Automatic for the Kiwi

They looked a bit dodgy. While waiting for our mini bus to leave from Nelson to Franz Joseph, two shifty looking Kiwi guys shuffled over. You could see neck tattoos through the folds of their hoodies. We moved closer to our bags.

When we piled on to the mini bus, a shaven headed manager gargled some brief instructions to the driver (he sounded like he had been stabbed in the neck). It was the driver's first day. The two hoodies were scaffolders due for a job in Westport but didn't have enough money on them for the fare. The boss croaked that they could get on now and pay later, if they handed over a driving licence.

As we sped through the spectacular scenery, the driver seemed to be having some difficulty with the automatic gear box. One of the scaffolders crawled over the troublesome gears casing to the front seat, seemingly to offer helpful advice. He boasted of how he'd driven these automatics many times before but didn't seem to have much more of an idea than the driver.

When we stopped for a short break, we weren't told for how long. Forty minutes later we were still waiting for one couple to return. On eventually arriving at Westport, we realised that a passenger had been left behind. Another frustrated traveller had missed his connecting bus and would have to wait two days for the next one. The hoodied scaffolders ran off without paying - the driving licence, left as security, had mysteriously disappeared from its place on the dashboard at the front of the bus.

In Greymouth we picked up an overweight, grey haired Aussie backpacker with a walking stick. Anybody who would listen - and quite a few who wouldn't - would be treated to a lengthy history of her knee troubles and informed that she had only paid a dollar for all her fares around New Zealand (having stayed up to midnight every night for three months so that she could nab the bargain internet promotions). She had plenty of advice on automatics for the harried Kiwi driver - by now the bus was limping along as badly as her.

We staggered into the car park of The Puke Pub at Pukekura (population: 2). While the driver attempted to get some help, we ordered Possum Pie and Roadkill Burgers ("you kill 'em, we grill 'em"). A deer, fenced off from the car park, had one broken antler flopping about. The near stump was red and raw looking. Limping Aussie woman pitied the poor stag while munching away at her Deer Burger.

The trashed gearbox finally gave out a few miles later and we were left stranded at the side of the road for two hours. Eventually we were rescued by one of the driver's new colleagues and dropped off in Franz Joseph. The driver thanked our rescuer and said he'd see him tomorrow. I couldn't help noticing a pause before he agreed.


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