A Walk On The Wild Side

Posted on: 10 July 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Holidays are a time for relaxation but they also remove us from our comfort zones, particularly the arduous, touring trips that we look upon as The Great Adventure, writes Laura Elliot.

They challenge our ability to survive without language and perfect the art of miming, to suffer the stress of lost luggage, long distance driving and prolonged bouts of hunger. Then there are the illnesses, the sunstroke and the funny tummy bugs, and let’s not forget the other bugs - the invisible but busy mosquitoes and sand flies who puff up our faces until we resemble Sumo wrestlers at their peak of fitness.

Under such circumstances, if you can introduce me to the couple who manage to survive The Great Adventure without exchanging one waspish comment to each other, I’ll pin angel wings to their shoulders. Of course, like childbirth and toothache, amnesia sets in once we return home. We show off our holiday photographs where we, tanned and relaxed, look as if we had never exchanged heated opinions as to who would get custody of the dog when we divorced. 

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When I set off from Ireland with my husband to the South Island of New Zealand, I had little idea that the trip would germinate the seeds of my latest novel and that that first seed would sprout from such a heated exchange. For over a fortnight we had travelled across the island in a state of mutual harmony. We had admired the magnificent mountains and lakes, stopped to watch the hurtling waterfalls, swam with dolphins in Kiakoura and hacked our way through the glaciers. In Queenstown, the wind howled past our ears as we fell through space, defying gravity with a piece of elastic tied to our ankles, every nerve screaming… fool…fool…then safe again on terra firma, we had entered the silence of a glow worm grotto where, at midnight, we watched those tiny insects, thousands upon thousands, hanging from twigs, stems, branches, leaves, flowers. Every blade of grass pulsed the darkness and it seemed as if our own private constellation had fallen to earth and sprinkled us with fairy dust.

But as we drove onwards, we realised that planning a touring holiday by pouring over a map in the comfort of one’s own home was very different to the reality. By the time we reached the West Coast we were suffering from exhaustion.  We had been advised that the Haast region was worth a visit, particularly the World Heritage Area of Te Wahipounamu. Unlike the more adventurous regions like Queenstown, Kiakoura and the famous Fox and Franz Josep glaciers, this was a more isolated stretch of coastline. We drove towards our overnight holiday park, captivated by glimpses of the flailing Tasman Sea and the primeval rainforests with their bent, windswept trees. After we had parked the camper, I took out my holiday read and prepared for a lazy afternoon. My husband, however, had other ideas.

“The beach,” he said, in a tone of someone who had traipsed for weeks over desert sands. “We have to find the sea.”

I reminded him that we had already swam in the Pacific Ocean and in numerous lakes - and, also, that as the Irish sea was only a five minute walk from our front door – he should stop behaving like an emperor penguin. Paying no attention to the acerbic edge to my voice, he grabbed towels and sun screen, and then beckoned authoritatively at me to follow. Meekly, I obeyed. 

We climbed a stile and wandered along a path lined with banks of reeds, pausing, eventually, at a Y-junction. He veered one way, I veered another.

After a short consultation, during which he assured me that he had a built-in compass in his mind, I, once again, followed my leader. The path grew narrower, dense with wild brush and the spikes of enormous yucca plants. Dead tree trunks squelched under our feet. We skidded on slippery undergrowth, climbed over barriers of dead wood and leathery vines. The Haast sandfly hovered.  This is a celebrity sandfly, so famous for its bite that its image has been branded on postcards and souvenirs. It came with its brothers, sisters and a large extended family. They swarmed above us. Any part of our exposed anatomy was fair game and, as we were trudging in sub-tropical conditions, they did not leave with empty stomachs. 

By now, all traces of the original path had disappeared, along with my tolerance. My husband insisted that the sea was just beyond the next brow and strode forward with the confidence men always display when they are thoroughly lost.

I debated turning back but was afraid to retrace my footsteps in case I was devoured by sand flies and lost to mankind forever. I debated crying or screaming, even stamping my feet, but he was right. The sea was nearby; even my most forceful tantrum could not compete with the overpowering rush of an incoming tide. I debated divorce and wondered which of our three adult children would be most affected.

Finally, we stumbled into a clearing. The sea reared like a frightened horse at a water jump than crashed forward onto the beach. I suspect we, and, perhaps, Captain Cook with the crew of the Endeavour, were the first humans to set foot on the sands. My husband, never one to hesitate when the smell of the brine was in his nostrils, dived into the waves. As he disappeared under the foam, I sat on a rock and considered my future as a divorcee or a widow. But, like the dolphins we had already encountered in Kiakoura, he surfaced and somersaulted to shore.

We forced our way back to through the jungle. We reached the Y-junction where, around a bend, a manicured path led in the opposite direction to the proper beach. Words were exchanged as we climbed wearily back over the stile and fought a futile fight with the sand flies. Back in the comfort of our camper, I took out my journal and began to write. What started as a rant against the inability of men to ever admit they were wrong – mellowed into a novel about three sisters who decide to travel across New Zealand in a camper van. I wrote about living outside the comfort zone, the endless miles, the pleasure and, sometimes, the petulance of enforced companionship. As my husband, finally forgiven, drove onwards, and I continued to write, filling notebook after notebook, the subjective became the objective - and my story began its own independent life as a piece of fiction.

The Prodigal Sister is published now. When I’m asked to do readings, I usually read the scene where the sisters stumble through the undergrowth in search of the ultimate wave. Their stories are different to mine. In fact their lives no longer belong to me. Like all true characters, they found their own independent voices - but I always smile as the tension rises and the bossy elder sister, urging forward her reluctant siblings, insists that the Tasman Sea is calling just beyond the next brow.

About Laura Elliot

Laura ElliotLaura Elliot’s trip round New Zealand inspired her to write The Prodigal Sister. Set in Ireland and New Zealand The Prodigal Sister is a tale of a turbulent reunion of four orphaned sisters. Drawn from their native Ireland to the wedding of their prodigal sister Cathy; Rebecca, Julie and Lauren intrepidly make the journey to the land of the long white cloud.

Laura Elliot, writing under her own name, June Considine, is the author of fourteen novels for children and adults. Her twelve books for children include the Luvender trilogy, View from a Blind Bridge, The Glass Triangle and the seven-book Beachwood series.

Her adult novels include When the Bough Breaks and Deceptions. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, and featured on RTE’s Fiction 15 radio programme. She has also worked as a journalist and magazine editor, and contributes features and short stories to radio. The Prodigal Sister is her first book to appear under her pseudonym, Laura Elliot. 

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