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  • Tom Blower

Epiphany

It's taken far longer than I intended to provide an update on how things have been progressing, but suffice it to say that, after 9,300 miles, I've finally made it to Auckland. This leg was always going to be the most challenging one of the journey, but I hadn't foreseen the extent to which events would change my plans and perceptions of what this experience should be. For the first time in years, my diabetes has felt like a real limitation that I have had to struggle against, sometimes without success, but the support I have received from friends, family, and strangers - cyclists and non-cyclists alike - has been truly humbling. I am slowly coming to terms with the flux of all things, and rediscovering the contentment of the balance that cycle touring can bring to life between effort put in and experience gained.


The end of Eurasia


Another mile. And another. And another. The heat was just about bearable, but the humidity was not. Being in the shade made little to no difference, and the air felt like my lungs were being coated with water and diesel fumes. Weaving through the traffic with the tens and thousands of other two-wheeled denizens of Bangkok, I was a minute part of some huge, living, but thoughtless organism. The city bustled with life, and yet for all the energy around me I felt the same way as I had done when reaching Istanbul; a milestone, yes, but not somewhere I wanted to hang around for any length of time. Its meaning was symbolic rather than actual – whilst I’d found some good food and help re-indexing my gears, as well as a couple of interesting glimpses of the stupas of Buddhist temples, I didn’t feel particularly welcome here, and truly huge cities, no matter how beautiful, become oppressive after a time. Police officers in militaristic uniforms watching over the crowds, and gigantic, gold-framed portraits of the recently enthroned King Rama X placed in prominent places, also contributed to a heaviness in the atmosphere. The cult of personality I had seen in eastern Europe and Central Asia had was here ingrained not only into the cultural deification of the royal family, but into the law. Thailand’s lèse majesté laws prohibit any insult to any living – or dead – royals, and in 2015 a factory worker faced a 37-year sentence for insulting the king’s adopted dog. Certainly, the displays of authority by those in power spoke almost as loud as the silence they imposed. It was time to be moving on.


Evening under the eyes of king. Wat Tri Thotsathep, Bangkok


Rising before the sun to try and beat the morning traffic, I slipped out onto another multiple-lane highway, a vein through which coursed the honking, revving lifeblood of the city, and headed south. As the traffic began to build in volume, so did my desperation to get off the main highway and onto a smaller, more divergent road. A lizard, about four feet from nose to tail, crawled out of a ditch at the edge of the asphalt, surveyed the roaring traffic, unblinking, and decided it probably wasn’t worth it today. Turning calmly, it disappeared into the long grass as I rode by.

Although I managed to get a little time away from Highway 4, the primary road connecting Bangkok with the south of the country and Malaysia, inevitability and the desire to get some miles in brought me back to it. After the inconsistency of some of the Cambodian roads I’d ridden, the smoothness of the tarmac did make up for the monotony of cycling through thick tropical forest, with very little by way of topography. The lushness of the forest around me was a marvel in itself, occasionally pierced by the same limestone hills I’d seen in Vietnam, but the overall effect was one of tunnel vision, creating a line of sight along which I could either progress or retreat. The hills of Taiwan felt like an aeon ago, and anything to make the miles slip away faster was a godsend. I began to get up and out by 7:00, pushing myself for twenty miles before allowing myself a sip of water, and not stopping until thirty miles. To an endurance rider, this is, I’m sure, nothing, but to me it was a routine that only made itself worth it by the fact that it could help me ride eighty, ninety, a hundred miles before the mid-afternoon rains.


Sometimes, I’d get lucky, and catch the draft of a truck just as it overtook me at the top of a gentle incline, and I’d barrel along behind it at 30-35 mph, less than a metre from the bumper, with nothing but my helmet and faith that the tarmac wouldn’t suddenly ripple, or the driver slam on the brakes, between me and a potentially serious accident. You learn to read the roads, though – when to hang back, when to peer around the side of the lorry you’re tailing, when to give up the draft and drift to the side of the road, back to a comparatively pedestrian speed. Some days were better than others, and on a couple of occasions, I’d find myself having done 66 miles before 9:30. On others, I’d crawl into a small roadside motel at two or three in the afternoon, my arse cursing me for every one of the eighty miles I’d managed to do.


