Monday, 20 March 2017

New Zealand

Friday 20th January, Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand is a great country for cycle touring. The last few years have seen a huge investment in the building, expanding and improvement of a cycle trail network to mirror the world class hiking (or tramping as they call it here) trails. Between Auckland and Wellington, I’ve rarely had to contend with heavily trafficked roads. Mostly, I’ve been on dedicated cycling/hiking trails or very quiet backcountry gravel roads. I’ve been more or less following the Tour Aotearoa route as laid out in the Kennett Brothers’ Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails book, something of a bikepacker’s bible here. It’s mainly aimed at lightly loaded mountain bikers, so I’ve struggled on some sections on my heavily loaded touring bike, but I’ve only had to turn back once so far and taken road alternatives for two or three short sections. The route is the cycling equivalent of the famous Te Araroa hiking trail that runs from the northern tip of the North Island to the southern tip of the South Island.

Cycling, in all its forms, is incredibly popular in New Zealand and I’ve met more cyclists here, both local and tourists, than in any other country in the world, even Germany (a large fraction of that country seems to be holidaying here, often outnumbering the other tourists and locals put together).

Kiwis, particularly fellow cyclists, are pleasantly chatty, calmer and more restrained than their Aussie brethren (or West Islanders as I’ve heard them called here). One local remarked to me that the Kiwis are to the Aussies what the Canadians are to the Americans. The more I travel here the more I am seeing what an apt analogy that is.

New Zealand is famous for experiencing four seasons in one day. Although it’s supposed to be summer here it’s been cool and very wet. The locals never stop telling me it’s the worst summer they’ve ever had. As in every other country I travel through, the unseasonal, unsettled and unpredictable weather is becoming the new norm. At the beginning of my trip I used to push on through unpleasant weather no matter what, but now I’m much more likely to try to find a place to sit it out, even if that means being cooped up in my tent all day reading a book.

With all the sitting around waiting for the weather to pass and my tentative progress along unsuitable off-road trails, my average daily mileage has been low. As time goes on, the three months I have here is starting to seem inadequate. I’ve decided not to put myself under the stress of rushing things and resolved to carry on regardless at the pace most comfortable to me and then see where I end up.

I left Auckland just after Christmas having spent a week there. I made my way south and soon got onto traffic free gravel roads, the Hauraki Rail Trail and the Waikato River Trails. These were a good introduction to cycling in New Zealand as the majority of the Tour Aotearoa follows gravel roads, rail trails and river trails.

I think I’ve ridden on more gravel here than in all my previous travels put together. The word ‘gravel’ by itself is insufficient to describe the riding because there are so many types of gravel road here. The New Zealanders could use twenty different words for gravel, just like the Inuit have for snow. Sometimes if the gravel is compact and small enough it feels like crunchy asphalt. At other times it can be so deep as to feel like riding in rough sand. If there’s a camber in the road (as there often is) mounds of deep gravel will build up in long escarpments forcing me into narrow trenches of rideable surface that bank at ever increasing angles as the road bends, eventually forcing a slippery stop. With so much weight at the back of my bike, I would often find it sliding out from under me and so causing me to ride around bends with a precautionary outstretched foot braced for a skid, stop and recovery.

These days New Zealand only has a few rail services, mostly operating as scenic tourist rides, but it used to have lots more, mainly for servicing logging and mining operations and the towns that grew up around them. The rails were pulled out long ago, but in recent years the tracks that were created for them have been cleared and resurfaced and the bridges shored-up in order to repurpose them as cycling and walking trails. The DOC (Department of Conservation) has done a fantastic job of this and the trails have become incredibly popular. The DOC's far-reaching mandate includes education as well as the preservation of New Zealand’s natural and historical heritage. All over DOC administered trails and national parks you will find interpretation boards explaining the geology, flora, fauna, human history and conservation initiatives present in the area. It feels a bit like cycling through a giant open air natural history museum.

The country’s isolated evolutionary track has bequeathed it a unique collection of indigenous flora and fauna. Unfortunately, human settlement and in particular the clearing of native bush for farmland has put much of it in danger. Until the first humans arrived (The Maori, in the 13th century) there were no mammals in New Zealand, apart from two species of tiny bats. As a result the birds flourished, occupying a niche in the ecosystem usually belonging to mammals in the rest of the world. With no predators many of the birds lost their ability for flight. Now, of course, these are particularly vulnerable. There used to be a three-metre high flightless bird here called a Moa, a bit like a giant ostrich, but the Maori hunted those to extinction. The Europeans are responsible for most of the damage though, by deliberately introducing stoats, ferrets, possums (all for fur) and inadvertently bringing rats on their ships; all of which prey on the birds and their eggs. Despite this, New Zealand is still a country of birds. I’m no twitcher and can barely recognise even the most common species, but I’ve still been impressed by the variety, colour, sound and movement of the avifauna animating the bush here.

