14 September 2015: I’ve been in London for five years, and although I’m often full of spirits, my creative spirit is dampened by heartbreak, unemployment and housing insecurity. I’m homesick, missing New Zealand, so I decide to pack my camera and do a road trip on State Highway One, which runs from the very top of the North Island to the very bottom of the South – a backbone on a road map.
I have the whole journey planned out when I remember I’m broke. My typewriter is gathering dust on my desk; I realise I can fictionalise the trip without ever having to leave my living room. I start writing.
Cape Reinga, the northernmost point in New Zealand.
At Cape Reinga – at the top of New Zealand – the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, creating the tidal race: one side blue, one side green, the middle both and neither. In Māori it’s Te Ara Wairua – the spirits’ path. The journey people take after death, from one home to the next. For the book I’m writing – about kids whose parents have just died – it seems like a good place to start.
I leave England for Australia in November, winter to summer, home to something new. In Sydney in 2017 someone hands me $10,000 in exchange for the first three chapters of the book, which I have yet to finish. On Boxing Day I leave my living room, fly to Auckland. I wake up in my old bedroom, hungover. Homesickness here is not missing home, but a feeling that I’m reconnecting just in time to leave. I jump in my mother’s Ford Focus and drive south on State Highway One, 90,000 words and 3,400km in deficit.
My first stop is Jerusalem, North Island, on the Whanganui River. I almost died here in 2007 driving through a storm in the middle of the night; I punched through a retaining wall after swerving to avoid a rock. Ten years later the road is sealed, easily navigable. I cross the river in a cable car and sleep in a tent, scribble notes by torchlight.
I get to Wellington early the next evening. My ferry crosses Cook Strait at 2:30am. It’s 28 January and it’s freezing, I’m woefully unprepared for the wind chill, there’s no one around, I hate it here.
Petone Wharf, Wellington, NZ.
The boat pitches back and forth, rain beats against the windows. I try to sleep, head resting on my arm on a table near the cafe, but am unable to get further than zoning out. As we come close to Picton the sun comes up.
I regretted such a late-night sailing until I watched the sunrise over the hills. Strangers the world over told me how beautiful New Zealand is, and I shrugged, familiarity bred contempt – but now I understood. The South Island is so different from the North. It’s easy to forget how New Zealand’s landscape can change so dramatically – two seconds of silence and the song changes, some variation on a theme, familiar as part of a whole but almost unrecognisable from the one that came before.
I pull over not long after Picton, sleep on the side of the road. The east coast is dramatic, the destruction from a recent earthquake still recognisable in the slipped rocks, cracks in the road. The sea beats against the side of the South Island, relentless.
Landscape in the north of the South Island
I head inland for Lake Tekapo, a dark sky reserve, detour to a river and lie on my back in the cold water, the cloudless sky so different from the one above London. The last time I was here my mother ran into a university friend of hers outside an old stone church. That won’t happen to me in Australia, where I live now: I don’t have any old friends there. The sky clouds over, no stars tonight. I haven’t booked anywhere to stay, forgetting it’s the day before New Year’s Eve, so I sleep in the boot of the Focus.
I spend New Year’s Eve with cousins in Dunedin. It’s nice to be around people again after so many days on the road alone. New Year’s Day, I gun it to Bluff, hoping I can make it to Stewart Island. I listen to the new Lorde album at full volume over and over and get lost more than once. I get to the terminal just in time, the last ferry is running late. I owe everything to the ladies at the ticket desk and promise to thank them in the acknowledgements.
Halfmoon Bay, Oban, Stewart Island, New Zealand
When I arrive at Stewart Island I feel completely at ease. It’s like Waiheke Island in the 1990s – small, close, local. Maybe you can never go home again because it’s something and not somewhere, it’s something you can make, or something you can find. I try to find someone to take me to the southern end of the island and am crushed when told it’s impossible – I’ve come all this way. I drink champagne to toast the end of my journey and read outside in the still-light at 10pm, that pink glow on the horizon.
I fall in love with the island and wish I could stay all summer. I’m tempted to tear up my return ticket. On the ferry back I strike up a conversation with an American tourist. The waves make her sick, but I’m OK, I’m not sick, not really, not anymore.
• State Highway One by Sam Coley is out now. Guardian Australia is a partner of the Richell prize, which was won by Coley in 2017.