Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Time Is Now

To act, or not to act?  That is really the question that Shakespeare should have asked.  Whether it is more noble to act in a positive manner and to contribute to society, or to do nothing, and complain and moan about the state of everything?  I will always chose positive action over negativity and lethargy any day.  Yesterday, I witnessed an incident that reinforced my thoughts about our societies and made me wonder when are people going to wake up to the fact that they are the society in which they live?

As I walked the pavements of London, I saw a woman cycling her bicycle alongside a stream of cars, all making their way home from work.  Almost at the instant that I saw this cyclist, her shopping bag gave way, spilling several apples, that rolled on to road, until they came to a stop right in the middle of the road.  Too far away to lend assistance, I watched as the woman fought to balance her bicycle and at the same time, to pick up the apples.  Some people walked past on the pavement, the cars continued on.  Not one person stopped to give assistance.  Not one car paused to allow the woman more room.  In this one moment was a clear demonstration of everything that I believe to be wrong in our modern societies.

How would you have acted?  Would you have run to give aid and help.  Perhaps you would, but ask yourself truthfully, would you really?  It is all too easy to say to yourself that it is not my problem, that she will be okay, that someone else will stop, that I would like to stop but I really have to get to that appointment, to get home to put on the dinner, to go to the gym, to walk the dog, to pick up the kids.  The excuses go on and on.  Our modern and sophisticated society seems to always tell us that it is some else's responsibility, to provide an excuse for not acting, and for not being held accountable for your actions.

Here's another situation you will find yourself in.  You walk along the street and you see some litter laying on the pavement.  What do you do?  Do you stop, pick it up and carry it to the nearest rubbish bin?  Or do you mutter to yourself about the state of people these days and complain about where your tax payments have gone and leave the litter exactly where it is?  It's not your job to clean up after someone else is it?  That is the job of the local council, that is what unemployed people should do to earn their welfare, that is what criminals should do to help make amends for their wrong doings.  Why should you do it?  After all, you did not put it there.

As far as I can see, the trend in our society is to become annoyed, to complain about how things are, to accept them, to turn a blind eye, and to pass on the responsibility.  This is wrong.  Some people will say that capitalism is to blame because it breeds a culture of selfishness and greed.  It does not.  That is just another excuse that you give yourself for your lack of action.  We are all part of our society and as such, we each have a direct responsibility to make the society in which we wish to live.  We are all accountable for the state of things.  It is not the fault of the government, our economic system, materialism, the local council, immigrants, nor the youth.  It is your fault.

In the Bible, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan.  The Samaritan was the person who took pity on the man at the side of the road who was in great need of help.  This only occurred after other respected persons (a priest, a levite) in the society at the time had passed him by and done nothing.  This is exactly the same as now.  People are walking past, turning away, and doing nothing.  It is not a question of religion.  Neither is it a question of race, gender, or age.  It is for each of us to do something to turn this around and to change it.

I was in New Zealand recently, at Lake Taupo.  As I walked from my motel into the town one morning, I saw on a picnic table discarded fast food wrappers and cartons.  It made a horrible mess.  No more than 5 metres (15 feet) away was a rubbish bin.  At first, I muttered to myself about the laziness of people and I walked past the table.  But I could only walk a few more paces before I was forced to turn around.  I walked purposely back to the table, picked up all of the litter and put it into the rubbish bin.  A woman passed me by as I did this and gave me a big smile.  This was my reward for my unselfish action.  Later that morning, I thought some more about what had happened.  By clearing the table, I made a woman happy.  I also made sure that from that moment on, no one else would see it, no one else would have cause to complain and to have negative thoughts which could spoil their morning.  I made sure that the picnic table could be used again.  It meant that the local council workers could focus on more important matters.  I did something positive.  The ripples of my action spread wider than I had first realised.  Indirectly, I had touched the lives of others in a positive way.  I had contributed to the society in which I found myself in a positive way and for that, I felt good inside.  I took that situation and made it into a positive experience.

I am no saint.  I am not perfect by any means.  What I do want to do though, is to make a difference.  I want to know that I tried, that I did not sit idly, that I did not just complain and moan about the state of the world and society.  I want to know that I helped people, that I reached out through my actions to enrich those around me.  I have a strong belief that if others started to act in a positive way, to begin to take care of those around them and the societies in which they lived, others would begin to do the same.  Once a cause gathers momentum, it quickly experiences a snowball effect.  The minority becomes the norm.

We each have the power to make society in the form that we wish to see and experience it.  Each of us is responsible.  Most of us are luck enough to live in a free society, we enjoy freedoms of choice.  This is your choice.  Do or not do.  You have the power to change.  It only takes one spark to light a fire.  Take your energy and do something good.  Quit complaining, stop saying it is someone else's fault, and start doing something positive about it.  Each of us can make the difference.  Many ripples that join in harmony become a wave.  Let's create waves and make the change.  The time is now.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Dolphins, The Sea And Me

The day had begun in utter darkness, no moon nor star shone this night.  The boat rocked and rolled over swells that swept in from the open ocean, heading towards land where they would become the waves that broke against the shore.  Before long, a line of grey had appeared in the sky heralding the approaching dawn.  Across the land, huge shapes emerged from the dark and slowly transformed themselves into the misty gloom of a mountain range.  To the east, out over the ocean a curve of orange light slowly rose from the water and became a perfect orb of pale light, more reminiscent of the moon than the sun, masked as it was behind a thick veil of cloud.  As it lifted, the day finally dawned and rays of light struck upon the surface of the water, creating glittering shimmers of gold.  And there, within that golden light, the dolphins came.

At 4:50am in the morning, when my alarm woke me from my sleep, I wondered what I was doing.  What had driven me to say that I would go and swim with dolphins so early in the morning?  As I lay there, in that time between sleep and true awakening, I asked myself what the refund policy would be for a no-show, so I could sleep on for a few more hours.  It was very tempting.  No, that was not going to be how my day would begin.  A chance to swim with dolphins, how often does that happen in life?  I threw back the cover and kick started myself into action.

Forty minutes later and I was at Dolphin Encounter, sitting in an auditorium, wearing two layers of 7mm wet suit to protect against the cold  16C water, and equipped with fins, hood and mask and snorkel.  A large group of people had assembled all with the same purpose and possibly all asking themselves why they are here at such an hour?  What is clear now though, is that the tiredness and lethargy so evident when we all first arrived, have been replaced with excitement and anticipation.  After watching a short briefing film for 15 minutes, that educated us on the dusky dolphins that inhabit the oceans that surround Kaikoura, we all board a bus and are driven the short distance across the peninsula to South Bay, where the boats are waiting for us.  Shortly, we are underway in darkness, the twinkling lights of the jetty and of the town that is gradually stirring to life, receding behind us.

Sitting at the back of the boat, leaning backwards over the port side, feeling the early morning air rush over me, I knew I was in that moment between dream and reality.  It is a time when all of your imaginings of how an experience might be cease and those of actual memory begin to replace them.  I was on the verge of realising a dream, all that was needed was a pod of co-operative dolphins to appear.  Although the sun had now risen, the day was dark and gloomy under a grey blanket of cloud that filled all the sky.  The breaking day and the sunrise are the triggers for the dolphins to return to the shallower water after their night time feeding, so this lack of light was keeping the dolphins away longer than usual.  I wondered if this would be a false start, whether there might be a need to return the following day for a second chance?  As I looked out in to the golden light that played on the ocean's surface, I saw the ocean come alive as dolphins leapt clear of the water and swam our way.

The day dawns
The dolphins, the sea and me.  That is all that existed.  We were caught in our own universe, held in an existence that was only ours to know.  Everything else was gone, shut out and put away.  I turned around and around, almost making myself dizzy, chasing a dolphin as it tried to swim around me.  I tracked it as best as I could, spinning myself through the use of my hands, pulling the water in front of me, over and over again, faster and faster, as the dolphin tried harder to evade me.  It was a game, our game.  I would play this game many times during the morning, it seemed to me that the dolphins enjoyed it as much as I did.  Cat and mouse, mouse and cat, which was which, I could not tell, it did not matter.  There were times when I was under the ocean, desperately holding my breath in my lungs, fighting to hold myself down, as the buoyancy of my wetsuits forced me back towards the surface.  For those few seconds under the surface, I was able to barrel roll myself around, to see dolphins swim over me, to the sides of me and underneath.

