“This is what they are talking about, when they talk about New Zealand roads,” Michael shouts back to me over the whine of the Canter’s diesel engine. He’s in the driver’s seat, hands clenched on the steering wheel.
I’m sitting behind him, right hand gripped onto the metal bar behind his seat that doubles as the ladder to the girls’ bunk above. My feet are wedged against the settee opposite, to keep myself from sliding off my own seat. I’m being bounced and jolted around violently with the motorhome’s rough motion. It kind of feels like sailing.
We aren’t going fast, maybe 30 km/hour. But to me it feels like we’re about to hurtle off the cliff below any second, especially when I lean over and look out the front window, to see what Michael’s talking about. We’re traveling down a one-lane gravel road. To the left of us is the southern ocean, a narrow band of beach and rocks, a cliff, and a good part of the road missing, gone to join the sea below. Someone has put some rickety wooden guardrails around these AWOL bits of road, which was thoughtful.
At the start of the East Cape road, 20 km of rough travel out to the most eastern lighthouse in the world (at 178 degrees east), there is a sign which reads: “Extreme Caution/Reduce Speed”. They were not kidding when they had that one made up.
When the road widens again a short time later to a full single lane, we can breathe evenly again. Eventually it turns inland a bit, winding through acre after acre of green pastures chock full of sheep and cows, eating and shitting all over 100% pure New Zealand. Finally we reach The End of the road and park next to an old outhouse. When we look up up up we see the lighthouse, nestled atop a hill of native bush.
There is another motorhome there, an older couple from England we’d spoken to the day before. They’ve just gotten back from their climb up and back. “It doesn’t take long, 20 minutes or so. Only 750 steps up. Have fun!” they say cheerily and jauntily hop in their sleek and modern rented motorhome and start back down the road.
“I don’t WANT to go up there!” Upon hearing that our plans are the same, Leah stands with her feet apart, hands on her hips.
“We’re doing it,” I say. “We came all this way and we’re going up.” Not in the mood to negotiate, I hand the pack to Michael that’s got our passports, laptop, water, and snacks in it and sling the camera around my own neck and start walking.
“Come on Leah, let’s gooooooo!” Holly calls out, running up ahead.
Leah sighs and starts stomping. We find the trail head and begin making our way up the hill. It’s not long before the girls, followed by Michael, are out of sight up ahead of me.
Step after wooden step winds up through the nikau palms and silver tree ferns. “150” is carved into one; here I start to wonder if this was such a good idea myself. By “450” I’m cursing whoever had the stupid idea we should climb up to this lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. My feet and legs feel like they are plodding along in concrete. My thighs are starting to quiver. I can’t hear the birds anymore due to the blood pounding in my ears. It starts to rain. The damp, spicy smell of the earth is almost overpowering. Up and up and up. I slow down but I don’t stop. I realize how much I am enjoying this.
Step. Step. Step. The rough wooden treads twist and turn up the steep hillside. Suddenly a thought occurs to me: how much this is like life, plodding along even when you don’t want to. When stopping sounds like such a good idea. I think about all the steps I have taken, all the turns and decisions that have led me to this very day, right to this very staircase. A great many of them unpleasant, some exhilarating, a few regretful, but each vital to the path that has led me here.
Finally, I round one last bend in the staircase and the bright green hilltop opens up before me. The tidy white lighthouse towers in the middle of it. My girls come running towards me, smiles and eyes wide, eager to show me around.
I walk over to Michael and take his proffered hand. Together we turn and look around at the sapphire-blue sea below, tossing itself against towering cliffs and beyond, rolling green fields. Our little motorhome is down there, a tiny white dot at the end of the winding road. The girls run around us, around the lighthouse, in circles, in joy. It’s perfect moment, a miracle in fact.