It took me less than half a mile to question my decision and ask myself what in the world I had just gotten into. The word “regret” might be what best describe what went through my mind at that moment..
It was 2pm, the sun was high and burning, the heat rising from the concrete road, the wind barely noticeable, and I was stuck in front of a very short but steep little road in the outskirts of Auckland county.
For the totally unprepared man that I was, I had only one thought at that instant: “Godfuckitdamit! … Do I really want to cycle New-Zealand from north to south for the next 54 days?”
Slightly, almost imperceptibly, her eyes looked down and her head shook from left to right. “No, don’t do it” she had just said in a very slow and pitiful voice.
The face of the custom officer suddenly came back to me.
She had asked me what I was going to do in New-Zealand and proudly, smiling like a child, I told her I was going to cycle the country for 1600km from Auckland to Queenstown.
The retina movement in her eyes was the same I got from a lady in Norway 5 months prior: almost invisible yet you could feel surprise, confusion and almost a certain fear in that look.
It was at the end of my second day of hiking Norway in the Lofoten area, close to Harstad and on my way to Evenes. I ended up on a private property even though the trail map I possessed indicated I was on the right track. The wind was blowing on her perfectly mowed lawn and from there you would get a beautiful view down on the entire Tjeldsundet strait. I had the feeling of being on the foreground of a real Norwegian fjord postcard.
She had exited her house just a few seconds ago as I was still holding my GPS high in the air, trying to understand how I had ended up here, like in a cliché movie.
“I come from Harstad” I had answered to her question after a very quick conversation asking politely if I could go through on her property.
I will forever remember that little head swaying she made, just like if she had wanted to look me up from closer, wondering what kind of extraterrestrial being I was.
“Harstad?! You come from Harstad!” she exclaimed “Through the mountains?”
And that was it. The conversation had finished there, on that high intonation question implying my actions were close to insane. I nodded a yes and she took a step back respectfully showing me the way through.
“You know it’s one of the most windy and hilly countries in the world right?” said the customer officer bursting me out of my dreamy flashback.
It was the same look, the same head tilt, which starts by wondering what alien I might be before very quickly coming back to its senses and simply admitting that I’m just crazy and quite probably stupid.
She stamped my passport and gave it back to me with a compassion sigh.
If you ask Rob Lilwall, he’ll probably answer the same thing I would: most people have a will to prevent you from going on an adventure, and are ready to do whatever is necessary to persuade you not to go, as if life was meant only to be cloistered at home.
This human barrier, Rob managed to outweigh it.
In September of 2003, he left with his bike and during the middle of winter the city of Magadan in Siberia with the firm intention to join Hong-Kong 16000km further away.
Four years later and with 56000km worth of pedaling strokes under his legs, Rob reached London, after having first validated his trip to Hong-Kong followed by the desire to push his adventure further. Yet, when he left and all the way through his journey, people kept giving him a 1 out of 10 chance of getting out alive, and none to actually finish his entire trip.
I landed in Auckland in December 1st and immediately started looking for a second-hand bicycle to purchase. The idea to cycle New-Zealand had only come to my mind a few days prior while I was hiking Thailand.
I had nothing and needed to get everything. As cheaply as possible of course.
I was completely unprepared, unskilled, unqualified and unknowledgeable, but I wanted to do it. It was that simple.
Most unbelievable, and to be quite honest: I’ve never actually liked cycling.
I tried thinking about it yet can’t remember my first bike. It was probably a ridiculously small one to the eyes of an adult, red painted, with little supporting wheels on the side, since like most kids I was put on one at a very early age.
My first real bike souvenir doesn’t go further back than when I was 7 or 8 years old -which shows how much I care about such memories. My grandparents had purchased a blue cycle for me and the rear wheel beams were covered by a protective plastic case with dinosaur figures painted on it.
Rather than actually enjoying it, what I remember is being very frustrated seeing my older brother cycling with no hands involved while I couldn’t do it. One day I’ll ask a psychologist to see if such a horrible childhood trauma led me to dislike cycling.
