Lord of the Chainrings

Lord of the Chainrings

I wake on the floor as shards of daylight bite my face, a shirt clings to my clammy skin and I exhale an oily breath of Chartreuse fumes. Drowsy eyes scan an empty, unfamiliar room within a familiar landscape. Macklemore echoes down the unlit corridor. I drag my dehydrated body up and fumble for the door, soup-like blood drags through lazy veins and I find myself slumped on a friend’s sofa, staring through a plate of dry baked beans in the afternoon heat. Through sliding glass doors the Remarkables reach high above Lake Wakatipu into a deep blue sky, paragliders dance across thin wisps of cloud, laughter and the roar of jet boat engines fill the air, the smell of the alpine village surrounds. My mind plays a flashback to my winter season of Queenstown 2007: snowboarding preceding bar work preceding all night drinking in a perpetual cycle where sleep seemed a redundant heirloom of civilised life.

Queenstown 2012: Boxing Day. I spent Christmas Day volunteering at a community lunch in Melbourne, Australia, serving meals and stories to a hundred people without the funds to provide a celebration for their family or without family or friends to spend it with at all. As the leader of a choir for the disabled finishes a repertoire of carols, a Chinese man in his nineties stands and declares that “this is the best christmas ever” and, with the exception that my family are absent, I have to agree. A celebration without the need for consumerism, where the gifts are those of basic necessity and the surprises are unwrapped in conversation with strangers. I’m humbled by those I meet who dedicate their time to bettering the lives of others. So as I walk into the Queenstown Ice Bar to surprise a friend, its difficult not to realise how fortunate I am. The party of 2007 continues as though I never left, the flashback is relived as two weeks pass in bars before the hangovers release their hold, the baked beans settle my stomach and Dolly’s wheels once again turn.

Heavy rains force road closures and the hands of the gods reach down through turbulent grey skies to grab bike wheels, snatching and throwing panniers like sails across asphalt seas. Trees grow horizontal and skeletal. I cycle through the Roaring Forties heading to the most Southern place I’ll cycle for a long time, Slope Point at 46 degrees South, where only the Southern Ocean separates me from Antarctica. The first week on the road is a hopscotch from wet tent to wet road, past mist covered fiords and under snowcapped mountains. Testing but beautiful, the rawness of nature’s power. Turning to cycle North through the rugged landscapes of the Catlins, home to rare penguins and ocean mammals, the clouds begin to part and the summer reappears. From Oamaru, the Steam Punk capital of New Zealand, I leave the coast and head for the picturesque Southern Alps. New Zealand’s driest summer in seventy years begins as I climb dust roads across Dansey’s Pass, building thirsts quenchable only with Central Otago Pinot Noir.

Meandering ribbons of asphalt cross mountain passes and follow coastlines poetically, punctuated by lunches in small towns and swimming before camps beside meltwater rivers and lakes of richest blues. These are landscapes of Hollywood movies, through which bicycle wheels thread themselves into the lives of a small and widely spread cast of alternative communities.

Along the West Coast of the South Island a blanket of temperate rainforest shrouds the landscape as clouds struggle to cross the Southern Alps and fall after their journey from the Tasman Sea. Between abandoned gold rush towns and glaciers sit isolated, self sustainable communities. In Harihari I work on an organic farm for a few days. The sprawling arms of city life don’t stretch this far, this is the realm of extensive workshops in gardens, lathes run on tractor engines, vegetable patches, welders, chainsaws and four-by-fours. Dust flies from saw blades as we mill timber from fallen trees. We organise material to replace the roof on the self built holiday bungalow. We bathe under the stars in sulphuric hot pools running from mountains. But ways of living are only part of the lifestyle in this community and as my host explains an upcoming court case I realise that self representation and standing for your own beliefs are equally as much a part of this regional identity. A major issue in rural areas is the government’s use of 1080 poison to control the population of introduced mammals in the wild. The more I observe in the world the more I realise that human introduced problems are rarely solved by a human introduced remedy, I’m reminded of the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly…

Arthurs pass separates the West coast from the East along a road otherwise recognised as Narnia. Words of discouragement from visiting the destruction from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake had been passed my way by weary locals along the road, speaking only of despondency. On arriving, my 2005 map is immediately useless, the city centre remains destroyed. But finding myself drinking coffee at the Pallet Pavillion, an open air cafe built from pallets on the site of a demolished building, I begin to understand that there are two sides to the future of this erasing canvas of a landscape. Accounts are told of shops destroyed, owners tired of relocating, families just wanting their homes and lives back, and of people moving away, worn down by continuing aftershocks. Juxtaposing this are the progressive socio-political movements, abandoned buildings and spaces left derelict by demolition are filled by “gap fillers” creative projects for community benefit and the influx of a new population bring with them a new future. Wandering the re:start town centre of colourful ships container structures within a landscape of demolition, futuristic shopping fuses with community feel. I spend an evening at Smash Palace, an outdoor bar where drinks are ordered from a bus, consumed in an old tram and motorcycle maintenance workshops are held weekly, another community incentive. Christchurch feels more progressive and forward facing with every boutique pint…

Crunching gravel beneath tyres on the Rainbow Road takes me North from the city, following rivers into mountain valleys. I cycle with a canadian guy called Adam, sharing world views and stories. We forage for roadside snacks of blackberries, apples and peaches, finding time in the evenings to make pies on perfect wild camps. We go separate ways in Nelson and in the Abel Tasman national park, where dense forests meet pristine seas, I find a new appreciation for golden beaches, clear waters and a world void of roads. With a continuing scorching summer the National Park feels alien to New Zealand’s rugged realism, more suited to a Caribbean or Mediterranean holiday brochure. After a utopian end to the South, The Interislander floats me through Marlborough Sounds and Wellington welcomes me to the North Island.

