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.