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.

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In praise of small things

One of the things I love about digital photography is its ability to provide a pathway into tiny worlds – a bee’s eye view into the sexy beauty of flowers, a rainbow spectrum caught in salty foam, the world captured in a dewdrop.

To the naked eye these tiny bits of magic flash at the edge of vision, a bright colour, a glassy splinter of light. Close up, they overwhelm with their complex balanced beauty, their sheer perfection of being.

For me, they are what lie behind our everyday existence – the rich, exuberant patterns from which all things evolve. If I believed in a God then this is the stuff of its being – “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

I was thinking about this after a conversation with a friend whose recent experience of a meditation retreat involved a similar focus on the world’s minutiae. Attendees were encouraged to look at their surroundings through a portable field microscope – to get to know the world in its intimate detail.

There is a lot on which to meditate.

It’s why I lose endless minutes on a beach at dawn – pulling focus on a dewy flash to reveal the world in microcosm, hanging upside down in a bubble of ephemeral light.

It’s why I sit in front of photoshop, enlarging my way deeper into a flower. It’s an exciting, strangely intimate journey. There is nothing in it to jar the eye. Outward beauty leads to inner symmetry.

What impresses is the exquisite harmony of it all. The expression of millions of years down nature’s evolving journey to perfection.

It’s so easy just to overlook.

Exploring it provides such intense pleasure.

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A vintage retirement

Night may have fallen but the bright glow of a welding torch still arcs cheerfully from the entrance of what looks like a serious man cave. Obscure chunks of machinery are stacked everywhere, odd clatters and bursts of song emerge from the interior.

Rob Ross is absorbed in yet another “retirement” project. It will take him upwards of 2000 hours’ intensive labour but the result is a metallic metamorphosis. From old wrecks and a bunch of spare bits come gleaming vintage treasures.

A horseless carriage that first took to the roads in 1902 is restored to pristine working order; a ’29 Dodge that had been languishing under a tree in a Canterbury farm proved its post-restoration roadworthiness by carrying Rob and wife Diane 4700 kms across Australia.

“The reward is that at the end of the day when you take it out for a run, it’s a helluva thrill,” says Rob. “When you’ve picked it up from a junk yard or from under a tree and then it’s away motoring…”

They’ve toured South Africa, attended vintage car rallies around New Zealand and regularly treat local senior citizens to sedate outings in the cars of their youth.

All this some two decades after “retiring” from their Methven farm.

That was where the restoration habit started – initially out of necessity. Limited income and a young family encouraged thrift. The Scots blood probably helped, notes Rob.

When farm machinery needed fixing, they all piled into the car and toured local dumps for spare bits. Soon they were bringing old tractors home – then cars.

“Nearly all the big farms had their own dumps and we’d be out there scavenging in the weekends. Our kids practically grew up in dumps,” Diane laughs.

“The first one Rob fully restored was the 1929 Dodge. That was in 1973 – and in February, 10 days after our youngest son was born it went out on its first rally. Rob brought the entry form  into the maternity home. I was wrapped.”

No silent partner in the restoration passion, Diane acquired her own 1930s Chrysler some 20 years ago and has been actively involved in New Zealand’s Vintage Car Association since the 1970s.

“It’s been great. We’ve had opportunities we’d never otherwise have had to go places and meet people. You’re never lonely with an old car. Take them out and people flock around. Open the bonnet and they’re bees to a honeypot – everyone wants a look in.”

She’s also become used to being a shed widow. Without her there to prompt him, Rob tends to miss meals and work into the wee small hours. Even his young grand-daughter reckons he lives in his shed.

“The bigger the challenge the more focused he gets,” notes Diane.

And there have been some big challenges. The couple once bought home a 1915 Dodge Tourer that was no more than boxes of bits.

“Somebody had taken it apart and meticulously wrapped every bit in newspaper. There was no body at all. Just these boxes. But Rob put it all together and made a car out of it. I doubt anyone else would have tackled that restoration.”

You can get complete life-size plans for most of the old cars from the US, says Rob.

“But we didn’t bother with that. We did take some photos of another one we knew about in Christchurch because you’ve got to be authentic. Though in some areas we improve on the original – particularly safety stuff, like making the brakes better.”

His skills are self taught, partly because money was in short supply.

