After thinking about all the things that I don’t want to do before I die in Tuesday’s post, I had to consider the things I have done that I’d consider lifetime achievements. Childbirth, times two. My first published (and paid) essay. Being in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. A particularly face-melting Echo and the Bunnymen show in 1986.
But one event stood out in particular, because if I had the chance to repeat it, I’d say, “Hell No:” driving around New Zealand’s North Island in a camper van.
I loved New Zealand, loved it bad. I would hop on a plane to Auckland and never come back, if the opportunity presented itself. Three years after that family trip, we still employ Kiwi accents at random times, eat our dinner under outlines of Pohutukawa and Nikau trees in our dining room, sponsor New Zealand artists on Kickstarter for the simple fact that they’re from New Zealand. Just last night I was staring at a wooden postcard with a picture of the Cape Reinga lighthouse on it; I keep it on my bedside table, like a prayer card. So, New Zealand, I loved.
It was the mode of transportation that nearly finished me off. The whole trip came up very quickly and renting a camper van seemed not just a way to “live like the locals,” who all seem to have an Airstream parked in their driveway, but a means of ensuring that we wouldn’t have to worry about making hotel reservations.
Then the campervan rental employee brought ’round the beast. Both my husband and I whispered, “Was it that big in the picture online?” Also: driver’s wheel and gear shift reversed. No automatic transmissions. Wrong side of road.
Also consider that I do not know how to drive manual transmissions, so I never drove that camper van one single foot. Even so, it was terrifying.
My husband is an excellent driver and all the burden fell on him, not just to do the driving but – the more challenging task – to reassure me that we were all going to be FINE. People told us that after 24 hours or so it would start coming more naturally, and he did relax into it fairly quickly. One epic day he drove the camper van from the crystal blue waters of the Bay of Plenty, through Auckland’s rush hour traffic, and on into the hillocks of the Waikato region without breaking a sweat.
Not me. Every single time that key went into the ignition, the adrenaline would start pulsing through me and I’d find all my senses heightened. Things seemed louder and brighter, like the signs that told you which driver had the right of way on the one-lane bridge, or the traffic circles that required you to merge your giant left hand wheel drive camper into oncoming traffic even in the middle of the federal highway, or the parking spots which would have held the Volvo, sure, but who KNOWS if the camper van can fit into that?
Factor in a broken latch on the camper’s kitchen cabinet so that every time we took a curve there was a 50/50 chance that all the pots and pans would come clattering out of their cave and hit the floor, or that the girls were latched into their seats at the back of the campervan that felt 30 feet away, yelling stuff like “We’re bored!” and “New Zealand gum tastes weird!”
We very quickly decided to curtail the ambitious and ill-informed itinerary I’d made up in the five minutes before leaving for the airport and instead find some good centrally-located campsites where we could park up for a few days and visit nearby sites (by foot or tour bus) before moving on. My husband and kids probably thought it was so we could get a deeper understanding of local culture. Yes, and also so that I could contemplate getting into the passenger seat again without my teeth chattering.
Put it this way: a friend gave us a mix CD to take with us on the trip and listen to while we drove. I never even opened the case. To listen to music was to prevent me from keeping us safe in our Maui 4 Camper Van bubble through sheer force of fervent prayer.
Truly, that New Zealand trip was a highlight of my life. We saw amazing things – including the Split Enz museum in Te Awamutu, hometown of singer/songwriter brothers Neil and Tim Finn. The museum is actually just a room off the library and even so totally worth the detour.
But my happiest, most memorable moment? When we pulled into the parking lot to return the camper van, us and it unscathed.What about you – what’s the supposedly fun thing you once did that you’ll be glad never to repeat?