14 September 2015: I’ve been in London for five years, and although I’m often full of sprits, 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.
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.
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.
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.