At Bluff – with the Baltic Bikers

Over one month and 3300 kilometres your legs go up and down a helluva lot of times on a bike.

Former maths teacher Bill Kinghorn came up with the actual number one day – somewhere between Cape Reinga and Bluff.  There’s time for such pondering as you push pedals across New Zealand’s challenging topography at a rate of 100kms a day.

But totalling up travel efforts for some members of the Baltic Cycle group who recently blew into Bluff on a wet, blustery afternoon would be demanding.

Take Lithuanian physicist Sigitas Kucas.

He’s lost count of the countries through which he’s cycled since his homeland became the first Baltic State to reclaim independence from Russia in 1991. A quietly determined man, he celebrated his new found ability to travel outside the Soviet Bloc by spearheading a peace ride that crossed 45 countries.

“We wanted to invite from every country one or two cyclists and get sponsorship but when it became clear that wouldn’t happen we decided – let’s go who can and make it cheap. In some countries we got very big support, in others there was none and we just had to survive.

“We left from Seattle on Hiroshima Day 1998 and came to Japan in time for the new millennium – January 1, 2000.”

What the group lacked in formal support, it more than made up for in courage and commitment – even biking through a heavily militarised Myanmar on route from Seattle to Hiroshima.

“Soldiers were all the time with us – with guns. But they gave us food. So we travelled through there for about a month.”

The chance to speak to local people – or at least share a smile – is what it’s all about for Sigitas. Proud of his country’s stubbornly peaceful pursuit of democratic freedom he tells the story of how, in 1989, ordinary people formed a human chain stretching 600km  from Tallinn and Riga to Vilnius. Its aim: to highlight how the fate of Baltic States had been sealed by high level “secret protocols” 50 years earlier.

Dubbed “The Baltic Way”, the spirit of this protest was reflected three years later in civilian response to a Russian military attempt to quash Lithuania’s fledgling independence. Sigitas was there when troops fired on the unarmed crowd in central Vilnius killing 14 and injuring 700 – but people just kept pouring in from the villages to defend their new parliament, he says.

“They were prepared to die for independence.”

A similar stubborn persistence – and belief in the power of ordinary people – characterises his own journeys to promote peace, tolerance, and environmental protection. One of only four bikers to complete the entire 23,500km Peace Ride, he’s continued to organise cycle trips that cross multiple borders – Norway to Greece, Greece to Beijing, Brussels to Istanbul…

Biking with his group on at least two of these trips were Waiheke Islanders Alison and Brian Walker. A keen amateur athlete, Alison talked her not-so-sporty husband into a bike tour of France when the couple were in their late 40s. But it was Brian who five years later organised their personal trek from Cape Reinga  to Bluff.

“To begin with, every time we got to a hill he’d get off the bike and push it – he kept saying that’s why it’s called a pushbike,” Alison recalls. “But by the time we got to Waipoua Forest in about three days, he’d gained his fitness. He amazes everyone because when he’s not touring, he doesn’t use his bike. I think he got his strong legs from growing up in Southland riding his bike into head winds…”

After that trip, Brian caught the bike bug, started researching tour options on the internet and discovered Baltic Cycle. The couple’s first ride with them from Brussels to Istanbul took 10 weeks.

“It’s a long way but you just do it day by day,” says Alison. “We’d camp together each night, have a map meeting first thing which shows the route and places of interest along it and each of us does it at our own pace.

“In Europe, you’re mostly on cycle ways. In a couple of countries we got police escorts into cities – in Prague they stopped the traffic for us.”

There were police escorts of another kind in Turkmenistan where the group were told they couldn’t enter without paying for a guide. After Sigitas spent a day arguing their case with authorities, the bikers were allowed in only with police guarding their every move.

“Over three weeks our escorts became less diligent but they didn’t want us communicating with locals – so there was some tension,” says Alison

After travelling some 13,000kms with the Baltic Cycle “family”, the Walkers decided it was time to show off their own country – and, at the same time, promote the work being done by the Stellar Trust to combat “P” use.

Two support campervans provided by Backpacker are emblazoned with the Stellar Trust logo and walk organisers have been distributing Trust literature in all the centres they pass through. That plus organising luggage transport, accommodation and route planning has been a big ask – but the Walkers have still managed a bit of riding.

Altogether, 40 cyclists ranging in age from 17 to 72 started from Cape Reinga – including a few locals like Waiheke Islander Bill Kinghorn who at 66 was not entirely sure he’d go the distance. But, by Bluff, he’d become hooked on the simple daily rhythm of bike travel.

You see so much more than when in a car and somewhere along the way, he notes, the destination becomes less important, the journey more absorbing.

For Sigitas, this was a country different to many he’s travelled through.

“Not so many people – and never in my life have I seen so many sheep and cows.

What I can tell is every day shows you a multitude of natural beauty.”

Next year, there will be another Baltic Cycle tour to more countries – there are still some he hasn’t visited. As  to whether he has counted all the miles he’s travelled?

“Not yet. This year I turn 60, maybe for my birthday, I will count.”

Published NZ Herald My Generation, May issue.

About vjayne

I'm a writer / photographer usually based on Waiheke Island in New Zealand but currently traveling the country in "snail" - my mobile home and office. Along the way, I'm telling stories about the places I see or people I meet and building up a beautiful library of photos - of New Zealand's coastline and mountains, its walking tracks and wildlife. I'm happy to supply illustrated stories to New Zealand and offshore publications. My work background includes editing business and lifestyle magazines, crafting features on topics ranging from management and marketing to frogs and fashion, creating organisational narratives and promotional literature. Please visit my website for more information.
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