On the final day of our month-long camping trip, Molly and I sit in the only shop in Arthur’s Pass, the highest settlement in New Zealand. My bus is delayed by two-and-a-half hours because someone filled it with diesel instead of petrol (at least according to the German girl who serves me the world’s largest scoop of ice-cream). Outside, the weather alternates between bright sunshine and torrential rain. I eat a pie from the cafe, and drink a Vanilla Coke. My phone lies on the windowsill, contentedly siphoning electricity from the plug below my chair. I place my laptop on the table to wait its turn. The kitchen clangs with lunch-time bustle and American tourists express amazement at the photo on the wall. Is it a painting? It looks like a painting when you get in close. (It isn’t a painting.)
We play cards. It should be the conclusion of a month-long championship, but we’ve lost track of the score. I eat another pie. We play more cards. On the fence next to the window, a brightly-plumed kea lovingly eye-fucks our food. What was that other bird we saw that wasn’t a kiwi? Molly asks. I shrug, because I don’t know anything about birds, and everything isn’t a kiwi. We both go to the toilet, at different intervals. Feeling guilty about how long we’ve been in the cafe, I buy an ice-cream, which is when the German girl explains about the bus delay. All my technology finishes charging. Molly replaces the SIM in my phone to check her own texts. We play more cards.
Not all of travelling is skydiving or glaciers or penguins at your side. Not all of camping is watching white mountains under starry skies. Not all of life is dialled up to ten.
It’s driving a car, and sitting in that car waiting for your jeans to dry, and listening to The Lion King soundtrack, and eating sweets. It’s breaking down on a hill, and looking out at the sweep of the landscape as you wait for the mechanic and huddle against the breeze. It’s taking ten minutes to decide what fudge to buy, and only eating a tiny square every night, and then eating the entirety of it in one sitting because it’s going mushy in the coolbox. It’s footprints on an empty driftwood beach and marshmallows burning in the dark.
It’s taking photos of risotto-cooking instructions in supermarkets, and tying your tent to rocks because the ground is too hard to peg. It’s ice-creams at 10am and Valentine’s Day in KFC and using rainwater to brush your teeth. It’s arguing over who let the sandflies in and who should wash up and whether sweetcorn is better warm or cold. It’s cutting your finger while chopping broccoli and setting fire to the grass and dropping your phone off a waterfall. It’s sitting in a tiny library room, surrounded by thirty silent tourists all staring at their phone.
It’s getting lost on the campsite because you forgot to take a torch to the bathroom. It’s wind, thrashing at your tent for long, dark hours. It’s endless mushrooms and long-drop toilets and dirty clothes. It’s the one time you eat a proper meal in a proper restaurant. It’s cooling beer and skimming stones in the same lake. It’s trying to camp next to picnic benches and trying to park in wi-fi zones and trying to cook porridge using powdered milk. It’s reading, so much reading, just so much reading.
It’s a perfect comfort zone, in which all social interaction is voluntary and all responsibility strictly contained, in which peacefulness is a foundation and stress is an optional extra. It’s understood to be unsustainable from the start, and potent only because of its transience. It’s all these things, travelling, sometimes. And though often sad, it’s inevitable – even important – that it’s one more thing.
My bus arrives back in Christchurch and drops me directly outside the car park where I started a month before. I spend the night in the same hostel, and look out on the same road – only now the road is travelled. It’s over.
Snapshots of NZ