Perhaps the most precious part of the experience was taking a breath and duck diving down to see five or six dolphins speeding towards me, coming directly at me, their heads bobbing up and down as they pushed the water with their powerful tails.  Whoosh! They separated in time, swimming past me, to the left, to the right, over my head, beneath me. My mask filled with water.  Smiling and laughing whilst wearing a diving mask is not recommended since it breaks the seal, letting water flood in.  But what could I do?  I could not help myself.  I was happy, ecstatic, lost to the moment.

Dusky dolphins playing at the bow.
That moment.  A moment that you never wish to end yet it must.  It was time to swim back to the boat, time to share the smiles, happiness and the experience with the other swimmers.  Reluctantly, I pulled myself back on to the swim step at the back deck.  My time swimming with dolphins was over but I knew that the experience would live on.  This was a dream come true.  A tick I could place in another box.  But it's not only ticks in boxes, is it?  It is knowing that you dared to realise that dream and in do so, you discovered that the reality was indeed better than all of the thoughts and wondering.  Why?  Because you made it a reality.  Dream becomes experience becomes memory.  Memories like these become smiles that will last until the final breath, and accompany you on the next journey.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Dream Or A Memory - The Choice Is Yours To Make

The sun beat down on an already parched land. The wind blew across the fields of brown and withered grass, bending stalks, creating the illusion of a wave running across an ocean. To the east, the ocean itself, its waters a beautiful and rich azure, that deepened and darkened away from the shore. Across to the west, majestic and towering, the mountain peaks, snow clinging to the northern slopes, even now, resisting the days of high summer. Ahead, the road snaked on and on, writhing and twisting its way around the coastline. This was the coast road that linked the towns of Blenheim and Kaikoura, on the South Island of New Zealand. Along this road, I now cycled.

Parched and dry land
How can I explain the feelings that I experienced yesterday? How do I explain the childish grin that erupted across my face, the wild, untamed laughter and the beating of my chest and the punching of my fist in the air, as I uttered a cry of pure and utter, unabated joy? It sounds like a madness and it is. It is the madness that comes from following your heart, from going in pursuit of your dream, and from the moment of realisation. That here you are, dream and reality are inseparable, each melding into one, no longer able to distinguish where dream ends and reality begins, the dream is no longer only a dream, it is now, it is here, it is reality, and soon it will be a memory. A memory that exists from an actual experience. No longer the thought of what might be, no longer the wonder of how it would be.

The reward after a long, hard climb
Since the first time I drove this road in 2004, I have thought of it. For me, it is one of the most beautiful, scenic and stunning roads that exists on this planet. It reminds me of State Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, that runs the coastline of California, particularly the section from Los Angeles up to San Francisco, through the Big Sur. Kaikoura itself is also a very special place. I came here for the first time in the New Zealand winter of 2004.

I'd driven all day, coming up from Queenstown in the south, after I'd scared myself witless making my first (and last) bungy jump from the Kawarau Bridge, the home of the first commercially operated bungy in the world. I'd driven into the night through heavy rain, so that I would be in Kaikoura in time to go whale watching the following day, something I certainly did not want to miss. I'd never known nor suspected what would await me the next morning, and I think it was all the more special because of that. It came as a complete surprise. From the first moment that I pulled open the curtains on my motel room and stood in jaw-dropping awe, my eyes taking in the crescent of beach that arced around to the north, the water glittering and sparkling, as the sun shone out of a perfect clear blue sky, and the mountains to the north, standing tall and mighty, blanketed in snow, I was in love. From that moment, Kaikoura was special to me.

Ocean and mountains
Dream or memory? Both live within our thoughts and our consciousness. Each is nothing more than some form of mysterious electrical pulse that exists within the matter of our brains. Some dreams are so vivid that on waking, it seems that they exist in memory, as real moments that were actually experienced. But they were not. Dreams are good. Without a dream in the heart, it is not possible to push yourself, to strive to be more than you are, to seek out the unknown. A dream must not stay in the heart forever. In the heart, caged like a prisoner, the dream will eventually wither and die. As the dream dies, so too does a little piece of the soul – of your very own soul. Each dream that dies, means that you are one step closer to the end, to the inevitable darkness that must consume us all.

Turning a dream into a memory, that is the key that will unlock the universe. A dream that becomes a memory is never dead. It has been been given life and it has transmuted into a memory. And as a memory, it will happily live on forever more. A dream that is a memory is your companion for the rest of your days. It is there to be recalled, to be looked upon and to be relived. In so doing, you will feel the joy and the happiness as you felt them in the moment that you first realised the dream and you will know in that moment one very important thing – that you lived your life and that you followed your heart.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Long Time Dead

The wind carried something with it that day.  Daniel could feel it.  It was not the biting cold that came down from the north, an infectious, bitterness that permeated the skin, burying its claws deep, finding its way inside his veins.  Nor was it the dampness that fell from the dark clouds that scurried overhead, charging across the valley, driven on by the ever present wind.  This feeling of Daniel's came from within and it was not the first time that he had felt it.  Today though, it was different.  Perhaps it was the cold that made his mind drift and long for the warm days of summer, more so this day than before.  Whatever it was, it mattered not.  In his heart, Daniel knew what he must do, as he had known for some time now.

~ ~ ~

This morning, as I walked down into the city of Wellington, through the cemetery at Bolton Street, a thought came to my mind.  'A long time dead.'  I'm not sure what brought this thought to my mind.  Like so many thoughts that occur, a spark of some mysterious force triggers them seemingly out of nowhere, but the truth is that deep down, some place in the subconsciousness, this thought has been forming, growing and watered, waiting for the moment when it would raise its head from the soil and make itself known.  The old graves of the cemetery, the stones that look down upon the city and the water, they were the trigger today.  Underneath that earth are the remains of people that once lived, who once breathed just as you and I breathe, who smiled, laughed and cried, who believed that there would always be another day.

The truth is that one day will come the last day.  It might not be today, nor tomorrow, it might not even be for a number of years, yet that day will surely come, as surely as night follows day.  Each day that we live out our lives brings us one day closer to our inevitable end.  Is that a melancholy and depressing thought?  I don't mean it to be.  I use it only to illustrate one very important point: the need to make hay, the need to make dreams a living reality sooner rather than later.  Or, as a certain Robert Herrick once wrote, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."

This cycle tour has illustrated that to me very clearly.  At certain moments I have felt a rush of life force flooding my veins.  I have been unable to prevent a beaming grin from erupting on my face.  In the middle of no where, on my own, surrounded only by the wild of nature, the calls of birds, the hum of cicadas, I have laughed out loud, I have punched the air with sheer glee and delight, an overwhelming emotion of being here, of living out my dream and the giddy, euphoric happiness that comes with it.  There have been moments when I have wanted to cry, overcome with raw emotion and joy.  Those moments, those are the precious moments that define a life.  No, not just a life.  They define life.

I am guilty of squandered chances.  I know that much to my own chagrin.  I try not to waste chances but waste them I do.  Sometimes fear gets the better of me.  It is important to own up to such things because I feel it is important that any reader know that everyone is imperfect.  I talk to others of the pursuit of dreams and I encourage them.  I always shall.  I want to see others accomplish their goals and achieve their desires.  I use my own life as an illustration that anyone, that everyone can do this.  It is simply a case of taking the first step and then the next.  Those wasted chances, some I may live to regret, but I also know that certain chances will come again, if they were meant to be.  That is how we learn the lessons and how we grow our life spirit.

I have dreams to be fulfilled.  I do not know if I will achieve them all.  Right now, I have a work in progress.  My cycle tour is underway, I already feel that I have accomplished so much more than I could ever have expected.  Nonetheless, I will see it through to the end.  And after?  There is a question that remains to be answered.  One dream at a time.  Life has a way of resolving itself, of bringing you what you need, when you need it, you just have to keep your eyes open.  More than that though, you must keep your heart open and see the world through its eyes.  Perhaps that is the best advice of all.

