Lone Traveler

An ordinary bicycle through Auckland City turns into an extraordinary lesson in living in the present

First published Life and Leisure Magazine

I'm wondering if this was such a good idea. Sweat and raindrops run down my face. I'm halfway up a hill, pressing into the wind, gasping for air. My heart pounds. My thighs burn. My idea? To rediscover Auckland on a small Brompton folding bicycle. And in the process, shrug off the dystopian shadow of recent months.

I turn into Coronation Road, a street in Epsom lined with stately homes, puriri and overarching kowhai crammed with canary yellow, bell-shaped blossoms. The wind has spread a golden hue across the footpath.

Tūī flit amongst the yellow – black shadows with flashes of iridescent blue. A group squabble over nectar. Then it hits me. Their singing. What was once part of the white noise of life suddenly fills me with a sense of wonder. Bells and yodels, clicks, cackles and chuckles, warbles and whistles – so many thrilling cadences emerge from the tiny quivering throats with bobbing white bibs. Then I hear something else: a strange series of overlapping notes, a kind of harmonic, and later, I discover tūī have a dual voice box, capable of singing two pitches at once. At that moment, I feel as if the tūī serenade is all that's needed to shift the shadows, to make the day, the world, and living in it, worthwhile.

On an un-mown berm is a sea of tremulous dandelions, arcing their golden faces towards the sun, which glows faintly behind clouds. Jasmine and lavender waft into the spring air from passing hedges, as if I'm cycling in and out of pockets of perfume. On a power line, a solitary thrush sings. I am its only audience.

It's early evening in Coyle Park as I push my bike along an undulating path. From a bench I see the harbour bridge framed by tall pines that have the demeanour of great age. In the olive-green canopy there are sudden leaps of colour – rosellas. They chuckle and toss taunts at each other, then swoop down to the grass and play tag. Their happy sounds mingle with the laughter of children in the playground. Then, high in the ancient pines comes the sound of discord, a loud squawking emitted by three herons, who thrash about with their widespread wings before flying off in search of another perch.

Families spread blankets, open baskets, uncork bottles, play ball, throw frisbees and enjoy an evening picnic. I'm left with the lingering feeling of community well-being.

This feeling is strengthened when I discover a small, white painted box on two wooden posts: a little community 'library' where people are free to take and leave books for others. On my rides, I discover them all over Auckland suburbs. Some are works of craftsmanship, others, as this one, are rudimentary. I feel the heart of the city beating in these little libraries fashioned by the community for the community.

It's windy and cold and the park benches are deserted when I arrive at Taumanu Reserve at the Onehunga foreshore. The waterfront runs parallel with the ribbon of motorway that dissects it. Once an industrial wasteland, today the foreshore is regenerated, and part of the Waikōwhai Walkway. It's now a place of gently waving grasses, hillocks, weaving walkways and small boutique bays where water laps against white sands that have been transported from Pakiri Beach. A souvenir of uglier days remains: tall, skeletal pylons stand in the water, around which the eye and birds in flight weave.

I grab a coat and woolly hat, and, while sipping soup, watch torea-pango (black oystercatchers) fly in clusters so low to the sea I feel sure their wings will clip the water. Along the shoreline at low tide, they fossick amongst the rocks looking for lunch, and, with their long orange beaks, kango-hammer shells open. It's a formidable task. I admire their tenacity.

There's a boardwalk over the water at the shoreline that snakes around the cliff contours. Pōhutukawa cling to the clay faces. Life looks tough for them. Battered by salty seas and harsh winds, their sinewy roots, like plaited ropes, spread out, seeking entry and security in any available crevice.

One windy day, I turn off Hillsborough Rd and head towards Monte Cecilia Park. I circle around the Pah Homestead with its collection of outdoor sculptures and hunker down between the roots of a Moreton Bay fig. Despite their embrace, the wind still reaches me, so I head off across the lawn with its sweeping views down towards Onehunga. On the other side of the park, sheltered by trees, a small gateway leads to the St Francis Retreat Centre. In a lost corner of the grounds, sheltered by tall trees, I discover a labyrinth. It's rudimentary and overgrown, but the track of small bark chips is still visible.

Why not? I think. I step onto the trail. The path weaves back and forth, spiralling in on itself, and, without any real intention, I fall into a walking meditation. My hand brushes the slender paspalum that softens the edges. My footfall is soft and uneven. A thrush sings. The grass smells wet. The air is heavy with moisture. For a delicious, calm, empty slice of time, I'm lost in the labyrinth.

I lock my bike near Toi o Tāmaki. The columns of swamp kauri in the forecourt fan out to support the roof – architectural metaphors for actual trees.

