New Zealand Bike Diary

Reflections from my bike tour of New Zealand.

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February 6, 1999

Currently I am resting in an Internet Cafe in downtown Auckland, my right leg up on the desk. A little scrape in my littlest toe on my right foot became infected, and this Irish doctor I saw in Paihra prescribed anti-biotics and two days of having my foot raised. A good time to reflect.

Kieth took me to the northern tip of the North Island on Sunday. It had been raining heavily in Auckland that weekend, and my first challenge was not to let it kill my hopes for the trip. It was still kind of wet even in the northern tip, and to say the least I was concerned that this whole excursion was going to be a huge bust. But then I let go. I told Kieth that I was as much a hiking ("tramping") enthusiast as a cycling enthusiast, and if the roads were unridable, I'd be happy to give up cycling and have us do day hikes in any one of New Zealand's many national parks, and we'd crash afterwards in a motel or backpacker hostel. It was fine with Keith, and I learned a little lesson about flexibility. We did a moderate hike, checking out the protected kauhri trees that once made for an active logging industry. They are almost as big as redwoods, but with leafy palm leaves and a smoother surface.

The heavy wind during the night pushed away most of the clouds; the sun shone bright. We parked at the base of a fifty mile beach on the northwest tip called "90 mile beach," which when the tide abates leaves a sand surface so hard you can cycle on it. It still looked cloudy over it when we got there, so we opted to cycle inland and come back down on it. We pushed through 52 miles of rolling, fertile hills, on narrow roads, stopping at a backpacker lodge/inn/campsite. That night a squadron of mosquitos invaded our tent, and heavy rain seeped water through the floor, making for an effectively sleepless night.

But it was sunnier and hotter than ever the next morning. We headed out for the tip of "90 Mile," which meant getting off a main road, onto gravel roads, going through a bull farm (with no fences, nothing between us and the bulls), and on to an amazing piece of nature called Te Paki ("the creek"), a stream that flowed between a rich rain jungle on the left and a mountain of dry sand on the right. Pure exotic enchantment. We took off our shoes and walked our bikes in the shallow fresh water that flowed into the tip of "90 Mile" into the pacific. The tide was up, and the beach surface, all 50 miles of it, was indeed almost as hard as pavement. An incoming bike tourist warned us about the head wind, but we were undeterred.

Speeding full ahead (six miles an hour) against the forty-five-mile-an-hour wind on this fantastic beach, once a training ground for a long distance record holding runner from New Zealand, had to be the most exhilarating moment of my life. Even the realization an hour and a half later that I didn't have the manpower to complete the beach didn't spoil it. Which was good, since my rear tire went flat, and I discovered that the valves on my replacement tubes wouldn't fit through the rim of my wheel. Keith and me had no option but to push our now lumbering vehicles till the next exit, which turned out to be ten miles south. Periodically tourist busses and vans would zip by us, honks, smiles, and snapping photos, misunderstanding our own distress hand signals. Several hours and a few rest breaks later, we got to the nearest roadway off the beach, which was itself seven uphill gravelly miles to the nearest settlement. I flagged down a Maori fisherman in his SUV, and I thought he found me and my story annoying, but he kept his word and came back fifteen minutes later after dropping off his family, and took us straight to the nearest lodge. Lo is about fifty, is proud to be one of 26 siblings in his family, and is a leader in his community, overseeing water, education, and land development for his people. He offered to get his friends and family patch up my tire, but I just wanted to sleep.

Nonetheless, the sense of a new adventure for me is exhilarating. As I told Kieth when we got to the lodge, what I was feeling that moment was akin to romantic infatuation, but for life, rather than a person.

I'll explain. Sigmund Freud once said what we pick and choose to remember from our earliest memories is as symbolically important as a dream. It's correlation on a macrocosmic level are the creation myths that begin most civilizations recorded histories. My own life myth and memory is seeing and hearing my mother chastise my soaking wet older brothers for playing outside in the rain. They seemed indifferent to what she was saying. I had no idea that they had even gone outside, and too late, since they were already changing into dry clothes, I ran out to get wet, but my mother pulled me in. For me, my getting-into-trouble brothers were my "Wild Man" of Robert Bly's mythology.

I initially worried that I had arrived too late for the New Zealand summer, that rain and inability to sleep easily would make for a stressful, disappointing trip. Now I realized something, not unlike Moliere's bourgeois gentlemen who discovers that he has been speaking prose all his life, or Camus's Merseault who realizes, while awaiting his execution, that the mundane details of his life constituted the very essence of life's happiness. Rain, flat tires, wrong tubes, sunburn(a popular sunscreen lotion here is called "The Cancer Society"), infections, loose bolts, mosquitos, and sleep deprivation, are all part of the price I had to pay to experience the essence of life itself.

February 8 1999

I found myself in conversation with a young man reading a Louis L'amour novel. We started off talking about literature, but proceeded to talk about love, intimacy, values, and the ultimate meaning of life. It was a beautiful experience. He came from the working class town of Gisborne. The talk we had transcended our cultural differences. The girls who worked at the Inn joined our discussion after they got off work, and served us some free Chardonnay.

Yesterday morning, when I got to the train station, I was told that tickets to the once-a-day-trip to Wellington were sold out. I asked about a possible standby seat, and the clerk said try it out. I took a deep breath, hoped for the best, and got on the line. When it was my turn, I told the train steward, another handsome, appealling young man, he smiled at me and told me not to worry, go ahead and put my bike in cargo. He offered me a seat near his, and when the train was in route, he engaged me in conversation. I told him that I had a background in religious studies, and it turned out that he shared many of the same interests; he knew a lot of Joseph Campbell, for example. He was part Maori (and part Native Canadian Cree, too), and had worked with Maori wisemen and was a student of Maori mythology.

I should add that the twelve-hour trip on the train was a scenic blast, with every little town on the way resembling an old frontier town from some Hollywood western, complete with signs in old western lettering (the "BigTop" font in most word programs). This wasn't a tourist thing, either. Rather there simply has been so little development in these towns in the last century. We also passed some of the world's biggest (and still active) volcanos. At one point I joked to a fellow passanger that it would be funny if the steward's would let me do the interpretive duties over the train's intercom, with my American accent. Well, he took the idea to the train staff, and they told him to send me on up, and I got to read some of the scenic/descriptive stuff into the mike. They were impressed, too, not knowing that I have a background in public speaking and broadcasting.

Click here for part two of my journal.

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