“I got a price for a guy to do some panel work on one and that cost frightened me so I thought to hell with it – I’ll learn to do it myself. So now I do the lot – apart from upholstery. Diane and I were doing it ourselves for a while but that led to a few domestics so we gave that away.”

“Well he wrecked my good sewing machine,” she explains.

She reckons tinkering is in the genes. Rob’s grandfather was a tinkerer. So is their son who’s now doing his own restoration projects. It was a  tendency that showed up early, says Rob.

“I was only a young thing when I got into a bit of bother with my mother. She’d left her watch lying around and I thought I could take this thing to bits. So I did. Never got the opportunity to put it back together. Got locked in the wash-house for a while for that.”

It didn’t deter him. Now his problem-solving skills are in demand. Around restoration projects, he fits in machinery repair work and gets a regular stream of visitors after repair or reconstruction work. Although he’s now 71, Rob doesn’t see that stopping any time soon.

“I need to have a project. I’m ruddy hopeless just sitting around. I get absolutely bored out of my brain. I’ve got to be doing something, building something. It goes back to farming days. In winter, if you’re not working on a vehicle, you’d be building sheepyards or working on a new hay barn.

“It’s hard to stop having a project. We certainly don’t need another bloody car – but I need a project..”

Published NZ Herald, My Generation, March issue.

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Lady of the Lak-eee

I’ve never had a great sense of direction. One of the reasons I loathe shopping malls is the not-completely-unfounded fear that I’ll fail to find the exit and be doomed to consume until eternity.

That’s not to say I don’t have a rough idea both of where I am and where I’m going. Over the past few months, I’ve managed to navigate “snail” (my Isuzu motorhome/mobile office) more than 8000kms to a lengthening series of largely planned destinations. But the means of getting there can often be somewhat less than direct.

Now that’s all changed, thanks to my new friend – NavLady.

She is unremittingly precise. Not only does she know just where we are, she can tell me the shortest, fastest, easiest, and most economical ways to get to the next destination. This being New Zealand where topography and population density allow little choice, these, sadly for her, don’t differ much.

The reality is that after an initial flurry of instructions about turning left, right, and taking the second exit at the roundabout, she gets to the bit where there’s nothing more to say. “Drive 234kms….” Silence.

I worry she’s getting bored. Perhaps she’s dropped into a permanent coma? Nope. It turns out she patiently marks off each 20kms worth of progress. It’s kinda comforting to know a bunch of distant satellites are coordinating their efforts to keep track.

I wasn’t a great fan of GPS navigation until I had to drive my daughter’s car back home from the Sydney hospital in which she’d narrowly avoided an emergency Caesarean. In a strange city, at night, after what had been a long and traumatic day, the steady stream of computer-generated instructions were not just helpful but heart warming.

So I was open to the possibility of investing in one just as my credit card use hit a high enough reward-points tally to redeem a GPS system for “free”. Although I lacked the patience to sit through her tutorial, NavLady and I got off to a good start. She took me unerringly to a friend’s address in Christchurch when time was short and I had a plane to catch.

Over subsequent weeks and kilometres, our relationship has become more complex. There are times when I rebel against her precision, ignore her suggestions and gleefully tot up the number of times I can force her to say: “When possible, perform a U-turn.”

Perform! I picture “snail” pirouetting gracefully across the gravel, wing mirrors held wide, wheels spinning.

But even when I disturb her equilibrium by programming in one destination then heading for another, NavLady can come up trumps. Patiently checking other options, she often finds a shortcut that steers me back on the original course. For a while, her voice sounds just a bit smug.

NavLady, however, has one weakness – sometimes irritating, often hilarious. I like to think it reveals her inner klutz. She is pronunciation challenged.

When she first told me to turn on to the TeCAPo-Twizzle highway, I wondered if we were in the same country. Even apparently simple stuff can come out totally mangled “Drive 400 metres to LaKEEview Terrace.”

I guess if you have no concept of “lake”, you don’t get that it’s “lake view”. Words are no more than a random collection of syllables strung together using the most prevalent pronunciation of each.

It could be catching.

Just as regular txting has an un42n8 impact on normal spelling, I fear NavLady will gradually re-name our geographic reference points.

Twizzle could definitely stick.

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Daily magic

Today I watched the orange half orb of sun emerging from the ocean’s edge – bringing warmth, colour, life. Doing its daily magic. So remarkable, largely unremarked.

