Published: April 7th 2009March 24th 2009
In five days and 400 kilometers I concluded my cycle tour of New Zealand. My decision to bus it down to Dunedin and cycle back up from the South turned out to be a very wise one. I've had a strong southerly wind to push me the entire way back to Christchurch along the soft undulating hills, winding coastal roads, and the flat plains of Canterbury. The euphoric and effortless cycling has given me time to linger in the clusters of seaside communities and discover the unique attributes of each. It's also afforded me time to make interesting friends along the way. . .
On the first day, I got a late start out of Dunedin, but quickly made time zigzaging down the coast with soft green hills to my left and the crashing of Pacific waves on my right. I had been cycling a few hours when I spotted my first sign of civilization since my water bottles went dry a while back. I followed a small blue arrow pointing me toward a backpacker's lodge called, "The Asylum". Up a gravel road and across a hunting reserve I found the neatly kept grounds of an old insane asylum now fixed
up into a quite cheery hostel. After the European backpackers lingering on the porch showed me where I could fill my water bottles, they insisted I lodge with them for the night, as they were about to go mussel gathering and wanted me to come along so they could hear my cycling stories. The offer of a free shellfish dinner sounded amazing, and the lodge itself was hard to pass up. Despite it's dark past of being the locale for regular electro shock treatments and lobotomies, the new owners have tastefully adorned the rooms with a nautical theme as if it were the set for a Wes Anderson movie; bright red walls, huge green ferns, and the hatch to a submarine joining the kitchen the the foyer. So before I knew it, my bags were checked in and we were on our way down to the shore in a Dutchman's car to collect mussels. Foraging, above all else, has to be one of the most gratifying methods toward preparing a meal. Like the berry picking I so much enjoyed on the North Island, mussels bloomed all around us, clinging to every rock face as the waves receeded to expose their
glistening shells, and then rushed to hide them again. We descended upon them with our plastic bags and cunning whits, outsmarting 5 heaping bags of them to come home with us and take a steam bath in our big black pots. Before returning to the lodge, we made a detour at the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula where penguins could be spotted around dusk, making their way from the shore to tuck into their warm hovels for the night. The seals were out too, playing about the rocky shore. In comparison to the seals, the yellow eyed penguins we spied, half a dozen in all, didn't put on much of a show. They stood frozen, with arms at their side and molting bellies protruded, hoping there strange human gawkers would mistake them for rocks and move on. I've been told this was one of the only places in New Zealand where penguins could be observed for free, as many species of penguins (there are five in all that are native to New Zealand) have been suffering from malnutrition because of commercial overfishing, meaning there is simply not enough fish for the penguins to eat, and so other penguin
viewing areas in New Zealand are set up by the conservation department where food and monitoring is provided for these dwindling species.
Back at the hostel, we cleaned, steamed, and sauced our massive mussel haul, feeling a little bad about taking more food from mother ocean than the seven of us could manage to eat. But it was a delicious foraged meal, and I'm proud to say no one got food poisoning.
Rising early in the morning, I rode side by side crashing waves until midday, trying to catch up on the miles I traded for shellfish. It was then that I came to the small fishing village of Moreki, famous throughout New Zealand for two things; the bizarre boulders that dot the shoreline, and a seafood restaurant run by a little old lady named Fleur. The ambitious Fleur didn't only open her own restaurant, she decided to buy her own fishing boat, to ensure everything served on your plate just came out of the sea that morning. When I arrived around lunchtime, this place was packed with more diners than the population of the town. A lovely couple from down south invited me to squeeze in at their table,
and enlivened my meal with stories of their own travels, and of the horsebreeding they do back home. I had been hearing about this restaurant since arriving in Aukland, and the meal did not leave me disapointed. I chose the scallops which came in some kind of heavenly cream sauce, and ate in rapture. As I strolled along the shore to the boulders, I couldn't help but feel that this place was a dreamworld, or at least some kind of halfway point between earth and heaven. I then I saw before me, stuck in the sand like black marbles dropped from the fists of clumsy angels, the moreki boulders, in all their perfection, still amongst the eternal tide. How these massive, heavy, perfectly spherical boulders managed to make their way down to the beach, I don't know, but there they lay, quietly weathering away into sand. Honeycomb like patterns form cracks along the surface of the boulders, which will eventually split it open like a giant dinosaur egg, to reveal a hollow center. I traced my fingers along its smooth surface, following the paths of the faultlines, until time wore away to timelessness. Only when I withdrew my hand, at
last I felt the pull to continue onward up the coast, gliding one kilometer at a time closer to my inevitable goal. Just as the hills began to glow with the sharp angle of the low sun, I found a place called Old Bones to rest for the evening. Another idylic kind of place where the crashing waves just steps away may enter your dreams at night, I tucked in filled with contentment. And, again, I spent the evening in good company, sipping tea and playing chess with my roomate for the night.
