Day 109: Christchurch, NZ to Sydney, NSW - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 13, 2014

Day 109: Christchurch, NZ to Sydney, NSW

To try and avoid the frantic rush and subsequent exhaustion we felt on the day of our flight to New Zealand from Los Angeles back in October, we made sure to finish cleaning the bikes and packing up most of our gear yesterday afternoon. This gives me all morning to read, to write, to eat a bowl of muesli bigger than my head, to inadvertently smear narrow lines of chain grease and dirt across my cheek bones, to see how far onto the sidewalk in front of the house I can flick my boogers — to do just about anything except freak out about leaving the country.

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As we sit up in our bed and relax in the hours before the drive to the airport, we cover our legs and feet with a thick blanket to fight off the cold. And then we can't help but wonder how long it will be, and where we will be, when we next have numb toes again. We're headed to a land of intense heat, where the air and the land are dry and harsh, and where the midsummer days will bring us as many as eighteen hours of rideable light each day. Even though we've enjoyed and appreciated and will look back with good memories on our time in New Zealand, we both feel within us a kind of vibrating excitement whenever we think about the dramatic change in climate and landscape and terrain that waits for us in Australia. After a two-week break from riding that seems more like two months, what we want now more than anything in the world is to return to the life of adventure and discovery and unpredictability that we've come to know and love.

Australian rivers and estuaries are out.
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George gives us a ride to the airport, which means we show up early and don't have to unload our mountain of crap from any taxis, trains, or shuttle buses. When we need to use a luggage cart, it's free. When we reach the line to check in, it's short. At the ticket counter we get upgraded to seats with more legroom without having to ask. There are no unexpected visas to buy, no long security lines to wait in, no cancer-causing scanners to walk through, nor surly and underpaid TSA agents to give my balls a pat-down if I choose to opt out an overly intrusive screening, because there's no overly intrusive screening. We don't even get charged for the box of gear we have to check, which means that a hundred pounds of bikes and camping gear and awful-smelling clothing head to Sydney with us at no extra cost. Our aircraft arrives late, but this gives us time to call our families, drink chocolate milkshakes, and read children's fiction, so we call it even. It's a wonderful sendoff from a wonderful country.

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Already done.
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On a five-hour flight from Seattle to New York, the only things you get for free are a small cup of Sprite that's three-quarters filled with ice, the chance to catch some exotic strain of the flu, and a series of accidental elbows to the kidneys that follow every minor movement of the passenger sitting next to you. If you want a small bag of stale crackers or a weak gin and tonic, or if you have a wild hair to watch a terrible romantic comedy that's had all of the foul language edited out, you have to pay.

Yet on a flight from Christchurch to Sydney that takes less than three hours, every person has a media console that folds out of the armrest of their seat. It has a map that shows us where we are in real time, along with the aircraft's speed and altitude and how many miles we have left to go. If you wanted to, you could also use the thing to buy a duty-free flask of cologne, or a Swiss watch, or a computer mouse shaped like an Aston Martin DB9. But most people around us seem content to lose themselves in an orgy of pop culture choice: movies from one of forty-one different categories; more than a hundred TV series; hundreds more podcasts and radio shows; thousands and thousands of songs; more video games than any person could ever hope to play; and even eight live television broadcasts coming from the U.S., England, the Middle East, and China. It takes half an hour just to figure out everything that's available.

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Instead of a bag of pretzels and a fake half-smile, the well-dressed flight attendants serve a dinner of beef ragout, garlic mashed potatoes, buttered vegetables, cheese, crackers, a piece of chocolate, and a chunk of carrot cake with a fake half-smile. It isn't Apizza Scholls or Harlow or PBJs Grilled from back in Portland, but as an American it's like a trip back in time, to what I imagine domestic aviation was like back in the 1950s and 60s, minus the cigarette smoke and the businessmen pinching the ass of the stewardess as she walks past. It makes the journey feel more like a flight than an overcrowded bus ride, like it so often does back home.

