Sunset. To our knowledge, it is nothing more than particles of light being broken and scattered as it travels through the earth’s atmosphere. To our eyes, it results in a magnificent flourish of colours that seemingly breathes life into the clockwork certainty of existence. By our own experience, it serves as an epilogue to the day, a final bow before the concert of stars unfurls its tapestry of boundless beauty and limitless wonder.
Right now, somewhere over New Zealand’s Haast Pass, I wish those curtains would pause at this precise moment when the fading embers of the day drench the South Island’s majestic southern alps in a surreal indigo hue. Such a palette of colours may be nothing more than the inevitable laws of nature playing out, but framed in the context of the last eight hours spent traversing New Zealand’s Haast Highway, it is a perfect bookend to a captivating journey.
250km from our point of embarkation at Franz Josef Glacier and countless corners, the Haast Highway is lined with breath-taking sights on a scale and grandeur that is second to none, each beckoning travellers to stay awhile and savour its wonder. As tempting as it is, with the distant destination of Queenstown to reach before the fade of light, a passing glance from the pew of a humble rental 2016 Toyota Camry would have to suffice.
Now, it is widely agreed that if you want to have fun, the Camry is far from being on anybody’s list of cars to choose from when it comes to carving up mountain roads. More at home on the daily commute and familiar as the financially-sound choice for Uber drivers than it is on anything winding and narrow, the Camry has a reputation of being as solid as a rock and just as interesting.
That being said, considering the rough lives rental cars live, paired with the chances of landing a lemon to take on a 2200km itinerary, picking the Camry was as safe of a bet as anyone is going to get. The idea was to “tolerate” the Camry and try not to think too much about how much more fun I’d be having on New Zealand’s scenic country roads in something with a bit more fun to offer on its repertoire.
Unsurprisingly, on the West Coast Road towards Arthur’s Pass, the Camry’s qualities as a big comfy cruiser are unquestionable. Its calm nature means that you can lop off the miles with ease in this, which is great if New Zealand was a flat, vast country that its neighbour, Australia, is. But it isn’t. No sooner had I got accustomed to its motorway demeanour, the road ahead begins to snake through the island nation’s glorious landscape that was seismically squeezed up from the heart of the earth. As the road started to climb and the wind its way up through the mountain ranges, the Camry started to reveal a hitherto unknown depth of character.
Sure the Camry’s big steering wheel mutes rather than communicate messages from the road, the suspension doesn’t offer much resistance to body roll, and its buttery smooth automatic transmission seems to be always lacking the right cog for the occasion. On switchback mountain roads, the Camry initially feels like you are waltzing around in a pair of Wellingtons. It feels a bit clumsy and seems a bit out of its depth here. However, once I start to acquaint myself with its fallible characteristics that glaze its surface the more I start to uncover a firm bedrock of talent that lies beneath.
Keep the big Toyota’s heft in mind, anticipate it to lean, pitch it into a corner, feel the lateral roll as you approach the apex, but once settled into the corner you’d notice that the wheels are firmly planted, the tyres are barely flustered by the tilting mass above and the nose just tucks in obedience to your inputs. Tune into the Camry’s character and you’d find a well of talent and ability that impresses even when being hurried along some narrow mountain roads.
There is no denying that the Camry is an unashamedly big cushy cruiser of a car first and foremost. After all this 2016 car is shaped by the culmination of decades of delivering on customer expectations. But to characterise it as a one-dimensional car for people alien to the concept of “fun” on the road is unfair. As a trip right through the Souther Alps has proven, the Camry is a car of many, if largely underappreciated, talents.
All things considered, on the drive and on the road that had led me to this confluence of science and human interpretation, the Camry biggest talent is that it doesn’t monopolise the experience. Instead, it simply gets on with the thankless task of doing a job well.
Looking at the Camry, framed against an ever-encroaching twilight that is drawing itself closer to the horizon, I find it strange that we pine after and applaud cars that immerse us in its machinations and dominate the experience. But is immersion a form of isolation? And who would want to draw themselves away from New Zealand’s awe-inspiring landscape?
A wise, but flatulent sage once said you don’t want pass New Zealand’s sights by and as the island’s magnificent views unfold he is dead right. Why immerse yourself in driving hard and fast? Why focus on the intensity of what is at hand and leave out the richness of the surround?
Contrary to my initial scepticism of choosing the Camry, it turned out to be a perfect companion for a road trip. Comfortable where necessary, capable where needed. In essence, its nuts and bolts may not yield anything of significance, but as it is with all treasured things in our lives, it is the experience that it comes attached with that matters. Just like any sunset.