Golden Bay's beaches await... you just have to get over the hill first.
Golden Bay's beaches await... you just have to get over the hill first. Jill Worrall

Recalling fraught trips over the hill

THIS blog comes to you from a kitchen table in a bach about 10 metres from the sands of Golden Bay, in the far north-west of the South Island.

It is one of those rare days reminiscent of summers past rather than summer present. Across the pellucid waters of the bay the Takaka hills are etched clear against a cloudless expanse of blue sky. A lone black-backed gull bobs in the water in front of me... there isn't even a hint of a wave to disturb its contemplation.

Golden Bay summers have woven into my memories since I was about 12, when we made our first trip here from Christchurch.

My family had owned a caravan for several years before then but the towing power of our Morris Oxford had precluded making what was then the rather formidable climb over the Takaka Hill road... the long slow grind up from Motueka and then the series of steep hairpin bends down the other side.

The Morris could tackle the Lewis Pass and the road over to Akaroa, although both these trips were fraught with moments of high tension.

We three kids in the backseat would be told to be quiet while my father performed tricky double declutches. Usually there'd be a queue of cars behind us which added to the drama as car and caravan would for a few minutes pause, gearless, while Dad searched for first gear, a manoeuvre that was usually accompanied by horrible graunching noises.

Cars, as far as my father was concerned, were something to get one from A to B. Replacement would only be considered if the current car rusted into oblivion or the wheels dropped off.

And so it was my mother who went out one day and traded in the Morris for a Holden station wagon. Takaka was now within our sights.

The first indication that Golden Bay seemed determined to repel holidaying Worralls came in the Nelson hills when the car began to emit an ear-piercing wail.

Dad stopped the car and he and Mum gathered around the bonnet where, despite the deafening screech that was now echoing around the wooded hills, we could also hear that tell-tale hissing and bubbling of an overheated radiator.

The following day, with Dad now confident he'd got the radiator sorted, we began the climb up the Takaka Hill. He hated the thought that anyone might be held up by our slow progress so made frequent pauses to let traffic pass.

This was always a cause of some minor marital strife as Mum was constantly worried we'd either get stuck in the gravel on the side of the road or - even worse - that Dad would pull over too far to the left and we'd disappear over the edge altogether.

Eventually we reached the top of the hill. There was a collective sigh of relief until we saw what lay ahead, or more accurately, below us: a series of what were then unsealed hairpin bends down into the Takaka Valley.

We were about halfway down when Dad began to rather frantically pump the brake pedal, which even to those of us oblivious to the intricacies of driving seemed not to be responding very well.

"I've lost the brakes," he said relatively calmly, considering we were being pushed down the hill by 13'6" of caravan.

There was dead silence in the car as we sped much too fast around several bends. Ahead lay one of the most formidable turns, beyond which lay the shimmering void above the valley floor.

With great presence of mind, Dad ran the car and caravan into the deep gravel that lay between the road and the rock wall that ended just metres before the bend in the road.

We slithered to a stop, caravan tow bar and axles scraping through the stones. Apparently this had been my father's first experience driving a car with disc brakes which, the AA man explained when he came to rescue us, need to be applied rather differently to those of the Morris Oxford's.

Undeterred by this experience we returned to Golden Bay the next year and made a faultless ascent and descent of the dreaded hill.

However as we returned to Nelson we again came to an ignominious halt. This time, thankfully, it was in a passing bay half way up the hill.

The AA was once again called out. The clutch had died.

There was nowhere to get this fixed back in Takaka so the AA man said the only solution would be for Dad to drive us over to Motueka in first gear.

This took some time. It also caused possibly one of the worst build-ups of traffic behind one vehicle to be seen on the hill that summer.

Poor Dad was mortified. We, as typical unthinking children, were just plain embarrassed. We slumped down in the back seat, hoping no one could see us and cringing when occasionally there was room to pass and fuming motorists overtook, honking horns and gesticulating out the windows.

Mum occasionally gesticulated back, which at the time horrified me but which now I look back on rather fondly.

How different it was two days ago as we drove up the hill effortlessly and equally undramatically negotiated the twisting turns downhill.

A Wicked campervan was parked where Dad had made his emergency stop all those years before and nothing remains of the Rat Trap pub at the bottom of the hill where we pulled up, not for a fortifying drink - although God knows my parents felt like one- but to check for damage.

But maybe the spectre of the perils of access to Golden Bay do live on after all.

This afternoon I read what must be one of the best visitor promotion slogans I've seen: "It's just a hill... get over it."

We did, many times, eventually.

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