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Possums and Punctures (Improper Cycling In New Zealand)

Possums and Punctures (Improper Cycling In New Zealand)

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Possums and Punctures (Improper Cycling In New Zealand)

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Oct 15, 2010


What would you do if you realised that you had finally become too fat to wear your dad’s pants? Pete Hepworth got his bike out and hit the trails of New Zealand, promptly suffering the indignity of being overtaken by some Danish pensioners. Along the way he met the cast of the Lord of the Rings movie in a seedy tattoo parlour in Wellington and many small marsupials with poor road sense.

Oct 15, 2010

Sobre el autor

I’d had enough of a succession of grey, drizzly summers that left me feeling cheated. I needed a change from Britain so I boarded a plane for the Southern Hemisphere in May 2000.According to all the stories I’d heard, New Zealand was going to offer greater incentive for me to be more active. It had glorious weather. It offered scenery and outdoor adventure. (It also had pies.) I wasn’t disappointed. Since settling in I have taken every opportunity to walk, cycle or kayak in the many National Parks of this country.My first long cycle ride – that is, one that involved taking a sleeping bag – took place in late 2003 when my wife’s friend Lorna came for a visit. Jan, Lorna and I sat down over some tea and fancies and planned our holidays together. Jan and I had discussed driving throughout both of New Zealand’s main islands, walking in Fiordland and perhaps doing a spot of pootling around on our bikes. Lorna was quite keen on the bike idea but blew away any pootling-related activities and dived straight in with the suggestion to cycle all the way around the rugged East Cape of the North Island. By this stage we had probably graduated onto the gin and tonics, so we readily agreed. The seven-day trip was a success and we had such a good time that I wanted to do more. I instantly recognised that the cycling pace is a great way to immerse yourself in a countryside as spectacular as New Zealand’s and also rather conducive to meeting interesting people, even if only for a moment. Once I had got over the mental barrier that convinces you that cars are the only method of getting from A to B (and in fact to Z), I was unstoppable: anyone could do this.I figured that if I could cycle around the East Cape, then I could cycle north from Auckland to Cape Reinga. Having done that, I realised that I was quite capable of cycling down to Rotorua and from there to Wellington. Having cycled all the way across one island it seemed reasonable to keep on going until I ran out of land in Invercargill.Having now cycled and walked a large proportion of New Zealand I feel that I have a much better understanding of the country and the people in it and this is mainly because I did it on two wheels.

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Possums and Punctures (Improper Cycling In New Zealand) - Pete Hepworth



Chapter 1: Too Fat To Wear My Dad’s Pants

Chapter 2: Departing Souls

Chapter 3: The Treaty and All That

Chapter 4: Too Fat To Lie In My Granddad’s Camp Bed

Chapter 5: Into The Land Of Fire

Chapter 6: Great Walk No. 1: Glorious Mud on the Lake Waikaremoana Track

Chapter 7: Ton and Toos

Chapter 8: Great Walk No. 2: Crossing Volcanic Tongariro

Chapter 9: All Downhill From Here

Chapter 10: Great Walk No. 3: The Corey Approach to the Whanganui River

Chapter 11: Hobbits and Wombles

Chapter 12: Great Walk No. 4: The Vampires of the Abel Tasman

Chapter 13: Whale Hunting

Chapter 14: The Land That Hills Forgot

Chapter 15: The Return of the Banana Counter

Chapter 16: Great Walk No. 5: GORPing on the Rakiura Track

Chapter 17: Dusty

Chapter 18: Great Walk No. 6: The Killer Parrots of the Kepler Track

Chapter 19: Gusty

Chapter 20: Great Walk No. 7: Rummaging on the Routeburn

Chapter 21: No Brass Band

Chapter 22: Great Walk No. 8: The Belly Dancer of Milford Track

Chapter 23: Remnants of the Ice Age

Chapter 24: Great Walk No. 9: Wardrobe Malfunction on the Heaphy Track

Chapter 25: Still Too Fat?

Chapter 1: Too Fat To Wear My Dad’s Pants

I had finally become too fat to wear my dad’s pants.

When I visited my parents the other Christmas I was running short of clean clothes so my mum suggested that I borrow some of my dad’s. One glance at my dad’s trousers was enough to convince me that they weren’t going to fit. Despite the fact that he is retired, he is slimmer than I am and he stays this way by cycling.

What to do? I could have joined a gym. I could have wrapped myself in cling film and run up and down One Tree Hill. I could simply have dieted. Understandably none of these appealed. It was time to see a bit more of my adopted home: New Zealand. It was time to take a leaf out of my dad’s book. It was time to get the bike out.

