am stuck in Dunedin. Trapped like the coal smoke in the citys
circle of hills. Im only going to stay for a couple days, write
about my adventures, then get out quick. But Im still here.
Im 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 Im supposed to be traveling. Supposed
to be moving down the road to new adventures. But I also know that
part of the reason Im traveling is to see what will happen.
And this is what is happening.
Its 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
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
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, its not that hard. Seems like the only hard
part is actually wanting to do it. And since I like
to ride a bike, its 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 isnt so hard, though
its slower for sure. And Im in no hurry, so theres
no reason to travel very far; a day of riding doesnt 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, its almost
always due to something that Ive done that is making it difficult.
Maybe I havent bothered to shift to an easier gear on the way
up a steep hill or into the wind. Maybe I havent taken time
out to fix brakes that are rubbing, or fill tires that are getting
low. Or maybe Ive picked a distance thats difficult to
cover in one day. Because, overall, I dont 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
dont make things difficult for myself, then I will surely get
where I want to be. But I dont really believe it.
Invercargill. The most southerly city in the world. --Well, at least
if youre 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 Ill 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 doesnt 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 cant 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.
Its 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 cant 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 islands
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 doesnt 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 Ive 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 Im 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 guides 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
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 Im not listening. Im not listening to the kiwi, to
the waves, to the static drizzle of rain on my jacket hood. What Im
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 Ive never traveled, and through towns where Ive never
been. I wont even know if Im going the right direction.
Thats the damn problem with being wild and free. There are so
many choices that I dont even know what they all are. I just
have to choose one. Keep dreaming. And see where it takes me.