Below are a couple of photos from the Waikato River trail. Some parts were smooth and cruisey as pictured, with wooden boardwalks above swampy areas, but there were some other steep off-road sections with long series of very tight switchbacks.






After the Waikato River Trail, there was a remote section of logging trails and singletrack that eventually led me to the beginning of The Timber Trail, a two-day adventure through spectacular native forest following an old tramline, logging roads and some purpose-built cycle trail.

It had been raining heavily, so soaked to the skin, I decided to camp up for a couple of days waiting for the deluge to end. The rain stopped just before I had to push on regardless as I was running low on food. As a result, the following week’s cycling was a thoroughly mud-splattered affair.


Lots of these swing bridges along the trail


At this height the treetops look like heads of broccoli 










Mud!


From Taumarunui, a little past the end of the Timber Trail, some gravel back roads led to Whakahoro. From there I joined up with another of New Zealand’s great rides: The Mountains to the Sea. This, along with The Timber Trail, were the highlights of the North Island. In order to get to The Mountains to the Sea trail, there was a long section of mountain biking. I remember one particularly difficult 5km stretch that took me several hours to ride (mostly push) through. It is designated a grade 4 (advanced) mountain bike trail. In the Kennett brothers’ book, they suggest the following for grade 4 trails: “A mountain bike is essential for off-road advanced trails, and it should have less than 10kg of gear loaded on it.” I was riding a suspensionless touring bike with 35kg of gear loaded on it. The direction I was riding was mostly uphill and together with the muddy conditions it meant that for every three steps I pushed the bike up I’d usually slip back down two steps. I ended up knee-deep in muddy puddles several times including a pretty comical face-plant. It was fun in a perverse way and the sunny and hot day meant that getting soaked and covered in mud wasn’t really a problem.

Although now I look back on those testing few hours with a smile, at the time they were as splattered in swearing and caked in exasperation as I and my overloaded wheelbarrow of a bike were in mud. I had come up against the limits of my bike, my strength and my skills. Not for the first time I started to think about swapping my touring rig for a bikepacking one. The latter dispenses with the traditional six bag pannier setup, replacing it with a much more minimal carrying system distributed around the frame in such a way as not to interfere with the handling characteristics of the bike. The bottom line is that bikepacking opens up much more challenging terrain and even makes it fun to ride at the expense of, well everything really, particularly off-bike comfort. Typically this makes sense for shorter trips (up to a few weeks at a time) in fairer weather. For longer expeditions, the asceticism required exacts a toll to put off all but the most committed off-road tourer. It sounds like I speak from experience, I don’t, but that seems to be the consensus emerging from everything I’ve read on the subject (which is quite a lot now).

Still, I can’t quite shake the idea from my daydreaming. As I’ve transitioned into the developed anglophone world, the riding itself has become a much more prominent part of the trip. Previously the bike was simply a liberating and deliberately slow vehicle to facilitate sight-seeing and cultural voyeurism; now, as I’m ever more drawn to rough roads and lonely landscapes, the ride has become an inseparable and increasingly important part of the experience. The choice is not quite as clearcut as swapping my Aeropress and my laptop for unencumbered free riding. Travelling lighter also means less space for food and water. That means that while rugged terrain becomes more accessible, really remote terrain may not.


Bemused sheep gang on the trail


Hairy ledge


While packing up camp somewhere beside the trail, I was accosted by someone clattering their way towards me on a bike resembling an overloaded donkey cart, shouting “Hey! Crazyman, Hey! It’s another crazyman!”. The crazyman was another cycle tourist from Switzerland, who’d spent six months touring just the North Island. He was excited to see me because I was the only other cyclist he’d seen as heavily (well almost as heavily) loaded as him. On these trails, one would normally only encounter mountain bikers on day trips or bikepackers on multi-day or multi-week trips. The crazyman and I were a different breed of cyclist. Slow riders, in for the long haul, ludicrously unsuited to the terrain but doggedly making our way there regardless.

