Island Life by David Slack

Road food

One afternoon, high on a mountain in the South Island, I almost killed the man who now prosecutes the big murder trials in Wellington.

Writing that gets me as near as my mild-mannered life can take me to “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.

I am not tortured by the memory, but it did come back to me this past week, firstly as I steered our trusty little rental car across Arthur’s Pass, and again as I read the story of the hapless tourists who came off the road just out of Fox Glacier.

360 degree turns on ice near the top of the Mt Hutt road are full of possibility. One is: keep shoving the car into the bank, and hope it will stick. The other is: steel yourself as you and your fellow passengers look mutely out the windows of the car as it tumbles end over end, down, down, down the sheer drop into ice, rock and snow.

The fact that I am telling you this story and that Grant Burston is keeping evildoers off the streets of Wellington tells you that the car caught the bank.

I drive the South Island roads with respect. I also drive them with enormous pleasure. No tailgaters, no idiots, no crush; God, it’s a treat. And of course, there is the view. As you get down towards glacier country, the landscape and its huge dark looming mountains takes on this sense of otherness. I had not been down there in three decades, and I was expecting to enjoy it, but that word doesn’t come near describing how much we all liked our holiday there.

Rush hour in Blackball was a sight. At 5.00 pm, the proprietor of Blackball Salami climbed into his 4x4 ('salami’ on the licence plate – the only personalised plate I noticed anywhere on the West Coast) and made the long journey down the factory driveway, out onto the street and into the driveway on the other side. Honey I’m home! You wouldn’t believe the traffic today.

We ate like kings at Café Neve in Fox Glacier and you just know I had to have the whitebait. We walked through still air, stood at glacial lakes, climbed up to the conveyor belts of snow. We sat on the beach at Okarito under a perfect blue sky and Mary-Margaret and I skimmed stones over the breaking waves.

We went home each night to a splendid motel and read the Greymouth Evening Star, famous all these years later, at least in my eyes, for its war time editorials. “We have warned Mr Hitler before…”

In an age of bland standardisation, there is still a West Coast flavour to the news. For three weeks, the court in Greymouth had been hearing about a helicopter pilot who landed his vehicle perilously close to the chopper of some bloke who had been carrying on with his missus. Or something like that.

In glacier country, your taxi is a helicopter. This guy had landed his machine in a way that was comparable to bringing your car to a smoking stop alongside another, Dukes of Hazzard style.

The evidence was suffused in testosterone, except perhaps for the witness who Civil Aviation had brought all the way from North Carolina; a plastic surgeon by vocation, an innocent tourist caught in the crossfire. His testimony sounded to be good theatre. He was characterised as “flamboyant”, and prompted “snickering" from the West Coast jurors of Greymouth.

Not guilty.

In Hokitika I walked out along the plank to this guy

and asked him about the little construction on the other side of the river. It was the first whitebaiter’s hut I’d seen with a Sky dish.

Does it work, I asked him?

Oh, yeah. I think he runs it off a car battery.

I said I’d never seen anything like that before.

Yeah, well, it gets pretty fucking boring doing this all day long.

We had a fascinating chat. The season so far was shithouse. Three storms in September had ruined it.

I love them I said.
I don’t like eating them, he said.

He fucking hates DoC. They all fucking hate DoC.

When I realised it could not be evaded any longer and I disclosed my place of residence, he was measured in his response. You’d pay a lot for them up there. He offered me his morning’s catch at 60 dollars a kilo. A bargain.

Even though it’s boring doing it all day long, and even though he doesn’t like eating them and even though he fucking hates DoC, he told me he still likes to see a school come sweeping around the bend and into his net.

It’s a lovely little pastime, he said.