The Eastern Most Point
It was still dark outside when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The constant bellowing of the cattle that had invaded my dreams became clearer as everything came into focus with my slowly opening eyes.
I rolled over in my sleeping bag, a thin film of dew gathered across it, and looked over at Titus. His eyes were shining white, more awake than I felt, as he silently pointed to the glowing clock on his mobile phone. Sunrise was only 10 minutes away. We didn’t even know where we were.
We quickly slipped on some warm clothes-- no time for modesty in our makeshift bedroom-- and jumped out of his shoddy diesel van. The air outside snapped at us like a wind-blown flag. Summer wasn’t as evident as we had hoped.
We looked around us and realized why our sleep was filled with visions of beef. The night before, we had inadvertently parked in the middle of a vast cow pasture. Hundreds of cattle were spread out in all directions, bound by the green hills to the south and the lighthouse to the north. We looked east, to where the hills parted and the sky was a paler shade of dawn. It was growing lighter by the second and our chances of catching the sunrise were dwindling.
We took off towards the light, carefully creeping under barbed-wire fences and cautiously scampering past meandering cattle. The ground beneath my feet was soggy and dodging the cow pies took some skill that I obviously lacked in the early hours.
Another fence loomed before us. As I scaled it, and then consequently fell to the ground in a heap, I had visions of Jodie Foster mastering the obstacle course in Silence of the Lambs. Titus helped me up and we were up and climbing the terraced hillside that had traded in cows for scatterings of wary horses. Just as the sky grew frighteningly light, we reached the crest and nearly collapsed, out of breath. A lone filly bolted at the sight of us.
Below us lay an empty beach, laid out like a sheet of velvet. Aside from the occasional hoof print, it was undisturbed, like it had been waiting for us. The South Pacific was spread out at the horizon’s feet, a royal blue tinged with saffron edges. We still had time.
Titus coasted down the hill while I slid most of the way, grinding the wet grass into the seat of my jeans, until I felt sand sink beneath my feet. We ran over to the water’s edge just as the sun peaked it glowing crown over the wavering line. He looked over at me and smiled. We were standing on the easternmost point in the easternmost country, New Zealand. We could have been the first people on earth to see that sun rise. Only thousands of miles of rolling water lay between us, the west coast of Chile, and yesterday.
As foreigners studying in New Zealand, Titus (a German) and I (a Canadian) made a point of trying to discover the enigmatic country that we had temporarily called home. This journey started one warm November day. I woke up to the air heavy with water and light and knew that summer was just around the corner.
Titus loaded up his van (which he had paid for by dropping out of school) with surfboards, sleeping bags and a Jack Johnson CD. With a weekend jaunt in mind, we decided to explore the East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island, an eight-hour drive from where we were in the smoggy metropolis of Auckland. I wanted to experience the first sunrise on Earth. Titus wanted to surf in the rolling swells of the Pacific. We both needed to get lost and perhaps find a New Zealand that had passed us by while our heads were buried in textbooks.
It wasn’t until we had been driving for nearly two hours that the vast reaches of Auckland were behind us. The scenery changed from suburban sprawl to meadows of shiny grass, skittish sheep and farmers in Wellies. The further east we went, the landscape morphed into tiny villages hidden in the folds of rolling hillsides to kiwi orchards and whitewashed estates by muddy estuaries. By the time we reached the famed summer and surfing spot of Mount Maunganui, we were flanked by surf and the long, slow curve of the Bay of Plenty.
The air out here was heavier as loaded clouds swarmed in off of the coast. Titus glanced back and forth between his surfboard and the weak, grey waves that lapped at the shore. He would have to wait.
Back in the van, we jetted off down a road that seemed to grow more enclosed by ferns and brush, the more east we went. The clouds grew darker and then opened up for brief periods, dousing us with rain that leaked through the top of the van and into the mattresses in the back.
We had no idea where we were going. I had the map out but the lines were fading fast before my eyes. Titus wanted to try and make it as far east as possible and camp in the van by the side of the road somewhere. Apparently, there was a lighthouse at the East Cape where we could hunker down. This was all speculation. I just wanted to find a hotel or charming B&B somewhere and call it a night.
We were still undecided as we pulled over to watch the sun slip behind the stoic silhouette of a lone white church that perched on the side of a cliff. We had been driving all day and were beyond tired. Maybe even a little sick of each other. But something pressed us on. Something I would liken to the call of adventure. The call of the unknown. I told him I would go as far as he would take me. With a grin he led me back to the van and to the fate of the night.
There were no other cars for the next few hours. Just darkness, the occasional dead possum on the side of the road and the shining eyes of roaming cows. At one point, we had to come to a standstill as a herd of them swarmed around us like mild-mannered bees before vanishing into the dark from whence they came. I glanced at Titus, trying to hide the slight case of apprehension on my face. This is what we had come for. This was the New Zealand we didn’t find by hanging out at the student pub.
