You just never know what you’re going to find on a Kiwi bus. After a night with a drunken Dutchman in Picton and a marrow-chilling one in Christchurch’s ravaged embrace, a nice warm six-hour coach journey to Cromwell offered what I so desperately needed: sleep, preferably of the coma-like variety.
Alas, Stan, our InterCity coach driver had a different agenda. Directly above my head, a loudspeaker crackled into life above my head as the coach pulled away from the curb.
"Mornin' folks and welcome to the InterCity service from Christchurch to Invercargill. My name's Stan and we're going to be havin' a fantastic trip today,” he announced with a breezy warmth.
"Well, that's very nice and friendly," I thought. While Stan went through his briefing with all the polished aplomb of a particularly chummy flight steward, I pillowed my head on a down jacket and settled myself into a comfortable position, gummy eyelids drooping.
"Now as we head out of the city centre, you might like to look out of the left-hand side to view the fantastic job the city leaders have done to clear up the mess from the earthquake," his voice crackled. Up and down the bus, heads turned leftwards in unison. Mine slumped downward but soon jerked upright as the loudspeaker crackled again.
"Yes, folks, Christchurch is still a fantastic city with fantastic people coming from all over the world to enjoy it," Stan continued, voicing the kind of optimism that blindly overcomes all difficulties despite well-founded evidence to the contrary. The bus picked up speed. Again, my head drooped. A tuneless whistling penetrated my deepening coma.
"Must be a draughty window," I thought groggily. No, it was Stan, whistling thoughtfully into the microphone while he scanned the landscape for sights that would set his passengers' hearts pumping with excitement.
He cleared his throat and spoke again. "Here we go, folks," he said happily. "In about five minutes you'll see a fantastic giant trout!" He chuckled happily at the thought. "The bloke who built it just loves his fishin' and wanted to show the world how much he loves our fantastic Kiwi trout!"
While the other passengers waited with bated breath for the upcoming piscatorial display, I ground my teeth with helpless rage. Sure enough, we soon encountered a four-metre colossus rising from the infatuated fisherman’s suburban lawn.
“Fantastic! Made out of concrete and chicken wire! Just look at those fantastic life-like details!" Stan crowed. He slowed the bus so we could enjoy the thrill to its maximum. Judging by the number of cameras pressed to the windows, the other passengers loved it.
“Only in NZ could a scheduled coach service be held hostage by a wannabe tour guide fanatic,” I groaned. Surely, nowhere else in the world (apart from Ireland my Irish wife informs me) do people offer so much when it is so unasked for.
While Stan pointed out a pig farm (“Fantastic creatures, pigs: so clean!”), a church (“fantastic steeple, folks!), a river (“think of our fantastic pioneers crossing that!”), a dark clump of rampant wilding pine (“our DOC boys are doing a fantastic job keeping it in check!”) and many other sights, I moved unwillingly through each stage of grief for my lost sleep.
Anger fox-trotted with disbelief, waltzed with denial and finally, blessedly, slow-danced with acceptance. I began to smile and then to laugh. I pulled out my notebook. I just couldn’t wait for the next highlight to rise from the otherwise dun rolling landscape.
Nonetheless, fatigue ground away remorselessly. I desperately needed to sleep before I headed into the high mountains. Soon after midday, we stopped for lunch at a lakeside shopping and tourist centre. Stan informed us that we would be heading back the way he had come while a replacement driver, Brett, would take us onward.
"He's just a fantastic guy," Stan said, shaking his head and uttering a low whistle of admiration. “And folks, you've just been a fantastic set of passengers.” He really meant it, too. A few passengers even clapped.
The second driver and Stan greeted each other like long-lost brothers in a quiet, undemonstrative Kiwi kind of way. Clearly, they were best mates.
Suddenly, a cunning plan popped into my head. Before lunch and a touch of shopping therapy, I had a quiet word with Brett. "I really enjoyed Stan's commentary," I told him. "Very informative. But the volume on the speaker system is a little loud. D'you think you could turn it down, please?"
"Sorry, sir, Stan told me it's stuck," he said.
Did his voice hold a note of self-satisfied relish? I thought it did. I needed another cunning plan.
As we pulled out of the car park on the next three-hour leg south, the loudspeaker emitted a familiar crackle. "Afternoon, folks, my name's Brett and we're going to have a simply awesome trip together."
“Actually, it’s going to awesomely fantastically incredibly wonderful," I thought with satisfaction as I carefully fitted a pair of recently-purchased ear plugs and leaned back against my down jacket.
Aahhh! That’s better. You just never know what you're going to find in a Kiwi shop when you're on the trail.