Once I became more of an adult, I would use a push-bike from time to time to go from one point to another so long as it was less than 5km. Never would I have cycled for pure recreational purposes. Cycling to get fresh bread? Acceptable. Cycling to reach the summit of a hill? Nuts! I’d rather hike.
I remember driving many times by cyclists wondering what could have gone wrong in their mind to step on their bike that morning. So imagine how I felt when I would encounter travelers on a cycle, with theirs bags on both side of each wheel.
Yet I had always been in awe in front of the professional cyclists pedaling through the Tour de France. Disappointed to know that the use of PED was an unspoken reality, but in awe regardless for the amount of kilometers a day they would do; in awe for the passes in the French Alps they would have to go through.
There’s a stage in the Tour de France that has become mythical, not just for its difficulty, but for the insane atmosphere created by hundreds of thousand of fans stuck together on and along the road: the climb of the Alpe-D’Huez, a pass classified as an HC category in the Tour de France notation.
There are 6 categories when it comes to climbs in the cycling world: no-category, category 4, category 3, category 2, category 1, and out-category (or HS for Hors-Catégorie in French). Each section of a road with a positive elevation will enter one or the other of the categories based on various elements.
The algorithm used by the Tour de France organization is kept secret, but the calculus basis is done by multiplying the square steepness of the road by its length. In addition to that should be taken into account the elements of total elevation and the location of the steep section within the day’s race.
The Alpe-d’Huez, with an average steepness of 7.9% over 13,8km gets a total of 7.9×7.9×13.8 = 861.25 points, whereas it appears only 600 are needed to be part of the HS category – appears indeed, because the notation is kept secret as well.
Imagine then! A typical French mountain road with only two lanes barely large enough to let 2 vehicles pass each other. On one side is a cliff with rocks ready to fall on you without warning, on the other an abyss a hundred meter deep where an agitated stream runs at the bottom. The road follows the valley’s curves and the sharp corners follow each other one after another. Finally, after 21 rough turns, a 400 meter straight line appears while the so expected mountain range stands out in the background.
On that road, on that narrow portion of cement, nine hundred thousand people as excited as groupies at a boys-band concert, have been warming up the atmosphere for the past 2 hours with the sound of their vocal cords. They come from all over, Australia, Holland, Colombia, just to be part of this unreal scene.
Suddenly, the torrent of screams intensifies: a leading single cyclist has been spotted. The crowd accumulates itself even more than before, the road is submerged with people, there isn’t one piece of asphalt that hasn’t been preciously covered by spectators. Only a few centimeters separate the cyclist and the thousands of fanatics. It’s impossible to create a security cord, the cyclist manages to go through the masses only thanks to a military on a motorcycle who like Moises manages to open a thin space in this sea of people.
The slope, a very small 8% when looking at a set square, is actually steep enough for true admirers trying to run along side the cyclist to be left behind after just 10 meters.
Amongst fans wild costumes are put on, chanting support are abound, the crowds’ screams resonate in the entire valley, but the cyclists don’t let them self get caught off guard by this impressive human sea because they know it: statistically, who ever get first place on the general ranking after this stage gets a 97% chance of wining the Tour de France race.
Very quickly I found it. A $70NZD second-hand bike that looked okay on the picture posted by its owner as an online ad. And even better, the bike seemed to be equipped with a rear carrier and mud protectors on both wheel. “Less things to purchase” I thought.
A click later the bike was in my check-out basket and the owner messaged me to see how we could arrange payment.
Luckily enough, he lived in the outskirts of Auckland, a few miles south, thus preventing me to have to deal with exiting one of New-Zealand’s biggest city on a bike.
“Cool” I told myself “I won’t have to deal with traffic”.
On the morning of December 5th, after purchasing a bike helmet, a repair kit and a handy tool kit, I was on a bus leaving the city, hoping the owner of the bike would show up, hoping the bike would be in good shape, and hoping I would find a place where to sleep for the night.
Little did I know, the owner was a 70 years old man who had traveler Europe and Thailand with that same bike 15 years ago. I immediately felt pressure on my shoulder when facing this old timer. Was he going to drown me with questions and realize my total ignorance of the cycling world?
The man smiled as I confessed I was on my way to Queenstown.