You can see more of the world from a bike; you can get closer to people you would never have met before. You feel more inclined to stop to see things that would only have been a smear on your memory had you been travelling in a car.

My younger brother learnt to cycle before I did. I pretended that I didn’t want to or that I couldn’t be bothered; however, watching Adi’s rather unorthodox attempts to defy gravity made me jealous for the freedom offered by this machine. My brother could only learn to cycle on one day of the week: bin day. He hopped on, pointed downhill and pushed off down the road bashing into metal dustbins to arrest his downward progress; brakes were not worthy of his attention. To me, the whole idea of cycling just didn’t make any sense.

"So, you want me to climb on this thing (without stabilisers) and just sort of push off – yeah? Well, the thing is – and this might seem like a stupid question – won’t I fall sideways?"

So, rather in the manner of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame – whose bike attacks him, if he goes anywhere near it – I cautiously approached the bike. It didn’t bite, snarl or run me over. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I imagined and I’ve cycled ever since, but never for lengthy periods of time. This trip was going to be more challenging.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all going to be uphill. North always looks up on a map. We generally refer to it as up. Things felt better – albeit more geographically confused – after rotating the map 180 degrees. I imagined that I could freewheel the whole way downhill now. My destination was Cape Reinga, which is located at the end of the tapering piece of land that points into the emptiness of the Pacific and as far north as I could go without the aid of scuba gear.

I told my girlfriend Jan my plan and in a moment of idiocy she decided to join me. Both being teachers we waited for the next in a long line of holidays and set off. Avoiding the heavy Auckland traffic we drove up to Matakohe and parked our camper van behind a bush.

Anyone who knows Jan and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that on the first day we didn’t get ourselves moving until almost two in the afternoon. It wasn’t so much that we faffed, more that circumstances prevailed against us to ensure a late departure time.

We packed our panniers full of a tent, cooker, gas, pots and pans, warm clothes, rain gear and plenty of snacks. Padded cycling gloves were pulled on and helmets donned. We remembered to tie up any flapping ties on our panniers to prevent us from suffering the same fate as many members of The Archers’ cast: being dragged into passing combine harvesters or thresher machines. The very last piece of preparation was the sacred art of Application of the Vaseline to prevent chafing in our nether regions, strictly adhering to our friend Lorna’s no double-dipping rule.

We were full of hope for the new day. About ten metres down the track there was a faint pop signifying the bursting of both our hope and of Jan’s rear tyre. We up-ended her bike next to the white picket fence of the churchyard and set to work. We divvied up the responsibilities: I spread bike parts, pumps, spare inner tubes, green, plastic objects for wedging the tyre off with, glue and sandpaper liberally across the path, while Jan ordered take-away coffee. Then, having fixed the offending inner tube, we discovered that our gentle tinkering (and bashing and swearing) had buggered up her gears.

Clunk. Rrrrr.

By this stage it was early afternoon; we were totally fed up and all of those kilometres that lay ahead of us weighed heavily on our minds. We almost headed back to the camper van to sleep on these problems, but instead we had a quick sense of humour failure each before finally setting off northwards to Dargaville. Every so often – coincidentally about halfway up a hill on each occasion – we stopped to fiddle with the gears, desperately trying to remember what we knew about bike maintenance. I don’t know much about bikes. I’ve always assumed that the round ends face downwards and much beyond that is a little hazy. The pair of us trying to fix the gears was like sawing a bit off a table leg to stop it from wobbling and eventually reducing the whole thing to ground level. By the time we’d finished the bike had gone from having the minor inconvenience of not quite slipping smoothly enough onto the biggest front cog, to the serious handicap of being restricted to about three gears in the middle of its range.

Clunk. Rrrrr. Clunkity clunk.

After a few gentle, introductory hills we rounded a corner to spy the plains heading off into the distance towards our destination. The only interruption to the level skyline and the patchwork of fields was an odd-looking, knobbly hill to the east of our route. Careful planning had provided a first day of downs followed by flats. Speaking of which, shortly after swooping down a hill past a huge grain silo, Jan developed another one. We both developed another Sense of Humour Failure (which will, from now on, be referred to as SOHF in the interests of economy of space). It didn’t take long to fix the problem but these delays were starting to eat into the daylight and we started to wonder if we were going to make it to Dargaville that day at all.

The town of Ruawai was keen to advertise itself as a kumara (sweet potato) hotspot. Its sign welcomed us to the town with accompanying cartoons of a cow, a kumara and a swordfish. As we left another sign asked: DID YA CATCH A FISH, DIG A KUMARA, MILK A COW? IF NOT CALL AGAIN. Even the information point had a model of the purple tuber atop it inquiring HAVE YOU GOT YOUR KUMARA? Unsure as to the official exit requirements from such a vegetable-obsessed town we increased our pace, hoping to outrun any spud–related Stop and Search activities.

