In February 2011, I was in New Zealand to research a set of features. It was a tricky time to be there. A week earlier, an earthquake had savaged Christchurch, but I’d crossed the planet anyway and found a country dealing with its difficulties in a calm manner. I’d explored at length, even to the foot of Mount Cook, then gone farther south to Queenstown.
Perhaps it was the hot afternoon, but on realising I’d arrived in the city early, with a three-day stay ahead of me, I’d had an urge to keep driving. Suddenly, the idea of dashing to Lake Te Anau, 110 miles south-west, seemed feasible. I could be waterside for sunset and back in Queenstown for dinner.
A 220-mile round trip in a few hours? Why not? I had half a tank of petrol. In my wild enthusiasm to keep moving, I stopped to add a splash more, using the NZ$30 (£16) in my wallet — not pausing to think that this was the only Kiwi cash on my person, nor that the meagre purchase had merely pushed the gauge to three-quarters full. I was lost in the urgency of the daydream: sighting Lake Te Anau at 6pm as it turned a golden hue.
It was as I was retracing my tracks that I realised I’d underestimated my fuel needs. But I’d spotted a petrol station in little Mossburn when I’d sliced through the town three hours earlier. No need to panic. I pulled back into what, at 4pm, had been a beehive. Now the place was deserted, including its petrol station. I had no chance of making it back to Queenstown — less still of locating a hotel when my car could conk out anytime.
Then Margaret appeared, picking up a free newspaper outside the supermarket. Probably in her early 70s, she seemed an implausible saviour. But nobody else had passed me in 20 minutes.
“Do you know where I can buy petrol?” I called across the car park.
She looked up, unperturbed by the random man shouting at her. “Alan’s out tonight,” she said, glancing at the shuttered gas station. “Wedding anniversary.”
“Is there anywhere else?”
“Yes, in Limehills,” she replied. “Thirty miles from here. That’ll be shut too.”
I explained my predicament, and why I was loitering in her quiet corner of the South Island. She peered at me with incredulity.
“Shouldn’t a travel writer know how to travel?” she asked, shaking her head. “Still, you’re in luck. I’ve a gallon of petrol in my garage for my lawnmower. I’ll sell it to you.”
“Ah, I don’t have any New Zealand currency,” I admitted sheepishly.
Her face chalked up another notch of disbelief. “Well, you’re having a bad day, aren’t you?” she muttered, and promptly turned and walked away.
I’d been standing in the car park for five further minutes, telling myself this was not a huge issue — I could sleep in the car and wait for Alan to reopen in the morning — when Margaret returned. Perhaps this willingness to help a stranger was somehow linked to the disaster New Zealand was experiencing. Maybe it was because — as she would later tell me — she had a grandson travelling in Europe. But she’d decided the petrol was mine. “Take it,” she said.
We drove to her house. And suddenly, as we were filling the tank from a battered canister, I was aware of the disparity between us: she half my height and twice my age. I could have been anyone. But she was prepared to trust me and my story.
We talked about what I’d seen in New Zealand, and where I’d been in my career. And we struck a deal. She didn’t want reimbursement, but would I send her a copy of the feature I was writing?
I don’t know why but I ignored our pact. I was back in Queenstown that evening. The next morning I posted her NZ$40, with a sincere note of thanks.
A day later, up popped an email, lightly admonishing me, saying that we’d agreed the petrol was a gift, and that she’d given the sum to charity. Just the feature would suffice.
So six months later, I dispatched the finished article back across the globe and later received a Christmas card.
“I hope Santa brings you some petrol, and a little common sense,” it chided gently.
Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)