“I’m so happy and delighted” he said “to give my bike away to someone who is going to take good care of it by pursuing its traveling purposes. That bike needs its. That bike was made for it. I couldn’t have wished for a better buyer”. Truth be told, those journeys aside, the bike had been left in the garage ever since for it to rust away.
With that deal sealed, I was now the owner of a 20 year old 26” wheel, 21 speeds, gray color, bike.
“It was ahead of its time when I first purchased it” the old man added.
With that deal sealed, I was now the owner of a 20 year old previously ahead of its time, 26” wheel, 21 speeds, gray color, bike.
Though the “Turbo” bike -that was its name- was rusty in most places, including the handles, the frame and the front suspensions, the tires looked good and the chain seemed to be working. But there was nothing turbo about it that’s for sure. I threw the cheap side bags -so cheap they would break only 4 days later- I had purchased on the back carrier, filled them up as much as I could, and put my 70L backpack on top of it. I took my smaller foldable 8L bag, wrapped it in front of the handlebar and filled it up as much as possible. The rest of the essential matters -mostly water and snacks- would be on my back inside my 20L backpack.
Yes the bike was rusty, yes all my luggages were unstable and wrongly distributed, yes my gear was not adapted, but a few minutes later, full of motivation and excitement, I was on my way.
Less than a kilometer after, as I was exiting through the small town’s roundabout, my legs crumbled at the bottom of a very small hill, already unable to make the chain run for even one more link. My optimism was immediately showered away by my lack of strength and by the difficulty such a small obstacle could represent. I had put all my confidence in my legs strength, as they were used to carry heavy loads and walk dozens of kilometers per day. As I pushed the bike up while walking on its side, the thoughts rushing through my mind were crushing me: “I’m never going to make it to Queenstown!”, “Hell, I’ll never make it to Wellington!”, “No wait… I’ll never make it pass tonight! Now that seems even more realistic”, “I mean I don’t even know where I’m sleeping tonight anyways! There’s no campground on the way.”
My legs were slowly moving but my breathing was intensive while I was trying to walk up the top of that little Everest. Despite the internal war exploding in my brain, I still ended up making it to the top, after a mere 15m, and got on the bike again getting ready to put all negative thoughts aside and to enjoy a light descent.
As I’was gaining some speed, going through an already monotonous landscape of nothing but empty properties, human-less farms, industrial forests or dry tall-grass, I bent my body towards the road to pay attention to an odd sound.
It had been barely 500 meters since I had jumped back on the bike and already I was horrified by my discovery: I was overloaded on the back and despite being over-inflated, the back tire just flattened when riding the bike.
The brain conflict jumped on that opportunity and immediately came back. “There, what did I tell you! We’re not going anywhere. We just wasted $150 worth of bike and equipment for nothing. You know what? I bet you a beer we’re not cycling more than 15km before turning back”. My inner-self was fuming and kept going on. “And so now what? We take the risk? You know there’s nothing in front of us for the next 160km! Great way to start a journey! What happens if we blow a tire, if the chain breaks, if we fall? Talking about falling, what if we get hit by a car? Do you hear me? Stop pretending nothing’s happening”
Slowly standing up after trying to fix the tire issue, wiping my now dirty fingers full of grease, I looked at the biked and went on with life.
“I don’t care”
“I said I don’t care what happens. We’ll find a solution. With just a backpack we made it though Norway, Mongolia, Japan, the US, Vietnam, Thailand, France, we’ll make it through New-Zealand. Worse comes to worse we’ll hitchhike like we always do and give the bike away. Now shut up and let’s go, we need to be in Queenstown on January 24th.”
Barely more than a year prior this journey, as I was still living and working in the USA, my parents had come to visit me and we had spent our very first Thanksgiving family diner together along with my ex-girlfriend and her parents. Though the weather was cold, we could overly compensate the loss of body temperature with stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce, yams and potatoes and brussels sprouts, banana pie, pecan pie, and chocolate pie, and hot chocolate, and lemonchello.
That gluttonous thought came back to me as, all alone, I was gulping down yet another mix of tuna-oil and pasta, the only thing I had pretty much been eating since I had started traveling.