We talked for a long a time. He said he always had time to talk to everyone. His attitude reminded me that although life is short, you’ll miss it entirely if you waste all your time rushing around. Reserving the latitude to spontaneously stop whatever I am doing and talk to a stranger for more than five minutes, or to lie on my back and watch the clouds for an hour is an important practice.


Crazy Swiss guy


Eventually the trail led me over The Bridge To Nowhere and deposited me at Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui river. The only way to continue from this point is to catch a jetboat or kayak it. I really wanted to hire a canoe big enough to accommodate my bike and make the 5-hour paddle downriver to Pipiriki. Although there are a few tour operators that will bring you a canoe to the Landing and collect it from Pipiriki, none would rent one to me as an individual. They insist you travel in a group of at least two people (for safety reasons). So I had to camp overnight by the river to wait for the next jetboat which could take me. The fun ride in this ludicrously overpowered machine was some consolation. Once we got to the other end, the jetboat driver unloaded my bike and a few unwilling passengers before taking us back out on the river where he opened up the throttle and gave us all a thorough soaking as he spun the boat round and round pulling doughnuts at dizzying speed.

From Pipiriki I followed the Whanganui river all the way to Whanganui City on the coast. I read recently that this river is so important in the psychogeography of the local Maori, that after a protracted legal process the river has finally been accorded legal status as a person. As I followed its meandering course mostly downhill on easy sealed roads, I felt like I was floating on the tarmac, flowing inexorably to the sea.


Whanganui River


Whanganui river as seen from Gentle Annie Lookout


Maori Marae (meeting house)


Alpacas going for coffee




From Whanganui City, it was about a week’s ride to Wellington. I don’t remember anything of it and I only have the one photo of some hills from that time. Typical North Island scenery...




I only remember the very last section that led into the city itself, which was along the Rimutaka Rail Trail. A nice ride, but mainly memorable for the incredibly strong wind. Wellington is sometimes called Windy Welly. The consistent winds from the Tasman sea are funnelled into a roaring intensity as they pass through the mountain-fringed Cook Strait. I remember having to cycle in between the gusts, stopping and bracing myself against something whenever I could feel the wind swelling for fear of being literally blown to the ground.


Rimutaka Rail Trail


I’ve spent a couple of days in Wellington doing touristy things. I went on a little tour of Lord of The Rings locations where tourists could recreate scenes with a few props and compare themselves with stills from the film. I visited the Weta Workshop which is responsible not only for the effects, props and costumes used in Lord or the Rings but also those in all of Peter Jackson’s subsequent films, including District 9 which I think he co-produced or something. Although it is incredibly touristy, an inside peek into the workshop and getting to handle replicas and gape in awe at meticulously crafted original artefacts from the films was pretty cool. The enthusiasm and anecdotes from the guides were unexpectedly good too. We got a tour of ‘Wellywood’ thrown in which is like a giant filmmaking campus in a Wellington suburb. James Cameron has relocated there and his film Avatar was rendered on the impressive server farm at Weta Digital. It looks and sounds like a power station from the outside with visible steam rising from the cooling system!

I also visited Wellington’s star attraction, the Te Papa Museum. I’ve been to a lot of museums, but this one really does deserve the accolades it has received. At the time I visited, there were a couple of special exhibitions produced by the Weta Workshop. One about New Zealand’s involvement in WW1 (which I didn’t have time to see, but I heard from others was fantastic) and another on the fascinating world of bugs. Equally great for kids and adults, it harnessed the artistic flair and technical ingenuity of the Weta Workshop to create giant animated models and interactive spaces that turned one's intuitive aversion to all things creepy crawly upside down.


Friday 17th March, Christchurch, New Zealand

From Wellington, I took a boat over the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island. Most people who come to New Zealand come for its great outdoors and the South Island has the lion’s share: The most popular tramps, the iconic glaciated Southern Alps, the wild west coast, Fiordland and its sounds, Queenstown (NZ’s adventure capital) and the lakes and rivers of Central Otago. I’d read somewhere that South Island was supposed to be quieter and more remote as three times as many people live on the North Island. That may be so, but South Island is the bigger tourist magnet and it often felt crowded to me, not least with German gap year students on working holidays. Official campsites were often packed and in many places close to popular tourist spots, all accommodation would be booked out. As in the North Island, a lot of the land is fenced off, which left me feeling a little hemmed in at times. It was always a relief to get onto the roads and trails where cars and campervans can’t (or don’t) go.

