*New Zealand: Soloist's Sojourn

KEN RUBELI describes a brief but soul-nourishing tour around a corner of New Zealand’s North Island.

"How far did you travel?"

"What was your longest day?"

No-one asks about the moonlight. No-one enquires about the dawn view from the unzipped opening of a tiny tent. No-one probes my feelings about taking so long covering such little ground.

Our society is one that values quantity. Speed is the essence. A maximum of targets in the minimum of time. The attractions are a hit and run, a photograph sufficient evidence to claim the site as yet another notch carved on the credit card, the conquest simply to have been there.

I have been there on a bicycle. Such a fabulously fathomable means of transport. Human muscle drives a chain that turns a sprocket that rotates a wheel. Ahead, another wheel, steering. The only marvel is the force that emanates from spinning wheels and keeps me upright, and in this resides my faith, unshakeable.

There is faith, too, in The List. For here is the inventory of all the rider needs. To brave inclement weather. To effect a range of repairs and replacements. To suffice for sustenance. To cook and eat. To build the simplest of temporary dwellings and to comfortably sleep. To keep a journal. To wash. To cope with minor accident or illness. To change from sweaty cyclist into crumpled but semi-respectable traveller. All carefully selected, firmly packed and fastened.

Bushwalkers do it all the time, and bear it on their backs. They abbreviate the handle on their toothbrush and shed the wrappers from their Band-Aids. They squeeze their sleeping bag so tight it's like a football. Weight and volume must be pared to the minimum. It is an art, and one rewarded by a lighter, manageable load, and a frugal triumph in the knowledge one can live well with so little.

Such is the load for the travelling cyclist. Who can leave behind most and still have all that he or she requires? For when the long hills come the legs cry out for less to haul up epic slopes. And when it's time to set up camp it's so much simpler when there's no more than essential paraphernalia.

But for most enmeshed in this our modern life there is no inclination to penance; to the fasting of Ramadan, the privation of Lent, the stress of bodily endeavour hour upon hour. Our addiction is to comfort, indeed indulgence. The answer to the option of the easy path is yes and can I have more?

And I can sense them asking, laughing, as they flash by dark-glass-blind, car-stereo-deaf: Why would anyone....? Surely he is mad....? What about the hills....? Why alone....?

I pedalled 700 kilometres. That's worth telling for the wealth of opportunity in that span of antipodean landscape. Small towns, farmhouses, outbuildings, country churches, shelters for roadside goats, and other architectural joys and uglinesses. Quilts of agriculture, blanketfolds of forest. Coastline of the broad expanse of tidal mudflat and mangrove, of rocky promontory and elegant pohutukawa trees, of sheltered bay with sandy beach or round-pebble harbour, of industrial wharf and fishing-boat busyness, of shacks and dinghies and old rope and the stuff the sea brings in to rest.

New Zealand. This is where I've been. But not for long. Some I met there had been pedalling for months. For me much less was quite enough to fill my mind with new experience. There would be another time when I could build on all I'd learned from my noviciate. This time I chose a scenic corner of one island, north of North, and lay my body on its ground to soak.

At Orokei Korako, a place of bubbling mud and geysers, the ground beneath my sleeping mat was warm. Terra infirma. My ear pressed down into my pillow heard the gurgle of the earth's blood, felt, yes felt the gurgitations of the boiling soup beneath this thinnest realm of planetary crust. At Okautu where I slept was on a sharp-ridged isthmus, to the sunrise-side a bay of gentle sweep; to the other, ocean, boundless, on which floated thirteen islands silhouetted on the sunset. At Kaueranga I divined, in midst of adolescent forest striving weakly to achieve its former glory, the ghosts of mighty kauri trees felled a century before. There too my humble tent was raised, my bicycle and weary limbs laid down.

I soaked myself in people too. People talk so readily to cyclists. We've no pretence to make a wall to conversation. No door or window as a barrier. A solitary cyclist has a look that says I'm here to share, come share your stories with me. We look a little vulnerable too, we solo travellers, and kindly locals feel it's their responsibility to say hello and welcome, and do you know a cyclist died here twenty years ago, butchered by a lunatic!

I met no lunatics, though I nodded to some fellow touring cyclists tortoising among the highway hares. Mostly I talked with other campers, others travelling the land with time at end of day to pause and let reflections flow. A man told me the strain that came upon his marriage when he reached retirement; how a night away in his small caravan gave his wife and him a habitat of hope. I spent an hour beside a lake with a fellow who turned scraps of wood into whatever he could sell at market days across the country: rolling pins and walking sticks, spoons and cupboard handles, spinning tops and letter openers. And I listened to his thoughts on being on your own. Not alone, he said; a soloist.

A fisherman who made no criticism of my camp a stone's throw from his favourite casting spot discussed at length the plants and animals – fish among them – that came to this land with the colonisers and have taken over. Fifty million Australian possums in New Zealand; European rabbits, stoats, weasels; sparrows, carp.... Gorse and Monterey Pine gone mad. And we planned to turn the world around to seeing feral fur as a resource to proudly wear down catwalks or to the local shops in warm defence against the winter.

With the inner eye of lunacy I always try to time my cycle touring either side of a full moon. As each day's journey spills into the night, a moon grants extra hours to absorb a fresh environment in uncoloured, softer light. A moon on lake or sea or forest? How many hotels offer this from five-star windows, curtains drawn while clientele enjoys liqueurs and floor show?

My restaurant this evening is in forest with a small stream, and an owl. I have a tiny spirit-burning stove, and a single saucepan with a lid and folding handle. The menu is without choice on this my final night: Rices of the World (the sort of packet dinner I would never eat at home) augmented with fresh garlic, ginger, chilly, two-days-on-the-road salami, and a sprinkling of salted peanuts. Cordon bleu sous le clair de lune!

For all this do I need elite equipment, ultra body-fitness, fine-honed mindset? None. Give me a sturdy bike, low gears, bags slung across a carrier rack, a compact camping kit (or money for a bed each night) and two determined legs. Add then a trafficable morsel of the surface of our battered planet. That's all.

Not for me the towns, however rich their character and charm – for I am here to steer away from crowds, traffic, commerce. For me the edge of land and sea, the open mouths of rivers, the winding roads through rolling hinterland of grass and weed, sheep and cattle, forest, stream, waterfall, lake, and river back to sea.

Ride it. Meet it face to face, its sounds and sights and smells. Feel it. Self-reliant and human-powered, explore life's simple joys. And on return, in silent satisfaction softly glow.

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