We are mostly too busy to gaze at the rising light or to stand in awe under a vault of sky so vast you could spend 100 lifetimes tracking and counting its layers of tiny lights, pulsing in the cold night’s quietness.

I think we have lost the sense of wonder at our existence – that we lack not just the the time but the humility.

Instead we  keep cycling through a bunch of ego-based propositions to justify our place in the universe.

“I think therefore I am.” Descartes’ famous base for a philosophical system that underpins much of modern life has a whole family of counterparts. Whether it’s capitalism’s “I accumulate therefore …” or its market corollary “I consume therefore..”; from the simplest “I survive therefore…” through the “me” generation’s “I self express therefore …” to today’s social media version “I tweet therefore I am” – the whole proposition is back to front.

When I give myself the time to stop and wonder, when I watch that orange half orb creep over the dark horizon like a blessing, I know that I exist because of the unique and anomalous accident of a planet that is able to sustain my life.

It sustains me therefore I am …it is such a simple concept.

Maybe if we could regain the sense of awe, humility and wonder that we exist only because of the extraordinary benevolence of our environment, then we might avoid destroying it.

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By lone sea breakers

Driving to DOC’s Purakanui campsite in the Catlins proves a bit of a mission. It’s late and the unsealed road winds over hills and up isolated valleys, getting narrower and rougher.

There’s no sign of habitation, no other vehicles on the road and no cellphone reception. And when I finally arrive as darkness is falling, I pull snail off the road and into – a bog!

As I step out, my sandals sink into mud. But the van is level, the bay looks beautiful and it turns out I am not alone.  A couple of vans and two small tents are already here. So maybe I’ll be staying longer than intended….

After cooking up a stir fry flavoured with Laksa Soup and pondering how I might get inventive with tow ropes and nearby trees in the morning, I drift effortlessly into sleep.

Dawn makes the journey more than worthwhile.

A sliver of moon still hovers as red starts streaking the sky. It’s the start of a light display that just keeps growing in intensity.

Bright drifts of cloud find echoes in the wet sand.

I walk into this vastness of light to the sounds of sea break and oyster catcher call.

It is pure magic. And in this part of the New Zealand, magic is in plentiful supply.

There’s a timelessness about the Catlins.

Further South, in Curio Bay you can walk through forest remains that are 170 million years old.  Petrified for posterity by volcanic activity, trunks of trees alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth are clearly visible, their growth rings stuck in time.

The sea’s restless pounding has worn away the soft stuff. Only the obdurate endures.

This area boasts some of New Zealand’s oldest sedimentary rocks – laid down when it was still part of Gondwanaland. Since then, the earth’s relentless forces have tilted and folded the rocks, creating fault lines visible at places like Cathedral Caves.

Here, vast chasms run deep into the headland forming two sets of connected caves that can only be reached at low tide. Kelp abandoned by the sea spreads its long tresses over the sand at their entrance. Streams from the forest above cascade over bright green weed or drop like mini waterfalls over natural terraces that skirt the steep cliffs.

It’s an amazing stretch of coastline that’s rich in wildlife.

At Waipapa lighthouse, care is needed to avoid tripping over rare Hooker’s Sealions as they lounge in the sand dunes. Many are young bulls who’ve been kicked out of breeding colonies in the Auckland Islands. They have no fear of humans and can lollop towards you at speeds of up to 20kph. Unlike fur seals, their strong rear flippers are not fused together so they’re both faster and more agile on land.

At Waipapa, young bull sealions play out the endless game of dominance needed to form their own harem

Others just bury themselves in the sand

Colonies of rare Hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguins also live along the coast below Nugget Point or at Curio Bay – where the one below was performing for a bunch of spectators from the nearby campground.

Sure I can fly!

There’s a lot still to see – if I can extract myself from the mud. By 10am, the dew has dried and it’s threatening rain. I climb into snail, cross my fingers, put her into reverse, gently gun the motor and bounce backwards out of the mudhole.

Snails rule!  And the towrope can stay in its bag until another day.

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Mountain air

There’s fresh snow on the mountains and the air carries a champagne tingle.

After a couple of weeks in Sydney’s suburbs, the night sky over Geraldine seems enormous. The whole landscape stretches out like freedom – towards the Southern Alps.

