Roads usually uncrossable without the aid of traffic lights are empty. A tram rumbles down Elizabeth Street. Others echo in the emptiness around me. The city sleeps. I need to catch a train. My bag is packed. I haven’t got it down to a fine art but I can get it done in a super quick time. I was ready yesterday. I’m not ready now. It’s a painful hour to be awake. One of these days I’m going to insist on departing at midday. I could have gotten up at a more reasonable hour. The commuters are miserable. Can you blame them? 6 in the morning on a Monday. Already on their way to work. Suckers.
The only thing close to public transport linking the city to the airport is the Skybus. One day it’s going to be really great to be able to catch the train the whole way. I’m on familiar terms with Melbourne Tullamarine Airport. I’m yet to wait in line for check in or security. If I really knew the airport as well as I think I’d have stayed in bed for another hour. I’m in the departure lounge in under half an hour. It must be time for breakfast.
I select one of the cafes. Their concept of poached eggs on toast is not the same as mine. On my plate I find two slices of plain toast. On one slice, two tiny poached eggs. Fascinating. On the table next to me me a group of lads tuck into golden pints. Airports are one of the few places in the world where the time has no bearing on whether or not it’s ok to start drinking. Good for them. The flight itself is a non-event. Three hours, no included meals, snacks or inflight entertainment. It hardly seems worth catching a plane. I land in Christchurch on a soggy, grey, miserable afternoon. Great. This will be the first time I’ve seen my family in 18 months. If it’s going to be like this I probably should have just gone home instead.
Customs was a new experience. To begin with the staff were genuinely friendly and welcoming. This wasn’t entirely new, I have memories of Canadian border control being rather upbeat. For the first time ever I have something to declare! A tent, my permanent dwelling of three months last year. I figure it might be a bit dirty, I haven’t exactly had much of an opportunity to take it out and give it a good scrubbing. It might still have a couple of little spiders in it I guess. Still, I hand it to the lady who walks it into the lab. She gestures for me to wait. I have no idea how long I’m going to be here. I sit around, minutes pass masquerading as hours. My tent comes back. It looks like they’ve made a better job of repacking it than I did. I’m informed everything is fine, they’d found a couple of pupae that were almost dead anyway and popped them in a jar. I asked if I could keep them. Look at me, making jokes with customs and immigration. Who do I think I am? She laughed, said no and pointed me towards the x-ray machine.
I’m through, I’ve got everything. All my paperwork is present and correct or with the appropriate person. It was time to emerge with the crowd into arrivals. Somewhere out there are my Mum, Dad and sister Lisa. Would they have a sign? Would I see them first or would they see me? Would there be tears? No. Absolutely not. There was nothing, nobody. They were ten minutes away. Unconditional love was waiting for me in a supermarket car park.
I stood in the pick up area for half an hour. Everything was grey. The wind ripped through the carparks. I was pleased to have my coat with me. I thought back on all the times I’ve flown. One day I’ll get the returning hero’s welcome. Today was not the day. I see a camper van approach. I know it’s them. It’s not all bad, when they emerge from the van they do look genuinely excited to see me. Hugs, hellos, a moment to take it all in. A year and half passes away in seconds. Nothing has really changed. Not much ever does. I’m surprised to find both Mum and Dad looking obviously thinner. This is an unexpected development. I don’t say anything. I don’t know why. Actually, I do. I’m mid-strop because they weren’t here waiting for me. Anyway, it turns out they’ve gone full cult on me, having bought into the paleo lifestyle. We piled back in the van and set off. Into the unknown!
I haven’t done any research. I’ve barely looked at the itinerary that has been sent to me a thousand times. A place called Geraldine is our first destination. My Gran is called Geraldine which is apparently the main reason we’re going there. Oh, and there are a couple of free campsites nearby. Of course, nobody actually knows which direction we’re supposed to drive in.
The weather remains bleak. We’ve made a couple of wrong turns. You can see the doubt building. Was this really a good idea? Should we have just planned a trip to Wales instead? Sheep everywhere. Slowly rising brown hills. Rain. It’s not much different really, is it? The van pulls over. Somehow, Lisa tells us, we’ve come off the road we’re supposed to be on. Dad has been driving down the wrong road for some time. It’s the sat-nav’s fault. The sat-nav has got us lost. They’ve had a longer flight than I have. No doubt they were still suffering from fatigue. Stress and irritation in less than a few hours. It wouldn’t be a family holiday without it.
I jumped in the front. Enough data left on my Australian sim to figure out exactly where we are compared to where we’re supposed to be. A gravel track impersonating a road leads us through the countryside. The hills rise steeper. It’s looking a little more impressive. We were heading towards Lake Opuha which was showing on the ancient AA map that came with the van but not on Google Maps. I was confused. We came to a view point. Low clouds. Rain. Hidden mountains briefly emerged in the wind. This was beginning to look a little more like the guidebook version of New Zealand. After a few more wrong turns as we attempted to find a campsite for which we had minimal directions for, we made it. A few camper vans, caravans and modified Toyotas littered a field. An almost completely dry lake bed lay before us. I wondered if Google Maps knew. We got ourselves settled in, ate our first meal together and called it a night. We had arrived.