The North Island tempts with the lure of volcanoes, cave adventures, skydiving, thermal springs and the desert road, however I opt to cycle the wild East Cape, a rugged world of sustainability and a real world of Maori culture in a landscape of the quirky social comedies of Kiwi film. Roadside fire warnings rise to “extreme” as the government instates an official drought warning and once lush rolling green hills now stand in dusty shades of golden brown. Farmers break from trimming their hot sheep to discuss the lack of feed and the falling weight of their stock, decreasing meat prices and securing a bad economic year.

Cycling beyond Hastings, State Highway 2 begins undulating between modest bays separated by agricultural hill ranges of corn and maize. Gisborne is the last town with supermarkets, the traffic disappears and Highway 35 leads around the coast. The sky compassionately agrees with the moody landscape, wearing heavy tones of grey as I traverse dystopian towns with abandoned buildings, boarded windows and weathered signs on beaches of scattered driftwood and tsunami warnings. Occasionally the waft of wild goat floats into my nostrils before they reveal themselves in the road around the corner, I smile with memories of Central Asia and Tibet where every meal seemed to involve these smelly creatures. As evenings draw in I ask at houses for drinking water and find myself welcomed in to converse over tea with elders of the communities. Youthful minds and eyes speak through ageing faces. The season continues to offer its virtues as garden harvests of peppers, kumaras, chillies, cucumbers, tomatoes, fijoas and lemons are offered to me daily before I leave to perfect camping spots on cliff tops or overlooking mountains. My camp cooking is improving with these improvised ingredients and I sleep well in cooling nights. Mornings find me visiting local Marae’s, chatting with young children at Maori language schools and collecting walnuts and oranges from the gardens for snacks through the day.

Continuing around the coast, the undulations become more severe as the weather’s temperament becomes less predictable, as I cycle along the edge of the international date line I begin to tire of climb after climb, resting only to change into rain wear and back every fifteen minutes. Standing by the roadside, tucking my waterproof under a bungee cord, I hear the most beautiful tones of high and low voices, harmonising from a nearby Marae. I follow the sound, lean my bike against a van and walk across the field to a group of school children. Nobody speaks to me after the singing finishes and I make my way to the front of the congregation. A man in his forties approaches me and I explain hearing the beautiful singing and wondering what the occasion was. As tears well in the man’s eyes he explains in a broken voice of losing his brother and that unless I’m a friend or relative then I shouldn’t be at the ceremony. My heart sinks as I walk away, thinking both of the lost sibling and of my insensitivity to local customs. I rarely impose myself upon a situation and on this occasion I chose a bad time to do it.

After a week in the rugged East Cape, the weather picks up and my spirits are high as the roads level out and I cycle sunny coastlines overlooking a distant active volcanic island. I randomly join the Edwards family for an Easter weekend of Stand Up Paddling, games in sand dunes, barbecues and outdoor baths. The feeling of belonging continues in Hamilton as I meet up with Ashley, who I cycled with through parts of Turkey and Iran over two years before, catching up and remembering days in the deserts.

After three months cycling beautiful New Zealand, the Sky Tower of Auckland grows from the horizon, a great dirty needle penetrating the sky. I cycle familiar street names through suburbs of memories, to the museum in the domain where I sit on the grass and reminisce over the skyline. In 2006 I left England to begin travelling, landing in Auckland after a 25 hour flight from London. Cycling into that same world, this time after almost three years on a bike, I feel truly on the other side of the world, my heart beats in my throat as emotions run high. Past the hospital, and over the motorway I cycle into Cross Street, a strip of concrete car parks, a swingers club, lines of hookers, dark corners and the warehouse above which I once lived. Around the corner on K Road the adult shops stand proud and rough where questionable women in short dresses and high heels heckle as I pass the Vegas Girl Strip Club. Beneath flash new facades of posh suburbs, Auckland hasn’t lost her grit. On Putiki Street I open the door to the production studio where I used to work, the air of fresh coffee and creativity fill my head as seven years on I see familiar faces. I’ll stay in this home away from home for a while looking for a flightless way to travel on. Plans are evolving and changing from the route I originally set out to complete. I’ve been talking with sailing crew at the docks about possible positions on yachts, there might be a chance to work as a deck hand on a small boat, a term in the Kiwi accent that is pronounced “dick-hand”. I ponder the lengths I would go to to continue my travels…

Join the Leigh Timmis mailing list