This gluten filled with oil meal aside, lost on the East coast road of the southern island, barely reopened to traffic following an important earthquake, I thought back on how it had been a good month of December overall. I had cycled only 12 days in the end, having promised to do some volunteering in a farm for the last 2 weeks of December, and my average miles per day was low. But it had been a good way to get into cycling shape. The hills and constant up and downs of the North Island -see the Shire from the Lord of the Rings as a point of reference- had been quite physical and mentally challenging for a new comer like me.
On the very first day I had almost gotten hit by a bus, being sucked into its airflow when he took over me on a narrow bridge.
Then, on that first night, my birthday night, I had ended up sleeping below a curvy bridge having not found anywhere else where to set my tent. I had cycled 65km and simply could not go any further.
Fatigue aside, the New-Zealand Freedom Camping Act made it difficult and stressful to find a camping spot. A law passed on 2011 in order to fight against the rise of recreational vehicles, the FCA forbids travelers from parking or camping on a non-designated area. I soon learned to not care about it however, seeing that this law was mainly targeting motor vehicles.
On the third day, between Matamata and Tauranga, my young cycling legs faced a difficult challenge: 7km of ascent on a 2 by 2 road with no shoulders and plenty of semi-trucks getting as close as an inch away from me. Soon enough a pick up truck pulled over on a narrow spot where it barely fitted. The driver got out of his car, stopped me, took my bike and threw it on the back of his 4×4.
“Get in” he yelled over the sound of the semi-trucks passing and honking “You’re going to get killed!”
At that moment, I truly believed him.
Just a few feet away from the Pacific ocean, my tent hidden behind a tree in order not to attract attention, I was slowly dreaming. I knew that the real challenge though was only starting, but I was now ready for it.
I was about to go from a 35km average per day to cycling 65km and finding it quite relaxing despite the constant ups and downs from the local terrain. Pedaling for 100km would soon become enjoyable. I was leveling up.
Maybe just not in the most professional way however…. On December 31st, I left the house of my hosts and headed towards Wellington. I intended to meet up with some friends there and spend the New Years with them. I didn’t lie to myself, I knew it was going to be a hard move. First I had to travel 60km to reach Wellington, then I had to go out, party, drink, and -without getting any sleep- make a move to the ferry to link the north island to the southern one, and then cycle yet an additional 70km.
Spending my birthday under bridges or the new year cycling 130km slightly drunk and without sleep became a reality I quickly desired. Far away from traditions, candles on cakes and presents below a tree, I like to spend these moments inside my tent, on snowy summits, lost in the taiga, or with a headlamp on my forehead, knowing a new adventure will start before the premises of the new day. I could thus not think of any better way to finish 2017 and to start the new year. I had this imperial need of primitive and solitary action inside me.
From my journal: December 13 of 2017: “Reaching the end of the Tongariro Crossing, I met 2 French guys who had decided to visit New-Zealand before going back to France. They had just spent 1 year on the Antartica! One was a mechanic and the other an electrician”
Here was exactly what I had to do! Change career and leave for a year in a research station on the Antartica, just like these guys I had met.
After 35 days in New Zealand, I hadn’t met one other traveling cyclist, which gave me a lot of bragging rights when someone would strike a conversation on the side of the road, at the supermarket or even on a public campground.
I was the crazy guy cycling the road of New-Zealand.
A status I liked and in which I could identify myself perfectly. For my first cycling journey, I was thrilled by the idea of being a loony to the eyes of locals. It was for me a token that I had undertaken a difficult trek.
But after 35 days in New-Zealand, including 20 of cycling, I ended up reaching the city of Christchurch.
From that day I would run into a least one other courageous cyclist per day. Some alone, some young, some old, some in couple -some on a tandem!- and in 70% of cases… French. Regardless of who and how, I truly wasn’t alone anymore.