Never reach the end and look back with regret.  The best definition of regret I can offer is that regret is wasted energy.  If you can change something, change it.  If you cannot, move on and leave it behind.  To reach that final day and to know that there were things that you still wished to accomplish, things that you knew you could have done, that is not regret.  This is my definition of hell.  And you shall not find me there.

~ ~ ~

Daniel stood up and began to walk back down the hillside.  He began slowly, finding that despite the downward force of gravity, his legs felt tired and heavy, unwilling to move.  "Perhaps I sat for too long?", he wondered, but already he knew that was not the reason for the heaviness he was feeling.  Sitting up on the hill, Daniel had looked out across the hills, valleys, rivers and fields of this land he knew so well and he had made a promise to himself.  It was that promise that now weighed heavily on his shoulders and gave reluctance to his legs.  "When I get to the bottom of the hill and reach home, everything will change and nothing will ever be the same again."  Had he made the right decision?  He could change his mind and no one would ever know about the promise that he had made to himself.  No one that was, except for his own heart.  Yet, even as the thought of breaking the promise came to him, a chink in the clouds appeared, sending a shaft of sunlight beaming down to light up a patch of stony ground on the earth below.  It was a sign and in that moment, any weariness left him.  In that moment of cloud, sun and earth, Daniel knew something important, he felt some how different.  He had begun and he would see it through.  And with that thought, Daniel's heart began to be happy.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Home For the Homeless

120 km.  That's how far I had cycled the previous day, now I was only 69 km from Wellington.  For the most part the road was flat, my dear old adversary, the wind, was from the side and perhaps slightly from behind, helping me towards my goal on what I knew would be a special day.  The sky was clear and blue, the sun beat down and I had a joy in my heart.  I would be in Wellington by early afternoon, but how was I going to feel about returning to the city that I loved, that held so many fond memories for me?

After spending more than three years living, studying and working in Wellington, I had left in April 2010 to pursue other dreams of my heart.  At the time I left, I questioned my motives, I considered if I was doing the right thing, I wondered if I would ever regret leaving.  I had my reasons for going, at least, I made them my reasons, the spur I needed to push me forward, to move me on to new experiences and places.  There had been a loss of a dear friend, taken prematurely, way before his time.  There was love and the hope for a future.  And of course, as always, there was the sense of adventure and the unknown.  My feet were itchy, I needed to move on before I became more permanently entrenched in my life in the city.

The cycling was easy and the kilometres ticked down.  My bike may have been heavy but there was a lightness in my soul that helped me along the road.  As I came down SH1, that runs along the western Kapiti coast, I was afforded views out across the ocean, to Kapiti Island itself.  Finally, after more than 1,500km in the saddle, pushing those pedals around and around, I was coming into places that I knew.  Almost without effort, at least it seemed that way after the previous few days of riding in which I had covered 440km in five days, suffering spells of a cold and biting wind that brought penetrating rain, I reached the suburbs of outer Wellington.  I had been forced off the main highway and onto minor roads, as SH1 is designated motorway and bicycles are not allow for a section of the road.  All that remained and separated me from the city itself was one last, steep hill to climb.

Was Wellington drawing me in?  It felt that way.  On the other side of the hill, I was able to rejoin SH1 and the road dropped down to the sea.  My speed picked up and I watched the numbers on my cycle computer as they increased. 60km/h... 65km/h... 70km/h... I topped out at 74km/h feeling exhilarated, occupying the centre of the lane, keeping up with the other traffic around me.  I was now into the city itself, coming past the docks, the ferry terminals, the Westpac Stadium, where I had watched the All Blacks play Australia in a rugby union test (the All Blacks thrashed the Aussies) and England play the Black Caps in a one day cricket international (England were dismal and were annihilated).  Here I was then, back in Wellington and how did I feel about it?

I could not stop smiling. There was nothing that I could do about it.  It was a smile that began in my heart, buried deep in the very fabric of my soul, and erupted onto my face.  I must have looked a little crazy cycling along like that, giddy with happiness, on the verge of laughter, happy as I was feeling.  I had reached the waterfront and there I stopped to drink in the view.  Wellington, dear Wellington, you did not disappoint.

My first glimpse of Wellington from the waterfront

This was a picture postcard day in Wellington.  Little to no wind, clear, blue skies and a hot sun beaming down from overhead.  I do not think there is any place I'd rather be in all the world than Wellington on a day like this.  I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming, to make sure that I was actually here.  I could feel the emotion inside of me, threatening to erupt and to spill its tears of lava down my cheeks.  I was almost unable to take it all in.  I had returned to a place that I had called home, a city that meant so much to me, that had helped move me on in my life, that held so many great memories.  I felt nothing other than pleasure at being back.  There was no sense of regret, rather the feeling of gladness for the time that I had spent here.

Bathers at Oriental Bay

I cycled slowly around the waterfront, noting the small and almost imperceptible changes that had occurred in my absence.  Changes for the better, I noted.  I zigzagged my way slowly through the throngs of people, all enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the capital, making my way to Oriental Bay, the beach of Wellington.  Here, the crowds were most dense, here, the young and the hip came to strut their stuff, and all the while the surf life guards patrolled, keeping a careful eye over everything and giving out free sun block.  And here, as I hoped it might be, was the little mobile coffee van, where I used to regularly purchase my coffee.  I was chuffed to pieces that the owners recognised me after all this time and remembered my drink.

Downtown Wellington

I sat on the sea wall, sipping at my coffee, taking in the views of the bay, the mountains across the water and the high rises of downtown.  I was back in Wellington.  My heart was glad of it, I could feel its soft purring, I could sense its happiness.  As I sat there, I wondered whether this was my home, the place of which I have been looking.  I realised that actually, it did not matter.  All that mattered was that I was back and that I was happy. Everything else will take care of itself when the time is right.  That is how I have always known it would be for me.  And so my search goes on.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Flying On Two Wheels And Skinny Dipping

The water was clear, blue and inviting. The sun, which only put in an occasional appearance was hot when it did, lighting up the landscape, transforming it, giving it life and a glow. At a bend in the river, the water slowed and deepened and there were smooth, rounded, polished rocks that made a natural set of steps down to the edge. This was the place, I knew it would be, I felt it inside. It was now or never. To take the plunge or to let the chance pass me by forever...

Today, I finally set off from Taupo, after spending two full days there. That had never been the plan. The plan was for one rest day but yesterday, when I awoke, I could scarcely find the energy to move, let alone pack up the bike and head off down the road. I knew that I would not make it, I knew that I did not want to make it, perhaps that was more the thing, so I planned for another day in Taupo.

It is the Waikato River that crashes and tumbles its way through the narrow gorge of the Huka Falls, a most spectacular sight, where I had spent a couple of hours the previous day. I had seen the falls on my first visit to New Zealand ten years ago, but I did not remember them being quite as impressive as I found it to be now. Perhaps that has much to do with my rebirth, by the discovery of my true self and the subsequent way in which I now see the world around me. I stood mesmerised by the water and the natural power that was on show, and by the constant roar of fury, almost as if the water was angered by the constriction set upon it by the hard rock of the narrow gorge, through which it must flow. Once through, the river broadens and slows and returns to peaceful tranquility, as if the tumultousness of what had just occurred had never been. Now that I recall it, as I had stood on the bridge across Huka Falls, I could feel myself drawn to the water below. Despite the obvious danger and risk to life, I wanted to be in that water, to be part of it, perhaps forever.

My road today was again State Highway 1 (SH1), that ran alongside the lake, affording me considerable views across the great expanse of water. I was under the misguided impression that there would be ample places to stop for a coffee break once underway, on that I was utterly wrong. As it happened, it did not matter. My legs felt strong and I pushed along at a great rate. Even the one big hill of the day, coming at 12km, was no problem and I went up and over with barely a second thought about it. On the other side, with the wind behind me, I maintained speeds in excess of 50km/h for a few kilometres. I could not contain myself and I screamed out and punched the air as I rocketed down hill. My two wheels may have been on the road but my heart and soul were flying, my spirit had been set free. This truly was freedom, this was exultation, this was love. I thought once about stopping and at 35km, I pulled in to a gas station and cafe, but I reasoned that by then, I was only a further 15km from Turangi itself and at the rate I was cycling and the way I was feeling, this was no problem at all.

