The Land of the White Cloud
I faltered halfway down the wide stone steps and heard the doors behind me gently stop revolving. A moment's pause in the bright, cold sunlight. I tried to process the unexpected event which had just altered my life.
The month was November, 2017. The building was the American Embassy in London. My visa, with which I had planned to cycle the length of North and South America, had just been rejected. The interviewer had decided that my minimum wage job would not motivate me to return home after the visa expired. They thought that if they gave me an inch I would take a mile and disappear into the background of illegal immigration. I was initially shocked and surprised. Then angry at the self flattery of a country which assumed everyone would sell their kidneys for a greencard. Then for a while disappointed. Soon after came acceptance and adaptation. America was off the cards, good riddance. Back to the drawing board. What else is possible?
I pedalled home and sat at the worn wooden dining table in our family kitchen. It was pitted and marked, etched with the scars of so many childhood projects. My laptop sat open on Google maps, a window onto a new project on a much larger scale. I needed to design an expedition to match or exceed the trans-Americas plan which would have spanned two continents and at least fourteen countries. Once I had mentally removed the Americas from the world map I realised that there was only one other route which might come close. My eyes flitted back and forth across Europe and Asia tracing a tenuous but unbroken thread from Normandy to Singapore. Southeast of Singapore was Australia, which would bring the continental tally of the new ride to three. From Australia, New Zealand was tantalisingly close. I had often dreamt of it during The Lord of the Rings movie marathons and, satisfyingly, it lies precisely halfway around the world from London, 12 hours ahead. I could also start the expedition by pedalling directly out of my front door in central London. I was decided. I was going to ride a bicycle to New Zealand.
An icy wind hit me and I shivered as I stepped out of Christchurch airport. Once more, and for the last time, I dragged a large cardboard box containing my bicycle behind me. I had arrived in New Zealand, 496 days after pedalling away from North West London and more than two years after the disappointment of my American rejection.
This was a moment long dreamt of. I had passed many hours in the saddle musing over what I would feel when I finally reached New Zealand, or Aotearoa, in Maori. Triumph surely? Elation? Maybe even relief? The reality was harsh and, I thought, undeserved. At its climax, my journey was teetering on the verge of falling apart. My ankles, which had become a recurrent weakness over the previous year following three severe ligament tears, seemed to have imploded again after a short jog in Sydney and I could barely walk, let alone cycle. In the context of my overall journey, New Zealand was the finish line. Christchurch though, sitting halfway down the east coast of New Zealand’s south island, was also the start line of what was meant to be a further three months of challenging, mountainous cycling. I had hoped that on reaching New Zealand after nearly 30,000 kilometers of cycling I would be at peak fitness. Instead I was moving at a decrepit hobble on two swollen, blue-bruised ankles.
It was another setback. This one, however, would mar my long awaited and proudest moment, the result of years of preparation and dogged commitment. The imagined pride and accomplishment I would feel when I eventually arrived in New Zealand had made me grin and laugh aloud on my best days and dragged me stubbornly onward on my worst days, promising an eventual end to the suffering. On the train to the airport in Sydney I bent over my bike box and cried. This was not how it was meant to be. Eventually, I reached acceptance and adaptation. It's already happened. Small steps forward, literally and figuratively. You might as well take the flight to New Zealand you have already paid for. Then see a doctor and make a plan.
The prognosis was better than I had expected. Rather than a re-emergence of the slow healing ligament issues that had dogged me since Georgia, the physiotherapist at Christchurch hospital suggested tendonitis. Ten days off the bike would probably resolve it. The enforced layoff gave me the opportunity of knowing Christchurch in a little more depth and just stopping in one place became a blessing in disguise, as it had done twice before in India’s Jaipur and Shillong.
Christchurch is a city in regeneration, rebuilding itself after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes which destroyed over one quarter of the buildings in the city center and killed 185 people. Nearly ten years on, there are reminders of the earthquake everywhere. On my first day I shuffled stiffly up the paved boulevard leading to Christchruch cathedral. A cavernous, dark hole faced me where the facade should have stood. Pigeons darted in and out from nests on the exposed rafters inside. The stone spire which had once stood beside the cathedral had disappeared almost entirely, the only physical reminder of it being a wall of smashed stone which sloped down to what remained of its base. The city center itself is a patchwork of buildings, foundations and empty lots at varying stages of replacement and rebuilding.
