Day 42: 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean to Auckland, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 7, 2014

Day 42: 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean to Auckland, NZ

The last few hours of the flight pass at what seems like half speed. New Zealand seems so close, yet all I can see are the clouds below glowing pink in the first light of the new morning. And really, I feel like an ungrateful bastard for complaining about anything at all, because by the time we touch down in Auckland in the early hours of the morning we will have traveled to the opposite hemisphere and a third of the way around the world from where we started only thirteen hours ago. If this fact does not make your head almost explode out of amazement and appreciation for all of the modern technology that makes this possible, you might be one too.

It takes only a scan of the passport to pass through Immigration. But beyond lies Customs, and that's what has us nervous. Despite everything we've read about bringing bicycles into New Zealand, we still aren't sure how much attention they'll pay to our bikes. Yet it turns out we could have gotten by with just scrubbing the tires, because after telling the agent that we have road bikes, that's all they check, and only on Kristen's bike. The only reason they even open the box holding my bicycle is because that's where the tent poles ended up, and for the sake of biosecurity Customs needs to fumigate the tent and the poles before we get them back. After asking us to send our panniers and box of gear through some kind of scanner, there's nothing else we have to do. So much of our concern turned out to be for nothing.

With none of our stuff deemed a threat to the New Zealand ecosystem, we roll our boxes to a quiet corner of the international terminal and start the long process of unboxing, un-zip-tying, and then reassembling and repacking everything we own. Our plan in Los Angeles had been to take a taxi into Auckland, but on the flight we learned how expensive the trip into the city can be. We decided that for the sake of our wallets and also for the sake of adventure we'd rather ride into town instead. This choice will dramatically change the complexion of our day.

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Three hours later our quiet spot isn't so quiet, as hundreds of people descend on the benches and packing stations around us in preparation for their flight to Singapore. We've also been reminded of how much goes into reconstructing a bicycle, from mounting the wheels and inflating the tires to reattaching the handlebars and brake cables and chains and bottle cages, setting the seat height, putting on both the front and rear racks, wrenching on the pedals, aligning fenders that want nothing more in this world than to remain unaligned, and tracking down the lights and cycling computers that have lodged themselves somewhere deep and hidden in our bags. In the end I find myself hungry, exhausted, frustrated, missing a few chunks of skin, and with only one working front brake.

But New Zealand awaits and we're ready to see what happens next, so we swing our legs over the bikes, hope that we didn't forget to attach any important bolts, and off we go. It's insane from the start. We haven't ridden a loaded bike in almost two weeks, we've never once ridden on the left side of the road, and we try to get used to both of these things on the streets and highways surrounding the largest airport in the country. And as if this wasn't difficult enough, we don't even go a mile before we see both KFC and Carl's Jr. restaurants, squatting in modern-looking buildings right next to one another. Even if you travel a third of the way around the world you can't escape the greasy hand of American capitalism and terrible fast food.

Oh come on.
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Yet within another mile we pick up a side road and we're out in the country, surrounded by bright green grass, barbed wire fencing, birdsong, and the overwhelming smell of the trees and flowers of the countryside. It seems familiar at a high level, but when we look in detail it's all quite different. The trees aren't like what you'd see anywhere in Oregon or California, we've never before seen most of these kinds of birds, and although the car brands are similar to what we have at home, almost none of the designs look familiar. We pass by what we think is a butcher shop, which advertises for sale lamb flaps and chicken nibbles; we have no idea what either of those might be.

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Pedaling on the left side of the road having grown up in America is a bizarre experience. When the cars headed our way fly around the corners at high speed in the right lane, my eyes turn bigger and my stomach gets weird and a little squirt of adrenaline shoots down my arms every time, because my mind's immediate reaction is that they're headed straight for me. The mirror mounted on the left side of my helmet that was so helpful for all of the riding I've done in the States right away becomes useless. And to keep from tipping over when we pull off the side of the road I have to consciously remind myself to first unclip from my left pedal instead of my right.

The farther we go, the excitement of landing starts to wear off and is replaced by tiredness. On a gravel patch at the road's edge we make a blood oath — Kristen with the cut on her leg she picked up as we tried to leave the airport, me with the shredded knuckle I gave myself while putting the bikes together — that we won't let each other fall asleep until at least 7:30 p.m. We can't let jet lag win.

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Countryside and quiet roads soon become neighborhoods and highways as we enter Auckland. With no formal bike paths or even proper bike lanes, we find ourselves cranking up and over steep hills on shoulderless roads, sidewalks, and in lanes meant for buses and parked cars. I've never before traveled in a city so big — more than 1.4 million people live in Auckland — where I've seen zero cycling infrastructure and where I've traveled for a dozen miles on a sunny afternoon and seen exactly one other cyclist. As I think about this, and wonder if the stereotype about New Zealand drivers being unfriendly toward or ignorant of bike riders is true, I come a split second from getting doored by a Mercedes SUV.

The deeper into the city we travel, the more we have to channel our last reserves of strength. Only the loud and dangerous main roads travel straight for more than two blocks at a time, so we jog left and right constantly. Several times we round a corner and with no warning find in front of us a hill that runs as steep as anything you'd find in San Francisco, which send us to pushing more than once. Streets also have a habit of changing names even when they aren't turning, and we get lost when the street signs point in directions other than what they should. All of this happens while we deal with tired bodies, empty stomachs, and left-side riding that requires constant diligence, or else we'll end up speeding down a hill in the direction of oncoming traffic, which happens once and almost a couple of other times. And of course I have to ride down all of the steep hills on a fully loaded bike with no front brake, which comes with its own kind of excitement and vague sense of terror.

By the time we reach the hostel, which everyone here calls a backpackers and where we'll be spending the next two nights, we have nothing left in the tank. It's been thirty-six hours since we woke up in Los Angeles yesterday, or two days ago, or whatever the right way to describe the time change is. Our gear explodes into all corners of our private room in the moments before we fall into bed, where we once again have to draw on previously unknown stocks of focus to force ourselves to stay awake for three more hours, because a blood oath is serious business.

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The shared kitchen fills with the smell of pizza, and for awhile we hear other guests talking over beers and the empty drone of reality television in the common area beyond the walls of our room. But as soon as the 29 on the clock becomes a 30, every sound and scent beyond the darkness around us disappears in an instant.

Today's ride: 18 miles (29 km)
Total: 1,490 miles (2,398 km)

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