I go on a biking holiday every summer. Physically, it’s like servicing a car: the oil and filters get changed, and the belts and tires checked. A wise thing to do at my age. As well, time slows down, one learns to be patient and not assume the end is in sight. Sixty to ninety kilometres a day is reasonable. The only horror is a head wind or howling rain. But there is something wonderful knowing you have all you need on the bicycle: tent, sleeping bag, pots and pans, stove and food and you provide the power. I always think of the North Vietnamese army defeating the US by using the humble bicycle as their means of transport.
Family were coming for Christmas so I decided to do my trip in December and I had had the idea of biking from Blackball to Christchurch for a couple of years. The Lewis Pass seems less extreme than Arthur’s, even though longer. Passing through somewhat tedious if nevertheless very lush, dairy country, I stayed with the Bollingers in Blacks Point the first night, enjoying a time with old friends and learning about the ex- gold mining village as Helen took me for a stroll. It is of course a Bollinger turangawaewae. Now the museum is something of a template for a small local museum, attracting a dozen coaches a year, with the passengers having afternoon tea in people’s houses afterwards.
The next morning I left early and the long haul to Springs Junction through beech forest wasn’t too taxing. The rain held off and it was cool. I stopped for a pie and tea at the café, now run by an Indian (or are they Bangladeshi?) family. The only other guests were a couple of solitary, melancholy old Kiwi men sitting by themselves. It begins to be a phenomenon, these retirees on the road. On to Maruia Springs, a pleasant uphill stretch along the river and I decided to continue over the pass. I paused at the springs and had a cup of miso soup, which was remarkably invigorating. A couple of professional men sat at a table, and I observed middle class travellers ‘owning’ a place, a certain tilt of the head, a body swagger, colonists at heart. Mid-afternoon by now and drizzly as I began the long climb to the top of the pass, walking some, biking some, the occasional slip in evidence, the river now far, far below, a mere thread. It was amazing how that flow of water had carved out this huge valley. I was in touch with geological time. By the time I reached the summit, the rain still holding off, I realised this passing through the alps, this passing from one side of the island to the other, was an event, as it must have been in the old days, before technology dominated. The Maori also had to find their food on the way. As if to confirm that a ritual had taken place, after a brief downhill run a godly gust of wind picked me up, bike and all, and blew me across the road. If a car had of been coming… I cursed and felt like King Lear, but soon a DOC campsite turned up, full of sand flies and it was by now seriously raining. But I had crossed to the other side.
Next morning the rain had stopped but it was seriously cold as I packed the wet tent and headed off, once more the road following the swift river, having to pause to put my hands in plastic bags to ward off the chill. It was downhill for a good stretch, but the sun took forever to rise above the hill line and warm the landscape. I stopped at a bridge which had attracted the freedom camper, cars hidden away in bushes, young couples rising late and cleaning their teeth with the diligence of their generation. Then I was disappointingly faced with some steep saddles. I was still tired from the day before and had to resort to walking uphill stretches. But it was good to pause and survey the grandness of the Waimakariri River and get used to the dry, treeless landscape of the East Coast.
Eventually, Hanmer junction arrived. It was still thirty kilometres to Culverden, and I simply had to tell myself, It’ll just take a couple of hours. By now, the thoughts had begun to flow and I had the next play in mind – a verbatim piece on Love/Romance and West Coasters; part of the cultural change programme.
With Culverden, Canterbury really begins and I suspected a certain red-neckery when I ventured into the pub to be greeted by hard-eyed stares from a beery group of farm contractors. I chose a milkshake instead, a Malaysian family this time, and found the community campsite after purchasing a key to facilities at the local service station. Culverden is obviously a strange mix of local and tourist. It was hot and after putting up my tent near a gymkhana field I experienced the bliss of a shower and a lie-down on a sofa in the kitchen. I had the campsite to myself. A woman arrived in a car, let out her dog, which wandered a little way while the woman stayed in her car. Eventually she called the dog and drove off. A strange exercise routine? That evening I treated myself to a pizza in a café
Fit by now and mainly travelling gently downhill, the ride to Amberley was exhilirating, except turning onto State Highway 1 was like entering a war zone. The noise of the cars and trucks, the speed, the violence of the whole thing was overwhelming. With relief I entered this now commuter suburb of Christchurch (‘going ahead’ as my parents would have said), paused at the well-attended farmers’ market for a bite to eat, thought about continuing to Christchurch but decided to stay at Amberley Beach, a mere 5 k down the road past burgeoning subdivisions.
I set up tent by a picnic table in the campsite before an old four wheel drive rushed in and stopped angrily by the table. A pudgy, unshaven, overweight man got out, took out a small stove and pot, put it on the table and lit the stove. He filled the pan from a nearby tap and proceeded to grumpily make himself a cup of coffee. I realised I had inadvertently taken his spot. I stood watching and he eventually nodded. ‘Where you come from?’ I told him. ‘I wouldn’t mind a bike,’ he said. ‘This car costs a fortune. Five thousand a year. Costs me twenty dollars to go to Rangiora and back.’ I asked him if he worked around here. ‘Want to, but the medication I’m on, means I can’t.’ He lived in the campsite. Must have a tent in his car I surmised. Why then had he taken it down? Presumably to avoid being kicked out. ‘I should never have come back from Aussie,’ he said. ‘Had it good there. Berry picking in Victoria. Dunno why I came back.’ He didn’t have any children, but lots of nieces and nephews up north. ‘Beautiful,’ he said. ‘Don’t get it from my side of the family.’ He stirred his coffee. ‘You like the South Island?’ I nodded. ‘Not a lot of Maori here though. Not like up north.’ Perhaps he was part Maori? He told me the Council had dumped a lot of gravel along the beach in case of a tsunami and that if you go fishing you mainly catch shark. I decided to shift my tent and he didn’t protest. At the new spot I could hear an irrigator ticking away as it processed slowly down a very dry paddock.
I went for a walk and as he said, the beach had a ridge of gravel along the edge of it and a sign advising people what to do in the event of a tsunami. For some reason it was considered a major threat at Amberley Beach. The water was a beautiful turquoise, and a number of elderly couples sat at picnic tables, staring into space. The noise of a party came from one of the beach houses. Two others were veritable dumpsites, full of old washing machines, lawn mowers and the like. As I went back to my tent, the man sat in his car listening to the radio. What a miserable life he must lead. I wondered how much of this sort of homelessness existed nationwide.
Next morning a wet southerly took me past the flash vineyards, through the suburban kitsch of Kaiapoi, past the concrete plants and the machinery suppliers and kitset home makers, before Belfast arrived. Processing through the city proved the most dangerous part of the journey. The laden bike easily overbalanced when not vertical and clip-ons are not ideal for city riding.
All in all, urban civilisation was feeling pretty uncivilised in many respects, but the ritual crossing had been completed.