Despite the hardships of recent history Christchurch carries an energetic sense of optimism. There is a feeling that the city is not only rebuilding, but also re-imagining itself. As ease of living goes, a place recently devastated by two earthquakes is not an easy sell. Accordingly, Christchurch draws people who are genuinely invested in its regeneration and have the energy, creativity and willpower to build independent businesses from the ground upward, in some cases literally. The creativity of the city can be seen in its ample street art. One independent coffee roastery I frequented called C4 coffee is so successful that they now export coffee all over New Zealand, a discovery I made with delight several months later when I found their beans in a small beachside cafe on the west coast of the south island. The creativity of the city's inhabitants can be seen in its ample and original street art.
|Me trying a unicycle in Christchurch's Canterbury museum|
|Street art in Christchurch|
|Street art in Christchurch|
|Street art in Christchurch|
|The tram network in Christchurch|
Ten days slipped by as I slowly regained full mobility in my ankles. I had already booked my flight back to London for the beginning of December and still had 2500 kilometres to ride, first south to Queenstown and then north again to Auckland. I began to pedal westwards away from Christchurch and the coast. New Zealand’s south island runs from southwest to northeast. A band of mountains follows the western coastline leaving some flat, heavily populated land between the mountains and the eastern coastline. My first days on the bike took me across the flat, agricultural eastern plains to the flanks of the mountain chain. Then I turned south along the base of the range and wound through the lakes and rivers which sit in their shadows.
|Camping on the Tekapo river|
|Approaching lake Tekapo|
|Approaching lake Pukaki|
|Approaching lake Pukaki|
Heading inland to the mountains was not the direct route to Queenstown. Instead, I was taking a detour to see New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook. If New Zealand was a Palace, and Mount Cook the throne, Lake Pukaki, which stretches out before it, would be the great hall. More than fifteen kilometers long, Pukaki is flanked on each side by great jagged walls, thousands of meters high and topped with snow capped parapets. The floor of the hall is a surface of iridescent turquoise. Along its banks stand pillars of green conifers which are, incidentally, non native and invasive to the area. The day I arrived, Mount Cook had shrouded itself in a wreath of cumulonimbus clouds, as if it were warning me not to approach any closer.
In 2011 the government proposed the building of a continuous cycle trail from the tip of the north island to the bottom of the south island to improve the country’s poor reputation as a cycle touring destination. This stemmed from numerous narrow country roads which are particularly dangerous for cyclists. The intention was to mimic the success of the world renowned Te Aroea walking trail which follows the same route. The scale of that ambition was tempered by high costs and instead a network of offroad, multi-day cycle trails which can be linked by existing roads are being built. The longest of the new routes is the Alps to Ocean trail, or ‘A2O’, which runs for 312 kilometers from Mount Cook to the beachside town of Oamaru on the east coast. I intended to follow the trail as Oamaru was just two days north of the lively, ‘alternative’ city of Dunedin.
The A2O trail is a cut above any biking trail I had previously come across. Almost completed, it is almost entirely off road and is intended to be rideable by all ages and fitnesses. At any opportunity it leaves civilisation entirely and dives into New Zealand’s backcountry wilderness of lakes, grassy plains and wooded mountainsides. Starting from Mount Cook it is almost continuously downhill to the coast but strays far from the most direct route, instead weaving between lake and mountain to connect places of natural beauty. On the second night after leaving Pukaki I camped on the banks of Lake Ohau. I nestled my tent above shrubby bushes and tall grass thirty meters above the trail, at that point a snake of dusty gravel curling through green, shoulder high foliage. The curve of the trail was tracked by a thin shoreline of rounded pebbles and the lake beyond, turquoise in the day like Pukaki but in the evening darkening into a palate of navies, greys and ochres. Opposite my camp, in the crook of the lake which bent away from me at each end like a boomerang, rose a domed lump of granite, hundreds of meters high and clad in brown shadows. Not wanting to waste the moment I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and sat outside the tent, leaning against the handlebars of my bike. A crystal clear night sky appeared above.
|The Alps to Ocean Trail|
|The Alps to Ocean Trail|
My final days on the A20 were spent following the wide Waitaki river downstream to its mouth at Oamaru. The Waitaki valley still bears the hallmarks of its early life as an ocean floor some 25 million years ago. I took an impromptu rest day in a campsite in Duntroon which doubled as the local rugby pitch. Duntroon is a 19th century village with a well preserved Gaol and traditional blacksmiths which have been restored and opened to the public. I stashed my gear inside the tent and pedalled seven kilometers to ‘elephant rocks’, a field of limestone boulders which were thrust upwards out of the ocean as the continent tilted and have since been moulded by the wind and the rain into a variety of odd shapes, some of which are said to resemble elephants. They are now Duntroon’s premier attraction.