I even cycled for 2 days with a 23 years old Parisian guy in the Mackenzie region, home of lake Taupo and Pukaki, icons of the New-Zealand’s treasures. Paul, being 23 and rather fit, wouldn’t listen to the grandpa I was to his eyes when I would suggest him to put a shirt on if he didn’t wanted to get a sunburn. A comment that he would easily dismiss by a wave from both hands. Yes, both hands because Paul was cool and so Paul could cycle with no hands.
I was combative nonetheless, and pushed this young individual to pedal all day long just to reach the Pukaki lac and unobtrusively camp just beside the shore, having our eyes fixed on the other side of this pan of water, on the Alps cordillera of New-Zealand rising from who knows where.
I also came across Phillipe, who had been traveling for the past 5 years and living in New Zealand for a year; Flavien who every year cycled a new country for 2 months; Fanny and Jonathan who were sharing a tandem; and Swiss couples; and Dutch couples; and more French; and some Germans; and I wasn’t alone anymore.
Coming from the northern island where I hadn’t met a single other cyclist, pedals and derailleurs actually seemed to be the norm once Christchurch was reached. Aside being part of the restricted group of cyclist who had wandered on the northern island and not just the southern one, my bragging rights were now gone.
But these encounters did reinforced my conviction and desire to go for far more fantastic adventures, like kayaking Canada’s west coast.
As I was engaging with all these new riders, I discovered a specialized website dedicated to cyclists looking for a stopover where to bath, eat and sometimes even sleep. So with the help of the website I got to stay at Louise’s and Jona’s and Anne’s places, which came very handy during strong rainy days.
Although pretty lucky with the weather overall, to the point of getting sunburns on my hands despite the copious amount of sunscreen, I did run into heavy rainfalls at times. A good thing for the New-Zealanders facing a drought at the time, but a less pleasant thing when you’re clearly exposed to natural elements.
Running, walking, cycling hiking, or doing any other activity under the rain is not the issue in itself, it’s the drying part that is. There’s not a lot better than coming back home completely soaked and being able to strip all your clothes, run naked in your apartment, jump into a hot shower, dry yourself and drink any hot liquid in front of a fire bond while your wet technical gear is already in the washing machine.
On the other end, while setting up a tent in an overly humid, and usually muddy, environment is already frustrating, not being able to dry your body and your clothes makes things even worse. Your tent has to fight both outside waterfalls and inside condensation. You sleep like crap, having nightmares about your gear getting damped. All night your clothes keep dripping from the previous day’s crying clouds. And lucky as you are you wake up to the rain still beating you down. You end up going back to sleep wishing you were in the Sahara Desert.
To resolve the first issue, a.k.a peeling hands from too much sun, one of my host gave me a pair of old, but clean, socks. A precise scissor cut later and I had myself a pair of fingerless gloves.
For the wet problems, aside from not exposing yourself when rain is on the forecast, I have no other solution. The usage of rain vest and rain pants slows the process but eventually, you’ll get wet -at least from your own sweat not being able to evacuate.
To no surprise, regardless of the weather you’re getting, may it be tropical rain or dry heat, you’ll always wish for the exact opposite. The second you get it, you want to go back to the previous one.
In Siberia Rob Lilwall and his cycling partner dreamt of sunny beaches while they were facing strong snow storms. In Papua-New-Guinea however, Rob was dreaming of ice cubes.
The weather? An eternal dissatisfaction.
It had been a long day. I had started it a few kilometers after the town of Kurow where I had camped on a beautiful -accessible by foot only- spot right by the river, and I was on my way to do the Dansey pass to cross from the Canterbury to the Otago county. It was hot. One of the hottest day I had to face, 34°C, dry, no clouds, no wind. Around me, rocky hills covered by a desert of bushy grass whose green color was turning way too yellow. Not a tree at sight, not a single shaded area except for, down by the side in an inaccessible zone where runs the freshness of an almost extinct thread of water, a few bushes already packed with sheep resting at there roots. On my end, on this gravel road also turning yellow, I was cooking like that turkey for Thanksgiving.
Below my wheels, the Densey slope enters the category 1 of the Tour de France with 5.26% of overall steepness over 16km. *
Using my weighted calculus however, the Densey’s climb on a gravel road with 90°F heat and 40kg of luggage should in my mind be considered as an over-category, just like the prestigious Alpe d’Huez climb.
