Skydives, sandy drives and the ghost of a seal.
Here’s the story that stemmed from this, and which AA directions published.
Below is the story I would have preferred they published.
And here is what really happened.
Falling for Nelson
One of the best things about backpacking is the lessons you learn, not only about the places you go but also about yourself. There are parts of your personality that you will never meet until you’re stranded in unfamiliar territory – making your way map-less across an unfriendly city, or trying to buy tickets in a train station where you can’t read the place names let alone speak the language. The discoveries you make will stay with you long after Rio is only a faded memory and Xinjiang a stack of photos in the cupboard.
You don’t need to lug your pack to the ends of the Earth to learn these lessons either. All you need is somewhere new. Recently, not far from home at all, travel gifted me just such a moment of self-discovery. I was poised, my feet dangling out the door of a Cessna, four kilometres above Motueka, when I learnt that I was afraid of heights.
Back on the ground skydiving had seemed like a great idea. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Now, as Thomas my tandem partner made the last adjustments to our gear, I had all the answers I needed to that question. We were several hundred feet higher than Mount Cook, for a start. So high that small fluffy clouds grazed like sheep way below us. And, in a few seconds, we would be travelling at over 150 kilometres per hour – straight down.
“Ready?” Thomas’s voice was as sunny as the sky above us.
“Nuuerrk,” I croaked.
With that, he accepted gravity’s invitation on our behalf and we pitched forward into nothing…
My trip to Nelson and Golden Bay hadn’t started this way. Not at all – my first mode of transport was defiantly sedate, a 1952 Bedford school bus, which took me from the airport to the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars museum.
Why the decision to mix cars and costumes was made I don’t know, but apparently the combination is a winner. “Couples,” our museum guide advised us, “come here all the time. The women come to look at the wearable art, the men the cars. Well at least the men say they come to look at the cars but sometimes they spend more time with the dresses.”
I only had to spend a few moments with the dresses myself to realise that the men who ditched the automobiles were onto something. Woven within the wearable art is a magic of sorts and you don’t need to be interested in fashion to find it. All that is required is an eye for imagination: dreams are spliced to legends, ideas stitched to stories and fables sewn into science fiction. After an hour at the museum it was easy to understand the tale of Russell Sutherland, the retired mechanic from Invercargill who was so inspired on visiting the museum he entered the awards himself. His design, an incredibly engineered if uncomfortable looking undergarment, won him the Bizarre Bra award for 2006 and second place in the overall event. Not bad for someone who was probably only there to see the cars.
After the museum I exchanged the bus for a car of my own and headed west, over the switchbacks of Takaka Hill and into Golden Bay. By the time I got to Collingwood the wind had gathered grey clouds, folding them over the peaks and valleys of the Kahurangi National Park. I pulled over on the edge of town to consult my directions and found myself next to the war memorial. On impulse I got out and had a look.
The story set in stone was the same in Collingwood as it is in hundreds of other small New Zealand towns: a long list of names; some surnames repeated two, three or four times. Families ended and small towns emptied. With the first footprints of rain falling on the windscreen and now feeling as glum as the thick evening sky I got back in the car and drove off to find the hostel.
The next morning the clouds were gone but the war remained. As we bumped along the track out onto Farewell Spit, Paddy our guide recounted the story of Jack Ashford, the first person to regularly traverse the spit in an automobile. Jack had been gassed at the Battle of Passchendaele, his lungs ruined. After the war, as his breathing got worse, he was told by a doctor that he had three years left to live, maybe a bit more if he got a job that kept him close to the sea. The salt air, the doctor said, might just help. So Jack found himself the one job that guaranteed salt air in abundance: Farewell Spit lighthouse keeper.
Creeping cautiously over the sand in Farewell Spit Eco Tours’s four-wheel drive bus it was hard to imagine how Jack managed the journey with rattling lungs and a rattling 1928 Chevy. But Jack did more than manage. He thrived, living to see his 99th birthday. And, by the time we reached the lighthouse at the end of the sand’s empty curve, I could see how life in one of New Zealand’s loneliest places could be curative. Sitting in the shade amongst the sighing Macrocarpa – watching as clouds, sand and sea blew by – it was impossible to escape the two things that Farewell Spit had in abundance: space and peace. Each, I thought, as good an antidote to the doom of trench warfare as one could hope for.
The last lighthouse keeper left the Spit in 1984. Since then the closest thing to permanent residents to be found on the slender strip of sand are the Gannets who set up a colony on the shell banks beyond the light in 1982. From a handful of pioneer breading pairs the colony has grown to nearly 5,000 birds. It’s New Zealand’s only sea level Gannet colony and a rare example of a native bird reclaiming territory on the mainland, so we kept a respectful distance. Gannets, though, are naturally curious and pretty soon we were treated to an up-close display of aerobatic skill as inquisitive birds, their wings bent back like bows, swept by us, checking out their awkward, earthbound guests.
Later, as we headed home along the beach, impatient sand dunes casting shadows in the early evening light, I decided that out there, on the edge of the spit, I had made it as close to the horizon as I was ever going to get. I eased back in my seat, enjoying the particular type of content that comes with having been somewhere truly special, and watched as the sun fell towards the sea.
…Meanwhile, back in the sky above Motueka, 50 seconds after it started and now some two kilometres lower, my own plunge towards the Earth came to an abrupt halt. The parachute opened.
The parachute opened! And all of a sudden everything changed. The roar of the wind was replaced by silence as clear as the sky itself. I looked around, we were still a long, long way above the Earth, but now – with my fear left billowing behind me in the strengthened-nylon chute – I began to take in the world we floated over. Down below, the tiny houses and roads were still too small even for matchbox cars. While, to the south, snow covered peaks shared the altitude with us. We spun slowly, looking out over Tasman bay, where stray clouds dragged patterns of shade and light. In the distance, Nelson twinkled in the sun. And I revised my initial assessment; I wasn’t afraid of heights at all, only of falling and, once you got beyond that, the view from up there is like nothing else.