The rain hurled itself on the port side of the camper van; the headless mountains loomed, the leaden lake looked hungry.
‘Hold on!’ I shouted.
‘What?’ said Small.
The wind growled and the camper van took fright and lifted. I took my foot off the gas.
‘Easy girl,’ I said. ‘Down.’
‘What?’ shouted Small. The potatoes were stampeding in the back; the cutlery trembled, the pots were rattled. The panicked sink water formed a tsunami and threw itself overboard.
‘Probably should have emptied that,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Small.
The camper van lifted again and the marshmallows sighed and turned over. They’ll sleep through anything. I gripped the wheel and pressed my nose against the windscreen and remembered a beautiful stretch of road east of Reykjavik where we watched the wind pick up a truck and trailer unit as if it were a toothpick and set it down in a field of snow. Could happen anywhere.
‘Holy crap,’ I whispered.
‘It’ll be fine,’ shouted Small cheerfully. I glanced his way. A four hundred page murder mystery appeared to have his full attention. How could he possibly have heard me? Maybe I should check.
‘We might need to alter our course,’ I said darkly.
‘Or not,’ he said, and gave me a brief sideways look over the top of his glasses. Just like his father.
The day had started so differently.
We woke up on the lake edge and ate our breakfasts in separate areas of the camper. (I fully approve of Small’s creamed corn on toast as camping food but there is so escaping what it resembles when heated and vomited onto toast).
We took ourselves off to the start of the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and walked a small portion of it. It was just my kind of forest. Lush and ancient and damp and full of sink holes and bird song, rivers and swing bridges and giant fungi and strange moss-covered tree formations.
As we walked, we planned our evening at a little Department of Conservation camp far away on the side of Lake Ohau where we would be allowed to light a fire. Went so far as to collect fresh-fallen twigs and branches to carry hundreds of kilometres north. Bird in the hand and all that.
By the time we arrived back at the camper, the ‘weather’ as they call rain down here, had arrived.
We jammed the sticks and twigs into a hatch on the outside of the camper where the hose pipe is kept – I know what The Executive would have said about making a mess in that pristine compartment but I was NOT having those twigs on the floor of the camper itself. Spider risk. Weta risk. Both unacceptable .
It was very cosy in the camper. The weather pittered and pattered and lulled us into a false sense of security.
‘Let’s not hurry over lunch,’ said Small.
Our destination was many hours away…and I didn’t like the idea of driving deep into the wilderness, late at night in pouring rain without another adult to help me change a tyre or share the driving or fight off a psycho-killer.
But this week is not about ‘no’ so we made ourselves comfortable and heated soup and did some reading and listened to the rain. Soon it really was time to go.
‘Where do you reckon the headlights are?’ I said. It was only two in the afternoon but the sun seemed to have gone out.
‘I’ve got the windscreen wipers going,’ I said. ‘Get out that instruction booklet.’
Small couldn’t work it out and I wasn’t desperate enough to read it myself. I thought of the Executive. He would have known days ago where the lights were. But it’s not all my fault. There are elements of this vehicle that are ridiculous – such as volume buttons that are the size of a match head. And not illuminated. Try increasing the volume on a dark night. If you didn’t have a co-pilot you’d have to actually stop the vehicle to turn the music up.
We got everything working and hit the road.
The rain had washed the snow off the fields we had crossed on our way to Te Anau. A million fresh-shorn sheep that had been shuddering in snow a couple of days earlier were now drenched in rain. I lifted the turtle neck of my toasty merino sweater and felt like a thief .
The wind lifted the skirts of the camper van every now and again but it wasn’t until we started driving up the side of Lake Wakatipu that the ‘weather’ really got stuck in.
Sixty kilometres per hour seemed to be the sweet spot where we were still moving forward but not losing contact with the bitumen. The port side rear window had sprung a leak and I was getting tired. Really tired. We hadn’t even got back to Queenstown so our destination was a good few hours away yet.
We cleared the lake and found a tiny settlement where I could pull over.
Then I did something I’ve never been able to do before. I went to the double bed at the rear of my vehicle, face-planted onto a soft duvet, and went straight to sleep. Bliss. Fifteen minutes later, I woke up to the alarm and off we went. Small grinned and there were bits of something sticky in his teeth. Lolly thief.
The weather got weatherier. Night fell, and the camper van was still trying to take off. To make things worse I hadn’t heard from The Aunt all day. I had texted and emailed. Nothing. She’s exhausted, I reasoned. Dying, in fact. Texting is not a priority. She has visitors. She has her friend The Nurse staying with her. Only three days ago she was walking around and cooking eggs and yes she was tired but she seemed Ok. It seemed not terrible to leave her. Blow out the candle fingers. One, two, three, four.
‘We are not going to make it.’ I said to Small. ‘It’s actually getting a bit dangerous. We might have to stay at Arrowtown.’
We stared at each other, realising what I had said. Arrowtown was not on our itinerary. There was nowhere on our itinerary where we could find smashed avocado on Vogels with a flat white and a shot of turmeric-infused beet juice.
I ordered Small to Google something more remote. He didn’t feel like doing it. I may have snapped. He went mono-syllabic. I went poly-syllabic. We settled on Arrowtown. Small wasn’t in the mood to navigate. We pulled into the camp ground – office closed but a modern toilet and shower block glowing like a comet.
‘Ooooh,’ we both said, instantly cheered. ‘Fancy.’
We parked up, plugged in and settled in to cook dinner.
I finally got hold of The Aunt. She sounded tiny, which she is. But worse than tiny. Fading. And breathless. I recognised that breathlessness. I had the same thing with Small when I was heavily pregnant – belly stuffed so full of baby that there wasn’t much room left for lungs. But the Aunt isn’t pregnant. The cancer has already stolen her appetite – squeezing her stomach into the tiniest of cavities so that even an egg is too much for her – and now it’s taking her breath.
She’s running out of time. I was going to go and be with her on Sunday – a week from now- which would give me enough time to get Small home, spend a couple of days with the Executive, Medium and Large, then drive to New Plymouth for Dad’s birthday, then continue on to Wellington alone. But that’s not going to work. I decided to go on Thursday instead. Much better plan.
Small and I heated up three-day old chilli, peeled cheese strips with a plastic potato peeler (no grater in this camper) and piled on the lime and sea salt corn chips for a tasty dinner and a few quiet rounds of Exploding Kittens.
Tomorrow: Mt Cook.