I sat in the back. Window seat. Melancholic, flying over the indescribable beauty of Central Otago as I peered out of window and surveyed old worn trails and weathered landscapes.

My decision to ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff took me two years with six weeks of that in the saddle. In the past I have tried to articulate my reason for riding. The simple answer is no more complex than ‘because I could’.

So as I cut north, I repeated to myself that continuous inner question… “is that all there is?” And it isn’t. There is always more. Lost Pilgrims are good like that. They keep wandering in search of meaning, because they can.

I slumped back from the window, the seat swallowing my skeletal honey toasted frame as I reimagined wandering. Trails not paths – there is a difference, as Robert Moor eloquently states.

A path is predetermined, civilised, extending forward in time, linked to a destination. Whereas a trail extends backwards, an endless string of signals, aimless and mythical that need interpretation and sure footing.

You may think there is a danger in trails, but that’s a matter of faith and interpretation… ‘what would you rather be doing, laying in the path of an elephant or in its trail?’

And Horse got that. As soon as he made Wellington he was back in the saddle, heading north to round out his tour. I didn’t see him for another three weeks. He was on his own personal journey, vicariously accompanied by me.

Well done Horse, there is nothing better than to ride together alone.

So let’s raise a glass to solitary pilgrims, aimless trails and the warmth that comes from greeting strangers as soon to be old friends.

It’s time to reimagine wandering.

Wyndham to Bluff

Day nineteen – to the end of the road

We were well past Edendale by 7am, riding rim and rush south to lands end. Horse was going like the clappers, with me in pursuit, averaging in the high twenties across the great Southland plains for Invercargill. Breakfast had been ordered by nine as we sat in the early sun skimming the paper.

“Last ride Horse.” I said. Him nodding in response as he tucked into his last trail breakfast.

Old Town

We pushed on south down Dee Street to where our destination showed itself – Motupōhue Maunga. Today was special and needed to be taken slow, if is was to be savoured.

Back on the bikes we rode under high cloud that looked to have been set to a slow simmering boil. Then turning wheels west towards Omaui, following the low road that skimmed barely above the marsh on its long arch around the harbour. On over the old rail bridge to Green point, Tikore Island with its memory of foundered sea-wreaks, and in that grey distance, grey and flat against a grey sea was old town – Bluff.

Bluff – close to my heart. I’ve spent a good amount of time living and working here alongside the locals. It’s a colonial seaport, one of the oldest permanent settlements in New Zealand’s modest history, forged in the bond between wahine and whaler from 1823.

It’s the very epitome of what makes it world famous here in New Zealand – its oysters. For all appearances Bluff is tough and gruff on the outside, but when you get beneath, well, there lies a tenderness.

Of all the small towns strewn along this long land, Bluff is the one I’d choose to settle. Living high on the lee, I’d spend my days looking out for the old weathered fishers and iron-bellies making port, before ambling down to the Anchorage to trade a share in a jug for a good wayfaring tale.


The end of the road

As two dusty trail men, we rolled quietly on. Passing tussock and ruin at Ocean Beach, old Joe (Sir Joseph Ward), the Eagle to the very end – Stirling point.

There you will find a great silver chain rolling over rock and surf down into a deep pool of kelp. This place is known as the prow of the great canoe Te Waka a Māui (or Te Waipounamu – the South Island). Away in the distance is Te Punga a Maui (the island of Rakiura – Stewart island) which serves as the great anchor stone of Maui’s canoe – the place where the great silver chain resurfaces. For us this chain marks the end of the road, or as Bluffies like to call it: ‘where the road begins’.

As I straddled the bike, arms at their rest on the handles bars, gazing south towards Rakiura, Horse wandered over. He didn’t say anything, he just grabbed me by the shoulders and hongi’d.

The end.

Todays’ top track: Horse called this one: Sting – All this time “All this time, the river flows, endlessly, to sea…”

Raes Junction to Wyndham

Day eighteen

Rae’s Junction Hotel is a grand old lady – old bones with a fresh heart.

Arriving late in the day steaming and saddle sore, we swung through to the old pubic bar to a wonderful scene of family, hot food and live music (of sorts). Lena had bought the shell of the old gal’, sight unseen over a year ago and in that time has been pouring nothing back in but love.

A fast tour was followed by slow showers, then Horse and I sat down with everyone at a large family table and tucked into the best lasagne this side of Livorno. After a triple portion I flopped back with full belly into the arms of an old thread-bare armchair deep in the corner of the old mirrored bar. Soaking in warm sprits of continuous chatter of two families delirious on living.

In time I drifted into a fade, and after saying goodnight I tromped off to my room. Over old creaky floors rich with rumour of intoxicated lovers supporting each other shoulder to shoulder, plus no doubt the odd drunken lament.