I stayed in Picton for a while, first to tour some of Marlborough’s wineries and then to do some kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds. Most people head to neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park for kayaking but the Marlborough sounds seemed like they would be just as scenic, perhaps more so if they were going to be less inundated with tourists. Really what I wanted to do was a multi-day kayak trip, stopping off at isolated bits of coastline to camp for the night. Unfortunately, just as with the river kayaking, I couldn’t get any company to rent me a sea kayak as a single person. Joining a multi-day guided tour was prohibitively expensive, so I made do with a guided day trip. There were only four of us on it, including the young (German) guide. We got to watch huge graceful stingrays swimming alongside us in the shallow and clear waters.


Marlborough Sounds


From Picton, I made my way, via Nelson, to Greymouth on the West Coast. I think it took the best part of a week but I only have two photos to show for it. I guess there were lots more gravel roads…







From Greymouth, things got a bit more interesting again on the West Coast Wilderness Trail.












Pictured below is a Weka bird. They are flightless scavengers the size of a small chicken, very curious and always hungry! I had to be careful where I left my food and rubbish bag when these guys were around.




I followed the west coast for around 250km until I reached Franz Josef Glacier. You can’t get onto the glacier without taking an expensive helicopter ride, but you can walk within a short distance of the terminal face. Here it is peeking around a corner…




And here it is face-on…




One of the things I wanted to do while in NZ was a skydive. I decided to do it over Franz Josef Glacier, partly because it seemed like a scenic place to do it and partly because it was the highest commercially available skydive in the country at 19,000 feet. That equates to about 90 seconds of free fall (at approximately 200km/h) before parachuting down the last 4 or 5000 feet. The small plane took a long time to climb to that altitude and I reckon I got just as good a view of the glacier from there as I would have done in the helicopter, with the added bonus of being able to jump back to earth afterwards! I particularly liked the transition from the hectic and very noisy free fall to the moment where the parachute opens and one finds oneself suddenly suspended in relative tranquillity, from which the view can be appreciated without one’s face flapping around one’s ears.

Franz Josef is firmly on the backpacker circuit. Due to some persistently awful weather I ended up staying at a hostel, the only one in town with a vacancy. It turned out to be a bit of a party hostel. I shared a tiny 4-bed dorm with some 21-year-old backpackers. Each night the dorm would fill with their backpacking friends for pre-going-out drinking. They all take the same few buses together which stop at the same touristy places, so after a few weeks they’ve assembled into little travelling/drinking gangs, cliques even, in which they gossip about each other. As there was no way I could avoid their partying, I decided “if you can’t beat them, join them”. I think I did a pretty good job of impersonating someone half my age. At least they appeared genuinely shocked when I eventually revealed I was old enough to be their dad. I do in general enjoy the company of young people. When I was their age and younger I would like to hang out with older people. These days I like spending time with people a decade or two younger than me. Maybe it’s because they make me feel young, or maybe I’ve just never quite grown up myself.

The west coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth. I was told that in Milford Sound it rains 200 days a year and the average annual rainfall is around 7metres! Apart from the wet conditions and the omnipresent plague of sandflies, the native bush in this country is impressive. Sometimes cycling along the road between the mountains and the sea felt like passing through a green tunnel bored through the thick rainforest, crisscrossed with glacially fed rivers and streams making their way down from the mountains.

I would often ride past short DOC curated walks signed from the side of the road. Just before the town of Haast, at a place called Ship Creek, there were a couple of such walks, one along forested sand dunes (where the two photos below were taken) and another through a swamp forest of Kahikatea trees, New Zealand’s tallest tree. Once common, but now almost entirely gone, they were cut down to make boxes for exporting butter.






From Haast, my road turned inland, following the Haast river and crossing the Southern Alps to Wanaka.


Haast River


Haast River






Lake Hawea


From Wanaka, I crossed the Crown Range with great views over The Remarkables (the mountains around Queenstown, so called because of the remarkable colours revealed on the mountainsides in the light of the setting sun). I reached the top of the pass just as the sun was setting and then in a few glorious minutes rode to Arrowtown, whizzing down what had taken me most of the day to climb up.










From Arrowtown, it was a short ride to the ‘adventure resort' of Queenstown which has the feel of an overgrown theme park despite its spectacular setting. Everywhere were plastered ads for every conceivable adventure sport or activity. They all come with a hefty price tag so I only did one - the Nevis swing, the biggest swing in the world. A swing is like a bungee jump except instead of plummeting directly beneath the point to which the bungee is fastened, one swings with the bungee fixed midway to a cable running across the top of a canyon. This particular one was so large that you still get 8 seconds of freefall before the elastic starts to pull, then you swing back and forth for a while tracing a 300m arc before getting pulled back up to the starting platform. It’s actually a little tamer than a vanilla bungee, although you still get that heart in the mouth feeling as you suddenly realise that you are weightless and about to plunge into an abyss. I chose the novelty of the swing because I’d already done a couple of bungee jumps before, including the one from Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa, which I think is the highest commercial bridge jump in the world.