I made it to Turangi within two hours of setting off from Taupo. 50km in two hours with a fully loaded touring bike. That showed me exactly what could be done when the wind was not in your face all day. I had been tempted to make a lunch stop then push on through fro Turangi and continue along the Desert Road south, as I felt as if I could cycle all day this day. But as I had entered Turangi, a cold drizzle had begun to fall and the thought of going past, knowing that the road ahead held little in the way of stopping points, I quickly went off the idea. Instead, I booked into a backpackers (even the thought of pitching the tent had lost all appeal in the grey dampness) and I decided to stay in Turangi as I had originally planned.

With an afternoon free, I took advantage of a walk along the Tongariro River and as I did, the sun broke through the cloud, bringing light and warmth. The thought of taking a dip in the river came to my mind, all I needed to do was to find the right place. I had no togs (bathing suit) with me, so it would need to be a skinny dip, in underwear at the very least. I found the perfect spot and for a minute I contemplated whether I should take the plunge. I knew it was a now or never moment, a once in a lifetime moment that decides your fate and alters the course of the future. I stared at the water with a longing, I could feel the urging of my heart. I remembered a similar time, a long time ago in South Africa, when, after a day hike with a friend, a plunge pool presented itself. Then, as now, it was hard to resist temptation. Before I knew it, I was stripping off my t-shirt, Converse, socks and jeans and taking the plunge. I always thought it would be cold and it was, but I was glad of the refreshment. I didn't stay in the water more than perhaps a minute, the cold was already seeping down into my bones. It really was too cold and the current downstream quite swift, so I swam back to the rocks and exited promptly, drying and warming again under the rays of the afternoon sun.

Tongariro River - scene of a skinny dip

This morning I grew wings and flew and in the afternoon I plunged into the cold, clear water of a river. How many other days can offer opportunities such as these? This is why it is necessary to walk the path and to stay true to yourself and your dreams. There will come a time when I remember such a day and the memory of it will burn bright and bring a smile to my lips. I will know that when I had the chance, I chose to live my life in a way that was deliberate and in the way that suited me. I will know that I followed my heart and for that, I will be forever grateful for the chances I have been given. But more than that, I will be forever grateful for my heart.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Of Mist And Lakes And Roads That Only Go Up

I woke to a strange sound, it was the sound of utter silence.  For those first few moments on waking, peace and quiet held rein and I was loathe to disturb them.  I eased myself out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the fly sheet of the tent and peeked out.  The sight that greeted me was not the one I had been hoping for, nor the one I had been expecting, this was even better.

It took a few moments for my eyes to perceive and for my sleepy brain to comprehend what it was that I was seeing.  Instead of an early morning sun shining brightly down onto the waters of the lake and the forests and hills across in the distance, I was presented with a veil of a grey misty nothing.  The mist had descended during the night and now it blanketed everything.  The air was completely still.  It was not the leaves on the trees that proved it to me, it was the surface of the lake that was a sheet of silky, smooth, glass with not a single ripple or movement to be seen.  This morning was as perfectly still as one could hope to find.

The misty morning at Lake Maraetai, Mangakino

The stillness of the morning was soon disrupted by the arrival of the first of a continuous stream of cars, people and boats, all coming down to make use of the lake on a Sunday morning.  It did not matter, I needed to be up and away and on my way to Taupo.  The owner of the Bus Stop Cafe, literally a bus at the lakeside, had informed me that the road to Taupo would be a continuous, uphill gradient, but I was sceptical.  Roads that go up, always must go down I reassured myself.  With only 50km to cycle, I was looking forward to an easy day, so I was not in a particular rush to get on the bike, choosing to stay for a coffee and watch the wake boarding action and all the comings and goings around the lake before I set off.

The road went up.  And up.  And up.  At least it felt that way.  It was not steep by any means, rather a gentle gradient that slowly and surely sapped the strength out of the legs.  But this was not to be the biggest problem of the late morning.  The wind, that was non-existent in the early morning stillness, was now gusting and worse still, it was gusting into me and across me.  It was the wind, that seemingly ever present demon of my travels, that sapped the energy out of me and drained my morale.  It was impossible to gain any kind of momentum and between wind and hills, I tired quickly.  I tried not to look at my cycle computer because I knew it made for depressing reading, just another thing to reduce my morale still further.  My easy ride?  Huh!

I stopped for lunch and a break after 25km and it was needed.  As I sat atop a gatepost, eating my way through a still warm and utterly delicious steak and mushroom pie, I planned the road ahead.  I would cycle 10km more, then stop again, then another 10km, stop, and finally I could push out the final 5km or so into Taupo.  Back on the bike, I started off once more, cursing the wind, cursing the hills, shouting to no one, yelling to everyone, but my voice was carried away to fade out and disappear, to become lost, the way that I was feeling out here on my own amongst the fields, the sparse trees and the brown hills of  dry summer.

As I reach that next 10km mark, I pushed on.  I told myself that if I can get through 2km more, it will put me 2km further down the road, and 2km closer to Taupo and my goal.  I pushed on though.  As I reached 40km for the day, everything changed.  The road began to descend through some pine forest that sheltered me from the wind and my speed picked up.  I had barely managed 18km/h all day and here I was flying along at close to 40km/h.  At one point, as I glanced down at my cycle computer to see 54km/h, I let out my own barbaric yawp, a yawp of which Whitman would have been proud.   I was fast closing in on Taupo and knew that I would not stop again this day.  There was one final kick though, a sharp, steep hill to climb up and over, so I put my head down, dropped down the gears, found a rhythm and pumped it through.  On a bike, it does not matter how slow you go uphill, all that matters is that you find the right gear, you find that rhythm, and you pass the test.  Every hill is my own personal Mont Ventoux, my own Alpe d'Huez.

At the top of that final hill, I knew I had passed all the tests that the day had given me.  Lake Taupo was ahead of me, its water choppy, dark and wholly uninviting, and there was the town nestled by the shore.  I had made it through another day and I knew that tomorrow I did not have to climb back into the saddle.  For that, both I and my backside were eternally grateful.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Back In Auckland Where The Real Adventure Begins

Today, returning to Auckland left me with an odd feeling. It felt like the end of my trip and in a way, I suppose it was an end. As I caught a glimpse of the Auckland Sky Tower again it felt a little like a home coming. But this was no home coming. This is not even the end. My return to Auckland marks only the beginning of the real adventure.

My tour of Northland, the most northerly region of New Zealand was never my intended route. It was rather forced on me by circumstances and events beyond my control (Broken Promises and a Change of Plans). That said, it has proven a fantastic opportunity to become acquainted with the rigours of cycle touring and I am happy to have had the experience. I now realise that this was a blessing in disguise. A much needed short introduction into the world of cycling long distances, carrying all of your belongings with you.

During these two weeks, I have cycled some 700km (411 miles), I've visited some of the most historical places in all of New Zealand, I've met some incredible and wonderful people, I've heard some fascinating life stories, I've made new friends, I became trapped by the tail end of a cyclonic weather system, and I've been woken in the dead of night by the wailing of a tsunami warning siren. It feels special and it is special. Even though I have a lot further to cycle, in fact, I have only touched the tip of the iceberg so far, I have learned much about what it takes to cycle tour and I have learned much about myself in the process.  Even if I were to stop now, I would see these two weeks as an achievement, but I do not want to stop now.  This is still only the beginning.

Not everything has been as I would have hoped and there have been difficult days and moments. My ride from Ruakaka up to Russell (Headwind, Hills and a Town Too Far), a distance of some 136km stands out. That day taught me much, not least that I am only human, that I am far from being perfect, and that I am not invincible.  Although I reached my destination, it was a day that frightened me, that left me shaken and broken, and wondering whether I could actually accomplish my dream. I needed that day. It was a learning day and it allowed me to set more sensible and realistic goals. It is also not as easy to free camp (pitching your tent in unofficial places) as I had thought. I haven't managed to free camp once so far and to be honest, I haven't felt the need. It remains on my to do list and until I do it, I will not feel as though I have experienced the adventure that I came here seeking.

