Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? As a veterinary professional, I hope you will agree that yes, you can teach that old dog something new. It just might require a little more patience and a lot more enticing motivators! This fall I am about to explore this idea of “old dogs” and “new tricks” on a personal level when at 52 I head back to university. On a good day, I am energized and excited by the prospect. On all the other days I wonder what was I thinking, is this my mid-life crisis?

We each have a story. One that led up to where we are today and, like those “Choose your own Adventure” books I loved to read with my kids, we have no idea where the story leads. I am about to go to page 104 to find out.

Veterinarian, wife, mother, daughter, friend. A story I suspect is not so different from many of yours. It was a full and busy life negotiating through the challenges and joys of each role but then in 2016, I hit a wall. At the time it took me by surprise. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved being a vet in a small community. Supporting the bond my clients shared with their pets fulfilled and defined me in so many ways. I had a supportive partner, a beautiful new purpose-designed hospital, an engaged and loyal team, and a thriving practice. Looking back, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Our practice was growing rapidly and I was struggling to find the energy needed for my hands-on management style while also working as a veterinarian and fulfilling the other roles in my life. I would start each day with enthusiasm but the non-stop needs of this beast we had created, left me drained by days end. Together, my partner (and husband) looked at ways to put the life back in our lifestyle and it was during one of these conversations that it became apparent just how was burnt out I had become. As we brainstormed strategies to manage our practice and also take care of ourselves, he said, “Just 10 more years, Elaine. In 10 more years, we can sell”. I told him I couldn’t live like this for 10 more years and he suggested 5, at which point I broke down and through my tears admitted I didn’t think I could go on for 5 more days, let alone 5 more years! I stopped sobbing and we looked at each other. It was time to make a new plan.

If you want to “suck it up” and continue managing your own practice turn to page 48.

If you want to hire a practice manager and make yourself less available to your clients and your team go to page 63.

If you want to sell your practice and jump into an uncertain future go to page 85. 

We chose page 85.

Page 85 turned out to be a very good choice. It took us around the world, working as volunteer veterinarians and gave us the time and space needed to figure out the next chapter of our story. While working on volunteer projects in hot, humid and challenging conditions with severely limited resources I rediscovered the joy of being a veterinarian and my passion for not only my profession but also the people in it. I met amazing young veterinarians and veterinary technicians from around the world and as we worked together I admired their skill and dedication but discovered a darker narrative of frustration and disillusionment that so many were experiencing in their professional lives at home. Dysfunctional workplaces, long hours, high student debt, low pay, unrealistic client expectations, and burnout were a far too common theme in our profession. As we discussed the challenges facing the veterinary profession I knew it was time to do more than talk about the issues, I needed to find ways to effect positive change and move our profession forward to a happier and more productive place. I started to pay more attention to the dynamics of these volunteer teams and was fascinated by how quickly a group of strangers could come together and become a cohesive team. Able to deliver veterinary care in the most challenging of conditions. I considered the effectiveness of different leadership styles and how they influenced not only the team members but also the success of the project. No longer the leader myself, it was eye-opening to experience the impact of leadership at a personal level. I started to explore the science of positive psychology as well as the characteristics and habits of happy people and I was fascinated by the effect workplace culture had on employee satisfaction, retention and productivity. This, I felt, might hold one of the secrets to healing our profession. Maybe it wasn’t about having it all. Maybe it was about having enough.

I had reached another turning point in my story.

If you want to continue working part-time as a volunteer and locum veterinarian go to page 92.

If you want to start a new career trajectory at age 52 go to page 104.

The decision has been made and when I flip to page 104 next week, I will be a student at Royal Roads University enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Values-Based Leadership. I am excited and also a little terrified. But I believe in the power of positive leadership. Inspired leaders, community, connection and a culture of cooperation, are needed as we create a new narrative that will guide us through the challenges facing the veterinary profession in the years ahead.

Social Media and the Modern Vet

Did you hear that? In case you missed it, it was the sound of my soapbox being drug out of hiding and the creaking noise it makes when I climb on top. If you aren’t in the mood for a rant, now’s the time to click a new Facebook post preferably one that puts you in a positive mood or makes you laugh. If you are like me you try to hang with like-minded people on social media. You look for positive change makers and when you find them click the like button and fill your feed with “good” stuff. Sadly, even if you actively cultivate the positive you are gonna get your share of BS (no, I do not mean Bachelor of Science, British Standard or Bowel Sounds). People trying to pull you down into their pit of self-righteous judgment and superiority. It is hard to ignore, harder still not to get drawn in and when you do, hard to wash the stain of that BS off your own hands.