After an hour of cow-dodging, our van (which Titus had started to call Betsy), pulled into the only recognizable town on the east cape, Te Araroa. Only it wasn’t a town per say, just a few houses resting by a dark and lonely beach. There were only a few streetlights and a gas station with no gas. Titus stayed in the car as I bravely ventured into a rundown restroom by the beach.
I came out quicker than I should have thanks to an inquisitive weta, only to find Titus nowhere in sight. The van glowed underneath the flickering streetlight but it was alone. I looked up and down the street searching for him, staying alert to any kind of life that might creep up behind me. There was nothing.
I slowly ventured towards the van, feeling like eyes were watching me from the dim houses. Was this to be my end? A young foreign couple travel into the wilds of New Zealand, never to be seen again? I remembered all the cases of missing hitchhikers and backpackers I had seen on the news.
I was only a few short breaths away from panicking when Titus suddenly appeared across the street, climbing out of someone’s yard. He walked over to me, looking behind him with every step. He told me to get in the car.
I didn’t ask questions. We drove off just as two Maori men climbed over the same chain-link fence as Titus just had. Dust gathered around the van and he piloted it towards the coast, away from the smoothness of the bitumen road and onto loose silt and gravel.
Turns out that he had gone to the gas station to enquire about filling up the van with diesel, but the store was empty. Then from out of the shadows, two seemingly friendly Maori men appeared and told him that he could go enquire about the gas at the owner’s house, which was across the street. They encouraged him to go around the back way and then proceeded to follow him as he climbed into the yard.
His face was red as he retold the incident with child-like excitement. After a few tentative raps on the door followed by eerie silence, he started to wonder if the two strange men behind him were there to help him at all.
As odd as the incident was, I didn’t want to jump into the stereotype that all Maoris were out to get you. As the indigenous people of New Zealand, they had gotten a bad rap as it was, constantly being the targets of the media’s speculations when it came to anything remotely criminal. All the Maoris I had met, all the Maoris I was friends with, were nothing like the unflattering typecasts they had received. I tried to stay neutral and told Titus that they were probably just trying to help him.
He nodded in response. Then his nods started getting slower. His eyes flitted to the rearview mirror. I looked behind us.
White dust clouds had blown up in the distance behind us, fading into the dark like ghosts, lit from below from two glaring headlights. A red truck that was cloaked beneath this cloud was coming closer and closer into view. Whoever they were, they were coming fast and with purpose.
Titus gunned the van and we shot forward, almost tipping over sideways as we hit a deep patch of gravel. Our deserted road took on the feel of a driving school obstacle course, as cows and sheep roamed freely on one side of us, while angry, inky waves crashed near us on the other. While he struggled to plow the van through the loose ground and the meandering livestock, I never took my eyes off of the approaching truck. As they got closer we saw whom they were: the two men from earlier. My attempt at staying neutral flew out the window and into the dust.
Titus swore under his breath as he tried to keep the van running and not careening off of the cliff. A million horrific images flashed through my head. This wasn’t how I was supposed to die. I always imagined I would go down in a blazing airplane. Not run off a lonely road by over-eager locals on the easternmost point of the easternmost country in the world.
Suddenly the truck swerved to our right and appeared beside us. Titus gripped the steering wheel, his eyes locked on the darkness ahead. I peered over him, across the gravel and at the makers of our doom.
Two barking Doberman snapped at us from the truck’s canopy. In the dim of the passenger seat, one of the men turned to face us. He grinned, his teeth glinting. He held up his hand. He extended his thumb towards the ceiling. He was giving us the thumbs up. The driver then leaned over, smiled at us and waved.
Then they were gone as abruptly as they had appeared and we were left in their murky trail. Titus took his foot off of the gas and we came to a crawl. We exchanged a look, the corners of our mouths tinged with embarrassment. Nothing but friendly locals. Nothing but our foreign, stereotypical imaginations.
After the incident, we spoke but a few words. It was 11 p.m. and the excitement was over. We were chagrined and we were tired. Only the desolation of the winding road and the promise of the first sunrise beckoned us on, though we still didn’t know where we would end up. Just somewhere east and somewhere new.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the road ended in a furtive valley. In the shadows we couldn’t make out anything around us except the lighthouse on the hill, a fence and the continuous moan of unseen cattle. This was as far as the day would take us. If we were lucky, we would wake up in a few hours in time to greet a new one, the first one.
That night we climbed into our sleeping bags, the mattresses still damp from the earlier rain, and shuttered the van’s flimsy windows from the night. A chill settled around us and stroked my hair. It felt like New Zealand was saying goodnight.