Managing my blood glucose levels was becoming increasingly hard. With little to motivate me beyond the thought of where the next source of relief from the heat and humidity would come from, my mind began to break down the days into chunks, demarcating stops by the distance between service stations. After several days of this routine, things came to a head. I was sitting outside of a 7-Eleven, drinking a cup of Thai Tea, a deliciously cold but noxiously sweet brew that tastes more like condensed milk than anything resembling tea. I couldn’t be bothered to wipe away the sweat dripping off my eyebrows and nose, the same scene repeated four or five times a day ever since leaving the capital. My muscles felt tight and dehydrated, my stomach distended with all the liquid I had been forcing into it all morning. Waves of nausea began to pass over me, and I could only stare at a line in the concrete forecourt to try and focus myself. It didn’t work. In moments I was down on all fours, noisily heaving a slimy, ochre mixture into the flowerbed at the edge of the petrol station car park. A nearby Thai couple got up and sat further away, occasionally giving furtive glances over at me as I retched and spat, trying to catch my breath.


When did I last test? Must have only been an hour or so ago. I managed to get to my feet and fumble for my testing kit. 32.5 mmol/L. Flirting dangerously with diabetic ketoacidosis was the last thing I want to be doing when all I needed is to get moving; I’d already done 73 miles today and had another thirty-something to go until I let myself rest, pushing hard through the 390 miles between Bangkok and Surat Thani to try and earn an extra day off the bike. I injected more units of Novorapid than I would normally inject all day – on a cycling day at least – and sat with my eyes closed until the nausea felt as if it had largely subsided. Then I gingerly got back in the saddle and started pedalling. Nothing to do but go onward. I managed to reach a roadside hotel just as the afternoon thunderstorms hit. I trudged out into the rain, looking for food. In a village with little more than just the motel itself, there was very little in the way of eating, especially if I wasn’t so keen on spicy ramen, which I couldn’t eat. Dinner was poor – soft drinks, crisps, and an ice lolly. I was so sick of subsisting on sugar. What was once a childhood fantasy, or even something I came to think of as a consolation prize after my diabetes diagnosis – to be required to consume sweets for the good of my health – was becoming a syrupy, bitter nightmare.



When I at last made it to Surat Thani, I decided to take a train 200 miles to Hat Yai, closer to the Malaysian province of Kedah. My body was tired, but more worryingly, the feeling of exhaustion with the idea of this trip was creeping up on me. I was hoping upon hope that crossing the border into a new country would renew my vigour and forward momentum. Much to my surprise, this actually seemed to work. The land opened up, and whilst large palm plantations and rice paddies took the place of the forest as I followed the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula towards Kuala Lumpur, I began to take more of an interest in the little things that I passed by. The patina on the domes of the small roadside mosques. The sunlight filtering in crepuscular rays through the morning clouds drifting over the distant, forested hills. The familiar, gently oscillating shape of that cyclist up ahe-


A cyclist! I’d not seen many people on a bicycle in weeks, let alone a touring cyclist, even rarer a touring cyclist riding in the same direction as me. I hammered the pedals, and as I drew level, I saw a Union Jack on the crossbar. What a stroke of luck.


'Nice morning, isn’t it?’


‘Hey – you’re from the UK, aren’t you?’


‘Yes. Which part are you from?’


‘South-east, around Cambridge.’


‘No way! Me too!’


Coincidence can be very disarming sometimes. To have met not only a cyclist, but an English-speaking cyclist, from Britain, who grew up 15 miles from me, all the way out here in rural Malaysia, was quite something. Theo, at 21, had already cycled almost 10,000 miles from Geneva, and though his rolling speed was less than mine, I felt no particularly strong inclination to continue at my pace and so slowed to his, doing my best to hold up a conversation as the occasional truck roared past and we were forced to the very edge of the tarmac, caught between fast-flowing traffic and roadworks.