What has gotten me all worked up was a recent post on my communities FB page. Let me be clear, this is not the official community page but one of those “Whoville Talks/Rants” pages. I liked this page thinking it would be a way to stay informed about said Whoville events and issues but have found there is a subtle distinction between a “talks” page and a “rants” page. A recent post regarding an altercation between a dog and cyclist in little Whoville got my dander up. It’s not the first time that I have read a post on social media and felt annoyed but it was the first time I was brave enough to respond. Perhaps it is because I too have been slandered online (and offline). Perhaps it is because the post involved a dog issue and I am a veterinarian. Perhaps it was because the post involved a person I know, and felt great empathy towards given the thoughtless and downright mean comments people in Whoville were posting. In reality, it is probably because of where my head is these days. 

I have been leading a pretty idyllic life. 2 years ago I stepped off the so-called hamster wheel to try and figure out a new way of living. Not everyone gets it and that’s okay because it has been a personal journey. I am happier than I’ve ever been. I have spent the last 2 years seeing the world, working as a volunteer veterinarian and meeting some pretty amazing people. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I wasn’t on a “holiday” or “retired” but figuring out a different way to live and also figuring out what I wanted from the years remaining to me. One thing is clear, I love being a vet, I love meeting people and sharing our stories and I am truly saddened by the crisis in our profession.

Working as a volunteer veterinarian I have met many amazing members of our profession from veterinarians, veterinary technicians/nurses/assistants to managers and client care specialists/receptionists. Some are happy and love their profession but many are disillusioned and struggling with burnout and compassion fatigue. Bright young people are leaving our profession and sometimes checking out permanently. Recent studies show newly graduated Veterinary Technicians leave the field after 5 years. In 2018 a sobering statistic was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the United States, the risk of death by suicide for female veterinarians is 3.5X higher than the population at large and 2X higher for male veterinarians. Studies in other countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom present similar data. Just google suicide rates in veterinarians and you will see what I mean.

https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/180615c.aspx 

https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health/how-do-veterinarians-die

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-13/vet-shortage-as-suicide-rates-high/10708686

While this crisis has been front page news in the veterinary profession, I was surprised to find the average person is shocked to hear veterinary professionals, as a group, are struggling. Despite the media attention, the average Joe still sees our job as interesting, well paid and believes we spend most of our day playing with cute furry creatures. Don’t get me wrong, not every vet out there is struggling, in fact, many, like myself love the challenges and rewards of this demanding profession. However, the fact remains, when considering mental health and suicide, our job puts us at a higher risk. Recognizing this and talking about it is the first step in healing ourselves and our teams. Now the challenge is taking the next step, changing the way we work, examining the demands we place on ourselves and learning how to build healthy boundaries in our relationships with our teams and our clients. It is imperative we protect those vital guardians of animal health (your vet and their team) so they are there when we need them to protect and care for our furry family members.

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For years I cared for my clients’ beloved pets and my team, sometimes putting my own needs on hold in the process. I now find myself in a pretty cool place with the opportunity to help find solutions to this crisis. To create responsive, resilient leaders, healthier workplaces and better boundaries for the people behind the hospital door. I have a plan (more on that in another blog) and am excited to start this new journey and this, my friends, brings me back to my soapbox.

A quick google search will bring up countless articles discussing the “why” of veterinary suicide risk. This article, while somewhat dated, gives a basic explanation of the reasons we are at higher risk, how to recognize if you or a coworker are at risk and how to respond if faced with a coworker who is struggling. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4266064/

The article addresses the factors that make veterinary medicine a challenging career. We work long hours, for much lower pay than what the public assumes we make and incur huge debt in order to achieve our career goals. We are not just doctors but also small business owners, mentors, HR directors, maintenance managers and some days therapists and psychologists (and not just for our 4 legged patients!) And yes, we are, for the most part, a group of driven perfectionists who take our human failures, our medical errors and our inability to save every patient very personally. What these articles sometimes fail to address is the impact of social media on our collective veterinary psyche and the potential this miracle of the modern age (the internet) has to tip the balance for a struggling individual. Over the years my sensitive soul has grown a thick protective layer, a professional “second skin” making the personal barbs and pokes hurt less when they are directed at me but which kick my maternal instincts into overdrive when directed at a coworker or colleague. A negative review, a comment made in frustration, a need to be right, a desire to feel vindicated or to put someone in their place. We have all been there and in this internet age, who among us is blameless in the social media game?

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One of my favorite reviews that actually made me laugh. You are welcome Chandler B!

