Return of the King

31 March 2014 Ricky French

Return of the King

Ricky French, Ed#452, February 2014

Journey Through Real Middle Earth, implored the pamphlet from Tourism New Zealand. Don’t mind if we do. It was recommended we gaze in wonder at the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki. Tick. We drove through mountain passes and gazed with now well-practised wonder at summer snow.  We soaked our arses in thermal pools. We fulfilled all statutory pamphlet obligations before spotting the hitchhiker. How very quaint. How very New Zealand. A Kiwi guy in his twenties, a bit portly, wearing a Jim Beam T-shirt. He shouted through the window that he was going to Nelson. I ran my finger over the map. “We can take you as far as Murchison.”

“Yeah. Sweet as.”

He jumped in the back. “My name’s Shaun. Got bloody stranded in Reefton this morning. My stupid sister – she’s 15 – her and her mates, these guys who are real dodgy, they bloody left me there.”

We had passed through Reefton that morning. Old mining town, scrambled eggs at a cafe, jaunty reminders of the gold-rush days: carts and wagons, a replica miners’ hut complete with bearded codgers to spin you yarns.

“I think her mates just wanted to take her somewhere and drink and… [he glanced at our six-year-old son in the seat next to him] …and hang out with her.”

He revealed his family tree.

“I got five sisters. Only boy in the family with five sisters, can you imagine that?”

I couldn’t: I only have four sisters.

“Where are you going, anyway?” he asked. We were going to St Arnaud. Mountain hamlet. Trout fishing. Ski fields. Honeydew forests and honeymoon lodges. The sublime Lake Rotoiti.

“Never heard of it,” said Shaun. He continued. “My older sister, she’s just into drugs. Got a bad problem, aye? Mum’s sick of it, too.”

At least they lived in paradise. Nelson: record holder for most sunshine hours in the country. Friendly, laid-back, easy living, haven for artists. Nelson’s a lifestyle – that’s the best way to describe it.

“Yeah man, heaps of drugs in Nelson. Ice, acid, whatever. Guys bring it up from Christchurch. Everyone’s on the dole.”

We drove through the Buller Gorge, essential travel for the visitor wanting to gaze in wonder at the vicious Buller River, where early settlers would take time out of their miserable, wet gold-fossicking lives to drown. I parked the car. “Short stop, Shaun.”

We walked down to the river. A bridge crossed the rapids and some company was charging money to walk to the other side.  Shaun told us what he reckoned about that.  “I reckon that’s stupid,” he said.

Shaun had a job. “I work on the wharf. Haven’t worked since last year, though, when my hand got sliced open, see? My sister – the older one I was talking about – pushed me through a window. She was coming down off drugs.”

The least I could do was rescue Shaun from his life. I gave him a hot tip. “Why don’t you just move to Australia like everyone else?”

“Nah,” he said. “Gotta look after my mum. And my other little sister – she’s three and she’s got Down syndrome and she just had an operation ’cause she had a hole in her heart.”

I wound the window up against the cool of dusk. Last night the sandflies had given us a hell of a time. We pulled into Murchison. Best ice cream in the country! Also, end of the road for Shaun. We parked behind the general store – I’d been looking forward to picking up a Marlborough pinot noir all day. The alpine lodge was waiting and I didn’t want to miss kick-off for the Phoenix vs Mariners game. We farewelled Shaun and he walked off. It was 125km down the road through real Middle Earth to Nelson. Forget about the busy pace of life!

That night Lake Rotoiti lay still as glass; silent source of the Buller River. The Phoenix drew and the sandflies vanished. It was just cold enough for the electric blanket.

» Ricky French is a Big Issue columnist.

This article first appeared in Ed#452 of The Big Issue magazine.