When we finally spot somewhere to stop for a late lunch, we peeled off the main drag onto a dirt frontage road and stop under a corrugated awning for some nasi goreng cina; like egg-fried rice, but with perhaps twice the black pepper than is really necessary stirred into it. I found it hard to force it down, but Theo polished off his plate and ordered seconds, while relating his route so far across Asia. Having come down from Almaty to New Delhi, he’d crossed northern India before entering Bangladesh then Myanmar, and was, like me, making his way to the end of Eurasia at Singapore. When planning my journey, I’d also considered the Almaty-New Delhi flight: an opportunity to avoid Central Asian winter whilst not sacrificing anything in the way of latitude. From the sound of it, deciding not to take that route was a good decision. Theo’s experiences of manic traffic, extreme poverty, and a seeming indifference of many Indians to other people’s suffering had really taken a toll on him. He described in Uttar Pradesh how he’d been riding along a main highway and had come across a foot in the gutter. A human foot, cut off at the shin.


‘I’m finding it hard to talk about India because every time I think about it, I just feel so, so… angry. I’m normally a pretty relaxed person, but it brought out a side in me I really didn’t like. I got to the point where I was just shouting at people. And the caste system is just so awful. I was so happy when I reached Myanmar. It was just suddenly so quiet.’


Definitely the right decision.


After lunch we rode another fifteen miles together, before I had to stop for the day. Cutting down the miles was another technique to actually getting more enjoyment out of the day, and I’d reached my sixty-something miles for the day. It was sad to say goodbye to Theo – his calm confidence and enthusiasm had made the miles disappear beneath my wheels, and meeting a kindred spirit was nice. But we hoped to meet one another again at the end of the Eurasian landmass.


Two weeks later, I crossed over the Woodlands Causeway – sustaining my second puncture of the trip in the process – into the tiny nation of Singapore, once part of the Malaysian federation of sultanates but now an independent country whose trajectory since its independence was quite something to behold. I’d not been anywhere so well-manicured and clean since Japan; but the size of the place did make it rather inconvenient for cyclists. Yes, there were cycle paths in places, and not as much detritus in the road, but it seemed impossible to go further than five hundred metres without having to stop at a four-way intersection and sit through the changing of the lights, only to be stopped again in another few hundred metres for the same rigmarole, each time getting overtaken by drivers in needlessly expensive cars. Who needs a Lamborghini in a country where you’ll barely ever get up to 50 mph?


I met Theo the evening before he was due to depart for Australia. We wandered a bit through Chinatown, stopping for some braised duck and tofu soup as he laid out his plans for riding from Perth to Sydney. I had to fly out to Jakarta to buy more insulin – much cheaper than buying in Singapore – but would hopefully get to Australia not too long after him, and we might even be able to ride together. Some company across the vast expanse of the Nullarbor seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. The conversation flowed naturally as it tends to between touring cyclists. Whether or not your personalities match, you automatically have something quite powerful in common with the other rider, and whatever other feelings might arise, there will, at some level, be a respect for one another and the choice to ride. I hoped, as we strolled past the Gardens by the Bay, looking at the giant skytrees, huge metal structures lit in festive colours for the Christmas season, that this wouldn’t be the end of our acquaintance. As I lay in bed that night in my dorm, drifting in and out of consciousness to the resonant sleep apnoea of my bunkmates, I felt contented.


7,100 miles. Done.


Dressing down. The Marina, Singapore


Shadows


When I was much younger, I had a big hardback book of venomous animals. If I recall correctly, the front cover was a green mamba in all its lurid colour, and I spent hours flicking through the pages, conditioning into myself the fear of various poisonous beasties of land, air, and water. Of all the proper nouns used in that book, one in particular seemed to crop up far more frequently than all the rest. Australia.


Of course, as an adult I know that wherever you go, there will inevitably be danger of some sort. But for me, Australia struck me as a place which posed perhaps the greatest dangers to me and the success of this part of the trip. Animals (venomous or not), road trains, headwinds, and about 2,300 miles of less-than-hospitable terrain lay ahead of me as I arrived in Perth. It also didn’t help that half the country seemed to be on fire. But after a week of time spent kicking my heels in Singapore and buying insulin in crowded, polluted, gridlocked Jakarta, I just wanted to be moving again. Theo had messaged me – he was three days’ ride ahead of me, having left Perth in the direction of Sydney just as I’d landed. I had some catching up to do.