I am a collector of intense experiences. It is the intense experiences that take pride of place in the scrapbook that I call my life. They sweep away the triviality that would otherwise accumulate there. They break through the invisible boundaries that circumscribe my life, which unchecked shrink around the gravity of comfortable stasis. They are jolts lifting my head, pushing back the horizon of experiential possibility. Appetisers for living. They are the paving stones in the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.

While in Queenstown I took a bus tour to Milford Sound. It would have taken five days or so (mostly in the rain) to cycle there and then I would have had to cycle back five days on the same heavily trafficked road. Milford Sound isn’t really a sound (a flooded river) at all, it is in fact a glacially formed fjord. Whatever, it’s a spectacular narrow stretch of water with steep 1200m cliffs walling it in. Whenever it rains (which is almost all the time) the cliff-faces sprout cascading waterfalls from their misty crevices. I took a two-hour boat tour around the sound from where I took these pitifully inadequate photos…










On the road between Queenstown and Milford Sound


Back in Queenstown, I took a reconditioned coal-fired paddle steamer across Lake Wakatipu, to Walter Peak to continue my journey south.


Lake Wakatipu, somewhere near Walter Peak


From there I rode along 60km of gravel road through what I thought was some of the most arresting scenery in all of New Zealand. I think I spent as much time taking photos as I did riding that day. Here are a few of them…




















At the end of the day I arrived at Mavora Lakes, a large, sprawling DOC campsite around two lakes. Despite being popular with locals, it’s so spread out that it was easy to find my own secluded spot. Here is the view I had from my tent…




Three more days riding through farming country saw me reach Bluff on the southern tip of South Island. It's the official end of both the Te Araroa and the Tour Aotearoa. I looked out over the Southern Ocean towards Antarctica and then gazed east over the Pacific, to where I knew the next land to be Patagonia, beckoning me from some distant unpedalled future.




From Bluff, I headed east following the coast along the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins. I camped at a place called Curio bay. It had a sandy beach on one side where Hectors Dolphins, the world’s smallest species, come to play. You can get in the water and sometimes they’ll approach you, but the water was freezing and I’m a fair weather swimmer, so I made do with seeing one from a distance. The other side of the bay is a rocky fossilised forest. Yellow-eyed penguins nest here (one of the world’s rarest species). You can reliably see them just before dusk. They are easily scared and people are asked to stay at least 10m away from them. Although I didn’t see anyone break the rule, there were so many people jostling for position with their ridiculously long camera lenses, moving every time the poor penguin moved so as they might head it off and get a snap of it coming towards them, it felt like the poor creature was being harassed. There was a volunteer ranger on hand to keep people at bay but there was only so much she could do.

I bagged a sweet camp spot that night, on top of a grassy knoll with an uninterrupted view of the Southern Ocean from my tent. I took this photo at sunrise while still in my sleeping bag…





The next day I saw signs advertising New Zealand’s Niagara Falls. The signs led me to this place…




In case it isn't clear from the picture, the falls are a bend in the river with some stones in it. They cascade over the vertiginous height of approximately 30cm. Definitely worth a detour.

The next day I passed this impressive teapot collection that someone had devoted their front garden to…






Eventually, I turned north again to cycle the historic Clutha Gold Trail, the spectacular Roxborough Gorge Trail and the famous and immensely popular Central Otago Rail Trail.


Somewhere along the Clutha Gold Trail


The Central Otago Rail Trail is described as ‘The flagship of New Zealand cycle trails’ and its popularity catalysed the huge investment in cycle trails that I mentioned earlier. It’s a nice ride but it’s far from the most interesting of the official trails I cycled. I guess in part its popularity comes from the very easy grade, the accessibility from Dunedin and the abundance of services all the way along it.


