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February 25, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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First Class from Hawera to Himatangi

You’re standing in the small town of Marton, where the borders of the mighty Whanganui and Rangitīkei meet. The temperature on your phone says 20 degrees, but you’re damn sure it’s 35, given the heat and the lack of shade where you are—next to a stagnant pond. The sound is distant at first, but grows as strong as the regional heat. Suddenly, it rounds the corner and in front of you is the big, bold, beautiful, green-and-white of the InterCity bus.

It grinds to a halt and emits a cloud of CO2. If vehicles could fart, this is what it would smell like. The driver hurls your bag into the luggage compartment and you make your way onto the bus. Welcome aboard.

I’ve been catching the InterCity since I was 18, in my first year of university. I climbed aboard and listened as the driver told us over the distorted intercom that there was to be no smoking of synthetic cannabis on the bus, please and thank you, due to a particularly nasty incident that occurred last week in which the police had to be involved. I sat back, ignored the seat belt and the driver’s plea to use it (who wears seatbelts on a bus?), and wondered what I’d got myself into.

What it turned out to be was a tour de force of provincial New Zealand, in all its farcical glory. No journey you ever embark on will be quite as magical as a ride on the InterCity bus. We stopped at Palmerston North (“P Naughty”). The driver told one group of people that they had to be back in five minutes, and another that they had to be back in 50 minutes. We pulled out of the square fifteen minutes later, with a quarter of the passengers madly running behind in the rearview. On another occasion, when the driver told us there was to be no smoking on the bus, two travellers pulled out their vapes, promptly clouding up the back of the bus. On numerous occasions, patrons of the InterCity have had their alcohol confiscated. You see, the InterCity bus pairs well with tradition; specifically: Cody’s, a cigarette every toilet break, and an angry phone call to an ex-partner.

You will meet all of the characters in the provincial New Zealand pantomime on the InterCity bus. This includes: TJ with his rats tail, league shorts, and Nike slides, who’ll give you the “sup bro” so suddenly and with such force, you wonder how his New Era snapback didn’t fall off.

You’ll meet the European backpacker, who meticulously arranges his groceries on his lap for reasons unknown, then has to crawl seat-to-seat to recover them when the bus brakes suddenly because it got cut off by a nana in a Mazda Demio. The groceries include an entire jar of olives, loose bread rolls, and a singular tomato.

You’ll meet a similar nana, taking the bus to Palmerston North to see a purebred dog show, who can’t understand why stroppy teenagers won’t take their feet off the seat to let her sit beside them. You’ll meet a gang member with a tattooed face who buys a Playstation game at his stop from a ginga pre-teen half his size.

You will see all of the landmarks of provincial New Zealand on the InterCity bus. Not Lake Taupō, nor Mount Taranaki or Tongariro, nor the great rivers of the Rangitīkei, Waikato, or Clutha. No, you will see Realistic Computers, an IT shop on the corner of State Highway 1 and Himatangi Beach Road, roughly halfway between Sanson and Foxton. You won’t know where those towns are. Try roughly halfway between Whanganui and Levin. You probably don’t know where they are either. Never mind. Consider it the middle of nowhere, and certainly not prime real estate for IT services.

But that is the magic of the InterCity bus. It is the closest thing there is to first class travel for the residents of towns you’ve never heard of.

 

People used to fly, or drive cars, and if you couldn’t afford a car, you took the bus (so be careful of the people on the bus). But now that air travel to and from the provinces costs a small mortgage, those who might once have flown or can’t afford to drive climb aboard the big beautiful green machine and see—whether they like it or not—how the other half travels: with fleeting glimpses of towns that time (and the dairy industry) forgot, not to mention with infuriating detours down countless side roads, making a five-hour road trip last seven. We who take the bus do so for different reasons than the European backpackers, though we accept them even when their groceries escape. Like the flute of Tūtānekai on Mokoia Island, borne across Lake Rotorua to Hinemoa, the call of home is impossible to ignore, and the InterCity bus is our bundle of gourds. Even when it barely breaks 90 km/h, and the person next to you has taken the armrest.

You will see a youth tag the wall of the youth centre in Levin at 11:20 a.m. You will see red nose pitbulls out for an evening stroll in the streets of Shannon, and a singular Mongrel Mobster in Mangakino pushing his daughter in a buggy. You’ll drive past the ominous ruins of the Catholic school in Ōtaki and the remnants of the Kimberly borstal at Koputaroa, where some property developer saw fit to build a gated community right next to the accursed buildings, tapu and history be damned.

You will see numerous small urupā, at once beautiful and rundown, set back from the road atop hills, amidst thickets of trees or sectioned off by ancient steel fences, rusted from years of New Zealand weather.

You will see a ten-year-old mowing the lawns give the bus a cheery Black Power salute. It’s nothing to be ashamed of—just something in the water out here. You might stop at Te Kuiti, but you should be careful about disembarking from the bus. A school trip of Year 12 schoolboys were once terrorised by local thirteen-year-olds. Te Kuiti Police Station has the last open-air holding cell in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s true—look it up. This is the town where they had wild horse races down the main street on Friday nights. They breed them tough in Te Kuiti.

Five years looking out the window on the InterCity bus has given me a tour of other people’s lives. We stop in Hāwera where a grandad in a Mangu Kaha t-shirt picks up his mokos, bounding down the steps of the bus to give him a hug. A young mother travels with two children in tow, headed for her mother’s house. You see, everyone on the InterCity bus is heading home. Together. Very slowly. With little legroom and no air conditioning. But we’re going home, nonetheless.

I booked a bus ticket back to New Plymouth last weekend, but on a whim caught a ride with a friend. The bus was scheduled to leave Wellington at 3:15 p.m. We passed it at 5 p.m. at Paekākāriki, a distance of roughly 40 minutes by car. I’m unsure what took the bus nearly two hours to travel 40 kilometres—not that it matters.

Because nothing can stop the bus. On its winding counterintuitive route, it is the alpha vehicle on every state highway it touches, from one through three, to 45 through 57. It is the tour guide for provincial New Zealand, wild and lustily beautiful, at once run down and depleted but bursting with new growth in the rolling paddocks and maize fields. Like a lucid dream of a forgotten memory.

 

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