From the window of a moving car, the landscape passes by all too quickly—without smell, sound or sweat, without headwind, tailwind or even a breeze and with little sense of satisfaction upon reaching a high mountain pass or the day’s destination.
It’s a far cry from bicycle travel, and I’m a bit jealous of the dozens of cyclists we pass every day. New Zealand’s roadways are thick with cyclists, and the nation appears to be a bicycling paradise. The towering Remarkables as they rise over the Clutha River, the sprawling valleys and vineyards, the greenery of the West Coast rainforest, the cliffs along the sea—all must be especially spectacular when seen from the saddle of a bicycle.
But one cyclist I met camping at a small wilderness lake north of Queenstown has been cycling in New Zealand for more than three months. She is now three-fourths of her way into a two-year tour of the world, and Pauline Symaniak, of Scotland, says New Zealand is a notch below thrilling, lacking a blend of adventure and excitement that was never absent from the Americas and Europe.
“To be quite honest, New Zealand has been the least satisfying of all the places I’ve been,” she told me.
Pauline began her journey in 2010 in Edinburgh. After quitting a relatively lifeless job working for the government, she pedaled through France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. She hopped aboard a cargo ship that delivered her to Argentina, where a continent in the height of summer lay at her wheels. She crossed Patagonia and the Andes, and went north into Bolivia, to Lake Titicaca. Then she boxed up her bike—always a logistical pain for cyclists—and flew to Miami, took the Greyhound to Boston, and from here pedaled with an old college friend across America to Seattle. Time was unlimited, with money in the bank, and so she flew to Auckland.
And then her fast adventure slowed to a puzzlingly sluggish pace, and it took Pauline a few weeks of exploring to realize what was going on.
“Even in America, there is history and magic, in layers,” she said. “There’s culture.”
But New Zealand, it seemed to her, lacks something. This country has tremendous wilderness, vast and unexplored, with thrilling mountain ranges scraping the sky like looming murals and beautiful coastlines of cliff and sea—but it is also orderly, tidy and tame, clean, trim and polished. None of which is bad, exactly, but for a woman who has left her job and home to circle the world on a bike, New Zealand may be too cozy for comfort.
In Pauline’s words, “New Zealand is great if you want to be comfortable.”
Even from a moving car, I can see it: There seems to be no dirt or imperfection across the land. Almost every turn in the road is marked with a neat sign and labeled on the map. Fences demarcate the country like a checkerboard and line every roadside. There is meanwhile an overbearing tourism industry that keeps a wet blanket over the spirit of true adventure. We’ve seen this in towns like Te Anau, Wanaka, Franz Josef and Queenstown, which all somewhat resemble Aspen, Tahoe or many other squeaky clean tourist magnets. In places like these, nearly every conceivable travel experience has been snatched up, polished, packaged and marketed to tourists. In almost every coffee shop and campground office we see posters and pamphlets for guided wine-tasting tours, hiking and river rafting “safaris” and so much else for tourists unable to see that New Zealand is beautiful even without tour buses and guides. Other experiences have been invented from scratch and pumped full of adrenaline, like flying lessons, skydiving excursions, water skiing and heli-biking (for mountain bikers unwilling to fight gravity).
Pauline, like many cyclists, gets her thrills from simply watching landscapes come and go. Speaking of which, she soon leaves New Zealand and flies to Australia. After a brief tour of the Aussie East Coast, she will go to Istanbul, Turkey—where, as almost anyone who has been can attest, the thrills and beauty of discovery will resume. She rides west from there. As she goes, Pauline is blogging; follow her journey as she continues around the world.
Meanwhile, we have arrived in Kaikoura, a town flanked by sea to the east, flat green farmland to the west and staggering mountains to the north, and the beauty here has restored my faith in the possibilities of New Zealand. In fact, while my family is scheduled to go home, I have called the airline to extend my stay, and I’ll be reporting soon from the saddle of the sweetest vehicle and adventure-powerhouse I know: my bicycle.