The Edge
June 7, 2000
Stewart Island, New Zealand
I am stuck in Dunedin. Trapped like the coal smoke in the city’s circle of hills. I’m only going to stay for a couple days, write about my adventures, then get out quick. But I’m still here. I’m paying my rent at the hostel every morning. Just one more day. Just one more day. A week. Longer.

I feel bad about it. I know I’m supposed to be traveling. Supposed to be moving down the road to new adventures. But I also know that part of the reason I’m traveling is to see what will happen. And this is what is happening.

It’s that hollow place inside me again. Born of circumstance, or my own errors. Or the circumstance of my own errors. I can feel it when I go to the lonely countryside, far from people and close only to the natural earth. I can feel that hollow and empty place and the dull ache of it. The wide spaces around me gently echo the hollow that is inside. And after days or maybe weeks, the echo can grow, making it difficult for me to be so far away, so far from the hope, the chance to be filled.

And so I am in the city. On the cold sidewalk a couple connects with warm hands and the synchronized sway of love. Two young ladies lighten the wait in the grocery store line with their enthusiasm for magazine covers and the best kind of gum. Friends greet and gather and meet and matter. To be so near all these happy connections strikes hard on my own emptiness and sets the hollow ringing. Each day I dive into the mesh of peopled streets, thrashing around, trying to find something to cling to. But the sieve of the city will not hold me and I am passing through.

At last I ride. I escape the city. I am on the road. Wild and free. Free from the distractions of possibility.

I ride into the Catlins, a near-forgotten corner of this island of New Zealand. There are thick forests filled with the trees and birds of a million years. Thrust into the sea are rocky outcrops inhabited by playful fur seals, beaches where sea lions lay splayed happily in the sand. I see little penguins that waddle out of the water and hop clumsily and fixedly up the steep shoreline to their hidden nests. I scramble out on narrow headlands that rumble and shake with the power of crashing waves. I wander the stone forest, where time and chance have preserved the likeness of a Jurassic forest in rock, the growth rings of petrified tree trunks, the whisper-fine veins of captured leaves. I ride through cold driven rain and through sunshine and toward rainbows and past trees bent sideways by the wind. I wade the icy ocean into the darkness of cathedral caves crowded only with the sound of waves. I watch a fiery sunset burn minutes off another day closer to winter.

I meet people who are amazed by the strength, power, and sheer physical grit that it takes to pile a bunch of crap on a bicycle and ride around the countryside. Maybe I should keep this a secret and bask in the glory, but really, it’s not that hard. Seems like the only hard part is actually wanting to do it. And since I like to ride a bike, it’s mostly just a matter of not making it any harder on myself than I want it to be.

The bike has lots of gears, so going up hill isn’t so hard, though it’s slower for sure. And I’m in no hurry, so there’s no reason to travel very far; a day of riding doesn’t have to last long enough to become difficult. Plus, the Bicycle is supposed to be one of the most efficient means of transportation ever invented. So how hard can it be?

On the occasions that I find the riding difficult, it’s almost always due to something that I’ve done that is making it difficult. Maybe I haven’t bothered to shift to an easier gear on the way up a steep hill or into the wind. Maybe I haven’t taken time out to fix brakes that are rubbing, or fill tires that are getting low. Or maybe I’ve picked a distance that’s difficult to cover in one day. Because, overall, I don’t need to grunt and struggle. I just need to put in some time and keep it steady.

I try to see this as a metaphor for life. A deeply symbolic rendering of the physical act of bicycling. That if I keep a steady pace and don’t make things difficult for myself, then I will surely get where I want to be. But I don’t really believe it.

Invercargill. The most southerly city in the world. --Well, at least if you’re from New Zealand and accidentally forget about South America. Helpful people all over the South Island have been telling me that Invercargill is the armpit of the country and that there is nothing here to see and the only thing that I’ll want to do is pass through as fast as possible.

I am a traveler. I have an open mind. I am able to see the hidden beauty that lives in the heart of the commonplace. But Invercargill still sucks. The city is built on a strangely charmless grid. Many of the houses are very plain, and the landscaping utilitarian. And it doesn’t help that the season has stripped the leaves off most of the trees. Or that mindless hoons squeal rubber in the streets and break beer bottles in the gutters. But worse, I can’t connect to anything in the city. A flash of long dark hair. Tight pants on a shapely figure. Funky black shoes in the latest New Zealand style. But always walking away.

