The road to Ohakune is a familiar one. The motorway skirts Wellington’s harbour, matrix signs that might warn of queues in a few hours urging us to Play it Safe. Stay Calm. Be Kind. It swings away from the water over the hills that surround the city, through its outer suburbs. It passes the expanse of Porirua harbour, the wide beach at Plimmerton, a final blast past Pukerua Bay and settles into the single-lane highway that clings to an edge of land between the sea and steep hills that will slip in an earthquake and cut Wellington off from the rest of the country. But let’s not dwell on that today – today we are happy.
The blue sky of Wellington has given way to layers of cloud, the sun glinting through them, turning their edges bright and the sea to our left a blinding silver. It’s calm today, rolling gently against rocks it will crash into another day, the spray misting across the road and up the hillside. The silhouette of Kapiti Island reminds me of our friend, Catherine, who misheard when we were talking of it and asked: What is this cup of tea island? my pronunciation making her think I was, as I often am, talking about a cuppa tea. We pass Paekakariki and check out how far the works have advanced on Transmission Gully, the motorway that will soon make leaving Wellington easier. It’s had a troubled history, first mooted in the 1940s, work finally started in 2014, now it’s delayed even longer and will not open until at least next year.
The journey is about 300km, almost all on State Highway One, and after an hour it settles into a pattern of long stretches of rural road dotted with small service towns. Otaki behind us, there should be no major traffic hold ups now. We pause for a loo break in Levin, at their adventure park that makes me think this would be a great place to raise children. Then it’s across the new Whirokino bridge over the wide Manawatu river and through Foxton, its windmill marking it as a Dutch-settled town. A sign advertises the Easter Fayre, a tale of what might have been, and one by a garden centre entrance shouts Welcome Back!
The long flat straight towards Sanson is lash-the-wheel territory, unless it’s windy, in which case it’s hold-tight-to-the-wheel-to-avoid-being-blown-off-the-road territory. Fields stretch to both sides and mailboxes perch by gates at the ends of long driveways, some with wobbly signs written in a childish hand: Pony Poo $1 bag. We know exactly where to start looking for the mountain, that familiar tent-ridge shape jutting from the otherwise level horizon, still 150 km away but visible on a clear day. Today it’s a hazy outline. I wave excitedly; Neil laughs.
In Bulls, where the bull statue under the town sign has been given a mask (can bovines get Covid-19?) we turn right, still on SH1 – a quirk of NZ road design is that many times you leave a road and stay on it. To our right the Rangitikei River carves through the wide valley bottom, looping back on itself like a strand of unravelled wool. Mostly it is hidden from the road but light glints on the occasional flash of water, highlighting the pale cliffs that climb from it. The Ruahine Ranges are a dark shadow etched on the horizon to the east and the late afternoon sun slants across closer rolling hills, darkening valleys. Trees, scattered along the roadsides and between fields, are mainly bare now, autumn colours that were just beginning to show last time we were here now gone on the wind to form rotting piles around roots.
More small towns: Hunterville, home of the huntaway dog breed, where we watch the speedo closely – the local police here are very vigilant; at Ohingaiti, where the Makohine viaduct towers over the gorge, the train slowing to walking pace to cross it, we know we are an hour away. The road swoops down to bump across the railway line just before Mangaweka, once home of the café in a plane, now home of an empty plane, the café having closed some years ago, then passes tiny Utiku, where the Wool Shop has great winter woollies.
In Taihape, the smoke of just-lit fires rises from chimneys, hanging in the still air. The mountain peeps in and out of the hills as we begin the long pull onto the Central Plateau, the temperature dropping as we climb. Signs on the way into Waiouru warn: Army training area. Live firing. Stay on the road. Then we turn off SH1, the mountain now on our right, white with early snow, but still plenty of dark stripes down his flanks. Taihape feels as though we are nearly there but this final 30km between Waiouru and Ohakune always drags.
A wall of cold hits us as we walk into the house, colder than the sun-warmed air outside. Neil lights the woodburner as I scuttle around turning on heaters, wrapping a fleece around me. It’s a well-practised routine. I open a couple of blinds but leave curtains over the big windows closed – the sun has already gone and it will be dark in less than an hour. We walk up the street to collect some fish that a friend has for us and a neighbour calls from his deck: Come and have a drink! There are less than ten! We walk home an hour later: the street is freezing but the house is warming up. It’s good to be back.