The clouds are turning peculiar shades of yellow against a darkening, yet
somehow still vivid blue, background as the sun sets over the hills.
And meanwhile the very same sun is beaming its first warming rays of light onto
frosty car windscreens all over the UK. I’ve just been for a ride and have got rained on. Soaked through. Freak, torrential, downpoured-on, more like, and 40 minutes from home. I don’t have a waterproof with me and I’m not dying of hypothermia even though it’s December: It seems every bit as wrong as
contemplating Christmas in shorts and sandals.
My girlfriend and I have been here for over 2 months now, and life in
Wellington, New Zealand, is good. I could go on endlessly about how great this place is in
spring, but it’ll only make Mark D feel homesick, and that’s not why I
wanted to write this.
Riding here is different. The riding I did yesterday is different to the
riding I did after work on Thursday and all of it is different to the riding
I did in the UK. I do miss big, bleak, open moorland expanses of heather –
cultivated by landowners for centuries for nothing but shooting grouse – with miserable, bleak, rocky, exposed singletrack. I also miss
mid-ride cafe stops with pints of tea and sausage/bacon/egg/black
pudding/mushroom (delete as appropriate, or not if truly hungry) sandwiches. Cafes don’t appear in convenient mid-ride locations here. You’re only likely to find one near the beginning/end of your ride, or you have to embark on a substantial diversion through the middle of nowhere to get to one, because the middle of nowhere is where most of the riding is to be found.
Curiously, Middle-of-Nowhere is surprisingly easy to get to. I can be there
within 20 minutes of riding from my front door. Once you’re in the thick, tropical (well, not really but think tree-ferns and creepers – like in
Tarzan) undergrowth, you could be anywhere. Maybe the Marin trail at Betws-Y-Coed – but only if you’ve forgotten what pine trees look like. Or in the Sierra Nevada, but with trails that have been recently carved out, rather than slowly eroded over centuries of mountain traffic.
Another familiarity with these rides through the Middle-of-Nowhere is that I’d be lost if I didn’t have someone to follow. Yes, I know I said I was only 30 minutes from my doorstep, but when you’re dizzy from chasing people faster than you through green, twisty, tree-lined tunnels, and then arrive in the open to find the sun in the wrong place and the hills and valleys in unexpected formations, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking the sun should be shining from the south.
An abundance of trees characterises much of the riding I’ve been shown, as
does the complete absence of flat ground. By contrast the UK has fewer trees
and more cricket pitches – both the result of a longer, richer and more industrial history. The UK is also criss-crossed with Rights of Way that can be navigated by anyone with an OS map, again thanks to that industrial history and those ancestors of ours that pushed a barrow or lead their donkey across the countryside. The best way to experience a new trail in the UK is to be shown it by a local. But over here in New Zealand, for the vast majority of trails it’s the only way. There is no Ordnance Survey. Topographical maps are nowhere near as detailed as those available back in Blighty, and you may even need the landowners permission to get access to those trails when you do find them.
I’m still riding new trails every time I go out, and constantly coming across new challenges, so I’m not in the most unbiased state of mind. Even so, it seems wrong to say whether I think the riding here is ‘better’ than that found in the Peak District, or anywhere else I’d normally ride. To say which is better is maybe to miss the point. Like old friends, those favourite trails will always be missed.
Travelling round the world also makes you think in new ways about what
you’ve left behind. My bike and I (and my girlfriend, mustn’t forget the
girlfriend…) took well over 24 hours of flying time to get here, and there are whole British counties I’ve never biked in. I’ve only ever taken my
bike to Scotland once! One measly, single, fantastic Torridon weekend. Pitiful
isn’t it? Travels all the way round the bloody world and doesn’t even
appreciate what he’s got on his doorstep!
Well I am learning. I’m trying my best to appreciate what’s on my doorstep while I’m here, in the mountain biking capital of New Zealand. It’s fantastic to have the
opportunity to live and work in another country, and even better if there
happen to be trails to be explored too. And if you do get out here the people at www.vorb.org.nz
will make you ride ’til they’ve broken you – I’ve been broken twice, and I’m
hoping to be back out for more in the New Year…