I've experienced one near miss with traffic so far, which happened today on my way back down to Auckland. I was in good rhythm and speed when a car decided to cut left across the cycle lane, pull into a gas station right in front of me and I had no option other than to make a sudden swerve around the car, out into the road.  Unsighted by the car and unbeknown to me, the cycle lane ended abruptly on the other side of the gas station entrance. As I cut back in to what I thought would be the cycle lane once again, I had no time to react as I bumped heavily into a kerb (curb) stone. My front wheel bore the impact and both of my front panniers were bumped off, one of them ending up in the road, the other on the pavement. I stayed upright and stopped to recover my things before any passing cars could flatten the contents of the pannier. It's always amazing how the people who create these incidents remain completely oblivious to what is going on around them, either that or they choose to stare straight ahead, in the hope that what they do not see, cannot really be happening. With this one exception, I've enjoyed some good days on the road among heavy traffic, even finding that the notorious State Highway 1 and the logging trucks that use it, is actually not as bad as I had read, and had been led to believe.

Two weeks down, ten more weeks to come. I know that I have much to learn and to discover on this trip. If there was one thing I knew, that has now become a certainty in my mind, it is this: I love New Zealand. I did from the moment I first arrived here as a green, solo traveller in June 2004 and ever since then, it has remained deeply and firmly rooted in my heart. This trip, my third time in New Zealand (I was a student here for three years between 2007 and 2010) has so far done nothing to change my opinion and has only cemented my feelings.

What then, will the next ten weeks hold for me? Other than a lot of kilometres and miles sat on the saddle of my bicycle, I do not know. And that is the very thing that I came here to find. I came here to find all that I did not know, and that is the adventure. This is what frees the heart and allows the soul to grow. This is what allows the light to shine forth. This is not just a cycle tour, this is a journey and a story of love.  I am giving myself the ultimate gift, by pursuing my dream and following my heart.

The road goes ever on. All that we can do is to choose the manner of our walking.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Headwind, Hills and a Town Too Far

"Take a break bro'", came a call from the side of the road.  I turned to see that the shout had come from a Maori, who was leaning casually against the side of his car, taking in the view of the bay and ocean below.  There were no such pleasures for me.  I was tired.  In fact, I was pretty much finished and I guessed it must have been apparent, as I struggled to keep the pedals turning as I reached the crest of yet another hill.  How much longer could I keep this going and how many more kilometres did my legs have in them?  I was about to find out, but all I wanted to do at that moment was to get off the bike and lie down to rest.  The only problem?  This was not an option.

What had started out as a pleasant day of cycling had quickly degenerated into an afternoon of pain, despair and desperation.  I had broken camp and hit the road out of Ruakaka around 9:30am, knowing that I had around 28km to roll along State Highway 1, up to Whangerei.  With the exception of the occasional articulated logging trucks that thundered past me, so close that they threatened to blow me off the road on the left, or to suck me under their wheels to the right, everything went easily.  My legs felt strong and I pounded out the kilometres in easy rhythm, taking the hills in my stride and whizzing down the other side with a huge grin, that threatened to rip my face in two.

Whangerei came and went with a brief stop at an i-Site (tourist information) to book myself into a campsite in the historic town of Russell, which was to be my destination for the day, and an obligatory coffee stop, which ended up wasting time since I cycled around the city in search of a suitable cafe.  It's not that I am particularly fussy about my coffee, it was that I needed a cafe where I could lock the bike up right outside on the pavement, so it was in view and easy keep an eye on.

By my calculations and the use of Google maps, I believed Russell to be a further 60km up the road and the way I was feeling, this was easily achievable, despite setting a total of 90km riding distance for myself.  That would be the furthest I had ever cycled in a single day and I felt it to be ambitious, especially as this was to be only my third day on the road.  But I had ridden 85km from Warkworth to Ruakaka fairly easily, so I felt comfortable that this ride to Russell was within my ability.  About 8km north out from Whangerei, after a couple of stops to check my map and ask directions, I turned right off State Highway 1 and headed east, onto Old Russell Road.

At first it was good to be away from the heavy and fast moving traffic and I enjoyed a ride through a valley, alongside a small river, that wound its way by the side of the road.  I started to notice that the wind, which had hardly been evident so far, began to gust into my face and would not let up.  As any cyclist will tell you, wind is both the biggest blessing and the most evil of curses on a ride, depending on whether it is at your back, or blowing into your front.  With the panniers sticking out the sides of my bike, and the bike frame being a little small for me, it was not easy to find any suitable aerodynamic position to minimise the affects of the wind.  At this point, I still felt comfortable, strong enough to deal with the wind and happy to be rolling along through some beautiful and wild countryside and nature.

Shortly though, as I approached the coast, the terrain changed and became hilly.  I commenced a series of hot uphill rides, as the relentless sun beat down upon me, followed by short, fast descents, with the incessant headwind ever present in my face.  I was headed to the coast at Helena Bay and from there, I would follow the coastal road around the beaches and bays of the upper north island.  I firmly believed that this coastal road would be fairly flat and would hold to sea level for most of the way.  On the map, Helena Bay seemed like a good spot to stop for lunch and perhaps a coffee/snack refuel and I eagerly looked forward to it.

At the top of Helena Bay hill sits a cafe, aptly named The Gallery and Cafe Helena Bay Hill.  I pulled into the gravel driveway and stopped.  The driveway was steep and with the deep gravel, I felt it was not suitable for a heavily laden touring bicycle and I did not want to get off the push the bike down and then back up again, so I decided to pass this cafe by and to stop at the next one, that was sure to be down the bottom of the hill, in the bay itself.  I set off again and enjoyed some glorious, high speed descending down Helena Bay hill, on a road that twisted and turned.  This was exhilarating riding and of course, for me, I was the lone break away rider, leading the stage, descending one of the Hors category French Alps, in a mountain stage of the Tour de France.  I don't know what the car behind me thought, as I swept around the bends at high speed, leaning the bike over this way and that, cutting across the road, looking ahead and around bends for on-coming cars, but I did not care.  This was wild, this was freedom and this is what living was all about.

At the bottom of the hill my smile faded quickly.  Helena Bay was no more than a collection of a few private houses and the bay and beach itself.  No cafe, no shop, no ice-cream van, nothing.  My water was dangerously low and I needed to refill my drinks bottles.  I decided to have lunch anyway, and I enjoyed my sandwiches, sitting on a picnic table, looking out across the ocean.  Behind me, I spied a family in their living room, so I knocked on the door and asked for water, which they were more than happy to provide.

I set off again and the coast road was not how I had imagined it to be at all.  It was one short, steep hill after another.  If you cycle, you will know that the amount of energy spent going uphill cannot be recovered in a short down hill that follows.  You need time between hills to recover, for the muscles in the legs to work themselves out and for the oxygen to replenish them again.  I could get no respite.  There was no flat road.  It was simply up, down, then up again.  And all the while, when I began a downhill section, the incessant headwind blew into my face, slowing me down, sapping my energy reserves further.  I quickly began to suffer.  This was no longer pleasant riding.  I was head down, focused solely on keeping going.  What views there were this day went largely unnoticed.  If my Maori friend had not shouted from the side of the road, I would not have seen him.  It needed to be all about the cycling, I had to get to Russell because I now knew that between where I was and Russell, there was nothing else, there would be no place to replenish and rest.

All the while I was cycling, I would glance at my cycle computer and count down the kilometres.  Each kilometre cycled meant one less ahead of me and soon, despite the tough conditions, I began to close in on my estimate of the distance and I began to feel a sense of relief.  Russell should have been within 15km and it was now that I was to experience the first of a series of bad moments.  As I came past a junction with a minor road, I read the signpost that pointed in the direction of Russell.  Written there, in white letters, it stated Russell 46km.  This could not be.  That would make my ride 136km rather than the 90km I had planned.  This was devastating news and my morale dropped.  Shortly after this, I ran out of water for a second time.  With no chance of cafes or shops, this was perhaps the most dangerous thing to happen.  Not only did I still have some distance to cover, it was a hot day too and with that ever present wind, I knew I would dehydrate rapidly.  That was a worrying prospect.  Water is literally life.

