I do tend to like a song that builds; one that’s all tender and melancholy to begin, subtle layers of sound layered with every soft verse until they rise into a crashing crescendo of strings and vocals and guitars and tambourines and bassoons and triangles and maracas and backing singers, passing out in an epic conclusion. Well, I didn’t expect that, may be your reaction if you hadn’t listened to it a hundred times already. What could have been so dreary gradually gains pace and noise, rhythm and harmony, and comes with a climax that makes you feel good and want to cry out loud. Which you sometimes do when not in company or stopped at traffic lights.
There are many parallels to be had between music and travel. Both offer the chance of escape, an exposure to culture, and a form of enjoyment (or annoyance!). We often listen to music while we travel and we often travel while listening to music. Indeed, catch any bus or train today and see if you can spot anyone who is not attached to a small electronic device by some white wires sticking out of their ears or a pair of oversize earmuffs like they are some kind of Craig David wannabe. Craaaaaiiiiiiiig David. And like a good piece of music (i.e. not Craig David), can there be anything better than travel experiences that gather an unexpectedly irresistible momentum and culminate in an ecstatic high? Transformative moments which end with you pinching yourself to check that they really happened?
Well, picture the scene on the far south coast of New Zealand, in a picturesque swathe of countryside and coast making up The Catlins. Alas today, like many days no doubt, is grey and a constant chill wind blows off an iron sea. Mist and drizzle occasionally grips the rocky tumult of the seashore and hovers among dense, dark forests. It’s Waitangi Day, a national holiday, but there is little sign of people gathering in revelry, the area remote and sparsely inhabited. It feels as though banjo-plucking will be echoing through the rolling valleys as the van propels itself on the few remaining drops of petrol in its tank. But that would perhaps be a bit too chirpy a soundtrack for this uninspiring morning.
It’s been a few days like this now…swishing wipers down to Dunedin and braving gaps in weather to look at seals and seabirds, admiring their resolve to make a bombarded clump of grey rock their home. Home for me has mostly been the van and it smells damp. It’s also almost out of petrol now, but there is a town or two coming up. The first offers a small garage but a wonky handwritten sign tells me I would have better luck going to the next stop along. It’s only twenty kilometres, but lights, heating, radio and lead foot driving are all dispelled while the red warning light continues to taunt me. And these valiant attempts mean that the van makes it to a town with another closed petrol station.
This is the low, and there has got to be a way to climb out of it. At the other end of town from the petrol station that is also a visitor centre and shop and fishing bait store and whatever else not being offered for sale today, is a house that has a banner for ice cream beside the road. I’m not sure whether this is a shop or cafe or just someone’s shed with a few trinkets in. I didn’t see any ice cream, but then I wasn’t really looking. The owner – we shall call him Pat (because I don’t remember his name) – looks bemused when asked whether the petrol station is open. “Well, if it don’t look like it’s open I guess it’s not open”. For once, endearing Kiwi frankness not very endearing. “I’ll call Nigel”.
Whoever Nigel was he wasn’t so keen to speak to Pat, the phone line mysteriously cutting out on the first contact attempt. Things looked bleak, while my exterior has a forlorn look about it, inside I was quietly sobbing. This would not be a great place to stay for another night…and it was barely 10am. Behind his beard Pat could sense this, so he tried another call and this time successfully woke Nigel from his hungover slumber. Nigel, it turns out, could fill our car with petrol. Begrudgingly so and clearly needing another beer to kick start his day, but he gave up some liquid gold (at a commensurate price) nevertheless. Nigel and Pat, two unlikely saviours, a solid backing coming in to give thrust to this song of a day.
So it was that the van comfortably made its way to Invercargill where it could properly fill up its tank on petrol and cruise past the disproportionate amount of drive-through liquor stores which do a roaring trade . Invercargill represented a line in the sand and from here the journey was west and north. Straight out of a Tolkien tale, the town of Riverton was a necessary pit stop that became late morning tea. If Pat and Nigel kick-started the van, this was the sugar comfort hit that kick-started the endorphins.
Somewhere between Riverton and Te Anau the sun emerged, weakly at first but increasing in frequency, offering a pleasant symphony of colour and warmth across the landscape. This was turning into a very different day, a day where you need to change into shorts at Te Anau itself, because it is warm and clear and sparkling. A day where you need to savour a ham sandwich beside the beautiful lake but avoid lingering too long because it can still get even better. From here, Fiordland National Park is waiting.
There is a dead end road from Te Anau, but it is no dead end of discarded breeze blocks and tumbleweed tottering in the wind. Its terminus is Milford Sound and the route to it must rank as one of the most awe-inspiring in the world. The scenery is so grand it will make Gandalf look small, as the road follows valley and plain, fringes a series of small lakes and eventually has to cut through the mountains to get down to the precipitous chasm of water that is Milford Sound.
It is a journey where you want to pull over at every available opportunity and take a dozen photos and pinch yourself again because it is so inexplicably sunny and warm and better than what could have been. Eglinton Valley is a perfect place to do this, with its broad plain of swaying gold grass tantalising you to loll around in it like you are five again. Or, as is often the case in such mountainous terrain, break out like Julie Andrews and proclaim the hills to be alive. But I can save that for a higher vantage, a reward for a walk and a lofty paradise in the late afternoon sun.
Can there be anything better to do than getting out in this environment on foot, leaving the van far behind and below. A walk. A hike. A tramp! Who would have thought it this morning? It’s a bit of a climb but sure and steady, inspiration added by being on a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s premier multi-day tramps. With forest at first there is little to see beyond the dark green boughs and flourishing fronds. It is cool and shady, serene and ancient. Occasional glimpses sight the road down in the valley or tops of mountains still a long way above. Then, all of a sudden, the vegetation clears and you are reaching the crescendo.
A few more steep zigzags and you emerge onto a rolling plateau – Key Summit  – where the hills do seem to be alive with the sound of music. Small tarns pepper the bright green grass and forests continue to spread over and along the hillsides. The late afternoon sun, still warm and pristine, highlights the pleasingly rocky Humboldt Range as it disappears north and east. The bright light battles with towering peaks that plummet to the west, down into the waters of the fiords and Tasman Sea. Far below, the van sits with half a tank of petrol, happy to rest and sit vacant and linger in memories of Nigel.
It’s an immense ending to an indifferent start, a reminder that things change for the better all of the time. You may have gotten out of bed the wrong side or endured a period of drab drizzle, but the sun does always shine again. And shine again it did for many more days on that trip of New Zealand – on Milford Sound the next day and into the mountains after, glistening off the amazing bays of Abel Tasman and striking dramatic light on the volcanic doom of the north island. Indeed, such is its remarkableness it doesn’t take much to gain momentum in New Zealand. Just a little bit of petrol and some good tunes along the way.
 They do call this region ‘The Scotland of the South’ after all.
 I don’t think named after New Zealand’s current Prime Minister
 At least for something crazy like 500 billion years or whatever Brian Cox said in some documentary, by which time we would have easily destroyed everything anyway
The kitty kat Catlins: http://www.catlins.org.nz/
Amazing Fiordland: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland/
Route to Routeburn: http://neiliogb.blogspot.it/2013/02/finding-me-marbles-christchurch-to.html