I arrived in New Zealand in early January with a few weeks to spare before the trip. It was raspberry and tomato season Down Under; January is high summer there. I figured I could work up to twenty-five miles in a day, given the fact that I had nothing else to do, a wonderful and unaccustomed state. And I had no significant jet lag—it’s just three hours earlier in New Zealand, only it’s tomorrow; the international date line was passed somewhere around Tahiti.
Staying in Christchurch, a quiet town on the South island, I set out with my borrowed bike and helmet. As was the case in Portland, I started out just to ride and what I discovered was an unfolding path of quiet vignettes, telling details of everyday life that are below the radar of most travelers.
I found a quiet route along the Pacific Ocean in an unpretentious beach neighborhood called Brighton. I slowly added distance and discovered more bike paths along estuaries that reminded me of home. Most were traffic-free, and most wound along the city’s Avon River and its boundary parks.
A bike map was eventually provided by the local and friendly bike shop, and revealed that I could ride all the way downtown on trails that featured egrets and gulls, and only encountering major traffic at city center. There I could just walk my bike, and park it at a local coffee shop (which I regret to report was a Starbucks). The Cathedral, an artisans’ market, and the art gallery/museum became a nice day trip for me.
I wandered my surrogate neighborhood on my bike. I sidled up to a Saturday bocce tournament, where men in white outfits whirred small black balls across smooth emerald fields. Their wives reminded me of nothing more than soccer moms, clustered in familiar, chatty groups eating picnic lunches as they probably had for years. I discovered the beautiful public library at ocean’s edge and talked them into a temporary library card. I found that their computer book-reserve system that used exactly the same software as Portland’s. I was home! A new book every few days and daily long bike rides became my routine. Books, bike, and beach…my idea of paradise.
I shopped in the tiny village, bringing home fresh produce to supplement the garden, buying the quotidian stuff of life: batteries at the hardware store, pasta at the grocery, and nuts and wine and fresh fish at the small grocer. I found much-needed sunscreen at the drug store and a new water bottle at the bike shop.
Days passed and time rather lost its meaning. The ocean contributed the white noise of the surf to the relentlessly sunny days. By the end of my stay, Kiwi kids were returning to school for the fall term, all public and private school kids wearing uniforms that include sun hats to counter the south-of-the-equator sun. The stars are upside down there and a lot of what you expect from January and February is simply set on its head.
Eventually our small bicycling group gathered in, arriving in the southern province of Otago for our four-day bike ride. The reunion tour set out: Ray and Diana, from Vancouver British Columbia; Stewart and Helen, from Vancouver Island; Anthony and Christine, from the city of Port Chalmers on the South Island; and Mike and Caroline, from Nelson farther north. The siblings in the group had grown up together on the beach in Christchurch, in a family of modest means and great spirit. Sister Barbara still lived there. There were a few in-laws and outlaws, and your faithful scribe, the interloper from Portland.
We began at the Otago Rail Trail office in Alexandra, near Clyde. The small, cheery, and encouraging staff organizes the bike rentals, and has a nifty computer program that reserves all lodging and even some meals for groups like ours. Bikes and helmets were individually adjusted for each rider, and a jolly pep talk next to a huge topo map of the area got us off. Total cost for everything, bikes and lodging for four days: about $250.
The trail follows an abandoned railroad grade in this part of the South Island of New Zealand. It’s a region of primordial farms and deep river gorges, vast acres of carved sepia terrain punctuated by shady clusters of trees near springs and streams. In this rainless season of the year, the vistas evoked the California’s tawny foothills. Hours could go by on a bike without signs of civilization.
We pedaled and gossiped and sweated, and some of us may have whined a bit at first. The younger men in the group rode literal circles around the group, doubling the planned mileage which others were grateful to complete. The guys powered their bikes off-road over terrain populated by the odd herd of incurious sheep and once a spirited cow that raced us along the road for quite a distance. Lambs looked up from their tussock grasses, not particularly startled, and went back to chewing.
We biked past a developing vineyard, a dairy with creamy local blue cheeses. We met people from Germany and Holland and South Africa and Australia. As New Zealand’s famously touristy landscape receded, gone were thoughts of vast mountain chains, steaming volcanoes, sweeping coastlines, deeply indented fiords, and lush rainforests. We were in old territory here, tiny figures totally absorbed in a chiaroscuro landscape and the physical challenge. Reality was only the sound of breathing and wheels, and the next stop for water.
Read Part Three