I rented a car ($20, cheap) and was upgraded from a Corolla to a Camry. Not that it made any difference from the driver’s seat, but perhaps people would gaze at me and think, “Oh, she’s a driving Camry – a sensible family sedan. Good choice.”
My aim was to head for Akaroa, and I managed to get on the right road using both road signs and the knowledge that I was heading for the only non-flat land for miles around.
The landscape is somewhat startling. It’s flat, flat, flat, flat, then suddenly twisting, winding hills. And I drove along these roads, avoiding the tourist spots and enjoying not getting carsick. It had been about 18 months since I’d last driven, and it was fun.
Finally I turned a corner and there was the harbour. It was a brilliant blue, almost milky, and the bright sunshine bedazzled the landscape. And you know what? It was at that moment that my road trip mix CD played Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World”. It’s hard not to feel in love with the world at a time like that.
I parked, and set off exploring New Zealand’s French village on foot.
At Akaroa museum, it was strongly suggested that I start my experience by watching a short film about Akaroa. The film dated from the late ’90s and had a slightly dark tone. Recounting the geological history of Akaroa, the narrator almost sounded saddened that the original volcanic islands had eventually become joined to the mainland. But – sigh – I suppose you can’t fight progress, even if it takes thousands of years to happen.
The museum also had a small display on the changing attitudes towards sunbathing, from woolen bathers to skimpy bikinis and our modern use of sunscreen. This outraged a pink man who ranted, “It’s bullshit. Black people don’t get melanoma because they’re used to the sun. The same thing will happen to us – we’ll get used to the sun and stop getting skin cancer. And it doesn’t help when the government tells us to stay out of the sun.”
Akaroa prides itself on being a bit French, but its Frenchness is really only obvious in that some of the streets have French names. It’s hard to buy into the French thing when there are people playing cricket on the village green and the local fish ‘n’ chip shop is doing a roaring trade.
If you want French life in the South Pacific, go to New Caledonia or Tahiti. If you want a lovely volcanic harbourside village, go to Akaroa.
I jumped back in the Camry and journeyed over hilly Banks Peninsula to Lyttelton. Lyttelton exists as the port for Canterbury. The harbourside area is full of shipping containers and other side effects of modern life, which leaves town’s main street halfway up a steep hill.
I stopped for a coffee, but ended up cutting my visit short as I was forced to flee a drunken bachelor party making their way down the street. The sight of a cheap nylon Afro wig on a whitey is nature’s way of telling you to stay away. (See also: Wellington Sevens weekend).
My escape route was Sumner Road, a meandering hillside road that is but a barrier away from being the sort of road that buses plunge off. It was at this point that I threw caution to the wind and put on REM’s “Out of Time”, one of the four CDs I’d taken with me.
But a huge discrepancy between my memory of the opening track, “Radio Song”, and how it sounds today. Michael Stipe’s comedy complaints about bad radio became the unintended soundtrack as I undulated along Bus Plunge Boulevard. (Oh, why couldn’t it have been “Near Wild Heaven”?)
It was getting late. I had to return the car to the airport and go to the wedding reception (which I did, and it was lovely in all the best ways).
One of the easiest places to find in an unfamiliar city is the airport. You don’t even need to navigate – just follow the aeroplane symbols.
But sometimes it’s more satisfying to go somewhere you’ve never been before.