|The blacksmith at Duntroon|
|The blacksmith at Duntroon|
|The gaol at Duntroon|
|The gaol at Duntroon|
Reaching Oamaru left me tantalisingly close to the prospect of comfort and company in Dunedin, where warmshowers hosts Kel and Sharon had offered to host me for three nights. They are experienced cycle tourists themselves having cycled the breadth of Canada in 2018. Thankfully, Kel instinctively knew that the first thing a cold English touring cyclist needs upon returning to civilization is a hot cup of tea. Preceding their Canadian expedition they had spent fifteen years volunteering in an orphanage in Lithuania, and now worked in Christchurch to support incoming Syrian refugees.
|Kel and Sharon|
Dunedin itself is known in New Zealand for its alternative attitudes, large student population and general quirkiness. The features were summed up on my first evening when we visited the Dunedin public art gallery to watch a music concert composed by students at the university. Faithful to their reputation, each piece was an experience more abstract and unidentifiable than the last. The final performance, a solo guitar composition named ‘beach wind’, was preceded by the musician announcing that “you won’t see a single recognisable guitar technique.” He was right. The guitar was stroked, hammered, caressed and beat but at no point did the performer stoop to actually plucking the strings, or even holding the instrument the right way up. It was followed by hesitant applause for the young composers who sat with us in the audience, wearing heavy framed hipster glasses, oversized coats and Doc Martins.
Dunedin was the most southerly point of my entire expedition. From there I cycled northwest towards Queenstown, the intermediate point in my migration from the east to the west coast and often known as the world's ‘adventure capital’. At least half of the 350 kilometers to Queenstown could be ridden on another of New Zealand’s purpose built bicycle tracks, the ‘Central Otago Rail Trail’. Built in the 19th century to draw tourists following a gold rush, the original rail line was carved into the mountainous hide of Otago by hand using shovels, wheelbarrows and explosives. The rail trail skirted around the mountain ranges which are synonymous with the south island whilst keeping them constantly in sight. The result was a ride full of dramatic views which could be enjoyed from the safety and ease of flat rolling heathlands.
The trail finished at its western end at the mouth of the Clutha river which was slow flowing and more than one hundred meters across. I followed its northern bank for a day, heading for its intersection with the narrow Kawarau Gorge which leads directly to Queenstown. Compared to the benevolent and gentle Clutha, the Kawarau was a serpent slashed fifty meters into a jagged cleft of stone. In the springtime the vegetation is sparse and brutish, ripping its way through the earth in rough gnarls. As the road twisted above the torrent I caught views of dusty, snow tipped mountains and recalled following the river Panj along the Afghan border.
I was a few hours shy of Queenstown and still tracing the Kawarau chasm when a human scream from ahead snapped me out of a reverie. Concerned, I leapt out of the saddle and upped the pace towards an upcoming bend in the road. Images flashed in my mind of a tourist losing their balance on the Kawarau’s precipice and plunging into the rapids. Gasping for breath I rounded the corner and to my horror found I had been right. A young Chinese lady had just hurled herself headfirst off an old rail bridge twenty meters ahead. A crowd of onlookers were cheering and waving smartphone cameras as she plummeted downwards. Miraculously, she then reappeared above abyss. I looked closer and spotted how she had accomplished the gravity defying feat. Attached to a harness around her lower body was a thick, serpentine bungee cord which had caught her descent only meters above the river and dragged her upwards again. She screamed with delight as the cord unravelled again and she disappeared from view in another adrenaline inducing plunge. I pedalled onto the bridge and looked over the edge to see her being unclipped from the harness by two young men on an inflatable dinghy, tethered in the middle of the river. Her family yelled and clapped with delight before surging forward to volunteer as the next tribute. Welcome to Queenstown!
The morning after my arrival I walked up a wide smooth track to the top of Queenstown hill. Four hundred meters below me the town itself sat like a bundle of bright christmas lights between the lower slopes of the hill and Lake Wakatipu. The lake arced away from the town to the left and right. In the crook of the arc opposite me a smooth, dun coloured mountain rose with a long crest stretching away from the lake and to a snow covered peak. All around the lake stretched a continuous palisade of sparkling, glaciated mountains. The scene was so enchanting that I decided then and there to stay. I still had two months before my flight home and needed only one month to reach Auckland.
