World By Bike 12: New Zealand: North Island
I've been cycling for a few years now but I'm still a pretty terrible mechanic. Putting the bike back together I thought I'd save some precious dollar by changing my disc brake pads by myself for the first time, and replace the chain myself. I'd never owned a disc brake bike before so it this was new territory and expected some hiccoughs, but I've done the chain before so was surprised when I backed the bike out of the garage to get started on Leg 3 that the new chain I just fitted got caught in the jockey wheels on the rear derailleur and the chain fell apart. After much fiddling, and attempting to use a proper chain tool for the first time, I decided that I was probably doing more damage than mending, and that the issues I'd had with the disc brakes meant that it was best to head to a bike store.
I caught the train up to Auckland city centre, and managed to find a helpful Brit who was working there and could help me out. He fixed the chain by simply stepping on the pedals and that put enough pressure on the chain that it sorted itself out, and it took him just 10 minutes do diagnose and solve the brake pad issues. He was incredibly helpful and didn't charge me, so I hope I'll pop in to the store on my way back through Auckland before I go to Australia, just to donate to the shop's beer fund and say 'thanks'.
I kicked off Leg 3 underneath the Skytower, which dominates the Auckland skyline and set off on the 30 mile ride back down to where I had been staying the last few nights, with Sam (a friend of mine from Equippers church back home) and his host family. Sam and Isaac, who'd met at Bible college in Auckland, took me to an end of year Bible college farewell party and it was really interesting to see so many young people raving about what Bible college had done for them. As someone interested in psychology and theology, it was a great opportunity to learn more about what the church in Auckland is teaching and the values it's instilling in the next generation. It seems raising the next generation, and catering to a new-age of social media heavy, tech-driven, global youth is one of the highest priorities. I met some interesting people there who'd later help me out on my way down New Zealand. They became significant characters in this story, and it's great how it all worked out as I almost didn't go to the party.
The next day was a 75-mile ride down to Hamilton, where I was meeting up with Charlie, a fellow round-the-world aspiree, attempting to be the youngest person to cycle around the world. He'd ridden across Europe and Asia, down the east coast of Australia and was doing NZ in reverse to his easterly route around the planet, but it meant we could ride together. We were staying with friends of his in Hamilton who were a lot of fun to chat with, as one of the family's daughters had just adopted a cat and it's days-old kittens for two weeks, and quickly realised how much she detests feline creatures, and how much work kittens are. By the time we left they were missing one of the kittens - who knows how that story ended.
The first day riding with Charlie down Highway 1 from Hamilton to Lake Taupo was tough. I'd got a puncture the day before and it quickly appeared the tube I'd replaced the flat with wasn't airtight. After 10 miles trying to hang onto Charlie, I noticed my rear tyre was slowly going flat, and that'd I'd left both my water bottles - bottles I'd carried since London - back in Hamilton. I decided it wasn't worth it to go back and we pushed on - by 'pushing on' I mean clinging onto Charlie's back wheel.
Charlie's riding a carbon fibre aero-road bike, designed for racing and speed, a steed he'd converted to a lightweight tourer with a bag around the handlebars and one behind his seat. The bike is at the UCI (cycling's governing body) minimum weight at a shade over 6kg, and he's only carrying about 5kg of kit. I on the other hand, was using a bike designed with the capacity of being able to go off road, and a little more versatile, weighing a 11kg for the bike alone, a little more than the industry standard for a entry-level road bike. With all my gear (I'm carrying some luxuries and more contingency items), I'm much nearer the 30kg mark, so as soon as the road had the slightest of inclines Charlie left me behind. Reluctant to try and repair my failing inner tube at the side of the road, and without an additional spare, I stopped every couple hours to replace air in my tyre, and Charlie was incredibly patient and waited for me at each stop. In hindsight I should have just mended the tube, but pumping up such high-volume tyres with a hand pump at the side of the road is never an appealing option.
With the frustration of the tyre issues, one of only about three or four punctures over the first 100 days of this trip, and trying to keep up with my new riding partner, immediately I felt a stress about our new relationship. This was totally of my own making, and it highlighted to me the high level of stress that you operate on when on this type of trip. With the underlying physical fatigue building up after a few months on the road, it's fascinating how just one little setback, or one extra thing to manage can push you closer to the emotional edge. I was enjoying riding with someone, but whereas Charlie would ride faster than me and stop more often for snacks, I would tend to push on but ride slower. Similarly, where Charlie was quite happy to leave his bike outside a gas station briefly, I'd always be more comfortable locking my bike up. It's nothing major but managing these differences was interesting. At the end of this first day, and after pulling up at a lakeside pub for a half-pint (I had water as the beer was as much as my daily budget), we arrived at our host, Kerry's house. He was a prison officer who'd done a fair amount of touring yet only really opened up in conversation not when talking about cycling, but about the political situation in the UK. Something I'd never really thought about with the whole Brexit thing back home is the effect on countries like New Zealand, which had apparently had been just like a farm for the UK, and hit massive economic turmoil when the UK joined the EEC back in the '70s. I’d never considered that perspective.
