My parents have these photos of themselves as young people.
On a swing bridge, my father smiling full bore down the lens as my mother peers down at the Buller Gorge. My mother sprawled out over the pancake rocks, her denim overalls stretching over her pregnant puku. The pair of them in day-glow swimsuits, browned and sandy, squatting in front of their tent, pitched on some private beach in Abel Tasman National Park.
I’ve always used those photos as a kind of yardstick for my own adulthood. Riding the same bikes as my father, valuing their memories and trying to recreate them and make them mine as a way of assuming their identity or at least crafting mine in their wake.
So it was that I decided on Abel Tasman as the setting of my vainglorious, first summer holiday with my first serious girlfriend.
I’d become obsessed with the idea of circumnavigation that year, and pictured myself as a kind of young man adventurer, helming some jalopy round the whole of Te Waipounamu. Stopping wherever I felt the need, I’d be throwing back spearmint milkshakes and steak pies as I roared around from coast to coast to coast and back again. I, Kupe, leaving my footprints everywhere, and swimming in all of the waters that surround the island I grew up on.
By my side would be this beautiful young woman who’d barely set foot on the mainland before. I’d been with Julia for almost a year now. I saw us eating sandwiches and pitching our tent in every town and every last honesty box campsite, rubbing each other down with sunscreen and insect repellent. Making love in Hinds! In Ranfurly! In Brunner!
And it would all peak, the love making and the sandwiches and the sweeping romance of it all, in a four day hike in the winterless north (of the South Island). Christ, what a vision!
I flew down to Christchurch before Julia, in order to get our affairs in order. I bought a car from a pair of be-jandled South African brothers in a supermarket car park in Bryndwr.
“It goes good.” said the younger one. I asked how many kilometres it’d done but realised upon receiving an answer that I didn’t know how many kilometres cars are supposed to go. The car was a mustard yellow 1982 Mazda Familia. I liked the brown interior a lot, so I handed over my $700 and drove to my parents' home.
The next day I put a map we’d marked up in the glove box and mounted a little New Zealand flag to the dashboard using Blu-tack and gaffer tape. I loaded my camera with film and drove to the airport to pick up Julia.
Our trip went well. We roared down State Highway One, stopping at the Rakaia Gorge for a swim and some chips, then to Oamaru where we went on a twee and futile penguin pilgrimage. We ripped through Dunedin and Bull Creek and Riverton. Spent the night in St Bathans and hit a kereru in the Haast Pass. Winding our way up the coast, I showed off my ancestry in the street signs and monuments bearing my names. Everything was good and the sun hovered above us every day as we ate apricots and smiled in all of our pictures. We curled our way up through Murchison and made our way to Marahau where we planned to spend the night before heading into the park.
The campsite was busy and our first little tiff came with what was perceived as a lack of privacy. Julia wanted to find our own little patch, where we could really feel alone, but it became apparent that any space at all was sparse, and we’d be forced into crowded quarters for the night.
We wedged in between a party of Germans and a family from Wellington and I prepared us some rice and veges on my gas cooker. Julia sat in the car, lamenting this apparent slight in hushed tones while listening to something on her iPod. I for my part, made matters worse with my persistent nagging and berating her to be happier. “Cheer up. It’s only one night.”
Then the food was shitty because I messed up the rice. After a few mouthfuls, Julia emptied her plate into a bin and instead grazed on a bag of Fruit Bursts from our glove box, which we’d been saving for the hike. The obvious argument broke out. At first muted so as to not alert the Germans to our domestic state. But it grew in intensity and seriousness.
Stop starting fights!” I’d yelled as I blew gently on to the little fire we were building.
We found ourselves unpacking the previous weeks and finding patches of rot in our bliss and travels, which had earlier been ignored or glossed over: I drove too fast; She wasn’t paying her share of the petrol; I ate all the apricots; She was messing up our vehicle with detritus.
Worse than that, in spite of raising “issues” I’d continue to hypocritically (and I assume infuriatingly) deny that there was any problem.
“Stop starting fights!” I’d yelled as I blew gently on to the little fire we were building. I don’t know where that resentment came from but once it surfaced it clung to us like oil. We argued for a long time and only stopped when I walked away from our campsite under the pretense of washing dishes in the communal sink.
Sullen, indignant and wounded, still refusing to acknowledge that there was any reason to argue, I scrubbed partially-cooked rice and pieces of broccoli off the bottom of my billy using my fingertips. I sat in the camp kitchen area drinking cans of Deep Spring I bought from a vending machine until it got dark, when I slunk back to our tent, crawled inside and lay in silence beside Julia, trying desperately not to be dragged into her by remorse or on account of air mattress’ deflation.
In the morning, we drove the short distance to the start of the Abel Tasman track. We parked our car, hauled on our packs and set off. Immediately we were immersed in the scenic remnants of my family’s history and all the lame nostalgia that stuff conjures up for me. Though instead of feeling as I’d hoped, like I was taking my place within it, instead of being swept up in awe and joy, I trudged ahead silently, full of resentment. On our first day of walking the only two conversations were some bullshit argument over who should lead the way, and our deciding to not bother trying to make it to the bay we’d planned to spend our first night at. The whole day we walked, pressing out boots firmly into the dead leaves with our heads firmly directed at the ground like two miserable employees heading to work.
Once we arrived at the campsite, we pitched our tent, and I went swimming. I stayed in, lolling about, trying to kill time so as to not have to talk. When I came in Julia asked me if anything was wrong and I said no. She asked again dozens of times over the next few days and every time I’d flatly deny. Every day we’d walk without talking to each other, the deafening cries of cicadas mockingly filling the void, focussing our gaze on beech trees and piwakawaka and everything except this dumb thing between us.
I don’t think either of us even knew what we were mad about. I think we were just both pretty immature and didn’t really know how to work anything out. Maybe it was a way of pushing to the surface all the little things that we didn’t like about our relationship without having to actually talk about them. I dunno. It was shitty though.
On the last night I cooked couscous and we ate it with butter, then went to bed before it got dark. In the morning I remember walking as fast as I could, absolutely racing back to the end, desperate to get out of there. We made it back to the car and set off back to Christchurch.
Julia flew back to Auckland and I spent the rest of the holidays with my family. Obviously I didn’t manage to get any photos like those ones of my parents I covet. Fittingly I guess, the only photos of the trip I have are of me alone, in these big landscapes, not quite filling it up.
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