The drinks are free as well. When the beverage cart comes around, I notice a pair of Budweiser beers perched on the edge, and then I feel this little surge of joy rush up and down my body. Because if you find yourself flying between New Zealand and Australia on an airplane bound for Sydney and then Bangkok and Dubai, and you're presented with the chance for a half-cold can of Budweiser decorated in the colors of the American flag, you make the most of that chance — that familiar, patriotic, watered-down chance.

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As with our arrival in New Zealand, we approach the bio-security checkpoint in Australia feeling a little on edge. What if they open up the bike boxes and we didn't do a good enough job of cleaning away the dirt? What if we have to unpack the bikes, scrub them down in some sterile fluorescent-lit room deep in the bowels of the Sydney airport, and then figure out how to get everything back in the boxes again? What if they want to properly disinfect our tent, ground cloth, sleeping pads, and bike shoes? What if they discover the piece of sheep wool that I tie around my handlebar but haven't declared, and we inadvertently create some kind of international incident? What if we're stuck in this place for the next two hours?

"What kind of bicycles do you have?" the agent asks when we reach the front of the line.

"Road bikes," we tell him not quite in unison.

"Did ya do a good job of cleaning them?"

"Yes we did."

"Any food or animal products?"

"Nope."

"Alright, you're good to go. Just head out through the sliding doors over there."

That's it. He doesn't open even one of the boxes. Nothing gets looked at, scanned, swabbed, or sprayed. We're just wished a pleasant evening and then we're off into Australia for the next eighty days.

We don't make it more than a dozen feet beyond the end of the ramp out of the terminal before we see a happy, smiling face pointed in our direction. It's Catherine, a fellow cycle-tourist who reached out to us weeks ago through this journal and offered not only to pick us up from the airport, but to take us out to dinner and drop us off at our hostel on the way into the city. She would have hosted as well, because she really is that fantastic and generous, but she and her partner Malcolm leave tomorrow afternoon to fly to Sri Lanka. That's where they'll spend the next three or four weeks cycling, sweating more than any person should ever reasonably have to sweat, and avoiding the rush of Christmas-time as it attempts to swallow up all of the spare money and attention of the Western world.

Within fifteen minutes we're speeding through the dark streets of Sydney in a rented cargo van, trying to make sense of the layout of the city, figuring out if riding to Perth actually makes us as crazy as everyone has told us we must be, and asking roughly seventy-nine inane questions about Australian geography and food and whether or not people in this country use the word cheeky as much as New Zealanders do. Then it's on to a huge spread of authentic Indian food, over which we talk about world travel, the various quirks and charms and writing skills of the Crazy Guy community, and how after she returns from Sri Lanka Catherine will be diving into her Ph. D. studies, where she hopes to create a statistical measures related to the prevention of homeless among families in Australia. In addition to being fantastic and generous, she is also charming and interesting and well-traveled, and it's one of the great disappointments of our trip that we don't get to spend more time with her in Sydney.

The newest honorary member of Team Hawthorne.
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But by the time Catherine drops us off in front of the backpackers where we'll be staying for the next two nights, the anxious excitement of the evening has started to wear off and going to sleep for twelve hours starts to seem like the best idea we've ever had. The noise of the city that enters through the open window and fills the room seems like a series of stereotypical urban sound effects layers on top of each other: a honking horn, the hiss of bus brakes, a police car siren, the metallic shriek that happens when train wheels meet train tracks, the voices of people on the sidewalk below rising in volume as they approach the building and then fading as they pass by, with no detail in the speech beyond its inflection. Or at least that's how it sounds in my left ear. The right one is muffled, as if it's being held under water, because something with the pressure changes on the descent into Sydney didn't sit right with my head.

Yet somehow the ear weirdness is the biggest problem we faced during a twenty-hour day spent traveling to and from airports in two different countries while lugging around over a hundred pounds worth of awkwardly loaded gear. And within a few minutes, even this is overwritten by the fact that we head to sleep in t-shirts, with only a thin sheet laid out on top of us, but still feel warm from head to toe.

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