William Gibson nicely calls "soul lack" in his otherwise banal novel Pattern Recognition. I drained a bottle of V and there were the first suggestions of a return of appetite as I ate at least the first half of my microwaved beef and cheese burger with some hunger.

I struggled out through the Awatere Valley and along the coast; it felt like the car was handling badly with all the extra stuff in it, yawing awakwardly like a pregnant fish. In hindsight, though, I think it was just my atrophied reflexes creating the handlingproblems.

I stopped at Ohau Point seal colony to watch the sun slip over the horizon; the seals were all asleep, apart from the infants, which splashed about in rockpools near the shore - the seal version of morning cartoons, I suppose. All the adults were totally crashed out on the beach. I looked down at them and thought: I'm up before you.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura I pulled over in a little park and took an hours nap in what may be my strangest sleeping position ever - my body still pretty firmly in the driver's seat, my head on a pillow on the passenger's seat. Despite the contortions, I droped straight off.

After that the neurotransmitter levels seemed to have regenerated somewhat and the rest of the drive was better. The Celica chewed up the Hunderlees, threw itself willingly into a 3rd gear 125 km/h to overtake a recalcitrant shuttle bus which refused to go in the slow lane, and in no time we were in the picturesque dry hills of Cheviot.

Coming down into the Waipara Valley, I got a bit of a shock to see the rows and rows of new vine plantings, still attached to their fenceposts and plastic, spread out beside the highway. The eighteen vineyards in Waipara have always been fairly unobtrusive, tuckd away on hill slopes or river terraces. But now Montana has bought a stake there, and the landscape is being transformed.

It saddens me a little. I've always loved the look of the Waipara Valley; coming from Amberley in summer the road suddenly dips down into the heat haze and an epic sweep opens up between the Teviotdale Hills and the stacked ranges of the Southern Alps. Everyone is always so eager to define New Zealand as green and lush and bountiful; in my contrariness I've always treasured the corners that are dry, gravelly and bitter. I like the fact that good wine grows in Waipara; I just don't necessarily want to see my dry hills buried in grapes.

The same thing has happened in the Cromwell Basin. There used to just be a few apricot orchards in a pit of gravel. It had solitude and arid romance. Then they put in the lake, and now the whole area is buried in pinot noir vineyards - sort of Burgundy-on-the-Clutha. It's nice enough, but something has gone forever.

I joined the southbound traffic at Amberley and wended my way into and around the Christchurch outskirts. At 10:30 am I pulled up in front of my parent's place at Rolleston. I was pleased to be there, but a little miffed that I was the first to arrive. With the four prodigal children (well, three of us at least are prodigal) reuniting for one brief weekend, I would have preferred to be the *last* oneto sweep dramatically in. Instead, waiting for the others to show up from Adelaide and Miami, I felt almost like a homebody.

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