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THAT SUMMER / Thumbing a lift into a fabulous landscape

Hitch-hiking around the Pacific Rim in 1986, Hamish Mykura entered the world of a Booker-prize novel

Hamish Mykura
Friday 23 August 1996 23:02 BST

Hitch-hiking in New Zealand is an easy sport, and hitch hiking in a kilt there is really no sport at all. Like going fishing with dynamite in an aquarium, it's simply too easy.

I spent the summer of 1986 hitch-hiking around the Pacific Rim, on the thin pretext of researching a graduate thesis on soil erosion. In South East Asia, my kilt was itchy and sweaty and regarded by drivers as some unfashionable variety of mini-sarong, and no one paid much attention to it at all. In California the man in the skirt by the roadside was assumed to be just another run-of-the-mill sex pervert. I'd reached the point where I was just about ready to sell the thing, and then I reached New Zealand.

Then I found what I'd been searching for - understanding, recognition, and really long lifts. I sped around the North Island in record time, and began the long southward haul down the eerie, alpine coast of the South Island.

At the end of the previous year, Keri Hulme's magic-realist Maori fable The Bone People had enraged the literary establishment by stealing the Booker Prize, and as the roads got narrower and the cars less frequent I had time to stand on the verge, book in one hand and thumb at the ready on the other, and read her strange evocations of the landscape around me.

Then I got stranded in the middle of nowhere: a long long wait on flat, bleak farmland at the top of a windy hill down to the sea. The light was slowly being sucked out of the bedraggled scrubby sky, and there was a sudden spatter of big warm raindrops. I kept thinking of the peculiar bits in the book when Maori ancestors, powerful and malign, emerge alarmingly into reality.

A car rounded the corner, headlamps spotlighting the raindrops, and me. It passed, braked sharply, and came whining back. The door opened. "Not many kilts on the Franz Josef road" said a woman's voice.

I got in, book on my lap, and we raced off. She had a big face, strong smile, something about the cheeks were slightly Maori.

She nodded at the book "The Bone People?"

"Yes," I said. "Have you read it?"

"Actually," she said, "I wrote it".

We looked at each other. The Bone People was fiction, but the person at the wheel was the sullen, brilliant heroine of the story.

We bounced along in the Hillman Avenger down a gravel road towards Okarito, population 21. Her town, tiny and inaccessible. "It's off the beaten track: so not so many Germans." That sounded good.

Between the wet gusts the moon would break through and show up a bare, slick landscape, punch-drunk from recent glaciation. I chattered about glaciers, pointing out moraines, U-shaped valleys, roches moutonees. She seemed intrigued. "How do you know about all this?"

Sheepish: "I'm a geomorphologist." Usually a conversation stopper. Clears parties in moments.

Wildly enthusiastic: "Bloody Hell! I always wanted to be a geomorphologist!" There was, I suppose, a kind of bonding.

She asked me to come round that evening and I brought my plastic bottle of Johnny Walker, dead weight saved for a special occasion.

Her house was strange: hand-built and round, like a stubby lighthouse. I knew as I got near it that I was walking into the pages of the book. The beautiful octagonal tower room that is the centre of so much of the story's action was already completely familiar, and there it was, exactly as imagined, real to the last detail.

We drank and talked about glaciers and Maoris and the shape of New Zealand and the pages of the evening turned. The whisky was drunk and the conversation turned to racoons. Bloody pests in these parts, said Keri Hulme. Then we lifted down rifles from the medieval hooks on one wall of the room and stepped out into the night to shoot racoons.

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