The Treasury. Perth, Western Australia


I hit the road just as the first sunshine began to top the skyscrapers of Perth’s business district, and turned northeast through the suburbs. The road rose as I followed the highway in the direction of Kalgoorlie, through the John Forrest National Park (they missed a trick there, given how many big trees there were), and up through the Perth Hills. As I left the city and its suburbs behind, I wound my way through places with more Australian – read ‘indigenous’ – names like Mundaring, Wooroloo, and Wundowie. Instead of magpies, rose-breasted galahs flew up from the roadside grass as I rode by, and signs warning of kangaroos began to appear. Flies, fat and noisy, hovered tenaciously around me despite the breeze of crosswind, waiting for me to stop, then covering my skin in their search for moisture. I tried to reappraise it as an additional motivation to keep moving. This is just adding texture to the experience. Besides, this is what you wanted from Australia, right? Right?


By midday I really wasn’t so sure that was the case. I’d reached Northam, the last sizeable town for several hundred miles – from here until Coolgardie (just before Kalgoorlie), the sparsely spread settlements would be small, linear affairs, whose lifelines were the road scoring through them and the huge above-ground water pipeline running parallel to it. Western Australia’s wheat belt was dependent on this ‘Golden Pipeline’: as the hills began to flatten out into a wider, rolling plain, seemingly endless fields of light beige crops waved in the wind, separated by peeling, rustling eucalyptus trees.


I made a beeline for Northam’s central supermarket (a Woolworth’s – a name of the past in the UK), then sat outside at a table under an awning, lunching on the most liquid giving foods I could find; tomatoes, cucumbers, and soup. A man with a scraggly beard, lots of tattoos, and no front teeth sat down opposite me and began to roll a wonky cigarette.


‘It’s a fuckin’ hot one, eh mate?’


‘Yes, far too hot to be riding.’


‘Wait – you’re ridin’ out here today? Where’d you come from?’


‘Perth.’


‘Perth?! Fuck me mate, what kind of drugs you on, riding from Perth?’


‘Just insulin.’


His eyes widened a little, and he called out to several of his friends – or whoever would listen –

as they passed by.


‘Hey, you met this guy? This crazy cunt’s cycled from fuckin’ Perth, and he’s goin’ to fuckin’ Sydney!’


The pressure of expectation, even of complete strangers, was almost as torturous as the heat, so I rode on, hoping to make it to Meckering, a town 22 miles further along the highway. A few miles out of Northam I felt my last reserves of energy evaporating in the afternoon sun. I pulled over and slumped into the gravel under the merciful shade of a tree to check my blood sugar. 4.3 mmol/L. A relatively normal level. For someone not cycling in nearly forty-degree heat in a headwind, that is. That would explain things. At least the heat was dry enough; an improvement on the humidity of Southeast Asia. Still, eating anything (particularly anything sweet) was hard. It took five minutes just to eat an apple, and the pouches of blended fruit I forced into my mouth stuck in my throat like phlegm. The water I tried to wash them down with tasted like hot, chlorinated bathwater. As I stood up to get back on the bike I felt like vomiting, and my legs were turning to jelly. With every turn of the cranks my muscles twinged, on the verge of cramping. This is hell. This is utter hell.


After an hour’s crawling along at a snail’s pace, I jumped at the sign for Meckering and pedalled for all my worth. I pulled up outside the General Store and stumbled inside, panting. The coldest thing on offer are sticks of fruit-flavoured ice. I bought three and a bottle of cold water, then promptly fainted onto the floor. When I managed to get up and drag myself outside, I sat on a bench for half an hour, sipping at my water, barely noticing the flies that crawled back and forth over my eyelids. Unable to go any further if I’d wanted, I washed my shorts in the sink of a public toilet and set up my tent, waiting for the cool of the night. Overhead, parakeets circled and chirped as the sunset drew long shadows across the land. Darkness fell, and the road trains rattled on through the night.


