I was recently driving around the backroads of Rotorua, on a reunion tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of the marathon 1973 Heatway Rally.
But while the old-timers were reminiscing of their glory days from five decades ago, a roadsign triggered a more recent memory that I’d long since buried.
‘Whirinaki Valley Road’ it said.
The last time I’d been in the vicinity I was navigating for a Japanese driver on New Zealand’s round of the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. I’d never met the bloke before but after a few days reconnaissance together we seemed to have developed an easy rapport.
Easy enough for him to make a frank admission.
“Before each stage,” he explained, “I need toilet.”
No worries, I soothed, and explained that most Kiwi competitors need a nervous pee on the side of the road. I have personally watered shrubbery all around the world, usually at a brisk pace if there’s snakes, lions or leeches in the vicinity.
“You no understand,” he corrected. “Number twos!” and made some exaggerated straining noises to emphasise the point.
I assured him it would not be a problem, and mentally added an extra five-minute allowance to our touring schedule for each stage.
The next day he was as good as his word. We arrived early to the first special stage and he promptly vaulted over the fence and behind a small hillock.
Better warn him about electric fences, I thought to myself.
I was starting to look a little anxiously at my watch when he reappeared and we booked into the start control on time.
“All good?” I enquired.
“All good, Rob-san,” he agreed.
However, after carefully fitting his neck brace and helmet it became apparent that everything was far from ‘all good’.
He started frantically patting his pockets and craning his neck to look behind him. “No gloves!” he exclaimed.
I assumed he was either sitting on them or they’d slipped under his seat. Better calm the poor lad down before he gets too distraught. “Whirinaki Valley is only a short stage so you can get by without your gloves.”
I thought this had placated him but he grew increasingly agitated. “Gloves in back,” he hollered and started undoing his safety harness.
I pointed at the start clock and spelt it out as clearly as I could. “We leave the startline in 60 seconds. If we do not, we will be penalised. I will look in the back of the car for your gloves before the next stage.”
He nodded his understanding then chose to completely ignore me. He scrambled out of the Subaru, with my pleas raining on deaf Oriental ears.
“Don’t go back to go to that hillock – you’ll never make it in time! The cows have probably eaten your gloves already! They’ll revoke my Handy-Dandy Junior Navigator’s badge for this.”
Instead, he grabbed his gloves off the bootlid of the Impreza – exactly where he’d left them prior to his enforced toilet stop. He jumped back into the car and tightened his belts, as the incredulous start crew counted us down to our departure.
He still had a couple of seconds to go as he flexed his now safety-clad fingers on the steering wheel.
“Tell me,” he asked, “what means ‘hillock’?”
We survived the event without further incident and came to a clear understanding. I would get him to the start of each stage TEN minutes early (rather than five) so he could complete his business unrushed.
Plus, I would take personal care of his gloves, balaclava etc so that we were always aware of their location. He, in return, promised not to toy with my nerves and would follow my instructions to the letter.
As we crossed the finish ramp, he thanked me for my patience and professionalism, and suggested we do more events together. But it wasn’t until I enthusiastically shook his warm hand that I came to the searing realisation – I’d never seen him with a roll of toilet paper in any of his little visits to the bush…