Otago Rail Trail


Otago Rail Trail


At the end of the trail it’s a day’s ride along a main road to Dunedin. Alternatively, there’s a scenic tourist train to Dunedin that goes through the spectacular Taieri Gorge. How they ever built that line in the nineteenth century boggles my mind. Of course, I took the train…




The Roxborough Gorge trail was special. It's a short trail with a jetboat ride in the middle. You need to book the boat in advance and when I called on the day I arrived I was told there were no boats that day. As I was deciding what to do, take the unscenic highway alternative, or ride to the landing, camp and try and arrange a boat for the next day, a ute pulling a trailer turned up carrying a couple of mountain bikes. They Belonged to Dan (a Kiwi) and Kate (an English girl who’d been living in NZ for the best part of a decade). They were doing a there-and-back-again ride to the boat landing. They invited me to leave my panniers with them and ride to the landing and back, after which we could all rendezvous at the car and they would give me lift to the place where the jetboat would have dropped me off. I couldn’t believe my luck. When I got onto the trail I was even more grateful as the ride was stunning and being able to fly along it unencumbered by panniers made it all the more enjoyable.

Here are some photos from that section…













On the drive out we stopped for some food at a cafe. It turned out to be quite a fancy place, but I was enjoying Dan and Kate’s company and I felt happy to have a little blow out on a good lunch; after all, they’d saved me a quite a bit of cash that I would have had to spend on the boat ticket. Then, when I got up to leave, I discovered that Dan had quietly settled the whole bill and refused to take any money from me despite my protestations. I thought to myself: that is true generosity - he’s never met me before today and he will likely never see me again, yet he wanted to buy me a fine lunch. These things still touch me every time.

I stayed for a couple of pleasant days in Dunedin, which is a bit like a mini-Edinburgh in New Zealand, replete with neo-gothic architecture and Scottish heritage.

My last bit of cycling in New Zealand was another one of South Island’s Great Rides: The Alps to Ocean or A2O. Only I was doing it in reverse, from the Ocean at Oamaru, to the Alps at the base of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak and one of it’s most recognisable landmarks. Originally I wasn’t planning on going all the way to Mount Cook, anticipating another tourist hotspot and thinking that it didn’t mean anything special to me just because it was the highest mountain. But I met a couple of other cyclists who’d been there and they persuaded me it was worth the extra kilometres even though it involved a day of backtracking on the same road. I’m glad I listened to them, it was totally worth going up there. On paper, it would be mostly uphill and against the prevailing wind, but in practice most of the altitude was gained gradually and the weather gods were smiling on me, ushering me along with a bit of tailwind.
















Hooker Lake






Lake Pukaki


I'm now in Christchurch and have arrived at the end of my time in New Zealand. The devastation wrought by the earthquake here six years ago is still evident all around. Rebuilding and regeneration projects are going on everywhere. The resilience and pluckiness of the people of this country have been a recurring theme as I've learnt about its history. The nature here is as capricious, tempestuous and merciless as it is beguiling. I imagine the pioneers who endured her tantrums, harnessing the wild waters and taming the stubborn land to make their lives here. Tough men and women, locked in an intimate struggle with the elements, living intensely. I imagine them as mostly working class people. People who: move earth, build structures and machines and make possible all the tangible stuff of life. If it wasn't for their labour and self-sacrifice, the rest of us (the middle classes, the artists, the writers, the thinkers) would still be cowering with cold and fear in caves. The history of New Zealand is underwritten by such men and women. It's no coincidence that I channel a working class mental voice when coaxing myself up a particularly steep hill or admonishing myself for being weak in trying.

I don't wish to idealise the lives of early settlers, I wouldn't choose such a life for myself nor would I wish it upon anyone. However, in a way it was a more authentic life than many of us know now. The physicality of it was paramount. These days we can get through life and physically feel not much more than the chairs and cushions under our arses, the sensation of cotton, wool or polyester against our skins and the odd ache or pain admitted by old age or decadence. If we're lucky we may work ourselves up to a sweat in the gym once a week or in our beds with a lover. It's no wonder then that many of us feel detached from our lives and move through them as if going through the motions of some ritual whose meaning has long been lost.

I heard an interview with author Paulo Coelho recently in which he was describing his pilgrimage on the Camino. He remarked: "It was through my body that I discovered my soul". The physical aspect of the pilgrimage was crucial to the spiritual.

I think touch is a vastly under-appreciated sense. We need to get back in touch with touch. In our best and most intense moments we say we 'feel' alive. To feel a thing is to know a thing as intimately as possible. We can see, hear or smell from a distance, but we can only feel a thing when it is in physical contact with our bodies. To work with our hands, to be out in the elements, to touch another person, to gulp lungfuls of cold air and know strength in our legs - sentio, ergo sum.