I awoke long before sunrise, ate my standard breakfast fare of canned peaches, then turned back to the road and began to pedal, once more, into the wind. My elbows ached, my palms were numb, and I couldn’t feel anything in my genitals. The old familiar voice slithered into my as I watched the tarmac disappear over the hill in front of me. Quo vadis? Where are you going? You don’t know, do you? And I realised that it was a question I could no longer answer.


It was the revelation of a feeling that had been fomenting, deep down, for nearly 2,000 miles. I can’t do this. Because I don’t want to be here. Or, at least, I don’t want to be here on my bike. I had spent most of Southeast Asia looking far, far ahead, telling myself that things would feel better, that I would feel better, once I reached Australia. How wrong I was, and how much that self-delusion now hurts. I’d wasted so much time. This was worse than being injured. As a road train passes in the other direction, I was glad my sunglasses could hide the tears, and my gentle sobs were lost in the wind. A pair of white cockatoos wheel overhead and across the periphery of my vision, one always trailing, chasing behind the other. At the next town, Cunderdin, I stopped. I had cycled only 92 miles from Perth, and the rest of Australia still lay before me. And here I was, the angry idealist inside crying out for me to move onward, and the tearful coward trying to find any justification for going on. If I don’t cook, my insulin will. In which case I’m buggered. If I go any further, the harder it will be when I almost inevitably try to turn back. In which case I’m buggered. And most importantly, if I don’t turn around now, I’ll be stuck for two months wasting my time and energy doing something I ultimately don’t want to do. In which case I’m buggered. This was it. Truly the end of my dream of a ‘round the world’ tour. But is it my dream? No. It’s the dream of a ghost, someone who planned to be something now impossible. In trying to chase and catch up with Theo, I was chasing a shadow, the idea of a reality that could never exist. It was an epiphany, but it felt like a nightmare. The light faded, and with it the self I thought I could be.


Sunset. Meckering, Western Australia


The next day, I managed to get a lift back with the partner of a lady who worked in Cunderdin’s Community Resource Centre. This was, without a doubt, the hardest decision I’d made of any sort in a long time. Abandoning an idea that’s full of holes shouldn’t be that difficult, but when it’s hung around for half a decade, your daily – and sometimes sole – source of motivation and, it’s a little harder to let go. At least this realisation has come. After five days of killing time in Perth, trying to escape the heat, I rode out to the airport. As the evening coloured the sky a deeper and deeper blue, I packed my bike into yet another box, and boarded the flight I had hoped never to take.


You’ve failed again.


No, I haven’t.


You couldn’t keep to the plan. Your plan, your prison.


The one who built the cell has finally found the key.


Ah. I see.


The voice lapsed into silence. I will never be my heroes. I will never be Theo. I will only ever be myself. And I refuse to put up with my own bullshit about success and failure any more. Let shadows be shadows. It was time for something else.


Something else


Looking at the sign overlooking the Southern Ocean from Stirling Point, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. The waves breaking on the stony, grey shore, and beyond a couple of islands on the horizon, nothing but water until Antarctica. Fingerposts pointed off in various directions. ‘Sydney 2000 km. New York 15008 km. London 18958 km’. Bloody hell. This is, quite possibly, the furthest I will ever conceivably be from home. Starting out from the tip of the windswept outcrop of Bluff – whose Māori name, Motupōhue, translates to English as ‘isolated clump of overgrowth’ – seemed very similar to a moment nearly nine years ago when, as a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old, I set out from John o’Groats to cycle the length of the UK. Riding back across the isthmus connecting Bluff to the mainland, the parallels with northeastern Scotland were many. Sheep, chewing as they ambled among the tussocks of long grass. The mountains, rugged and grey in the hazy distance. The clouds, scudding across the sky on the chill ocean wind. And, of course all the Scottish people, and the place names they brought with them as they migrated and populated this land, one of the last colonised reaches of the British Empire, during the mid-nineteenth century.


The tension was also the same. I’d come to New Zealand long before I’d planned to, and with that extra time, I could work on things. My priorities were shifting: from covering miles to finding enjoyment in the experience; from going where I thought I should be going to going where I wanted to go; from seeing the terrain and the weather as an adversary to seeing and experiencing it as something to be beautiful and treasured. I really hoped to achieve something I could be proud of on the bike, but not if that meant pushing myself until I was out of love with the journey. It was time to rebuild my resilience, centre my source of happiness on myself, and in doing so appreciate all the experiences – good and bad – to come my way. Enough philosophising. Get pedalling. I turned northward, heading through the lakes of the Southland.