There was no brass band in my situation however, no crowd to cheer me up once the summit was reached. Nothing but the emptiness of silence.
Nonetheless, thirsty from so much drought and bruised by the difficulty of the climb whose last kilometer had required me a full hour of effort, the steepness did not end up being the worst part of the day, as it was yet to come.
As I finally reached the crest, after pedaling and sweating for hours my body was asking for nothing more but a rest, some wind and maybe some rain to cool off.
As I went over the pass, my wishes came instantly true. A black thick cloud coming from absolutely nowhere, after a day of nothing but perfectly blue sky, rushed to catch me, stalled above me, and started delivering wind, tropical rain and resounding thunder.
Rest there was none, except to take a quick picture, as I started to frantically pedal my way down trying not to fall into the ravine 100m below the road and wondering “how the fuck” that rain had materialized and why it was stalking me. There were still no trees to hide under, no barrier to protect me from sliding away, and the gravel road was now already filled with water making the descent particularly slippery.
I’ll admit it, I never thought I could have biked so fast after such an exhausting ascent. But being caught in a thunderstorm while wandering in the mountains does give you extra-strength.
Despite my best efforts to leave the thunder area, the cloud kept moving above my head.
Finally, just a few hundred feet away from a campground, I managed to stop to seek shelter under some trees that had eventually appeared in order to avoid looking like I had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed.
Pointless try however, as by that time I was already soaked.
As the rain finally ran away and I reached the campground leaving me to wonder where I would put my tent in this muddy and overflowed space, I had only one desire: a 34°C weather with no clouds and no wind so I could dry up.
I reached Queenstown on January 24th, after yet another pass: the Cardrona pass between Wanaka and Queenstown, acategory 2 pass at 3.7% for 14km. A piece of cake now that I had achieved the Dansey, though it took me more than a few rest on the last 2 km to cycle up all my load.
After my Dansey’s pass adventure, I had gone down to pedal my way through the Otago Central Train Rail, a 160km abandoned rail road that had being transformed into a cycling gravel road. Despite the trail finishing in the city of Clyde, located just 25km away from Queenstown, I had gone for another detour, pedaling up towards Wanaka. I ended up spent 2 nights there prior to moving towards Queenstown and going through the quite famous Cardrona pass.
Reaching the top of the pass, I was happy this trip was coming to an end. My legs were giving up, and in retrospective, walking the 1250m up to Roys Peak in Wanaka the day prior was not a smart idea.
But as I reached the “Welcome to Queenstown” sign, I felt pride. I was joyful, delighted and thrilled to have successfully linked Auckland to Queenstown by bike just like I had planned, despite my fears, my lack of love for cycling, my unsuitable equipment, my doubts and other people head-shaking doubts.
The eyes of the guy who snapped my final picture grew in size while his eyebrows lifted up when he learned of my past 54 days whereabouts, but that was about it. There were no champagne bottles, no cheering crowd, no finishing line. And I didn’t care. I had cycled not to get approval from others but to prove myself that I could do it.
Despite my previous lack of love for cycling, despite the rough terrain of New-Zealand, I had enjoyed every bit of this journey. My mind had been present during every chain rotation of this trip, looking left, looking right, admiring, analyzing, and most importantly, smiling at all times.
I sat on the pebble beach feeling as fulfilled as a guy who just climbed the Everest: not the first one, not the last one, not the only one, but one of the few who finished that long and difficult journey.
Quite unfortunately that ecstatic feeling came to a halt a week after. As I shared lunch with an old-time friend in Sydney, I was introduced to a young French guy who had just traveled South America on a bicycle for 9 months.
“Well god fucking damn it!” I yelled at my inner-myself while keeping a perfect poker face, hating my stubborn ego. At that moment, I knew full well I wouldn’t resist the urge of doing something similar. I just had to.
I guess you’ll see me on a bike again very soon.
* (In reality the pass is reached with a first slope of 5km, followed by 6km of flat area and then again another slope of 11km, which lowers the average of the overall steepness. But even taking that into account, the Densey pass still remains in the category 1 of the Tour de France).