My room small was flooded by warm grey twilights glow through net curtains, a single bed on one side paired with a single teal blue hand-basin on the other. The place was timeless and just, well, perfect really.

First bed rest in well over a week, I drifted off to the distant orchestra of bad drumming, electric guitars and peddle powered pianola echoing out from the public bar.

Creaking door

The morning was grey like the previous evening, as I wiped away the condensation from the window and looked out at sou’-easterly squals drifting over the Blue Mountains. It was going to be a slow start and I didn’t care, either did Horse. Only a few small rolling hills and we were onto the Mataura river plains of Southland.

‘I wonder if there were any left-overs?’ Hungry, yawning and scritching a scratch I stumbled off in silence towards the old pub kitchen to raid a fridge.

Waiting it out

Full, we eventually bid farewell mid-morning and turned south towards Tapanui and Gore. An hour later we stopped, stalled, slamming headlong into yet another squal!

“For gods sake!” I screaming as I stood baring down on my pedals getting nowhere. Horse thought better of it and without a word, dismounted and dove head first behind an old elderberry hedgerow to escape. I gave up and followed suit, finding him laying on the leeward side chewing on a blade of grass – looking out into the distance like nothings going on. We waited it out.

“Cup of tea Horse?” I said passing the Tapanui tea rooms. I needed a refresh and besides another squal was racing up the road to greet us. We just got safely inside as it arrived. Like a clean shaven religious zealot touting Gods latest miracle to the unconverted heathens within, it was pounding at the door trying to get an audience, but it wasn’t successful and eventually slunk off down the road to torment another passer by. We sat and sipped at our cuppa, waiting it out again.

But soon it was Gore, and then south. Crossing the old bridge at Mataura and on to Wyndham. The last night, the last camp and the last tall tale before the end of the trail.

Three Rivers Hotel

“Shit Horse!” I said laughing. Neither of us still had yet found a workable solution to refilling our respective stoves, and as a result he had inadvertently set fire to a small area of campground lawn whilst cooking his evening meal.

He looked up grinning, as he scoffed down the last of his dehydrated goodness. “Pub?” He said.

Off we wandered in the twilight, the earlier wind and squal now replaced by evening calm. We entered the Three Rivers Hotel and placed our orders. It was the typical sounds and sights of gibbering tv’s, twinkling pokies, us and a party of three that looked well settled in, judging by the empty pre-mixers stacked at the table like a strike of weathered ten-pins.  Horse and I pulled up at an adjacent table, discussing the day and getting an early night in preparation for the last day to come. It wasn’t to be.

Bryn strode up, arm out and introduced himself, resplendent in puffer vest, walk shorts and sandals he extended a warm welcome to Wyndham – Bryn isa true gentleman. He was closely followed by Malcolm and Barbara, then within minutes we’d covered off religion, politics, motor-cycle racing and were tucking into a round of fat cheese and onion toasted sandwiches thanks to our new mate. Bryn was a Wyndham native, having lived his entire life to date in this wee southern gem, while others had drifted in from all over Southland in the past 30 odd years. The night wore on in a slurry of good beer and better company.

Like many a small town, Wyndham has history and an old majestic shambles of brick warehouses and shops hidden under the rusting rim of an old street awning. As I peered out the window I imagined what it must have been in times past – a river of car headlights frustratingly in search of a park along Ferry Street on a Friday night. Mums bustling for bits and bobs at the drapery, kids ordering banana thick shakes at Lees dairy and all the dads huddled in scrums around lamp-posts, keeping one eye on traffic and the other over towards the laughter emanating from the Three Rivers.

As those moments passed the buildings have remained, but not for long. The bureaucracy of a faceless District Council have condemned Wyndhams history to history. All in the name of new earthquake regulations. It’s simply not good enough to destroy a towns heritage, as without it there is little reason to go and less reason to stay.

Twilight long past we eventually shuffled out into the night, leaving new friends and bidding farewell to the old and condemned.

Today’s top track: Erik Satie – Gymnopedie

Waipiata to Middlemarch

Day sixteen

‘Emphatic’ – we were underway at 8 sharp. There wasn’t fuss or much in the way of talk. Everyone just got up, packed up and saddled up. An orderly pace line chasing down the last leg of the trail.

A longish 50km kind of day with bail points on route should sons have lost their puff. They didn’t.

Passing the settlements of Kokonga, Tiroiti, and then the first fang of the Rock and Pillar range. An eternal. An old place with a reach of stone protruding through the skin of tussock and raw, like the petrified bones of a beast long past.

That beast a barrier, a vertical wall on our western flank for the remainder of the day. A day warm, and getting warmer with a wind steady and strong.