Enjoying the sub-optimal temperatures of the Summer Solstice in a homemade sleeping bag. Mossburn, Southland


I love listening to music when I ride. It helps me to regulate my breathing and my cadence, helps me to focus in the saddle when I need to, and enhances the beauty of the world as it passes by, letting me commune with it in my own way. To my mind, there are three categories of songs: songs for the flat, songs for downhill, and songs for uphill. But, an hour and a half into my morning’s ride and only a few miles out of the small town of Springfield (complete with a Simpsons™ giant donut for promotional purposes), no amount of uphill music could have prepared me for Porter’s Pass. I’d already had the pleasure of diverging from the Otago Central Rail Trail to ride the back-breaking Danseys Pass, an almost single-lane unsealed road which had left me with some nice souvenir grazes, but somehow the snaking tarmac winding upwards and out of view in front of me seemed so much worse. New Zealand roads were, in many ways, much better than most of the roads I’d travelled for the past few months, but in the mountains that was certainly not the case, at least from a cyclist’s perspective. Narrow, and with what little shoulder there was covered in broken glass, it was only a matter of time before I was due another puncture. Grinding away in my lowest gear, hoping that my chain wouldn’t start skipping over my worn chainrings, I stood up on the pedals, inching forward at five, three, two-and-a-half miles an hour. The mapping app on my phone was providing some weirdly inaccurate elevation data, and the only thing sustaining my momentum was the knowledge that the top of the climb would come eventually. When at last it did, the view was well earned, but a cold westerly headwind was now blowing through the Southern Alps. Sweaty as I was, I pulled on a hoodie and blasted downhill for the next few miles, listening to Jambinai’s Sawtooth. A downhill song if there ever was one. It had rarely felt so good to be so small amongst the towering majesty of the mountains.


The gradient flattened, then became an incline once more, and my pace slackened as I reached the village of Castle Hill I decided to take a break in a roadside car park. As I pulled in, I noticed a mountain bike, set up for bikepacking with a bar roll, frame bags, and saddle pack, leaning against an information board. I looked around for the owner. A kitted out and extremely well-toned guy walked over, adjusting his cycling glasses under the peak of his cap. Not the intimidating kind. Just the kind you could tell could ride a hell of a lot faster than you, even if he was on a mountain bike. We chatted about or respective routes through the South Island, and decided to ride together towards Arthur’s Pass, the higher and more well-known of the inter-coastal passes linking the metropolis of Christchurch with the comparatively remote West Coast region.


'What’s your name?'


'Tom. And you?'


'Jerry.'


He gave me a dry look, then broke into a broad grin, extending a hand.


'Hilarious.'


I was most glad of the company into the wind, and I certainly hadn’t been wrong in my estimation of Jerry. An engineer of prosthetic limbs from Cairns, Australia, he did a lot of touring and bikepacking, and despite the one by eleven groupset on his bike, it was all I could do just to keep up with him. Unlike Porter’s Pass, the upward gradient was gentle, but on the brief sections of sharper incline I had to pedal like a maniac in order not to lose his tail.


Nice view (the mountains, not the legs. (OK, maybe also the legs.)) Arthur's Pass, Canterbury


The way passed through a series of interconnected glens, each turn bringing new and spectacular views of the valleys, carved out by shallow but wide and fast-flowing channels of the Waimakariri River, each a milky blue from the meltwaters that fed them on their journey down to the east coast behind us. Occasional high country sheep stations would stand out among the gorse and occasional low trees that dotted the landscape. Passing Lake Pearson, the mountains ahead seemed to grow even higher, towering over their neighbours, crowned with snow even in summer. Jerry turned over his shoulder and said something inaudible into the wind.


‘What?’


‘I said, I’ve never seen snow before.’


‘What?!’


‘I know, it’s crazy, right? Thirty-two years old and this is as close as I’ve ever been to it.’