Barely hanging on to Charlie for the first 10k of the next day, we found a bike store and I purchased some new inner tubes. However, even with air in my tyres he'd still drop me up hills, and so he patiently elected to ride behind me on the flatter sections and let me control the pace a little. We'd chat every now and again, but for the most part we'd do our own thing as narrow roads or busy highways on the North Island made conversation opportunities few and far between. However, as we rode past Mt. Ngauruhoe, the sharp, scenic volcano used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, and climbed over the high desert road, I was comforted by the rate at which we passed a Danish tourer on a lighter set-up than me, reminding me that my struggling to keep pace with Charlie wasn't too much of a fitness issue, but an equipment one - always blame your equipment. I know it's not a race, but being able to overtake another tourer with ease on my heavier set up was encouraging. We hit a downpour of rain and thunder that afternoon, revealing to us why the North Island is so green, like a more extreme version of the UK's Lake District. We spent the evening as guests at an equally wet and green farm, and our hosts even treated us to feeding the goats, pigs and cows the next morning.
Wellington was the next destination for us, a big day for me as it was to be the second anti-podal point on my route around the world. To meet the criteria of an official circumnavigation of the globe by bike, you have to hit two points directly on the opposite side of the world to one another, amongst other criteria. There's only a couple of places on land you can actually do this, and if Wellington is one point, Madrid is it's opposite. The other major point on the criteria is hitting 18,000 miles or 29,000km, but we're a long way of that one yet. To get to Wellington I'd done around 10,000km to Charlie's 20,000. We did a little photoshoot down by the bay, watching the huge ships and ferries come in, and the thick cloud drift across the bay to cloak Wellington for the evening. We stayed with a young guy called Solomon, who'd just finished touring around Europe, and I think a small debate between Charlie and I about which ferry to take to the South Island the next day made for an entertaining evening for him. Charlie needed to get down to Queenstown for a flight back to Auckland on December 23rd, whereas I was under less of a time pressure, and so didn't need to get the more expensive ferry at first thing in the morning. Although I had no real touristy things I particularly wanted to see on the North Island (especially after finding out they charge $84NZD for a tour of the Hobbiton movie set), I felt like I wasn't on my own schedule anymore. It remains a strange thing to try and articulate, and although I didn't feel like I would have changed our route or overnight stops, I didn't feel as though as I was in control of my trip like I had been. However, to keep the fellowship together, we agreed to get the early ferry and decided to try to make it to Queenstown bungee on the South Island together.
It was an fun challenge adjusting to these first few days with Charlie. Not that there was anything wrong in riding with him at all - genuinely, it was great - but just by nature someone else is another variable you have to contend with. When you're so tired you can quickly resort to frustration, so I tried to embrace it as a new challenge and a new opportunity to strengthen mental fortitude, beyond the physical challenge the ride already presents. It's hard not to try and blame someone else when things are going wrong, and when you're riding solo you don't have that option, so you have to take up the responsibility. However, in a group you can quickly take out your fatigue or frustration on someone else, even if completely unfounded. It was a challenge to withdraw myself from the tough situations and come up a few cognitive levels and look down on the scene, trying to see things from Charlie's point of view of riding with me, or from a third party perspective. By doing this slightly successfully at times I could enjoy the positives of company, and not get weighed down the additional challenge of someone else's opinions. It's nice having someone to help navigate or watch the bikes when you run into a store. It's embracing the challenging aspects and enjoying the rewards, something like that - it's just not always easy.
One of the many positives that came out of riding as a pair through the lush green hills, flowing rivers and deep gorges of the North Island was that it highlighted to me why I came on this ride. I find riding my bike to new places introduces me to new people, and helps me learn about others, their stories and why they do what they do. I find it opens to my mind to news ways of thinking, and by comparing all the people you meet, allows you to draw upon the common themes across people. It's fascinating. However, as we were riding together, so much of the time we were chatting about ourselves, and our respective trips, rather than hearing about those we met. I know there's a place for it, and people are interested in what we're up to, but you can only do it for so long before I start to feel quite egocentric. What I love is hearing all the epic stories of people on the road, many of whom have done amazing trips, and visited remote, challenging places, but are living a quiet life in a rural town and just want to help out fellow human beings by doing what they can to aid others on their journey. It's encouraging and inspiring to see, and I love hearing about it. Riding with Charlie reminded me of that.
The North Island was awesome: incredible greenery, snow-capped volcanoes, hospitable people and rolling hills so much like home it was oddly familiar to ride. Above all though it reminded me why I left home, and there's so much value in being reminded of your objectives. Also, Wellington seemed like a really cool capital city.