I’ll Take You As Far As: Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

En Route to Cape PalliserSeals

I recently finished reading Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s account of his farewell trip through Britain, his adopted home of twenty years, before moving back to the United States.  Personally, I’m a great fan of Bill Bryson, especially of his wit, social commentary, and writing style, and have read and recommended a number of his books.  As usual, Notes From a Small Island made me laugh, taught me something new, and gave me plenty to think about.  However, unlike Bryson’s other works, I found this one to be a bit boring and repetitive, perhaps because, as he points out, Britain is a bit boring and repetitive.  After a while, the places visited ceased to captivate the imagination, the people encountered no longer amused, and the anecdotes failed to entertain.  I remain a loyal reader, but I do suggest skipping Notes From a Small Island and going straight to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There, or A Short History of Nearly Everything.  But I digress.

Literary review aside, I mention Notes From a Small Island here because I hold it responsible for what happened to me the other day.  Bill Bryson travels through the UK by means of public transport (bus and train) and his own two feet.  He has a rough itinerary, but he allows himself to veer off course when fancy strikes, even if the travel time significantly outweighs the amount of time spent at the destination.  Once he gets the idea in his head to visit a sight he is undeterred, regardless of how complicated the timetables or difficult the route.

A few people had mentioned to me that the nearby town of Martinborough and its lovely vineyards were worth a visit.  But my guidebook’s vague description of Cape Palliser and Palliser Bay, located along the coast of the Cook Strait, had sparked my interest.  Unfortunately, the explanation of how to get to Cape Pallier was as vague as the description of the place itself. But with Bill Bryson in mind, I decided to forgo the wine and make my way instead for the black sand beaches of the Wairarapa coast.

My guidebook did mention that the Cape was located south of Martinborough.  So, I woke up early to catch a train from Wellington to Featherston, where a perfectly timed bus was waiting to take me to Martinborough.  Once I arrived in Martinborough, I visited the local i-SITE for guidance.  One of the kindly women on duty walked me over to a display of pictures of the Cape and explained that it was just a mere 40 minutes down the road.  “Walking?” I asked, naively.
“No, by car.”
“Is there a bus or some other form of public transportation?” I inquired.
The poor woman looked at me like I had just asked her if Santa Claus was real.  She clasped her hands to her mouth in genuine anguish before responding, “No, lovely, I’m afraid there’s not. Can you drive?” she asked, optimistically.
“Not on the left side of the road.”
“Oh dear, well, I’m not going to show you any more of these photos then.”

Disappointed, I thought to myself, what would Bill Bryson do? And then it came to me in a flash of inspiration.  I would rent a bike and ride to the coast.  When I revealed my plan to the woman at the i-SITE, her eyes filled with tears of pride and admiration.  The problem was that no one could give me even a rough estimate of the distance to Cape Palliser or how long it might take to reach it by bike.  But I figured, what the hell? If I don’t make it, at least it will give me something to do for the day.

I hired a bike from the wine center down the road and set off down the lonely path to the Cape.  The scenery was stunning: sheep grazing in green pastures and white clouds topping rolling hills, typical New Zealand stuff.  The road was paved and decently flat, but after just a short time, I started to resemble the Little Engine That Could more than Lance Armstrong.  I’m not the best or most experienced cyclist in the world, but I’m in shape and have taken more than one spinning class.  The challenge wasn’t so much physical as it was mental.  I enjoy traveling alone, but some activities, such as riding a bike an indeterminate distance through deserted farmland, are just not as much fun without a friend.  At one point, I even started talking to a cat that was crossing the road.

After an hour, I finally came upon a road sign indicating the distance to my final destination.  Cape Palliser, it read, 50km.  That’s when I decided to pull over to the side of the road and have a snack.  I was eating an apple, contemplating my options, and secretly hoping that someone would come to my rescue when a car pulled up beside me.  A young, South African woman and her dog Turbo leaned out the window.  “You alright?” she shouted to make herself heard over the sound of the hip hop music streaming from her radio.  “No, actually, I’m not,” I replied.  I approached the car, explained the situation, and accepted her offer to drive me at least part of the way there.

It turned out that she was free for the day. So, rather than take me as far as she was going, she ended up being my travel companion.  We drove along the coast, stopping to watch a group of Danish surfers battle the waves, take pictures of seals, have a few drinks at a hotel bar overlooking Lake Onoke, and talk about life.  She was absolutely fascinating, and we had a great day together, even though one of the only things we had in common was that earlier that day we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

At five o’clock, she and her boyfriend drove me back to Martinborough.  Before dropping me a few blocks from the wine center (to give me the appearance of having accomplished my stated goal), we exchanged contact information and said good-bye, possibly to meet again in the future.  I returned the bike, and headed to the i-SITE to catch a ride back to Featherston with the woman who had helped me earlier that day.

With a few hours to kill before the train departed for Wellington, I made myself comfortable in an Italian restaurant near the station.  I was trying desperately to entertain myself when the owner came over and handed me a stuffed cow.  “A little souvenir for you to take home,” she explained.  Either it looked to her like I could use a friend, or she, like everyone else in this country, thought that I was under the age of 16.

People often think that I’m crazy for traveling alone, and the truth is that it’s not always easy (although neither is traveling with your best friend).  Sometimes I wish that I had someone with whom to share the experiences and the responsibilities, to help me feel safe and keep me entertained.  But days like this remind me that, even in today’s skeptical, cynical, selfish world, if you’re open to accepting rides from strangers and letting new people in, you’re never truly alone. (A fact confirmed again later that night on the train platform, when a clearly inebriated, middle-aged man introduced himself to me by way of a giant hug).  I like to think that even though I never made it to Cape Palliser, Bill Bryson would have been proud. (Or horrified by my foolish behavior.  He is a father after all).

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