Nothing I could think of in the last few months had made me realise just how different, despite all our similarities, the lives of others can be. Here we were; two young guys, both from high-income Anglophone countries, both with a passion for cycling and seeking to fulfil that passion on the same road, and yet our frames of reference were yet so different. I hadn’t really thought much about the snow’s presence, but the thought that it could in itself be a novel experience to someone with so much in common with me was a real perception-changer.


We turned off the road and had lunch on the stony bank of the river, drinking without a care from the water rushing rapidly past us. For all that the wind was knocking out of me, I was so grateful for the company and the motivation it gave me to make it to the top of the pass. That and the fact that Jerry made a most excellent windbreak. At long last, we reached Arthur’s Pass Village, a little below the summit of the pass itself in a national park of the same name, after the British-born engineer who first surveyed a rail route through the mountains to the West Coast’s then flourishing goldfields. The wind rushed through the narrowing gap between two peaks in which the village was situated, and I needed no clearer sign to stop for the day. I was done in: I’d done 56 miles and climbed nearly 6,000 feet, and had no desire to go any further. Jerry, who’d started the day from a lodge near the top of Porter’s Pass, planned to ride a further 21 miles to a campsite at the western foot of the pass. I would camp in the village for the night, and savour the doubtless awesome views for the morning. We parted with a handshake and a wave, and I headed down to the Department of Conservation campsite, where there were numerous signs warning about aggressive behaviour from the local superstar, the kea (a species of alpine parrot), known affectionately as ‘the clown of the mountains’. Funny – I’d never known a clown that enjoyed rifling through tents and backpacks and ripping open sheep with its talons in the middle of the night. Must be that slightly sarcastic Kiwi sense of humour. (I later saw a church exhorting potential devotees of Christ with the following: ‘Service every Sunday. Come early and beat the Christmas rush.’)


The next morning I emerged from the cooking shelter, too nervous to have risked my tent being torn to sheds in the night. The last few miles brought me to the top of the pass and the long, twenty-mile downhill ride into the West Coast region, just as a thick, dense bank of cloud rolled in. I put on my raincoat and pushed off, gathering speed as gravity took hold of my hurtling mass, my fingers tentatively hovering over the brake levers. After all that climbing, I couldn’t see a bloody thing. Well, I could see where the tarmac ended.


Probably the most pertinent thing, given the circumstances. Otira Viaduct, West Coast


Over the following weeks I zig-zagged across New Zealand, across mountainous moorland, through thick sub-tropical forest, and over fertile, volcanic-fed plains. I was following only roughly a route I’d marked out on my map. What was more important was to follow inclinations when they came: to stop, to look, to turn aside onto the smaller roads and trails diverging from the highway. I had plenty of time to reach Auckland, where I’d be flying back to the UK, signifying the end of Leg 2 of the journey, but I still wanted to push myself; not to cover miles, but to gain as much as possible from being in this amazing place.


However, such an attitude to progress quickly came up against the fact that, in many ways, New Zealand was one of the most restrictive countries I’d been to in a long time. Many Kiwis I spoke to lamented that, for all its progressive appearances, New Zealand’s culture was still socially conservative, bound by silent rules and expectations, making it easy to feel like an outsider, especially outside the major cities, where many towns had seen slumps and crises in their local industries and periods of extended decline during the twentieth century. As a tourist, the rules and regulations were repeated with greater openness and frequency, especially when it came to the outdoors. I found it funny that the many ‘freedom camping’ spots across the country were largely only free for the use of those travelling in fuel-guzzling, self-contained campervans and RVs. Finding a spot for a tent should theoretically have been easier, were it not for the Department of Conservation’s strict enforcement of a $200 fine for anyone found camping outside registered holiday parks, DoC campsites, and local campsites.


