A couple of years ago we bought a new car. It came with sat-nav and, despite that looking at the map we have in the car was easier (and quicker) Neil loved putting in his destination and following the voice of the friendly lady on the dashboard rather than the voice of the friendly lady he is married to. Personally I found it annoying that she felt it necessary to tell us three times to turn left at the next junction, especially if it’s the only junction in a three-mile stretch of road. Boys and their toys.
Outside of cities (and I have used it myself in Wellington when my lawyer moved offices to an area I didn’t know well) there’s not much call for satellite navigation in New Zealand. There are so few roads outside the main centres you’d be hard pushed to make a business case for it. Ask it to direct you from Wellington to Auckland and it would laugh and scornfully say: just stay on SH1!
I admit that I’m a map geek. Not only do I find them fascinating, but I love to look at a map and see where I am, to place myself in my environment. If I’m in a strange place and don’t have a map I can’t avoid a nagging fear that I am lost. If I’m travelling and I have a map, am following it, I can see where I am, see what is around me, can tell if there’s an alternate route, or if we’re somewhere we shouldn’t be. With sat-nav travel is blind, following a dispassionate voice from the dashboard, at the whim of where it wants to take me. It doesn’t care if I get lost.
Our first experience with sat-nav was our initial return to the UK in 2007. We’d heard of this wonder of modern technology but in NZ navigation was something you did at sea, and a satellite hung in the sky. We’d arranged to meet some friends in a pub on the outskirts of Sheffield in an area I didn’t know and asked Dad if we could borrow a map. He didn’t have one.
‘Use my TomTom,’ said my brother. Cue blank stares from the visiting antipodeans. ‘All you need is a postcode and a house number,’ he said. The pub had a name, not a number, so he programmed his little black box with a postcode and handed it over. ‘Just do what it says and you’ll be fine.’ How many pubs can there be on one road?
We left my parents’ house with some trepidation and a fear that we would disappear into a maze of unknown roads and forever wander lost, the authorities searching for the black box to find out what had happened. We skirted the north of the city on the M1. So far so good. The voice directed us off at the Parkway, the main dual carriageway into Sheffield from the motorway and a road I know well. Then it told us to take an exit I’d never used, off towards the south-east of the city, into uncharted territory. It was a March evening and dark outside – no chance at all I would see a familiar landmark even if there was one. It’s a strange feeling to be within the boundary of the city of your birth, the city you lived in for nearly forty years, but have no idea where you are. This is when I would pick up the book of maps that the good people at the AA see fit to put together on an annual basis and put myself in it, so to speak, then follow a squiggly line until I get to my destination. My hands remained empty and a knot of worry formed in my chest. (I don’t like the dark; monsters hide in the dark.)
We had no option but to follow the voice and seemed to drive for miles, much farther than I thought it possible to drive without being in another city entirely. And we could have been. I seriously had no idea where we were; few houses, even fewer lights, long stretches of road with total darkness alongside us. Finally we saw a cluster of brightness. A village! I even heard Neil breathe a sigh of relief. The box stayed silent; we left the lights behind and darkness returned.
Turn right in 200 yards, intoned the flat voice from the dashboard. We could see nothing; we turned into nothing. High banks of a narrow country road rose as high as the car roof. In one mile you have reached your destination on your right, the voice told us, presumably thinking it was being helpful. Even more helpfully it counted down to the last hundred yards, then told us we’d arrived, a note of finality to confirm its work was done.
‘We can’t be there…’ Neil said, a heap of uncertainty laced through his voice.
‘We’re in the middle of nowhere!’ I squeaked, clutching my chest. I swear I was about to have a heart attack. In my head banjos duelled and I could feel terror closing in from the unseen outside the car. ‘What do we do?’ Any dog in the vicinity would have gone wild at the pitch of my voice.
We drove on in the black for another couple of miles, both desperately searching for any evidence of life other than ours, the only light the beam of headlights stabbing into the dark. The box on the dash was silent, smugly satisfied that it had done its job, feet up with a cup of tea and Car Monthly. I wanted to beat it to death.
After what felt like a lifetime the road swung right and, through a gap in the hedge, we saw lights. Another mile or so and there was a car park full of cars and a pub sign. I almost wept with relief.
‘I’m buying a map tomorrow,’ I muttered as I headed to the bar.