There's an exhibition by Bill Culbert: black and white photos of light reflected off everyday objects: a glass of wine, a jug, a row of illuminated plastic milk bottles. One minute, they're everyday, utilitarian items; the next, they're works of art. My perception is altered and I feel invigorated.

The experience lingers. I find my attention drawn to the way light plays on surfaces all around me. Sitting in the gallery cafe, gazing over the rim of my cup through the window into the Albert Park forecourt, I notice the flickering light playing on the surfaces of the 'conjoined twins,' who pivot from the hip, and play endlessly with the surrounding light and shadows. The twins are Double L Excentric, a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, two large brushed stainless 'L' shapes hinged together and pivoting in the wind.

Cycling along the eastern waterfront heading towards St Heliers, the sea has horizontal layers of turquoise and blue and grey that mirror the cumulus clouds, and the layers seem to stretch all the way to Rangitoto. I pause at Kohimarama. The sea is peppered with small waves and the wind is sharp.

I'm surprised to see swimmers, and even more surprised when a man who reminds me of the ancient pines in Coyle Park walks gingerly to the water's edge. He's locked at the hip, shaped like a 'C'. It's bloody freezing but he doesn't hesitate, dives in and starts swimming. His stroke has a lopsided elegance and his push is confident. He swims perpendicular to the beach, and soon all I see is a small dot as he circumnavigates a yellow buoy bobbing in the distance.

One day while I’m cycling along Manukau Rd, a ginger cat collides with a car. It wobbles, drunk-like, then flops in the centre of the road. The cat hovers on the intersection between life and death. It looks at me and its light-blue eyes say, “I'm going.” I hear myself say, "I'm sorry." Then the cat is there, but it's not. The something that it was like to be that cat, has gone.

After a moment, I ride on towards Campbell Reserve, an ‘island’ of land that stands at the entry to Cornwall Park. To my consternation, I feel shocked – but also empowered by the animal's death.

When I reach the reserve, I sit on a bench contemplating the cat. A pōhutukawa is inflamed with blossom. It has dropped flowers so that the curving path that circumnavigates the reserve is smothered in crimson. In the centre, mounted on rocks, is the 1906 statue of Sir John Logan Campbell, founder of Cornwall Park. Spray from the fountain wets the rocks. Sunlight, like tiny starbursts, ricochets off the droplets.

When I was young, I planned for the future. The older I get, the more I realise the only important tense is the present. Like the cat, at any moment, the something that it's like to be me, may go.

I encounter death again, Tahuna Torea, on the spit, a finger of sand which reaches into the Tamaki Estuary. On one side of the spit is the harbour; the other side is wetlands. Midway are two dead trees, one stripped bare of bark and bleached a porcelain white, the other, leafless, transformed into a charcoal silhouette.

But when I look closely, I see the tree corpses are teeming with tiny life: scurrying ants and burrowing beetles. Later, I see swans with their long sinuous necks followed by clusters of grey cygnets, ducks by ducklings and pūkeko by their chicks with black eyes and bills. The circular rhythm of life unfolds at Tahuna Torea and I am part of that rhythm.

A track and boardwalk circumnavigate the reserve. I meander through wetlands leading to an inlet surrounded by mangroves. Slender dragonflies glinting metallic blue and turquoise hover with invisible wingbeats at the water's edge. There's a swampy, sea-salty smell. The air is still. The water is still. The trees are still. Even the blades of grass are still.

In the languid air, I too am still, staring at shifting reflections in dark waters, when into this watery stillness treads a long-legged heron. It pauses, stands for a long time, lifts one leg, contracts its foot, then, with an eerie precision, spreads its spidery toes and re-enters the water. Without a ripple. I feel myself open out, embracing the poise, and elegance. I want to be that heron. To move through the world without a ripple.

Then it unfolds its wings and ascends in a generous arc. The blue sky slides beneath it, and, after a few minutes, it dissolves into cumulus clouds high on the horizon. Maybe it's all in my head, but when I leave Tahuna Torea, my tread and thoughts feel lighter.

One evening, as spring fades to summer, I pull over to the kerb in Cornwall Park and look at the sky, a deep iridescent blue, clear and infinite. An apricot-coloured crescent omits an incandescent glow. Reflected light from the earth fills out the balance of the orb with a soft, pale pastel so that the full moon is there but it's not. In this very instant, the moon is in an intimate embrace with Jupiter on one side and Saturn diagonally opposite. They release an arrow of diamond white that seems to penetrate me.

Standing under this celestial splendour, for a fleeting moment, I forget myself and a silence falls upon my mind. And in that silence, I feel… exhilarated. Free.

Turns out this was a good idea after all.