This fourth extract describes one of my roadtrips through the South Island – a beautiful country that had more than a few echoes of Scotland. The photo below was taken later on that day, somewhere north of Queenstown. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to picture this scene somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
The following day, I headed south. After two nights in Takaka I needed to get some serious miles under my belt, because I was aiming to be at Mullet Bay at the bottom of the South Island by the end of the following day. A cursory check of a map suggested the town of Haast on the south-west coast of the South Island would be a good stop-off. It appeared a little over halfway to Invercargill and according to my guidebook it boasted some budget accommodation. At roughly eight hours away it would be just about all the driving I’d comfortably do in a day.
I hit the road and began what was probably the most scenic and varied leg of my journey. I headed down the main highway on the South Island’s west coast, passing through lush open countryside, with high mountain peaks rarely far away and on occasions towering over me angrily as I negotiated steep climbs and drove through reassuringly Scottish mountain rain. The road was right on the coast for stretches too, the highway negotiating deftly between steep, rocky cliffs and crashing waves. It wasn’t cold but there was a breeze and dampness in the air that gave the country an almost eerie familiarity; as if it was a long-forgotten part of Scotland, or a belatedly remembered dream.
Driving alone through such mesmerising scenery, and without much in the way of other traffic, I often lost any sense of context with regard to my speed. When driving long distances, you rely to some extent on other vehicles to give you a relative idea of how fast you’re going, as if part of an unspoken convoy. Given the South Island’s sparse population, though, particularly on this side of the island, I found myself hitting high speeds on some of the straight stretches through flat farming country. At one point a police car headed towards me, the uniformed driver pointing angrily downwards as he passed, a clear indication to slow down. I half expected him to turn round and appear a couple of minutes later in my rear-view mirror, but he clearly judged his warning to be enough, and it certainly was.
I only stopped once, for lunch at a roadside pub in the middle of nowhere. There were a few people inside enjoying a couple of beers, the prospect of which was incredibly tempting after a morning’s drive, but with many miles ahead of me I simply sipped a soft drink as I sat outside at a wooden table writing postcards, grateful for a break in the rain.
A chatty middle-aged man with a big beard and the build of a rugby player, who I took to be the owner, got into conversation with me as he brought my lunch out. He asked where I was from and what I was up to, and I told him a little about where I came from in Scotland.
A New Zealander born and bred, he said he’d gone to the UK for the first time a few years ago, and spent time in London. I asked how he’d found it.
“Disappointing,” came his response. “It wasn’t what I’d expected. I thought it would be something very English, like The Sweeney, but there were all these black faces instead.”