As if these things were not bad enough, soon afterwards I hit what is known as the 'wall', the feeling that occurs when your body can do no more.  It happened to me as I began my ascent of yet another hill.  It was not only a physical wall that I hit, it was a mental one as well, seeing another hill before me, in the exhausted state I was in, was demoralising.  My spirits dropped and I was left with no other option than to pull over on the side of the road, climb off the bike and to push.  It was only day three on the road and I was pushing the bike already.  This was not how it was supposed to be, this was not the dream that I had cooked up in my imagination.  Now I felt not only the true weight of my bike, I also felt the real heaviness of my attempt to cycle around New Zealand.  I began to feel desperate, that I needed to get to Russell at all costs.  I could feel an emotion building inside, not quite panic, but something that I was not used to feeling.  I didn't want to admit to it, I couldn't admit to it, but I was close to being out of control and I am never out of control.  Here I was though, out of my depth and alone on the road.

As I pushed my bike up that first hill, struggling with the weight the wanted to roll backwards downhill, an elderly man came walking down towards me.  We both stopped to exchange some words and it transpired that he was 76 years of age and was New Zealand national champion at distance running for his age group, and had been out making sure he kept in shape.  I asked him about my chances for obtaining water and how the road ahead was likely to be?  "Your best bet around here is rain water, but I don't know where you'd find some", he said.  "There's winery a bit further up the road you might try.  You could come to my house, but its 6km back the way you've come and I don't think you'll be wanting to do that."  Too right I didn't.  And the road ahead?  "There's a few more hills to come I'm afraid.  At least two or three more as steep as this one and some others too."  I tried not to show it, but this was not what I wanted to hear.  We said our goodbyes and continued in our own directions.  I felt deflated and I knew I was in real trouble.  Even if I wanted to stop and make camp for the night, with no water, that was just not an option I could contemplate.  I had to push on.

Luck was a little on my side and soon enough, I chanced upon a private residence where I was again able to ask for water. Good job too since I eventually came by the winery and it was closed.  With water, I rationalised that even if I were to walk the last 20km to Russell, I could still make it.  Sure, it would take me a long time, but it was at least an option.  Each time I came to a hill, I had to climb off the bike and push.  I felt as though I had let myself down, that I had been foolish to even think that I could achieve this tour of New Zealand.  At the top of each hill, I swung back into the saddle and let myself roll down, not even having the strength nor energy to push on the pedals.  I would roll along any flat sections before getting off again to push up yet another hill.  In this way, I kept going.  Slowly but surely the kilometres ticked off.  When I hit 130km for the day, I felt reinvigorated in spirit.  That was some achievement.  When I considered the weight of the bike, my lack of any serious training for this adventure, the headwind and the hills, then it was quite remarkable that I had been able to cycle that kind of distance.

And then I was rolling into Russell.  With some great joy and relief, I found my campsite and I hurried pitched the tent before I would even consider stopping to rest.  My spirits lifted and my tiredness evaporated.  Later that evening, I reflected on my day.  Sure, it had been tough, but it had taught me a valuable lesson, that I needed to understand my route in more detail and that I needed to know that I could obtain or carry enough water for each section that I rode.  But one thing stood out more than any other to me.  I had cycled 136km with a heavily loaded touring bicycle in hard conditions.  I was a little shaken by my experience but there remained a thought that would not escape me.  Maybe, just maybe I can actually do this.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

It Was Never Meant To Rain

When I came up with the idea of cycle touring New Zealand, I painted a perfect, idyllic picture in my mind.  It was one where I cycled easily and with carefree abandon, along flat roads, lined with beautiful and stunning scenery.  I would meet other cyclists, swap stories and snippets of information.  We'd share some of the road, a coffee or beer, and all the while, overhead, a blue sky and a golden sun.  It was never meant to rain.

Yesterday had been a free day.  I had decided that I wanted to give myself the chance to recover from day one on the road and also to allow my head cold an improved chance of leaving me.  The cold is not heavy by any means, but as I toil up hill, becoming short of breath, I can feel its energy sapping affect.  If I have the next three months on the road, taking one extra day to shift this annoying ailment was surely worthwhile.  I used the day to my advantage, visiting the i-Site (official New Zealand tourist information) and clarifying that the coastal route that I had planned to take was actually not possible, due to the long sections of unsealed road.  The woman at the desk advised me against it.  That means that for now at least, I am stuck with the state highway (SH1N) and the heavy and fast traffic that uses it.  Not ideal at all, but there is no other option, at least not on the section from Warkworth to Wellsford.  At Wellsford, I have an option to take a right turn off the highway and head onto the quieter sealed back roads through to Waipu and beyond to Whangarei, and it is an option I will happily take.

Boats nestled at Sandspit
I spent a few hours in the morning making the short ride out to Matakana, a small village a few kilometres from Warkworth, where I stopped off at the Black Dog Cafe, which was doing a great trade on all of the Sunday day trippers out for a ride.  One coffee later and I headed on over to check out Sandspit, on my loop back to Warkworth.  Sandspit was stunning.  My jaw dropped open on rounding the bend and seeing it for the first time.  Crystal clear water, lined with golden sand beaches and dense, lush, green bush all around.  This moment defined perfectly the reason I chose to come back to New Zealand.  I cycled out onto the spit and marvelled at my surroundings.  I felt alive, at peace, and I felt a giddy sense of happiness that plainly showed, as a beaming smile spread across my face.

900 year old Kauri tree
In the afternoon, I took a short bike ride out to the Warkworth and District Museum, so that I could go and check out the 900 year old Kauri tree that grows there.  Kauri trees are the largest native tree that grow in New Zealand and they were once found in great abundance.  Unfortunately, since the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century, they were felled in great numbers for use as timber in building and ship construction.  Not as large as its North American cousin, the Giant Sequioa, the sight of a Kauri tree still makes an impressive sight in its own right.  I laid a hand on the bark of the trunk and I attempted to listen to its pulse of life, to what it might have to say.  I offered my own thanks to the tree, and gave a thank you to nature also.

There is a free bush walk through the native bush at the museum and I took the opportunity to submerge myself under the canopy of the foliage and into the gloom of cool, dense forest, emerging after some thirty minutes of strolling, back into the bright late afternoon sun.

And so to this morning.  Rising with the alarm, I made good my preparations for departure.  Shower, breakfast, coffee, surf the web, and dress.  I looked out the window to grey skies and they pleased me.  My forearms are still a little sore from the sunburn incurred on my first day on the road, and I was grateful for some cooler temperatures and respite from the blazing sun.  I packed everything away into my panniers before opening the front door of my unit, so that I could wheel out the bike and load it outside.  But what was that I could hear on the corrugated roof of the veranda?  Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.  Much to my horror, I discovered that a light rain was falling.  This was not in the plan.  Certainly not on the day when I was determined to pitch my tent and make camp for the first time.

I went to find Carol and Dave, the British ex-pat couple that managed the motel.  "She's set in for the day", said Dave, "it's the cyclone that been affecting the islands (Pacific islands) and it's coming down from the north.  Supposed to get worse before it gets better."  This was not good.  I looked at the surface of the swimming pool as droplets of rain dive bombed into it, making hundreds of tiny splashes and sending rings racing outwards.  I did not want to spend another day in Warkworth.  Yesterday had already been a luxury and I had only managed one day of cycling, and now here I was, confronted with taking two days off from the road.  This was hardly the glorious start I had imagined.  But I am also a pragmatic person and I knew that to head north from Warkworth would take me into a rural area before I arrived at Whangarei.  Whangarei itself was too far to try, my aim had been to head for the coastal settlement of Waipu, and if I felt up to it, then on as far a Ruakaka.  Each of these places had a campsite I could try for the night.  Away from there, there would be very little in the way of motels and guesthouses, and I was also aware that this was peak holiday season.  Did I want to try to pitch my tent outside for the first time with the threat of a cyclonic weather system on top of me?  Did I want to cycle wet all day, this early in my journey?  No.  No way, no chance, no how.

