24 Nov 2016


The Ford Cortina was big and pretty old, and I found it difficult to turn around in the forecourt of the independent car hire joint near the harbour in Wellington, New Zealand. I drove around the bay a bit to get the hang of it, and sat and looked at the grey-blue double-storeys along the shore. The sea was slatey grey, the sky lowering just as my grandmother had described it and there were ships in the harbour roadway. There were also Rugby World Cup adverts for six months hence. Yes, New Zealand seemed rugby crazy.

Given the opportunity to reach New Zealand on a work trip, I'd applied to add on a few days' leave, booked a car, arranged an open-jaw ticket, and found a few nights accommodation on the route from Wellington to Auckland. I was going to squeeze in as much as I could of New Zealand in the days I had. My main aim was to see my grandmother's old house. I was in so much of a hurry, I didn't even arrange to meet the relatives I did know about. I was alone and on a pilgrimage.

I landed in Wellington and found the hostel I was staying in. It was night, but my body was mixed up with the time zones, and the strip lighting made it difficult to sleep. Nevertheless, next day I got up at the time for getting up and went to explore Wellington.

It seemed to offer some pretty fancy shops. There was a supermarket with Asian greens, a shoe store with turquoise suede takkies, and not far from the big museum downtown (Te Papa Tongarewa), a department store with underwear to die for. Not quite what I'd expected of New Zealand in 2005, from the perspective of a pretty insular Cape Town. I left Wellington thinking it'd be a fun place to live, and wishing there'd been a couple more nights to squander on it.

At the first stop on the road, I stopped for petrol and to get some breakfast. In the garage cafe, I saw a Maori woman with a moko, a tattoo on her chin.
The roads were good, but you couldn't travel fast on them. Often only a single lane, rather than the multi-lane highways I was used to, they wound through the landscape, and my eyes were hungry. Every sign, every Maori meeting house, every name I said to myself. I couldn't stop looking.

After Woodville, Napier. I arrived in the dark with the streetlights swimming in front of me, bitterly cold and tired. I couldn't rest until I'd eaten, so although all my body and mind wanted after the abrasive stimulation of the day was a bed and the dark, I dumped my kit in my room and walked down the road to a bar that was open.

 Beer and fat mussels hung uncomfortably in my stomach as I lay cold in my bunk later. The heater was on a timer, and every time I dozed off, the heater clicked, the room started to get cold, and I had to get up to turn it back on.

There was rime on the windscreen when I left in the morning, and white frost on the grass at the side of the road. Napier had some beautiful Art Deco buildings, but it was the beach that got me. Black sand. My grandfather's stories about the terrible tidal wave that had sucked all the water out of the bay, leaving boats lying on their sides; the destruction when all that water and more returned; the rippling earthquake that lifted the pavement in waves, raising electricity poles so they touched then parted as it passed.

The ladders on the sides of houses by the beachfront, from the upper storeys down, ending well before the ground, told the same story 
families that had been trapped in burning buildings as gas pipes ruptured, or were unable to get out as the sea swirled through the lounge or dining room beneath them.

I felt my grandparents' presence on the beach, and the horror of the destruction of the town that I had just seen in huge videos and stills at the town museum. In the 1930s, there'd been frequent trains from Woodville up the line to Napier, with special trains laid on when there were Friday and Saturday dances  late trains to let people fill up their dance cards, and dance themselves silly, then get back to farms early enough to milk the cows.

My grandmother, yawning from a late night, was rebuked by her adoptive mother. “You can't be tired from enjoying yourself – you can only be tired from work.”

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