Biosecurity was something I’d never seen any country take more seriously. From the extensive checks at airports to the numerous signs reminding outdoor enthusiasts to wash equipment when moving between areas, and well-publicised numbers to report breaches of local controls on fruit flies, possum, and other species. This could feel frustrating and restrictive at times, and I could see that some people – tourists and locals – clearly didn’t feel the necessity of following some of those rules, leaving rubbish, and lighting open fires in areas with a total fire ban, even as the smoke from Australia’s catastrophic bushfires drifted across the Tasman Sea, turning the skies orange. Couldn’t they take a step back and see that this was all to protect one of the planet’s most incredible and fragile ecosystems; one only reached by the first Māori explorers seven hundred years ago; one filled with flora which were growing at the time of Jesus; one whose only mammal life before humans were bats, whales, and seals? The human ego and the illusion of an anthropocentric world must be overcome if the planet is to survive much longer.


The days passed by, half experienced, half in a daydream. Much of the country seemed in many ways so similar to the UK, physically and culturally, and the parts less familiar blended in with the recognisable in a state of reverie. The quaint atmosphere of the tiny community-run domain campsites, with communal spaces with décor straight out of the 1970s. The hills and mountains, so like those of the North, or Wales, or Scotland, strung out and augmented to titanic proportions, and dotted with Wild West-like remains of lumber mills, gold mines, and railways. The gorse, heather, and ferns, giving way to kauri, manuka, totara, supplejack, and cabbage trees. The seemingly hyper-British predilection for meat pies and fish and chips, alongside the Māori flavours of hangi, kumara, and paua. I wasn’t the only one. Sitting outside a shop in Waipu, I heard a Scottish mother, evidently visiting the in-laws of her Kiwi husband, asking her children what they thought of New Zealand so far. Her question was met by a rapture of excited clamouring by her three children, when the youngest daughter piped up: “Y’know, if you took all the houses and made them a lot uglier and added lots of seagulls and made it really, really cold, it would be just like Scotland!”



Hobbiton – in many ways more perfectly English than England itself. Matamata, Waikato


Yet for all these odd and comforting semi-parallels to home, one thing I reflected on with guilt as I began my final day’s ride towards Cape Reinga was that I still knew almost nothing of Māori history and culture. Even despite my avid interest in colonial history, I’d not read even as much as a Wikipedia article on the Māori, and now, as my time in New Zealand was drawing to an end, I was almost exactly as ignorant as when I’d arrived. What little understanding I had gleaned from others had offered me glimpses of the nature of the culture, and indeed the culture’s relation to nature, to its whenua (land). An old woman in Dannevirke, sensing a chance to impart a lesson upon me as I sat in a camp kitchen one evening, told me how part of the divide between those of Māori/Pacific Island heritage and the pākehā (caucasian) population of the country is in part due to a clash of cosmologies; opposing views of the world and humans’ relationship to it. “The pākehā concept of land ownership is totally alien to them. They don’t own the land – it’s their whenua.” The Māori are of the land, and their relationship with it is not one of imperious domination but one of tender, temporary stewardship and mutual sustenance.


This was perhaps nowhere more obvious when, after four weeks of cycling, the last seventeen days without a day off, I reached Cape Reinga. The road cut a roller-coaster road over the red, volcanic earth of the hills, until the land suddenly stopped, falling hundreds of feet down into a dark blue ocean. Again, I was brought back to my first ever bike tour, when after twelve days I arrived at the – largely overhyped – tourist trap of Lands End. A milestone, surely, but still one filled with people jostling, just like me, to get their holiday snaps. Riding my bike down to where the last of the land stretched once more before being claimed by the ocean, I arrived at a squat, white lighthouse and another signpost. I squinted up at it under the glaring sun. ‘London 18029 km’. But what do I really see? I saw Cape Reinga – a lighthouse, an exploitation of the land’s function; and a signpost, a self-imposed symbol of achievement. The Māori see Te Rerenga Waiura, the ‘leaping-off place of the spirits’, where the souls of the dead dive into the underground cave of Te Pokatorere, surfacing at the meeting of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean, singing the last lament on the island of Ohau before returning to Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland. Two visions of reality and its possibilities; neither ‘correct’, neither permanent, like the land itself. I turned back towards Auckland. For now, it was time for me to return home.



In a way, it's facile to attempt to convey three months' worth of experiences across seven countries into a format like this, but I’m continuing to practice in the hope that something bigger and better will come of this exercise. A belated Happy New Year to all: here’s to a year of narrowing the gap between the selves we are and the selves we can be.


Tom



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