Perhaps what I discovered today is that I am a comfort adventurer.  I prefer to think of it in those terms, rather than to think that I am a coward, that I don't have the backbone for this adventurous larking about.  I'm here after all, I'm already in an adventure, which ever way I look at it.  Why make it any harder or more difficult than it needs to be, especially so early on?  I figured that there was still plenty of time for hardships on the road, it was just that today did not need to be one.  So, one day of cycling, two days off.  That's a luxury I cannot afford.  Tomorrow, I'm determined to be on the road, I'm going to make that happen.  For now though, I'll take a short stroll down town and find me a nice cafe, where I can sit and read Treasure Island and dream of adventure from the comfort of a snug armchair.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Hills, Smiles, Sunburn And The Leg's Are Good

Yesterday, as I cycled the 68km north from Auckland to Warkworth, I experienced a moment of epiphany.  I was cycling up yet another hill, this one both longer and with a steeper gradient than the others I had already encountered.  What occurred to me was nothing, if it was not the most blindingly obvious fact that I had subconsciously known all along.  In a split second moment of comprehension, that thought became a living reality.  I do not have a choice, I must keep going.

In the morning, shortly after 10am, I began my journey.  It seemed that everyone in the apartment hotel was trying to leave at exactly the same time and I had waited patiently as the doors of each elevator pinged open, revealing an already full compartment, with no chance of taking my fully loaded bike and I down to the lobby, so that I could check out.  After five or six full elevators had trundled down from the upper floors, each one seemingly more full than the one before, I hit upon a canny idea and pressed the up button.  I figured that elevators coming up were more likely to be empty - I was right.

It was all down hill from the hotel to the ferry terminal and a good job too.  Not only did I have my full panniers, I also needed to carry a large pack on my back containing those items that I would not be taking on my tour, which I was to drop off at the bike shop on my way through.  The rain and strong winds that had gusted the day before had thankfully abated and I freewheeled downhill under broken cloud and blue skies.  From the back of the ferry, I watched Auckland recede into the distance and I said a quiet goodbye.  How would I be feeling the next time I came this way?  Pack dropped off with Megan at Auckland Cycles and after some ribbing from her and her assistant about the amount of weight I was carrying ("but I need my laptop"), I wheeled the bike out of the ferry terminal building, straddled the crossbar, slipped my right foot inside of its toeclip, and pushed off with my left leg.  My trip had begun in earnest.

Twenty five minutes later and feeling like the kid who had dropped a quarter and found twenty dollars, I was sitting having a coffee in Takapuna.  Everything had been easy, the bike felt good, well balanced and I was feeling ecstatic, almost giddy with the happiness of being on the road at last.  I wanted to take this first day easy and although I had maintained a good level of general fitness, I was not in the best physical conditioning for cycling long distances.  A late morning, congratulatory coffee seemed the order of the day, and sitting outside on the pavement in the warm sunshine, I called my parents to test my Skype connection on my newly acquired smartphone, and to share in my moment of joy.

Pushing on, I began to leave the suburbs of northern Auckland behind and the road opened up.  This was what it was all about!  I was afforded stunning vistas across the water and out to Waiheke Island.  Up and down rises and falls in the road I pedalled and I felt energised and electric.  Each time I came to an uphill section, I worried that my legs were going to give out, but they didn't.  In fact, they felt strong and I began to give thanks for the gym work I had put in over the Christmas period back in England, and for the hours of riding under severe heat and humidity, up the sharp inclines of the coastal roads in Costa Rica.  I could not help myself from smiling and, with each new incredible view of the New Zealand scenery, I broke out into a beaming grin and laughed.  I was doing it.  I was living my dream.

At a distance of around 30km, I stopped for lunch and a coffee refuelling in Orewa, a lovely beach town, bustling with locals and tourists, all out enjoying the sun, that had now become quite hot.  I had forgotten the intensity of the New Zealand sunshine.  It is one thing to be out in 35C temperatures and sun in Costa Rica, but quite another to feel the sun in New Zealand, even at low temperatures.  It burns.  Or rather, it shines and you burn.  I could feel it on my arms a little and on my upper lip that was beginning to dry out.  No matter, I had no choice but to continue and to push on for Warkworth, which I was sure lay only a further 10 or 20kms up the road at most.  I leaned over to the cafe table next to me and asked them.  "Ah yeah, 30 or 40k's I'd say."  What?  Surely not, couldn't be.  I felt a little crest fallen.  I could feel myself tiring slightly and the thought of another 40kms in this heat was a lot.  Not the easy first day I had envisaged at all.

Think of New Zealand and you possibly picture the stunning mountain scenery, that gave such an incredible and beautiful natural backdrop to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.  That's all down in the south, on South Island.  I was heading north, towards the upper tip of the north island.  I had figured it was fairly flat this way.  Out of Orewa, the more serious hills began.  After I crested each one, I hoped to spy Warkworth laying down at the bottom, and each time I was wrong.  I sat on the saddle and I pumped and I pushed.  On one hill, about half way up, I pushed the level to drop down a gear, so that I could spin the pedals more easily.  With a gut wrenching feeling of dismay, almost bordering on panic, I realised I had no where to go.  It was either this gear or get off and walk.  I never walk.  Not ever.  I dug in, turned the pedals, found a rhythm, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, over and over.  That rhythm consumed me, it needed to.  It kept me going and as the road began to level out towards the top, I looked up and turned my head to the side.  I smiled.  I had been so caught up in getting over the hill, I had forgotten why I was doing this.  The views were great reward for my efforts.  Of course, if you go up, logic says that you must go down again and on the seat of a bicycle, arms and legs tucked in, butt pushed backwards, head down low over the bars, you not only go down, you fly.  I hit speeds of over 60km/h as I rocketed down, sweeping around bends, staying in the middle of the road, going as fast as the cars behind me.  Exhilaration and joy supreme.

But I did begin to fear that I could not make too many more of these ascents.  Not on my first day.  Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew?  Perhaps I had been over ambitious with my plans and distances?  I was worried that through the night (assuming I ever reached Warkworth), my legs would stiffen terribly and I would be in some difficulties the next day.  I was now on flat road, close to the coastline, winding around bend after bend.  I stared at my cycle computer 65km covered, 66, 67, and then it came into view and I felt a sense of accomplishment and a huge sense of relief.  Warkworth.  I had finally made it.  Day one was over, I was on my way.
~ ~ ~

I decided to spend an extra day in Warkworth and take a look around.  It's a very picturesque town and I feel I owe it to myself as a reward.  One point to note is that on waking this morning, there is no stiffness in my legs, no aches, no pains, no nothing.  Quite remarkably, they feel good.  Tomorrow I'll test them out again, as I continue my journey north.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Tomorrow Is Just Another Day

Tomorrow is just another day.  That's how it always is, that's how it's always going to be.  But occasionally there are some days that are different, when something special occurs.  For me, tomorrow is going to be that day.  Tomorrow is bringing with it the excitement of beginning a new adventure and with that, comes the inescapable daunting prospect of living for the next three months with everything I need strapped to a bicycle, as I pedal my way around the incredible scenic beauty, that is New Zealand.

I've been here for five days already.  Forget the first two, they were wiped out by an overpowering dose of jet lag and the lack of sleep that comes from flying half way around the world.  Not to mention the emotional turmoils of leaving family and friends behind once more.  It doesn't matter how many times I do it, that part never gets any easier.  During the last few days of any stay back in England, I go through a number of goodbyes with various people, each one gets harder, until there comes the finality of that last goodbye, the toughest one of all.  Flying is good for the soul though.  From the moment that I begin to head through departures and I step through the first passport and boarding pass inspection point, my head readjusts, I shake off the emotion, I enter a new frame of mind.  The goodbyes are now over and in their place comes the new and the always present sense of excitement that comes from travelling.  From looking back, I now turn forward, to the present and to the future and the hope of what might be, and the thought of what the unknown may bring.

