I realize my last blog dealt with Day One of my camper van journey in NZ. I was going to go backward from July 12th and work forward, but after the events of Saturday I’ve decided to leap ahead to the end, then fill in the middle here and there.
From the south of the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand I lumbered my way north in a 5-ton camper van. The roads in NZ are well-maintained but they are mostly one-lane with no shoulders. It is a rural country of verdant ranchland and farmland, and you wind through it on sinuous, unlit – and uncrowded! – roads. I’m here in the winter. I don’t know what it’s like in the summer, but I imagine more tourists, more cars. And I now understand why camper vans and their ilk are such an institution here. It’s stunningly beautiful almost everywhere you go; free camping is everywhere and unbelievably safe.
I made it to Picton, the tiny port town where you catch the Interislander Cook Strait Ferry. Once aboard, for a bit extra you can sit in the Plus Lounge and languish in the views. The day I crossed the skies were saturnine, there was intermittent rain and the seas were white-capped, pitching the gigantic ferry boat to and fro (thank God I brought some Dramamine!). If I had been two days later to the ferry it would have been shut down due to rough seas. In America we think of NZ as a land of plenty and with a high-level of progressivism – and all that’s true – but it’s also an island nation close to the Antarctic and can be assailed by inclement weather. Growing up in San Diego, I miss the drama of the weather, the four seasons, because in San Diego there are no seasons: summer looks the same as winter, only warmer.
As my research trip came to a close I kept pushing myself harder and harder to uncover material for my novel Sideways NZ: The Road Back. And there were epiphanies galore, which I’ll go into in future blogs. I was living the novel as I was ideating it in my head. Miles and Jack, the now iconic characters from the original Sideways, in a camper van on a book tour in NZ in the winter. Everyone I disclosed the premise to began laughing, so of course naturally I had to get a camper van and experience the journey in order to write it.
As I approached the ending of the novel (in my head) I wanted a desolate beach where my alter-ego Miles would go off the grid. From the time I arrived in NZ on May 12th I’ve asked a lot of questions to the Kiwis. They are a remarkably solicitous people and they always try their best to help. But, I wasn’t finding that beach until my driver to Hawke’s Bay for an event mentioned two. From Martinborough – a great wine region for Pinot Noir! – I went to Google Maps. It was a choice between Castlepoint and Ngawi. Initially I was going to drive to Castlepoint, but a chance encounter with a terrific young winemaker convinced me to head south to Ngawi.
I left last Sat. The forecast was not favorable. A month of being on the road had rendered me brain-fogged. Four gallons into refueling my camper van I noticed I was putting in unleaded instead of diesel! I immediately stopped pumping and topped it off with diesel. In the gas station market they looked concerned. A mechanic poured in some additive and told me to keep topping it off. I wondered out loud what would happen and he said diesel engines just won’t start on unleaded and the tank would have to be drained. Great! But, with a 4-1 ratio of diesel to unleaded he urged me on.
South out of Martinborough you’re in sheep and cattle country. Gently sloping meadows with lush verdant flora bound you on both sides as far as the eye can travel. The wind was blowing at least 20 mph, and in a camper van with a high center of gravity you feel it buffeting you, you slow down, you grip the steering wheel, you drive as much as you can down the middle of the one-land road because there are no shoulders.
When I reached Cape Palliser Road the ocean opened up to me. Cape Palliser Road is a narrow, serpentine road that hugs the southern coastline of the North Island. It is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those with dodgy eyesight. Throw in a 5-ton camper van, now 30 mph winds, gusting as if blown from gigantic wind machines, driving all alone, you’re hanging on for dear life. Undeterred, desperate to find that last location, I drove on. I encountered few cars. The YouTube videos I previewed showed surfers at famous NZ surf breaks like Ning Nong (love that name) parked at the ocean’s edge sipping beers and firing up bbq’s after a long day out in the water. But not the day I was driving. There was almost no one on this narrow thread of a road that makes the Big Sur Drive – which I’ve taken many times – seem like a cruise down the I-5 on a quiet Sunday. I started coming across warning signs: “Washout” was one of my favorites, because that’s how I’ve often felt in my life, until I realized the sign wasn’t joking. Sections of the narrow road had calved off onto the beach, and yet the NZ version of Caltrans wasn’t closing the road. “Drive With Caution” meant steer your 5-ton camper van away from the crumbling asphalt, with no room on your left and hope the weight of your vehicle does’’t trigger another road collapse. Should I turn around?
I had fully intended on this last day, all alone now, of this novel research road trip to park on the beach and sleep in the camper van. But as I battled barbarous winds, intermittent rains, slippery roads, washouts, and partial road closures I changed my plans and decided to return to Martinborough and get a hotel. But, still hellbent on exploring an extreme region of NZ, and essentially location-scouting for my novel, I wasn’t going to turn around until paralyzing fear struck me down.
As I said, I grew up in southern California. I’ve driven over a million miles in my life. I consider myself an expert driver. But not until last Sat. (Aug. 6th) did I experience the most perilous drive of my life. As I negotiated the narrow Cape Palliser Road, and forded the even narrower bridges, as my anxiety grew with every caution sign, as the wind rocked my camper van, once so hard it knocked a piece of luggage from the above the cockpit to the floor, rattling my nerves, I started to grow genuinely terrified. A few minutes later a cabinet door would come unlatched and a grocery bag with bottled drinks crashed to the floor, hissing foam from the bottles. I was in the middle of it now!
But, paradoxically, as I continued on – looking back I think I must have gone slightly mad and didn’t know it, didn’t have anyone riding shotgun as a sounding board to temper my intrepidness – the beauty of Aotearoa NZ was heart-stopping. I grew up on the ocean, spent my youth surfing in it, but this was a wild and savage ocean like I had never seen before. Maybe it seemed even more savage because I was now in the middle of nowhere, on the most dangerous road I’ve driven in my life, in barbarous weather conditions, in a camper van with a high center of gravity taking every blast of the now monsoon-strong winds with great resistance as I clung to the steering wheel and, dear life. Now and then I stopped to get pictures. At one overlook the wind was so fierce it blew the heavy driver’s side door shut. For a terrifying, panicked moment I thought it would lock me out and I’d have to find a stone and smash my way in through a window. Fortunately, it didn’t. Another time – and I don’t if it was my now perfervidly apocalyptic imagination or what! – the camper van didn’t turn over on the first turn of the key and I worried about that unleaded fuel no longer igniting that diesel engine. But, still, even with those caveats, I soldiered on.
And then the epiphany came to me: Miles and Jack have split up for reasons I won’t spoil and Miles, in a funk, has driven his camper van, sans publicist, sans driver, to the wildest coastline he’s ever been to, on a day when even Kiwis are indoors, rife with all his panic anxiety afflictions, realizing he’s come to the end of the world, the end of his fictional book tour. I’ve never seen, or experienced, such a confluence of beauty and peril in all my life. NZ in the winter? Hell yes I wanted to scream.I came upon a sharp bend in the narrow road where NZ’s Caltrans had poured a gravelly mixture over the road. It looked like I was now heading off road because I couldn’t see what was around the bend. In a rare sane moment, I decided to turn around and head back to Martinborough and the warmth and safety of a hotel. The drive back was even more anxiety-producing because now I knew the narrow thread of a crumbling road I had to re-negotiate. When I got to the hotel I was so wired I told the receptionist my story. She calmly informed me that Cape Palliser Road goes out all the time. “What do they do if you’re stranded between road closures?” I inquired, bug-eyed at the thought. “We rescue you by boat,” she replied. And that’s how novels are written!