Out of this World, Into the Wild
With a sense of guilty relief, Clem and I left the broken city of Christchurch, New Zealand. We drove away from the confusion of temporary road signs and the nightmarish sight of half demolished buildings still standing on the gaping wounds of a traumatic event. For the first time in over a month, it was pouring down on the dirty teddy bears and worn-out sneakers and crumbling remains of the abandoned houses in the red zone. Like the sky, giving up a vain attempt at disguising these sad witnesses in a splash of sunshine, had broken down and cried. We drove past the god forsaken Cathedral one last time, gazed at this motley crew of desolate districts and coloured ribbons, of animated street art and demolition sites.
Very soon, we were far enough on the open road to commit these visions of disaster to memory. Seal it all off in a box somewhere at the back of our minds and let the material cool down for a future article. Like fugitives who know they’ve reached a safe distance from the horror of bare concrete walls, Clem and I took a deep breath and exchanged a sketchy smile. We were on a highway to sandy beaches, green hills and eternal sunshine. The main road on the East Coast, like everywhere else in the country, never ceases to wind up, down and around the hills. There never is a straight line. There’s no overtaking the slow truck tugging heavy loads of logs or the occasional tractor taking a short cut to the field. It irritates you at times, you throw it a curse or two, but mainly it grows on you, that road. You learn to sit back, go slow. Look! Falcons scanning the sky low over the roof of the car. And over there! Hidden between a dull sheep and a clumsy new-born lamb, a pukeko picking the grass! You pass orchards, wineries and quiet townships on your way, without the feeling that you’re getting anywhere in this neverending landscape of green bush and greener grass, but you trust that a magic hand will lead you to a secret place and blow your mind.
At last we found ourselves in front of the gravel road, the last stretch of our day’s drive. All the gravel roads in this country seem to bear a sense of purpose and a promise of destination. Maybe because it was one of the first untarred roads we drove on, that one appealed to us more than any other. Yet little did we know that the real journey had only just begun. Shortly, right after a curve, the road suddenly narrowed down to one skinny lane and the gravel that was reasonably well laid out so far gave way to rocks of all sizes blocking our path. At that point, I reminded myself of a conversation I had with our host Dave the day before: « You’ll get to a four wheel drive road. Takes me ten minutes to drive up to the house, it’ll take you twenty. There’s no signal. If you’re lost, don’t move, I’ll come and find ya ». These words took on a whole new meaning as we were carefully advancing on a tricky, uneven road that got steeper and steeper. We were not entirely sure our van, whose engine hung dangerously close to the ground, would make it to the top unscathed. The tyres were slipping on the gravel. We did not take any chances, we removed all suspicious stones to the side to avoid the premature death of our vehicle. So forty minutes after leaving the main road, we were still struggling to keep the van from swaying too much to one side or another, wondering how far we were from the house and the end of our ordeal. By then, we were quite confident that the van, and us with it, would not survive bump after bump, hole after hole and tight curve after tight curve for much longer. We had noticed the incredible beauty of the thick tropical forest of palm trees, tall fern and flax but were too worried to appreciate that exotic, lush vegetation which was almost overtaking the road, as if it was going to swallow us deep into its mossy belly. We kept on going between the protruding rock and the few hundred feet fall into wilderness, until we finally came to a stop. To our left, a road so steep we could not tell if it was a track or a climbing wall. To our right, a little pebbly stream we had no mad desire to venture through. We stayed there stunned, at a loss what to do, when we heard an old pickup come rushing towards us. It came splashing through the stream like it was nothing. Dave and his barefoot son stepped out, giving us and the car an indifferent glance. « It’ll make it » Dave assured us, « don’t drive too slow through the water ». And off he was again, our amazed selves on his tail.
When at last we set foot on firm ground, safe and sound, we let our stiff shoulders loosen up a bit. But we barely had time to catch our breath. We stood flabbergasted for a split second, wondering if we had accidentally stepped into a Renaissance landscape painting, before we realised we were standing above the most spectacular picture of the world. Our eyes could hardly believe such great natural treasure as the one spreading in front of us still existed in a secret corner of the earth. Two thousand feet below us, an infinite extension of the greenest forest, covering every inch of the surrounding mountains, and not a single building all the way to the sea of a turquoise blue gently lapping the sandy bay in the distance. Everywhere you looked, the dense growth of tropical trees presented all the subtle hues of green of the spring season. The setting sun, filtering through clouds of shapes unknown, playfully created illusions of a forest ablaze. The invisible birds had suspended their song and the waves silently washed against the leafy side of the mountains. An utter silence envelopped us as we remained speechless. Everything, except from the lone falcon surfing the windless air in circles, was perfectly still. Only a few hours ago had we left the collapsing walls of human vanity, whose fake fortresses had painfully failed at taming natural forces. And here we were now, standing alone, humbled in the face of a magnificent, awe-inspiring wilderness.