Tourist information stresses filling the petrol tank before leaving. There are no service stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound and I know from this that I’m heading into serious wilderness. It’s a little daunting but I’m almost fearless, intrepid traveller that I’m becoming.
The mountains fill the landscape on my left as I follow the straight flat highway. Beech forests surround me, trees meeting in the centre, creating avenues of dappled green. Having driven through forests in Tasmania, I feel like I’m back with an old friend, until the trees ease away, the road narrows and I start to climb.
The straight highway begins to curve, the curves become hairpin bends and I start to understand how it feels to be a mountain goat. There’s nowhere to pull over if someone comes up behind me. They’ll just have to put up with my 30kph for as long as it takes.
A sign appears: One Way Road. What can that mean? How can it be a one way road when there are vehicles coming from both directions? What if I round a corner and am confronted with a car – or an SUV – or a tourist bus? At least I’m on the right side; I can hug the cliff. This should make me feel better – and it does, a little. Around a blind turn my nightmare becomes reality. Luckily it’s a small sedan. I stop as close to the cliff as I can to allow them past and my sympathy goes out to the driver. If she goes any slower, she’ll stop – and she does for a second, then realises there’s no way out of it and crawls away.
A little wooden bridge appears, introduced by a sign, bridge under repair, which is all very well but there’s no-one repairing it. It’s nice of them to tell me it needs repair. I’d have preferred not to know. Let’s hope it holds till I get over.
A light fog has replaced the sunshine and there’s snow on either side of me as I approach the Homer Tunnel. My niece updated me on this one-way tunnel carved through the top of the mountain and so I’m mentally prepared and looking forward to the adventure. I queue up behind a tourist bus and a sedan and wait for the red light to change and allow us through.
It’s another world up here, eerily quiet and still. There’s a lack of something, human energy, maybe. It’s a sliver of the planet still almost untouched. The great mountains surround me, majestic, like benevolent rulers, reminding me of what we humans really are – tiny creatures, nothing more that one species of the trillions on earth. It’s a comfortable feeling. I don’t want to run the show; I’m perfectly happy rolling along with everything else.
The light turns green and the bus roars into action, breaking the spell. I follow the car in front of me, excited and a little nervous about this new experience.
I expected there to be lights. Where I thought the electricity was coming from, I have no idea. The bus and car shoot downhill into the gloom and I’m alone. My headlights are not much help in piercing the dark. I feel like Frodo, forging his way through the mountain. At any moment, I expect a gigantic, slavering spider to drop onto my car and suck out my innards.
A pinprick of light in the distance grows and opens out to a curtain of fog and hairpin bends. The tourist bus has slowed right down ahead of me. It’s twice my width and I can’t believe it can get round such tight corners without plunging into the valleys below. It does, though, and if it can, so can I.
I sit in the cafe with the tasteless New Zealand coffee I’m becoming used to and try not to cry at the thought of doing the drive back on the cliff edge.
This is an excerpt from Hangi, Haka and Hobbits-Notes from New Zealand, the second in my Planning to the ‘Nth’ series, now available as an ebook through Amazon. To download a free sample or to buy the book, click here.
The Edge of the World-Next Stop Cape Horn, the first in the series, is also available through Amazon. Click here.