A few busy hours later I had secured two jobs, one as a handyman at my hostel and the second washing dishes in an Indian restaurant on the waterfront. Every morning over the following month I sanded, painted and weeded the ‘Alpine Lodge’ hostel into a presentable state for the upcoming tourist season. My middays were spent running and hiking in the hills around Queenstown, culminating towards the end of my stay in a climb of popular mountain, Ben Lomond, which towers directly above the town. In the evenings I would chatter with the Indian chefs in the kitchen of ‘The Taj’ restaurant while loading an unloading an industrial dishwasher. Some of the chefs came from places in India I had cycled through only months previously and I recognised many of the dishes to their delight.
|Hiking near Queenstown|
|Hiking near Queenstown|
|' The Taj' Indian restaurant, where I cleaned dishes|
|Taff, the owner of 'Alpine Lodge' hostel, where I worked as a handyman for five weeks|
Meanwhile my bike sat unused and forgotten in the garage of the hostel and I slipped easily into the routines a comfortable, predictable life. Watching movies, cheering England on in bars during the rugby world cup and getting coffee with other backpackers rapidly began to cloud my identity as a thrifty, breadline bicycle tourer. I knew, however, that though I had come far there was still more than 2000 kilometers of tough cycling ahead of me. Weeks left turned swiftly into days, then hours. Then I said goodbye to my new friends, quickly made and quickly lost, and began pedalling north towards Auckland, the final leg, the last chapter.
I would return north on the west coast. To reach the coast from Queestown, however, I first had to cross the central mountain range of the south island. The closest col to Queenstown is the Haast pass, a punishing climb from the coast, but from Queenstown a spectacular gorge descent enclosed on all sides by impenetrable rainforest. The rainforest climate which spans New Zealand’s entire west coast is due to the mountains trapping moisture from the Tasman on the coast. The weather is infamously wet. Incessant rain dogged my first few days in the west and convinced me that a snorkel and bathing suit would be more conducive to progress than I bicycle. Nonetheless, through force of will and several daily lunches of hot chips and coffee I steadily forged a path north, up and over the descending ridges of the mountain range as they dropped into the surf.
|Pancake rocks, west coast of New Zealand|
The riding was hard but wholesome and I approached it with a detached, bullish determination. I didn’t know it at the time, but those days would be the last of my journey. Almost a week after leaving Queenstown and still more than 1000 kilometers from Auckland, I stopped in the seaside town of Hokitika and visited a supermarket for breakfast. Sitting against a wall in the car park I mixed an instant coffee and checked my messages. My dad has texted. My darling Grandmother, who when I had last seen her the previous year was active and healthy, had fallen over and was fading. My family was gathering to say goodbye. It was unlikely, if not impossible, that I would be able to contrive my plans to get home in time to see her.
It has been the most precious personal discovery of my journey, that when in need, humans are more likely to sympathise and support than to scorn and take advantage of one another. The shock of losing Granny, and the isolation I felt as my family gathered together and I sat in a supermarket parking lot on the other side of the world overwhelmed me and I cried. Moments later I was surrounded by two elderley ladies who knelt down to comfort me. “The people of Hokitika care” they said and invited me for lunch. However, I needed to be alone, to process and plan. I knew what would provide all three, and climbed back on my bike.
Forty kilometers north of Hokitika is a large beach town called Greymouth, where there is a youth hostel and a direct bus service back to Christchurch. I knew those kilometers could well be the last of my entire journey. The rain seemed to fall harder than ever and was accompanied by a ferocious headwind. My emotions yo-yoed. Sometimes sadness and guilt. This journey had taken more than six months longer than I had budgeted for. Consequently I had been supporting myself using some savings Granny had given me, but realised I had never directly told her that she was the reason that this was all possible. Dad said she was now barely responding. Now perhaps I would never be able to thank her, or even tell her. Sometimes I felt angry and frustrated. The anger was irrational. I was angry that at this moment life had contrived me to be alone, so far away from my family that I may as well have been on another planet. I also felt a poignant sort of pride. This journey had already provided experiences which have influenced and altered me in ways that I may continue to interpret for the rest of my life. And my adventurous, energetic, thoughtful, forever cheerful grandmother had been part of that. She had helped shape me into who I am, that is a person that needed to ride a bicycle halfway around the world.
In Greymouth I talked to dad on the phone. He was with granny and held the phone to her ear. I told her what I had done with the money she had given me and described what the west coast of New Zealand looked like. She couldn’t speak but dad said that she smiled. In the morning I took a bus over the mountains from Greymouth to Christchurch. The next day, she passed away and I boarded a plane back to London. My godfather had told me before I left London that it doesn’t matter what you do in life, as long as you do it with purpose. It had been 566 days since I had left my home with the purpose of riding a bicycle to New Zealand, and I had accomplished that aim. Now, for the meantime, my purpose had changed. Alongside the positive things this journey had introduced to my life, I have also been acutely aware of the many moments I missed among my family, the people most important to me in the world. This was a moment that I couldn’t miss. It was time to go home.
|566 days later, home again|
|Reviewing the previous trip, not planning the next... yet...|