It's a flight of discovery that doesn't get off the ground, and sights seen before but from a different perspective. Lindsay Wright catches the bus.
Travelling by bus is something we do overseas. Thousands of us flock to public transport around Europe and queue at bus depots throughout the Americas and Asia but, back in Aotearoa, we revert to the monomaniacal lure of the private car.
Travelling by bus to Palmerston North from New Plymouth would, I hoped, restore some sense of adventure to travelling in my own country. I would be overlooking new territory, over the fences and hedges, from an elevated vantage point and have time to read, relax and reflect, while someone else grasped the steering wheel and made the myriad decisions that driving entails.
Decades of air travel instinctively made me think of the safety briefing performed by cabin staff before take off, while I settled into the comfortable cloth bus seat. By the time the driver had clambered behind the wheel, I had already worked out my brace position and the nearest safety exit but no amount of groping could locate the lifejacket under the seat.
In any event, the safety briefing turned out to be a brief admonition from the driver to buckle up our seat belts or risk a hefty fine from one of the many traffic cops lurking along the road.
Another lesson, drummed into me from suffering seasickness symptoms on the pockmarked road surfaces of some developing countries, is to choose a seat over the axle, where the motion is least.
It was early morning at the New Plymouth bus depot and a large Samoan family had gathered to wave goodbye to their grandma. She gave each of them a warm hug, her bright-blue Mother Hubbard blending into their equally colourful floral clothing like so many mobile frangipani trees, then wheezed up the steps and settled gratefully into a seat.
The engine rattled into life somewhere near the back of the bus and settled into a dull murmur as we pulled away from the waving Samoans like a ship leaving the Apia dockside. I almost expected to see paper streamers and hear the stentorian blast of a ship's horn. By the time the bus flashed by the 50km/h signs on the outskirts of New Plymouth, their granny was sound asleep, snuggled into a corner of her seat, smiling.
The other passengers were mostly university students heading back for another term of study, who hunkered down with earphone wires trailing from their heads and nodded comically to their own private soundtracks, or pecked at tablets and iPhones like chickens eating corn.
I did the same and between New Plymouth and Stratford was absorbed by Radio New Zealand and Kim Hill cackling along with a garlic grower. Did you know that they inject straight garlic juice into heart attack victims in Chinese hospitals because it is the most effective treatment for thinning blood and breaking down clots?
Another speaker revealed some of the unsavoury ordure used as fertiliser by garlic growers in China. You eat your garlic and take your chances, I suppose.
At Stratford, a spry older woman hopped off the bus and was embraced by a robust, florid-faced nuclear family milling uneasily at the bus stop. She took a young man from their midst, supervised stowage of his backpack and followed him on to the bus. There was a wheeze of air brakes, a flock of hands fluttering farewell, and Intercity bus IC 6819 took to the highway. I squirmed back into the seat and opened the Sunday paper. By the time we wove through the back streets of Hāwera, I was down to the last few unsolved boxes in the crossword puzzle and getting keen to socialise.
In the next seat, Tracee ( "that's Tracee with two ee's ) had left her infant son with flatmates and was off to a birthday party in Palmerston North. "I used to live there, eh. It'll be good to see all my old mates again. I used to miss it but New Plymouth's choice. I really like living by the sea." She returned to applying a bright purple layer of lacquer to her extended fingers.
We detoured through the back streets of Patea to the bus stop, past people and sights that are generally hidden from low-slung main-road motorists. Two children jumped up from their sandpit as we passed, waving plastic shovels and shedding showers of grit for the strangers peering down into their back yard. Uniformed netballers pirouetted after the ball, cheered on by muffled bystanders hunched into overcoats on the fringes of the court. Somehow, it all seemed exotic, like another country, like a show staged solely for our benefit. Lumbering through their lives by bus lent them an air of intrigue.
Riding high in the bus, we peeked over back fences. One man caught peering under the open bonnet of a garaged car, grinned shyly and waved a greasy hand. Others, surrounded by squat bags of seedlings, dug energetically at the earth. An obviously hungover youth emerged from a rundown house scratching his naked white belly and lighting a cigarette while scowling scornfully at the bus bowling by. Optimists pegged their washing out under the grey sky.
We passed another field where two teams wrestled in the mud, while a ball bounced over the sideline. A St John ambulance, door ajar, was parked near the sideline and old boys critiqued the game from behind jugs of beer on the clubhouse veranda.
A sign advertised "Paepae in the Park" for February 6, but there's always next year, I suppose.
Travelling by bus is almost like travelling by aeroplane, without the probability of a violent death if anything goes amiss. Powerless aeroplanes plummet out of the sky with terminal results for their passengers. But when a bus engine fails, the coach coasts harmlessly to the road verge to await a mechanic.
And you can use your cellphone on a bus without fear of addling any navigational devices. The only navigational device here is holding the steering wheel and doesn't care who you're calling.
A crowd clustered around the bus as we coasted to a stop at Whanganui and the driver stepped down with a clipboard to sort the farewellers from the farewellees.
The chosen newcomers stowed their bags in the belly of the bus and clambered on board clutching their tickets. Two girls bid a slurpy goodbye to their beefy blokes, who stood beside the bus looking uncomfortable, as if it was all a waste of good rugby watching time, while the girls settled into seats and chattered loudly about their wedding plans.
By the time we coasted into Bulls, they had got through the bridesmaids' gowns and were planning to move back to live with mum and dad while they saved enough money to buy their own farms. The prospective grooms were probably clutching beers and cheering try scorers in a Whanganui pub. "Welcome to Bulls," the driver grinned as he swung the bus into a depot, "the only place in the world where you can get milk from Bulls."
The bus trundled leisurely on through the rolling pasture of Manawatu and I put my book down to focus on the Radio New Zealand midday news.
Traffic was light as our driver swung his bus through the city streets and brought it to a halt in front of the terminal. "Palmerston North," he yelled as if he had just discovered the place.
There wasn't the anxious throng of passengers pushing to disembark as happens on aeroplanes, but an orderly file of my busmates strolling towards the door. The brides-to-be brushed past, chatting cheerily, as though they were already in mid-honeymoon, and the Samoan granny floated towards the door.
I gathered my newspaper and book and from my seat and shuffled forward; relocated, relaxed and ready for the evening.