I had one brutal day (in First World terms) this week. I finished it crying myself to sleep from tiredness and anxiety and hunger. And yet, for all that, it had great parts in it.
I skipped breakfast in Masterton, expecting to find an amazing cafe or welcoming vineyard on the Wine Trail route. First up were Carterton and Martinborough. I didn’t pass any amazing cafes or vineyard restaurants, and I kept watch the whole way south to Lake Ferry, right down on the coast of Cook Strait.
This is the safest place ever for kids.
I was expecting to get a room at the Lake Ferry Hotel – the only accommodation in town – and drive out to Cape Palliser the next day. Mistake number one: I did not call ahead. A chalkboard outside announced the hotel was closed. Holy goddamn and shit. I was in the middle of nowhere. There was no cafe, no restaurant. Not even a dairy. There would be no lunch.
I drove out to Cape Palliser anyway. The road winds like a necklace dropped in a rocky Zen garden, twisting along a narrow margin between steep escarpments and a gunmetal sea. An “Active Slip” sign urged I use Extreme Caution. Washouts split the road in two places, but the water was down to only an inch or so deep, so I risked it.
It rained the whole way.
I fell in love with the tiny town of Ngawi, clinging on to the rocks. They make a living harvesting crayfish, but there’s no safe harbor, so every night the cray boats are pulled out of the sea by heavy machinery. The road winds between the tiny fibrolite cottages and two dozen ancient excavators.
I have such a yearning to rent a bach in Ngawi for a summer and just read and write and walk along the beach to the seal colony and embrace being a hermit.
Past Ngawi is the Cape Palliser lighthouse. It kept wavering into view through the rain squalls, like a mirage on a postcard.
These are the stairs to carry supplies up to the lighthouse. I do not want this job.
Apparently no one wants this job as it’s been unmanned since 1986. Fun fact: it still has the original lens from 1897.
The coast is so gorgeous there, you guys. If there were such a thing as mermaids, they’d swim here.
It was nearly four pm by the time I got to the lighthouse, and this was a little worrying as I still had to drive all the way back the way I’d come, then head to the next town, Featherston.
Mistake number two: I assumed there would be a hotel or motel in Featherston I could stay at. I couldn’t ring from Cape Palliser or Lake Ferry, because there was no phone service out there, and also, it’s not like there was anywhere else to try: Featherston was the next town.
You can see where this is going, right? Apparently there is a simply lovely motel in Featherston, but I did not find it. And I could not get a strong enough signal to use my phone. I found B&Bs, but they were all full.
It was now five thirty pm.
“Fuckit,” I thought. “I’ll push on to Wellington. It’s only a 70-minute drive. There are hundreds of hotels in Wellington.”
Mistake number three: I did not phone to check any of them HAD ROOMS. In my defence, I had the phone issue. It would have taken 30 minutes just driving around trying to find enough signal to use the internet. So, I drove into Wellington.
Okay, up side: driving over the Rimutaka Ranges was INCREDIBLE and I want to do it again, over and over. It helped that it had stopped raining.
What didn’t help is that EVERY HOTEL IN WELLINGTON I TRIED WAS FULL. Including all the ones right out by the airport. How is that even possible? It’s our capital city! And sure, it was a business day, but there’s so many of them. Maybe the beds were all filled by insurance assessors after the earthquake.
Now, when I say every hotel, I’m lying. There was one hotel I found with three rooms left. I had the address. I found the hotel. I just found it on the other side of an intersection on a one-way street. I couldn’t get to it. “Ok, fine,” I figured. “I’ll just circle around.”
If you’ve never been to New Zealand you might not understand the trauma I was about to go through. So, A) Molesworth Street – one of the main thoroughfares – is closed after the November earthquake damaged an office building that is now being demolished floor by floor. B) A lot of smaller streets were also closed for repairs. And C) much of Wellington is super-hilly. The flat bit – the CBD – is largely built on land reclaimed after an 1855 earthquake lifted it from the sea (can I point out here, that was an incredibly stupid thing to do in the first place.)
This means the city is not constructed from simple blocks. It’s a couple of long straight main streets squashed tight between the ocean, and tortuous, narrow-as-fuck, winding roads canted at angles only drunk teens riding in wheelie bins enjoy.
A simple manoeuvre to circle around to get back to the hotel left me instead climbing the hills around the university quadrant, before descending a hairpinning lane the width of roll of washi tape. It was straight out of a 1960s James Bond film (the scene would involve a suitcase on wheels and an automatic weapon disguised as an umbrella).
But my spirits rose as I miraculously failed to meet any cars head-on, and the road spat my car safely out into the CBD again. I approached the hotel, still on the other side of the road, but hooray, this was a two-way street. Two blocks up from the hotel a delightful traffic-calming median berm rose from the middle of the street, planted with saplings. The tiny elms shivered as they mocked me: there would be no U-turns today.
It was farcical. I circled around again, going the other way this time, but was stymied by a set of orange road cones blocking entrance to a side road, and a set of one way streets designed purely to taunt me.
I gave up.
“Fuckit,” I thought. Again. “I’ll go out to Petone. It’s only 15 minutes out. There are motels there.”
This time I couldn’t phone ahead because there was zero parking, and when I pulled into a taxi stand to try to grab five minutes on my phone a taxi arrived and the driver was an asshole.
Also, question: why does no one in Wellington indicate until they’re already turning? What’s with that? I thought Aucklanders were supposed to be the bad drivers but we are thoughtful, compassionate, and we indicate for the full two seconds.
So, Petone. Town of a thousand trucks.
The beachfront Esplanade is lined with motels. They were all full. My cellphone was out of juice. I cruised up and down the main strip three times hoping to find a place that had a room. Finally I spotted it: a motorlodge without a No Vacancy sign! I pulled into the parking lot and practically leapt into reception.
Turns out their sign was misleading: the motel was full.
I burst into tears.
Right there, at the reception desk.
I was so tired and the only sustenance I’d had all day was a pot of peppermint tea and my knee hurt from micro-braking on so many hilly roads all day and it was all too much and I cried.
I want to give a huge thank you to the receptionist at BK’s Esplande Motor Lodge for not even mentioning my blubbering, instead simply phoning around to find me a room. It was a simple kindness but it meant so much to me.
She found me a room! The new motel was only 10 minutes drive inland. On the way there I spotted a Lone Star. Booyah! Things were looking up. There would be pan-seared sea-run Marlborough salmon for dinner! (A meal also functioning as breakfast and lunch).
I checked in. The room was basic, but it had beds. At this point, sleep and food were literally all I cared about. I jumped back in the car.
I got to Lone Star at 8:42.
Their kitchen was closed. They could not feed me. And no, they replied when I asked, there were no other eateries open at that time of night.
Pffft, foolish Aucklander, expecting a restaurant to be open past 8.30! We’re so fucking ridiculous.
On the way back to the motel I spotted McDonalds flags on lampposts. I drove in desperate, ever-increasing circles looking for it. But I couldn’t even locate a Big Mac. Without my phone – charging back at the motel – I was utterly helpless.
I found a supermarket, but I was out of spoons and I just Could Not. I drove back to the motel. I drank a glass of water and got into bed and cried again and went to sleep.
But Cape Palliser, man. Hell, yeah. Go there.