On leaving and returning.
The eve of a long weekend and Auckland is primping, preparing to gorge on this regatta and that music festival. Good things, but on this late summer’s day, something beyond the city calls. It’s time for a road trip.
First, deep breathing along the Southern Motorway, then — but not soon enough — a sign for the annual Waikato Rodeo. A sure sign the city is behind you now.
The Waikato Expressway is all very well but you lose out on the singular delights of Hot Stuff, Ngaruawahia’s humble takeaway fit for a queen. Dame Te Atairangikaahu’s final journey, by waka along the Waikato River to Taupiri Mountain, fittingly passed both her preferred fish-and-chips joint and `her ancestral home.
And on, edging around the hem of Hamilton’s dowdy outskirts.
Now all you want is a loo, somewhere to stretch your legs, a feed. Behold, Kihikihi. Not only public toilets but a heritage trail too. And a dairy, whose roof is dominated by a gigantic fibreglass icecream cone, which makes it seem dwarfed by possibility. But Kihikihi is clearly lacking in other departments: a handpainted sign is to the point: “Tractors wanted.”
Not much in the way of food around here, but you’ve planned for that. Beneath a benevolent tree in the grounds of little wooden Christ Church, a picnic table and a lone bench seat await. Here you can eat your brown-rice sushi with salmon and avocado, because you’re an Aucklander, and that’s just the sort of wanky thing we do. Although there is only one seat at the table, you are not alone — an outsized concrete cicada keeps silent sculptural vigil. The nearby Cicada Motel has a vacancy. Does Kihikihi need to revisit its unique selling point?
Nightfall weighs heavily on Otorohanga, already labouring under the hanging flower baskets dotted along the main drag. A man walking past the memorial park doesn’t seem to notice, engaged as he is in an animated conversation with himself.
Nearby Te Kuiti has overdone it on the perfume: fish and chips and rain. Two teenagers shelter heavily under the veranda of a shut-up shop, staring at space or its equivalent, the main trunk line. A few doors along there’s no sign of life, nor of Audrey Hepburn, at Tiffany’s, long-time rest stop of bugger-all-choice for families passing through.
And then you remember that prayer you said once, the night before setting off on a road trip during the school holidays: can mum please please PLEASE be too busy in the morning. Too frazzled to fill the Griffin’s biscuit tin with sandwiches and mix up orange Raro for the Thermos. The next day, prayer answered, the Holden’s back-seat squeeze is eased all the way to Te Kuiti by the anticipation of small victories at the bain marie. Proof that God exists?
Down through the North Island, down through childhood.
The Cosmopolitan Club on Moa St, Piopio. Population: 502. The slick road shimmers as it twists towards Taranaki. Another sign: 0800 BULLHIRE. Whitebait, black sand, the singular bright light of Mokau. Not long to New Plymouth now.
If you grew up, like me, in a world other than Auckland (yes, it happens) and go back there when you can, perhaps you recognise the sensations of passing through these towns, this country. Disbelief, relief, affection, recognition. A sadness you can’t quite name.
And then before you know it, the same bends and tunnels and hills, this time in reverse. The second of the only journeys we will ever make: leaving and returning. On and on and bloody on, until at last the Southern Motorway lays down its challenge, and the glittering city beckons you back in.