One the third day, I had to tear myself away from the seashore, wishing you could draw out certain moments in your life longer than others. Upwards through Oamaru, a hearty tailwind helped me make it all the way to Timaru by the afternoon. I had hardly pulled into the drive of my lodging, before the owner rushed out to meet me, telling me to lock up my bike and get in the car. I had to think for a moment if he was mad or just really friendly. But he explained that they were just about to depart for the food and wine festival going on
that day, and was taking some of the backpackers and his mother along. A benefit festival for the new hospice, our twenty dollar admission got us into a dizzying frenzy of wine tasting, sampling manuka honeyed deer meat and chilling out to the sounds of local celtic and dub bands like the Black Seeds. Cycling so much has made my tolerance for alcohaul close to zero, and I was easily out-drank by a Japanese girl, the bubbly Yuki San, who kept insisting I have more Reisling. The rest of the evening is a bit fuzzy, and somehow I've wound up with a photo on my camera of myself possing with a bunch of nuns.
The next day, I did not manage to get up so early, and despite how flat things had become since entering the Canterbury Plains, spent all day getting to Ashburton, the only thing to be found halfway between Timaru and Christchurch. The only accomodation I could find was a dorm bed in the cabin of a motorcamp, occupied mostly by foreigners who were fruitpicking in the area. The day before, as I had sat in a cafe sipping my flat white, I noticed in a kiwi
magazine that Ashburton was featured in a cover story entitled, "One of the nicest places to live in New Zealand". I guess what I look for in a city is not the same as what kiwis value. I found Ashburton to be annoyingly small, and, well, closed. I had strolled into town at 5pm on a Thursday, mind you, and not even the fish and chips takeaway was open. Save for the loud traffic burling down state highway 1 which ran through town center, the place was dead. I've wondered this many times when I've been in New Zealand, especially the South Island; where is everybody, and like, what do they even do? Perhaps growing up in a city, I have a hard time imagining a childhood spent without trips to the local cinema, malls, miniature golf, and so forth. Whats it like, growing up in a place with just nature, and not much else, i wonder. Well, after wondering for quite a while, i was able to buy the ingrediants to a quick meal just before the town's only store shut. Back at the motorcamp, as I was preparing my instant rice and prepackaged sauce, a band of boisterous
Chileans burst into the room, inviting me to join in their BBQ and fiesta. Again, I spent the evening in the company of joy and friendship that could only be temporary. The Chileans, six of them in all, had each come to New Zealand seperately as strangers, but by chance, had found each other, pretty wild I think as they are the only South Americans I've encounted since coming to New Zealand (I don't think I would have been so surprised if they were German). Having work visas, they had all gotten hooked up with employment together at a nearby food packaging plant. It was Carlos's birthday, and to celebrate, the plant had provided them with a feast of meat and veggies which they were setting to work grilling Chilean style. With Raggatone bumping in the backround, and heaps of delicious foods being dished on my plate, I became absorbed completely in the crazy and colorful dialogue of the group. It was refreshing to be with people who behave so differently from the reserved kiwis, and for the first time in months, I felt comfortable to laugh louder and be sillier than at all the host families and farms I've been staying with. It was a realization, in a way, as much as this country is gorgeous and its people are friendly and wonderful, I know I don't fully fit in here, and I know New Zealand can't provide me with the sort of vibrancy I enjoy from people. I've heard many people comment that New Zealand is like the US was fifty years ago; filled with small towns where everybody knows each other and goes for walks on Sundays. People here are the definition of what the word neighboorly used to mean before we all got suspicious of each other and started to commute from our airconditioned cars to our airconditioned offices and stores, avoiding any unnecessary interactions. We have a lot to learn from kiwis, and I hope that their way is the one that stays preserved. But personally, I think there is still somewhere out there for me that is a better fit.
And so, on my fifth and final day of cycling, I pushed myself along the loud and flat highway 1 back up into Christchurch, moving my body forward but still stuck with my mind in the past few days. Moving and stopping. These are simple things, but there are so many ways that we can do and experience them. I hope to keep finding new ones myself.