The total absence of any hills on this floodplain assisted our progress as we headed north, refusing offers from farmers to purchase whole sacks of kumara at $15 a bag. At Tokatoka the Wairoa River came to meet the road while a blue house on stilts looked nervously on. The water shimmered in the sunlight and pampas grass fluff mixed with dead possum fur drifted across the road.

We finally arrived at Dargaville and found a camp site. There was no-one around so we pitched our tent and made our way to the kitchen. IF YOU LOVE ME, FILL ME proclaimed the hot water heater. We complied and brewed some tea, which was most welcoming in the sudden chill that had appeared since the sun set. I certainly needed re-hydrating, since the rush of the afternoon, combined with the lack of hills had reduced the opportunities for stops. I realise that it is possible to drink from your bottle whilst cycling, but being relatively inexperienced at this sort of thing, I tend to wobble. Quite a lot. Like a blancmange on a particularly unruly spin drier.

Like most smaller New Zealand towns the centre was dimly lit to reduce light pollution; dark enough to see the blur of the Milky Way cut the black sky in half, but bright enough to find a pub followed by a Chinese restaurant. The former supplied re-hydration antidotes, and the latter lemon chicken with the ubiquitous kumara as an added extra.

Later, as we lay in our tent, there was a pitter-patter on the canvas.

‘Rain?’ I wondered.

‘Fairies,’ came Jan’s determined reply.

Thrumm. Thrumm.


Fairies. With boots on.’ Self-delusion will always assist in the job of getting off to sleep.

The fairies had buggered off by the morning, which dawned in a sunny fashion that remained all day, so we launched straight into breakfast and another attempt to fix Jan’s gears. This consisted of turning the bike upside-down and twiddling with a couple of likely-looking screws in what, at a distance, must have looked a rather professional manner because the wizened and weather-beaten camp site owner wandered over.

‘Good on yer. You have to be able to fix it yourself.’ Jan and I looked at each other and nodded knowingly at him. The gears did not improve.

Shortly after leaving the town we felt sufficiently warmed up to stop by the side of the road to do our stretches. This incited beeps and honks from passing motorists who obviously thought they had come across some sort of modern dance troupe.

We hadn’t intended to stop right next to that day’s Weirdest Thing Found By The Side Of The Road; it just happened that way. Poking out of a Woolworths’ shopping bag we could make out the furry tail of a deceased possum. I feel that some of these supermarkets are becoming a little carried away with the variety of their produce. We had seen a lot of possums by this time, but only the ones with poor road sense. I believe these individuals are known as road pancakes. Recently a local paper printed an eye-catching photo of a run-over possum: a workman had painted a yellow road marking right down the middle of its flattened body. There are an estimated 80 million possums in the country, which New Zealanders regard as vermin because they eat a hell of a lot of vegetation – about 20,000 tonnes per night between them – buggering up the food source for the native birds. They were originally introduced by some genius who wanted to create a fur trade, but when this didn’t work out – instead of shipping them back to Australia – he released them all into the wild.

The road followed the Kaihu River in a kindly fashion and the weather was welcoming. We felt a whole lot better about things than we had the previous day; it was like anything, once you get started things seem much easier. The tricky part is to start.

When approaching Kaihu we spotted a LION RED sign advertising the local pub. These are one of our favourite types of sign and are much more popular than: UNSUITABLE FOR CARAVANS AND TOWING VEHICLES for example. It was a little early for a beer but it would have been rude not to pop in to say hello. We ordered a pot of tea and sat down in the 110-year-old tavern, surrounded by boars’ heads, photos of large fish and their conquerors and one photo of a fellow with an unusual drinking companion: a horse. As we supped the landlady sat down with us.

‘Where are you headed today?’ she asked.

‘Waipouea Forest.’

‘Wzsooh!’ Our host sucked air in through her pursed lips in a way that suggested that it was rather hilly. ‘Good luck!’

We put off the imminent hill by taking our sandwiches to the rugby ground, sprawling in the sun amongst the daisies and marvelling that such a small settlement should have its own ground. Long may New Zealand be this way. A bloke wandered across the pitch towards the trees on the far side. Just as we were finishing this leisurely lunch he returned, carrying his gum boots in one hand and his shorts in the other, displaying his undies. We didn’t like to ask.

Instead we let our gaze wander over the green-spired church to the trees that loomed over the tavern. The forest had arrived. Sure enough we soon encountered our first serious hills.

