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.

Monday, 6 January 2014

My Life In 30Kg

The wind comes in gusts again and again.  I can hear it howling outside, as it races across the moor, carrying with it sheets of rain that hammer against the glass of my hotel window.  Out there, just a stone's throw across the road, lies the vast, barren wastelands of Dartmoor.  Inhospitable and wild, it's an empty, desolate place of rock, boggy marsh, babbling streams and tussocks of grass.  To know that it is a place where trees refuse to grow says much about it.  Winter on the moor, that's definitely not the place to be, so what am I doing here?

Inside the relative comfort of my hotel room, strewn out all across the floor, is my entire life.  I came here, down to the edge of Dartmoor, to stay in a cheap motel, specifically with the intention of organising my belongings.  It was a two pronged approach.  Firstly, staying at my parents house, sleeping on the living room floor, gave me no space whatsoever and I very much needed space to spread everything out.  Being a visual person, I needed to look upon my gear for my up-coming cycle tour of New Zealand, to pitch my tent (which I successfully accomplished using the bed as my base), to test my old sleeping bag with my new sleeping bag liner, and to ensure that I had everything that I needed.  It was my first chance to combine the old with the new, to finally merge all of my adventurous life into one single, unified kit.  The second need, and of equal, if not greater importance, was to examine everything that I own and to downsize and streamline yet again.

People have a way of accumulating things. I'm no different in that respect, although I have tried hard to limit my accumulations throughout my entire life.  I cannot explain why, but even as a child, I never liked to have clutter and too many things around me.  Perhaps, even back then, I felt the weight of it holding me down, keeping me in a place, when all I yearned for was the freedom to go and to leave whenever I wished it.  Eight years ago, I was doing exactly the same as now, going through the first and the hardest downsizing, only back then, I had an apartment full of possessions accumulated over thirty five years of life, items that I had firmly believed absolutely necessary to my life.

The way I have always approached possessions can perhaps be best summed up with a kettle.  That's not very sexy is it, but there it is.  A kettle.  I had the same kettle for fifteen years.  I'd had it since I had set up home with my first girlfriend at the age of twenty.  It worked, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it had never, not even once, let me down.  It was functional, it boiled water, exactly what a kettle is supposed to do.  It never occurred to me to change it.  I saw absolutely no reason to do so.  I came under intense pressure to change that kettle during those fifteen years and I resisted.  Why though?  Was I just being stubborn about it, or was there something far deeper going on?

The truth is that I have never been materialistic.  (Yes, okay, I admit I did once waste a lot of money on a flashy sports car, but that same car put a smile on my face every time I looked at it, I grinned like an idiotic monkey every time I turned the key and I heard the 5.0 litre V8 engine fire into life, and I never regretted owning it, nor the expense that went with that ownership - not even once.)  Possessions and ownership have never held much sway over me.  The process of downsizing actually came as a relief to me.  I was able to rid myself of this baggage that weighed me down, that held me in one place, and that took away my freedom.  That first time was the hardest.  Subsequent downsizing, or corrections as I now think of them, are much easier and completely necessary if I am to continue to lead the life that I wish to lead.  This is a rather difficult idea for some people to comprehend, since ownership and increasing our material wealth is what capitalism is all about and what society tells us to do.  Someone who does the opposite, someone who rejects what is at the core of our modern, economy led society, they must be crazy - right?

Well, if I am crazy, then I am happy to be crazy, because being crazy has given me a head full of the most wonderful memories and experiences, and allowed me to meet some of the most amazing and inspiring people.  I could never have achieved that if I had maintained my previous lifestyle.  I remember one day looking at the books on my book shelf and feeling proud to see all of these important novels that I had read.  I thought it made me the person who I was, I saw them as defining my life.  How naive I was!  How could I think that what I owned was more important that what I was inside, more important than my heart and my soul?  Besides which, what did it matter if I owned the book I had read, or if I had borrowed it?  I had still read and enjoyed the book in either case, and people still saw the same person in front of them.  I associated the ownership of the item as part of the experience and I found that ownership gave me joy and a sense of well-being, albeit a short term one that never lasted more than a few days or weeks at most.  I had never realised or known back then that life is simply an experience, and it is the experience of life that brings the greatest joys and the memories that will last an eternity.  How could I possibly have known it?  Only by casting aside that old life was I able to discover the secret, to find enlightenment, and to experience the epiphanies that would come from being free.

Now, in this hotel room, I have been driven to downsize once more.  It is the first time in over two years that I am with all of my worldly possessions.  During that time, some of my non-essential items such as winter clothing, important documents and sentimental items, have sat in a suitcase in my parents attic.  My thinking has been that if I do not think of a thing, if I find no reason to look at it, to touch it, nor to hold it, then it has no purpose in my life.  I have to be tough about it, I am driven to be ruthless in that regard.  I have given away and discarded much of what I once thought of as, with Gollum like reasoning, being precious to me.  The truth for me at least, is that my possessions allow me to live my life, the life that I want to create, rather than my need to live to sustain my possessions.  I am very cold about it.  Only certain, irreplaceable items make the cut.  Old letters from deceased family members, my travel journals, certain photographs (soon to be digitised), some greetings cards that hold sentimental value.  Other than important documents that I must keep for legal reasons, nothing else remains.   

30 kilograms or 66 pounds.  That is the checked baggage allowance with Emirates airlines, with whom I am flying to New Zealand.  It sounds like a lot, but it is not.  Not when it is necessary for me to carry around the 16kg of scuba diving equipment, necessary for my being able to work as a dive instructor.  That doesn't leave very much for anything else.  With the purpose of my trip to New Zealand being a cycle tour, I need to pack a tent, sleeping bag and other camping equipment, as well as specific items for cycling I have never needed to carry previously.  It is going to be tight.  With no scales, I don't yet know how I have done.  My guess is that I am still over the allowance.  I know that I will need to leave behind two small backpacks with my parents - those are the legal documents and sentimental items.  That's all I wish to leave behind. I've contacted someone about scanning my old printed photographs, that will reduce the size and weight some more.  I've been in the local library and I've scanned some of the teaching materials that I need.  I have some other papers that I will scan this week and then discard.  Every little helps.      

Life it seems, at least this modern life, requires us to keep certain papers, to maintain a fixed address.  I would like to be completely free but that, I know, is not possible.  Bank accounts and credit cards allow me to travel, they make life easier and for that, I must pay the price with a little of my freedom.  Besides which, there are certain items that I would hate to lose, that are irreplaceable in the emotional value that they hold.  I must have something to pass on down the line, something of my family and my past.  I don't have children yet, but I firmly believe that I will, and when that day comes, well then I believe I might just need to have a life that weighs more than 30kg and fills more space than one large backpack and one medium sized suitcase.  Until then, I'm flying as free as I'm able.