On Wednesday morning, I strolled the short walk through downtown Auckland and caught the Devonport ferry across the harbour.  From out on the water, I was awarded glorious views of New Zealand's largest and most cosmopolitan city.  I'd never seen it from this vantage point before and it is one I recommend heartily to any traveller to these shores.  For the small fee of $11 NZD return, it is money surely well spent, as is a morning exploring and having a coffee in Devonport.  For me, Devonport was my destination as I was heading there to collect my rental bicycle from Auckland Cycles.  I cannot say why, but I found myself to be nervous about doing this and I think I gave Megan, the owner, the impression that I was a bumbling fool, a veritable Mr Bean.

The bike I have for the first part of my tour is an Avanti Circa.  It's a sport bike that has been fitted with racks and panniers to convert it into a touring model.  I'll have it for three weeks before I swap it in for a proper Cannondale touring bike.  It is my hope that the Avanti will see me through my tour of Northland and all the way up to Cape Reinga, before returning to Auckland on 3 February.  The frame is a little on the small side for me and if my cranks are in the horizontal position, the front wheel knocks against my feet if I turn it too sharply.  Still, that's not exactly a major problem, as long as I remember to shift my pedal position before making any sharp turns.  The bike came with panniers on the front and back, tool kit under the seat, two water bottle cages, a lock, and a helmet, as the wearing of cycle helmets is compulsory here in New Zealand.

I've used this week to pick up essential small bits and pieces that I think I will need for the trip.  I pretty much had everything covered but I decided I would prefer to eat and drink out of lightweight plastic, rather than the metallic of my cooking pots.  One item that I have not purchased is specialised shoes for cycling.  I have debated that around and around with myself, and I was going to opt for a pair of robust walking shoes that I could utilise both on and off the bike.  But after looking around for something suitable, I decided that I would cycle the way I cycled in Costa Rica, in my Converse sneakers.  For sure, Converse shoes are not ideal for cycling, but I'm used to them and I like them.  I figured a little bit of style could go a long way when accompanied by a pair of Lycra shorts.

One other item of note that I have been trying to figure out was how to carry additional water for cooking and washing.  I can only carry 1.5 litres on the bike (I rejected purchasing specialist water bottles in favour of a reusable mineral water bottle and saved heaps in the bargain) and this amount is just not enough for making overnight wild camps away from water supplies.  The idea I came up with was to purchase a Platypus style bladder and store that in a small backpack on the bike.  When it gets to mid to late afternoon, I plan on filling up the bladder and carrying it on my back inside of the backpack.  The beauty of this solution is A) that when not in use there is very little size to worry about and hardly any additional weight to carry, and B) I am able to carry up to 3 litres of additional water.  Having a small backpack with me is also useful for shopping and other expeditions I might need to make.  I have no idea how practical this is going to be until I am able to road test it, so I might yet be looking for an alternative.

Today, I've finalised the packing into the panniers and tested out securing the tent.  In incredibly gusty winds, more akin to being down in Wellington, I headed out in the early evening to test run the fully loaded bike.  A short five minute ride way was the Auckland Domain, and it was to there that I headed, some what nervously, as I exited the hotel apartments for the first time.  Once on the road, even in the gusting winds that threatened to push me under the wheels of one of the many buses that overtook me, I felt stable and at ease.  The balance of the bike felt pretty good, as I had ensured as much as possible by hand and guess work, that each one of the left and right pannier sets weighed approximately the same.  I was even able to stand on the pedals and sway the bike from left to right for assisting with spinning the pedals, something I had thought not possible on a fully loaded touring bike.  

Everything was set and ready.  All that remained was to pack the last few items into the panniers the next morning (wash kit, laptop, food essentials), get a good nights sleep, and then in the morning, it would begin.  The bike was ready, but how ready was I to begin this adventure?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Purpose Of My Life?

It's another hot, humid and sunny afternoon in Costa Rica.  I'm out on my bike, pedalling along the quiet roads, enjoying the rhythm of the ride, going no where in particular, content to be sitting on the saddle and to feel the cooling wind that tries to resist my passing.  I'm smiling, feeling carefree and happy, knowing that life at this moment is good.  A thought creeps into my mind. What if I were to do this everyday, to cycle from one place to another, my life on the bike and on the road?  To cycle and to travel, a long held dream that has reawakened in my heart.  Could I do that?

That was a day during October 2013.  I can remember the moment well, but not the date on which it occurred.  I was on the road between the village of Brasilito and the town of Huacas.  Three months later and I'm on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, sitting inside a rented apartment in Auckland, strewn across the living room floor are cycle clothing and camping equipment, and downstairs in the garage, hanging on a bike rack on the wall, is my rented touring bicycle.  That vague idea which had come to me, that resurgence of a once held dream, that longing to travel and to carry my life with me, the need for adventure and to push myself into the unknown, it has all become a waking reality.  It has become my purpose in life.

I get asked often about my life. What I am doing?  What I am going to do?  Why I do what I do?  I have attempted to explain it the best that I can.  I've attempted and I've failed.  After all, it makes no rational nor logical sense does it?  In the last eight years, my journey has taken me all around the world and I have experienced many things, the like of which I thought I could experience only in a book or on film.  I've tried my hand at certain things: I learned to dive and became a dive master; I worked as a project co-ordinator in telecommunications; I walked the streets as a funds collector for a charity; I enrolled at university and became a full-time student; I became a scuba diving instructor; I self published a couple of books.  My journey has taken me through seventeen different countries, in some of which I have enjoyed extended stays and called home for a while.  And now, I am beginning a bicycle tour.  What is going on?

Let me come back to something I wrote in an earlier paragraph: my purpose in life.  I don't have one.  At least, that is, I don't have one in the conventional sense.  As a man, it is my firm belief that my purpose in life is to become a husband, a father, and to raise my own family.  Due to circumstances, this has never happened for me and I drifted through my life searching for something that would fill the void that fatherhood left.  My career filled that gap for many years and I put all my effort and much of my free time into it.  If I was busy at work, then I could never have any time to think about the vacuum that existed away from it.  To be brutally honest, my life outside of work was empty of meaning.  What I did and who I was at the office came to define me.

But there was always something else lurking there.  A vagueness that was almost discernible through the foggy haze but not quite.  As if each time I reached out a hand to grasp hold of it, it pulled back and way from my outstretched fingers.  I thought it was elusive and I believed this until a chance meeting with a colleague (now a dear friend) who forced me to confront my true feelings.  Even then, I was reluctant to give credence to my thinking.  Like so many other people who have held similar thoughts, I shied away from it because it just didn't seem the right way, it wasn't the way that we are taught is correct, it went against conventional thinking and wisdom.

I was searching for some type of purpose in my life and I was not finding that purpose in what I did.  No amount of numbers on a spreadsheet, no amount of promotions at work, no matter what my salary, these gave me no sense of who I truly was as a person.  My life was bereft of meaning.  The epiphany moment occurred around the time of my thirty fifth birthday.  It was then that I came to the realisation that I was living the life of a married man, a family man, and that I was still single.  Why then, did I need to live that life, a life that could not give me my true purpose?  It no longer made any sense to me.  Instead, it seemed to me that the best thing I could do, was to do something different, and to seek a purpose in life for myself.  To go out into the unknown and to look for meaning in the life around me.  And if I was not to discover that purpose in my life, then at least I would have experienced something more, at least I would have taken a chance on life, and not lived out my existence sitting at a desk in front of a laptop screen, and always wondering if there was something more.
To answer the question of why do I do what I do, there would seem to be one clear answer - it gives me a purpose in life.  I must continue to live out my dreams until such time that I find the other purpose that I seek.  I truly believe that one day I will find that other elusive part of my life, but until then, I cannot sit and wait for it to come to me.  I must strive to fulfill my dreams, I must write a destiny for myself and if it comes to it, I want to know that when I look back upon my days, when I revisit the history of my life, that I did not sit idly by waiting.  I want to smile and to know that I stood up, that I walked out onto my path, and that I went in search of my purpose.  To try is all that truly matters.

~ ~ ~

It was not my intention to write this post today.  That is often how it happens though.  I set out with an idea of what I want to write and the moment that I let myself go, in the instant that my soul opens itself up, the real need to express myself comes to life.  This is why I enjoy writing and find it so very therapeutic.  I write for myself and in doing so, it is my absolute hope that my readers find something for themselves nestled within the words ~ Andy.