‘One banana – two banana – three banana . . .’ came Jan’s voice from behind me.

‘What are you doing?’

‘It helps me get up hills – I’ll count to fifteen bananas, have a rest and continue.’

Our progress slowed to such an extent that some cheeky butterfly fluttered leisurely through my front spokes as they rotated in slow motion. We soon made up for this by hurtling down a hill so fast that sunscreen streamed into our eyes producing a stinging sensation that necessitated the opening and closing of them in an alternating fashion.

After this lengthy period with hands clenched firmly on the brakes, we windmilled our arms and legs to get the blood flowing again. The downhill bit was only a brief respite and the road soon readopted its upward progress. Click. Clunk. Rrrr. CLANK. Jan’s gears still needed a little tuning.

At the top of the hill we saw our first kiwi sign: a yellow diamond with a stubby, feathered silhouette centred on it. This area probably contains the largest population of North Island brown kiwi but, being nocturnal and shyer than a carrot at a vegetarian Christmas, you aren’t likely to spot any unless accompanied by a ranger (Department of Conservation worker, not Aragorn, son of Arathorn). Waipoua Forest is all that survives of what once was. From above, the expanse of subtropical trees looked like clumps of giant broccoli sprouting out of the hillside. We took a moment to savour it (and to rest). To our right was a small, five-star establishment with a six-star view.

‘Is this the camp site?’ asked Jan hopefully. I gave her an energy kiss in reply and set off, launching myself down the last hill of the day. Do you remember a time when a bicycle ride wasn’t a bicycle ride if no-one fell off? How about setting off down an impossible gradient on a bike that you knew didn’t have any brakes? Did you ever make it really interesting by throwing cricket stumps through the front spokes just to see what would happen? Having arrived kicking and screaming at our late thirties, those days are long gone. We threw incaution to the winds and proceeded at a sedate descent, brakes firmly on.

There was time for one more SOHF. The turn-off for the camp took us about a kilometre along an unsealed, bumpy track, which was too much for Jan’s long-suffering bike.

‘I’ve had a p,’ she confessed as we pulled up outside the ranger’s hut.

‘That’s nice,’ I replied, a little confused as to how she had managed on the way down the hill without dismounting and finding a hedge. After establishing that the p-word was now forbidden vocabulary, we pushed our bikes to the camp site and fixed the rupture while the kettle boiled.

The grime of the day was washed off in the military-style shower block, the light of a gibbous moon shining through the slats in the window. Then the twitterings, whoops and other calls of the forest soothed us to sleep, satisfied at a job well done.

Upon meeting the road again we turned left across the bridge that spans the Waipoua River. Early notice of the road’s intentions for the day was served up straight away: it wound its way upwards into the cool, leafy shade of the early morning. This gave us enough time to absorb more of the atmosphere of the forest than on yesterday’s plummet. We noticed the first colossal trunks of kauri trees standing quietly by the side of the road, silver against the green. Terry Pratchett suggests that trees of this age and grandeur don’t notice the speedy behaviour of lesser beings (humans) until it’s too late and they become firewood. Even at our dawdling pace we probably dipped under their radar. Darby and Joan, two particularly fine examples, stood sentinel at a narrow point in the road as we passed through, tyres swishing amongst the terracotta leaves. Autumn was trying to arrive, but the Winterless North was resisting.

Click. Clunk. Rrrr. CLANK. It turned out that the only way Jan could stay in 2nd was to jam her thumb on the gear lever. 1st was still nothing but an unobtainable dream. The g-word was banned about an hour into the day.

Relief was soon provided by the sighting of a sign for Tana Mohuta. This 50 m behemoth is the largest kauri left in New Zealand, but despite being so mind-bogglingly huge, it has rather shallow and delicate roots, which means that the public is kept at a suitable distance. This presumably will also help to prevent morons from carving their names in its bark. The grey trunk made its way upward for almost twenty metres before releasing the first branches. One crick in the neck later my gaze reached the top. The trunk was grooved in a spiralling effect, which gave the impression that a giant had grabbed the top of the tree and given the whole thing a mighty twist for a quarter turn. The Maori, being sensible enough to have great affinity for the wilderness, tell that Tane Mohuta is the son of Ranginui, the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Their offspring felt cramped in the close embrace of their two parents and Tane, eventually having had enough, heaved himself upright and pushed his father upwards, whereupon light flooded in. He then scattered stars across his father’s form and covered his mother with the first forests. Tane Mohuta is approximately 2,000 years old and still going strong. My grandchildren’s grandchildren should see him; at least I hope so.

Most kauri struggled every day for two millennia only to be spotted by some sailor who immediately thought: Mast! and it

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