by Patrick O'Brien
In the daily hunt for food, shelter and our next ride, we hitchhikers risk
becoming self centred — which is understandable given the power of
our survival instincts. However, and as this experience shows, it’s not
always about us . . .
Mr “P” stopped and gave me a ride just outside Taumarunui. Nice car. European. Built for speed.
He drove very fast. Too fast, perhaps, but seemed to know what he was doing and I soon relaxed into a fun ride.
Eventually, the afternoon ran down and her shadows lengthened. It’s not my practise to travel after dark, usually stopping before sun set and pitching the tent, so I studied my map and searched the unfolding landscape looking for a likely place to camp.
Suddenly my inner voice spoke.
Experienced travellers nurture their inner voices, learning to trust them without question. So, when mine said “stay with this ride,” I didn’t hesitate and we raced on into the night without event but at high speed for several hours.
Then, the first indication of trouble.
It came as my driver used an unorthodox point of entry when approaching a long, gradual right-hand-sweeper. A concrete bridge with squat, solid abutments sat on the apex.
A few car lengths away from colliding with the bridge, I remember thinking what a strange line we were taking and looked across at Mr. “P”.
He was asleep.
It can be difficult to accurately judge time/distance at night, especially with high speed factored in, yet, when I turned back to look at the road, death was just an instant away.
My hand took the steering wheel and the car responded. Immediately. Thank God for German engineering.
We swerved slightly, almost imperceptibly, just enough to miss the abutment head-on, bounced off the inner guard rail, shaved some speed then charged at the opposite rail across the road — at which point Mr. “P” woke up.
Correcting my over steer, he steadied our vehicle along the centre line then braked us to a halt.
We sat there, quietly, my voice the first to break our silence.
“Would you like me to drive?”
“Yes!” he said, “and please come home to meet the family.”
Home was a mansion in West Auckland surrounded by high fences with large steel gates and my introduction to the family was brief:
“This is Succat. He’s a hitchhiker. He saved my life.”
Then I was introduced to the fit young men. I recognized their type. Minders.
And then I found out what they were minding.
Crystal meth. Speed. Bags of it, pure metamphetamine — also known as “P”— elongated crystals the size of a computer mouse, millions of dollars worth.
This was serious shit.
All my instincts said to leave but my inner voice spoke again telling me to stay, and so stay I did.
Mr. “P” made me most welcome, an honoured guest with free run of his home and property, a witness to the comings and goings of the fit young men. No door was locked, no conversation blocked, even commissioning me to shoot a documentary photo essay of a ‘Day In His Life’ such was the trust.
After browsing through a small portfolio of my work, his daughter spoke to me.
“Succat, will you look at my photographs?”
Annie was a pretty young girl with large brown eyes, not yet a teenager. We shared a couch and balanced her laptop computer on our knees while she scrolled through her collection.
The images were stunning.
“How much training have you had?” I asked.
“How long have you been taking photographs?” I asked.
About a week.
I was speechless; a natural talent.
All next day, and the following one, I spent with Annie and her little point-n-shoot. We talked about photography and the world outside, of places far away and the adventures to be had with a camera.
On the fourth night I hitched up my pack and slipped quietly away. A fit young man at the gate smiled and waved me through without question.
It took me some time to recover from that whole experience.
Previously I’d prided myself, thinking my travels were about helping people and that, somehow, the people I helped were in some way deserving. It haunted me to know I’d saved a merchant of destruction, our Mr. “P”.
And then my inner voice spoke again:
“It’s not about you, it was Annie.”
The Universe had required a messenger reach this little girl inside her home, a photographer who could identify her germinating gift, offer encouragement and provide some hope of life beyond the compound.
Given the barricades, those fit young men and a father’s criminal paranoia — this was a big ask!
One couldn’t simply knock on the gates and ask to come in.
The task required someone who had a gained a unique position of trust, someone who had done something extraordinary, someone like . . . someone who had saved her daddy’s life.
People’s names, some minor descriptive details and the location of
Succat’s pick-up point have been changed in the telling of this story.
Copyright 2008 © New Zealand Herald