The chase became race

Onward we rode south on the Strath Taiere plain, but the pace didn’t falter, it became a fever, a madness, our chase became a race. With Middlemarch appearing in the distance the boys broke order and bolted. First Joe, then Timmy, Mike and Flynn with a Tigre at tail. We all arrived in as much of a screaming muddle as when we first started days before, but for Sons and Men is was a fine way to finish.

There was no more riding, no more instruction, grind or crackle. There was only one more thing to do – “who wants ice cream?”

The curtain lowers

Winds bring change and with it weather. So with ice cream in hand we watched as the cloud gathered and fell hard against rock and pillar like crumpled theatre curtains drawing in the stage. Soon Sarah came into sight… still running the trail past old red rails and lonely wagons into a still and quiet Middlemarch. The last of the dusty champion and a fitting end to the show. ‘Well done Mrs Healy.’

Then they were gone, all gone. In that same continuous chatter back up the road from whence they came. Leaving Horse and I at camp under a heavy sky opening with the first wave of passing showers.

We spent the evening at the Strath Taiere pub, listening to the drawl from a ruddy crowd of local farm hands gathered as a swarm around the bar. Horse and I ate and quietly discussed the route ahead. He ordered seconds, I looked out the door as a second and third wave of rain washed through.

“Gonna be wet tomorrow Horse.” I said. He glanced over towards the door between open bites of his steak and onion sandwich. “Yeah”

Oturehua to Waipiata (via Naesby)

Day fifteen

I was casually leaning on a railing outside Wedderburn station supping on my second coffee, nothing going on, when suddenly he appeared. Hurtling around the pines, moustachioed, all blow and bravado riding a panniered ‘tall bike’ on the uphill trail to Idaburn.

He greeted me with an over enthusiastic ‘ello’ from up high in the saddle, as he whipped past in a spit of gravel and was gone. Leaving as quickly as he arrived, but remaining as a memory none the less. I took another sip and resumed my position at the rail. “Pom pommed Jaja’s” I said to no one in particular.

I was alone with my rail. The Wheelmen were inside deep in negotiations with sons over junk food provisions for the day ahead. They were heading south on the trail to Waipiata. Me, I was heading inland to the heal of the Ida and Naesby for the day.

With the mercury rising, it was time to turn off the trail and make for the link road. “Later Horse” I said as I got back in the saddle.

The Naesby volunteer fire brigade

I turned north east of the trail, over a vast arching plain like a giant upturned saucer ringed by the Ida and the Kakanui. There was something special in the day – an old warm dusty veil that hangs in high places. Reminiscent of the late hazy yellow glow of a sun settling on the Avenida Chapultepec in Mexico City – a familiar melancholic moment that drew a slight smile.

Then old Naesby of the Maniototo, enveloped as it was within a fragrant great coat of Douglas Fir and Corsican pine. Famous as another gold rush town of central and now its curling capital. But I hadn’t come to see the vestiges of its Victorian past, nor the curling, nor the gold, I’d come to search the archives of the Naesby volunteer fire brigade.

img_1741Joeseph Jeremiah Salmon (my great grand pappy and son of that old rogue Philip) was the most esteemed resident Fire Superintendent who led the champion South Island hose and reel team of 1892.

So finding a few relics including that old hand drawn hose reel and after paying my respects at the pioneer cemetery, I pulled up for a pint of the finest at the Ancient Briton with a venison pie for seconds. I sat quietly in the sun listening out for the clang of memory bell … calling volunteers to their hoses. It was a stunning day and long, but it was time to find Horse.

Gold dust

Down the Channel Road – gold dust of yellow clay licking like flames at the wheel as I sped south to Waipiata. It was downhill open country with a hot breeze behind me, sharp in the crackle of the dry with rising dust devils signalling other men’s mischief far the distance. Managing the rising heat I threw open my shirt which whipped, trailing like a lively horseman’s cape behind me.

I had arrived, to see an orderly line up of bicycles – three men’s and five boys. I had discovered the Wheelmen and sons once more, likely cooling off within the Waipiata Country Hotel.

I made my entrance, bursting through the double doors to find them all supping and embellishing the days adventures like only boys in a pub can. I ordered a pint of their finest and joined in, regaling stories of honourable old firemen, Victorian brass bands and lost gold dust.

I eventually stumbled back out the double doors, with a left behind cuddly bear under one arm and a box of ice cold IPA in the other – ‘A very Wheelmen & Son kind of day’ I thought to myself as I went about strapping it all down.

Without a clue, a map or a guide I stood straddled in the car park, I giggled as I turned south and rode off to a trailing cheer from a shambles of other trail riders who had drawn closure on the day with a night at the pub.

I soon found the assembly that is the Wheelmen, cob cottage and rest. I opened the first IPA and handed it over. Horse nodded and leaned back in his chair to quench a thirst. “There’s still a sting in the day“ he said.

Todays top track: Revelry – Kings of Leon