I’m heading through Fairlie, Tekapo and Cromwell to join up with my three tramping buddies for what’s become an annual tramp fest. So far we’ve done the Routeburn and Heaphy tracks – travelling at a pace that has more to do with enjoying the journey than accomplishing a task. Our aim is to do as many of New Zealand’s great walks as we can before hips, knees, backs – or collective wills – give out on us.

This time there is no specific agenda and, as it turns out, this has left all of us a bit unprepared – lacking gear, first aid kit, fitness….

I’ve come from three weeks in central Sydney that included a gastric flu and hardly any walking. Humid weather offered little motivation. That plus a strained back makes me doubt I can carry a pack much further than the length of an airport.

The sight of the mountains and sparkling alpine air changes all that.

Excitement takes over.

It helps that my snail trail passes Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki at their shining best. The snow covered peaks of Aoraki and Sefton lift angular bulks into the clear blue skies. A light covering of snow on the Ben Ohau Range accentuates soft curves, sharp edges.

Lake Pukaki

Down by Lake Pukaki, amongst the pines, someone has deliberately landscaped an area in a way that provides photographic framing for lake shots. There are strategically placed stones, plants, objects – as well as a carefully constructed box on a nearby picnic table that oddly, but somehow not unexpectedly, contains an old lens.


So I’m already snap happy before I reach Queenstown to overnight with friends on Lake Hayes Estate. The next day doesn’t change that. It is beautiful.

Our initial destination is the top end of Lake Wakatipu and an overnight trek up the Caples Valley. While Jill collects Ann and Barb from the airport, I trundle on through Queenstown and up the side of Lake Wakatipu stopping to capture what seem to be ever more amazing vistas of mountain and lake.

That’s where we all meet up. I’ve stopped again at the lake edge to brew a cuppa and the others turn up. We picnic together on the great chunks of schist that shine like precious things along the water’s edge.

Lunching beside Lake Wakatipu

The others are booked into Kinloch Lodge – a picturesque heritage hotel with bar/café/restaurant as well as more modest backpacker accommodation and self-catering kitchen. It’s a great mix. Wine appetisers and DIY dinners.

Snail gets the best waterfront pozzie – parked at the DOC camp in front of the Lodge.

That’s where I wake to a spectacular dawn the following day.

Morning, Kinloch DOC Camp

Mist rising from the lake is caught between streaks of pink cloud above and reflections below. Willows are already taking on their golden Autumn glow and the sun starts to catch the tips of steep sided mountains rising behind the lodge.

It is going to be another beautiful day.

Packs geared up for only one night’s stay seem ridiculously full but the weight sits comfortably and the track up to Mid-Caples is a fairly gentle stroll. A short initial climb takes us into a wide pastured valley complete with sheep. Our trail follows the river through patches of beech forest.

Despite my best intentions, I get diverted by robins…again and again.

Yet another friendly South Island Robin

One is so close, I can capture it in full view through the wide-angle lens. Carrying the telephoto proves pointless on this trek as the views are so big, it doesn’t get a single outing.

Dumping packs at Mid-Caples, we walk on up the valley towards the Upper Caples hut  in blazing sunshine – but run out of energy and time to actually make it there and back. I definitely need to be fitter.

Apart from two Alaskans, who wander around in light Ts as we pull on thermals to face the night chill, we have the hut to ourselves and head for bunks not long after night falls.

Next day, it looks like we might be running out of luck with the weather. Forecast drizzle turns up as we start back. But before that, DOC warden Brian gives us a guided tour of the spectacular chasm below the hut.

Water rushes through a narrow gap between steep rocks to pause in deep green pools so clear we can see a trout lazily cruising upstream below us. Deep moss lines the banks, bright lichen streaks the boulders. It’s a photographer’s wet dream.

And by late afternoon, we’re back in the pub – feeling slightly guilty about enjoying a bottle of red wine. Tramping should never be so easy. Next year we’re talking about the Kepler. That will take more serious planning and better fitness.

Meanwhile there are heaps of stunning short walks – up to Lake Sylvan, along Diamond Creek, around the Mt Chrichton Loop and through Sawpit Gully near Arrowtown. That’s where we find 2000 seriously fit folk competing in a massive one-day event that brought runners and bikers through fords and steep gullies all the way from Wanaka.

It’s too much – we repair to the local pub for a beer. Even that tastes better in the mountain air.



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