I ride south from this southernmost city in the world. Past factories. Past farms. Past the greasy estuary. To Bluff, a town renown for its homely lack of taste. I ride up the big bluff behind Bluff to see the world. From this viewpoint I scan the southern coast. I look further south to islands floating on the grey ocean. My eyes keen toward that southern horizon, seeking that further unknown. So I board a ferry and sail into the evening, among sea birds and sky, and the playful company of huge freighters.

It’s near dark when I arrive at the wharf on Stewart Island, where the off-season is in full swing. The few yellow lights of the town of Oban can’t quite hold back the darkness of the night. I ride the empty streets to a hostel and settle in. Deep.

For days I ride the few roads and walk the many trails of the island. Or at least of this small corner. Because most of the island is splendidly uninhabited, slowly healing from the uses and abuses of the nineteenth century, the logging, the mining, the clubbing to death of thousands of seals. I stroll empty beaches in the cold rain. I slog through the mud and soggy undergrowth of the forest. I paddle a kayak along the secret convoluted coast, where islets and inlets lie like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle between grey sea and grey sky.

Nights I draw stories out of my eccentric host. He tells me about this island where three hundred eighty people live by fishing or by reeling in the tourist dollars. Where no one goes far without a raincoat. Where tall rubber gumboots are the height of fashion. He tells me of diving for paua -- abalone -- in the cold ocean. Of the island’s surprising little golf course. Of the strange characters who live here: those sponging off the government, those with ideas bigger than the island, the local sex offenders. But also of the hand basket the world is heading to hell in, of the nefarious multi-national forces bent on total world control, of the evil technology that will enable it, of his hope that this splendid isolation will protect him. I listen. Smile. Keep taking notes on my laptop.

Each day I show him my pictures, and at first he doesn’t want to get too close to the computer. But after a day or two, he wants a laptop computer of his own.

Most of the pictures could be in black and white, since days are all shades of grey. But there is color here, though I rarely capture it with the camera. Strange indigenous New Zealand birds, disappearing from the big islands, are more common on Stewart Island. Among the trees, the red-crowned parakeets flash past with corrugated cries. At dusk the forest parrots -- the kaka -- screech and burble as they wing their plump bodies over the town from bird feeder to bird feeder. Small flightless wekas prowl the edge of the forest. And somewhere, hidden from me, the kiwi scrounges for food amid the sea wrack.

Life here is difficult. The edge of the world, the edge of winter. The short days are rainy, foggy, chilly, or worse. Dense, nearly impenetrable forest cloaks the land. The ground is slick with mossy slime. Cliffs overhang rock strewn shores. The sea is cruelly cold, rough, and studded with hull-tearing snags. Help and supplies are far away. And for me, a mere visitor, there are also dangers.

There is the gumbooted Ph.D. who smiles her sunshine smile as she serves the most expensive cup of hot chocolate on the island. And there is a tall dark-haired local beauty who catches my eye, but whose eye I cannot catch. On a secluded beach I see something beautiful. Long legs. Gumboots. She smiles and waves, but as I wander her way to say hello, those same long legs speed her away.

Ahh Stewart Island. Where the pleasures of the wild are combined with the distractions that I’ve been finding in the cities. Instead of swinging between the two in a matter of days, I swing back and forth in hours. These twin cravings that seem to define my travels. Maybe my life. This passion for adventure, and the desire to find someone to share the passion. Is that why I’m biking around New Zealand? And is it working?

Late my last evening on the island I take a boat trip to seek the elusive kiwi. The boat sails across the darkening bay to a small jetty. A troop of us stomp along the beach under alternating waves of brilliant starlight and misty rain. Our guide’s light searches the fringes of the beach. And at last, there, snuffling through the kelp that marks the high tide line, is the kiwi. This rare and exotic bird. Last living representatives of a whole family of flightless birds. This symbol of New Zealand. . . And all I can think is that it looks pretty much like a chicken.

It could be that the sight of this strange bird has nothing to offer me. But I think, instead, it means that I have reached some sort of limit.

Because here I am. I look south, past the dark beach. Maybe I see beyond the low starlit mountains and scattered pieces of Stewart Island to the Southern Ocean. Maybe I can see that south of where I stand there are no cities, no towns, few people. Only remote outposts and vast empty places that call to me quietly.

But I’m not listening. I’m not listening to the kiwi, to the waves, to the static drizzle of rain on my jacket hood. What I’m listening to is that other call. The call that draws me back, away from the edge of the world.

And so the boat will take me back to Oban. And the ferry will take me back to the South Island. And my bike will take me north over roads that I’ve never traveled, and through towns where I’ve never been. I won’t even know if I’m going the right direction. That’s the damn problem with being wild and free. There are so many choices that I don’t even know what they all are. I just have to choose one. Keep dreaming. And see where it takes me.




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