What good is a soapbox if you only rant and neglect to come up with any solutions? So here are a couple of suggestions to all those who have been wronged by their veterinary team. First, stop, calm down and put yourself in someone else shoes. Then go talk to your vet like a grown-up human being. Seek to understand and reach a resolution together before running to the internet. The internet will still be there tomorrow. Probably. Sadly. I am pretty sure there will be time for some slander later if you still feel the need to destroy another vet.

More importantly, for my colleagues, I want to share my secrets to developing a beautiful, thick and for myself, a decidedly more wrinkled exterior covering. A skin that will protect you in the dangerous days of the internet. A skin which I hope, you look upon with pride when you too find yourself a happy member of a pretty cool profession some 28 years down the road.  ‘Cause if I made it this long, so can you!

  1. Every morning just get out of bed. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell your reflection you are not an imposter. Go to work. Do your best. All anyone can do is their best.
  2. Fail up. Failure is an opportunity to grow. Never waste an opportunity to grow.
  3. Practice veterinary medicine with honesty, integrity, and transparency. It makes it easier to look in the mirror every morning and your clients will see it and respect you for it.
  4. Let go of your need to be perfect. I know how hard this is but sometimes good enough, is good enough.
  5. Surround yourself with positive people. People who love YOU not Dr. YOU, the veterinarian. Seeking love and accolades from your clients is a slippery slope. Some are gonna love you. Some are gonna hate you and the majority are gonna be indifferent. Seek your love from relationships that matter and the people who are going to be in your life long after you retire.
  6. Build a life outside veterinary medicine. Make time for the things that bring you joy, recharge your batteries and make you feel complete. Do it and don’t tell me you don’t have any interests outside veterinary medicine! For god’s sake get one. Just one hobby. PLEASE!
  7. Learn how to say no. It is called creating healthy boundaries. Respectful boundaries. Do not feel guilty about this. It is not easy but it is what is going to save you and why you will still be here 28 years later when others may not.
  8. GET OFF those stupid Facebook “rant” pages. I am serious. Just do not look at them anymore, ever again, amen! Live in the blissful world of ignorance. It may be hard to believe but there was a world before social media and we all survived just fine.

Thank you for indulging me, friends. I am stepping off my soapbox now. Wondering what’s the clicking sound you just heard? Just me unliking the “Whoville talks” page. Please, go do the same.

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Go get a hobby, find time to do what you love and for goodness sake have some fun! You deserve to have a life so go make one please 🙂

A Ghost Story (and a celebrity appearance): Riding the Old Ghost Road

Imagine 3 brand new back country huts connecting 85 km of sweet single track in remote New Zealand bush and you are visualizing the Old Ghost Road . A long forgotten gold miners road that was revived by a group of dedicated volunteers and is truly a mountain bikers dream. Listed as a Grade 4 (advanced) MTB trail, the Old Ghost Road first opened December 2015. We heard about it while researching our trip to New Zealand but were not sure if we would have time to ride it, and if I am honest, I was not sure if I would be up for the challenge. Riding over 3300 km to Bluff with over 30,000 meters of climbing (along with Rob’s reassurances that I could do it) gave me the confidence to go for it. While we were in the area we decided we should ride the Heaphy Track as well, giving us 7 more days in the saddle and the opportunity to ride some of the best back country trails and single track New Zealand has to offer. Am I glad we added these trails? Hell yes, what an epic way to end our time in this amazing country and fate also provided a pretty cool story that I am excited to share with you as well. Read on….

Step one involved an email to Roy, our kayak guide in Abel Tasman who had mentioned he wanted to ride the Heaphy and Old Ghost when the kayak season ended. He enthusiastically responded that he was “in” and over the next week our plans slowly came together. While Roy’s enthusiasm was contagious we struggled with logistics while communicating via Whats App and travelling north in our big purple and green caravan. In the end it all came together. Like an exuberant pup, Roy’s energy and constant positive outlook (even when his makeshift kit and bike were a source of daily frustration) made for an entertaining and fun travel companion.

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We met Roy and camped at the Seddonville Holiday Park, an old school turned campground with a large field to park our van. The next morning we drove to Lyell to start our journey.  Originally we planned to ride the 85 km over 4 days but changed our plans to be out in 3 days in order to beat the bad weather that was predicted. This was a fortuitous decision which led to a chance meeting we would otherwise have missed had we stuck to our original plan.

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Day one was a steady but manageable climb of 875m and 18km to the Lyell Saddle Hut. A big meal of canyon crostini (Thanks Aaron Cosbey) and salmon chowder helped lighted our load for the big ride ahead. See Trail and elevation map here .

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After a beautiful sunrise and muesli breakfast we tried to get an early start on Day 2.

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Today would take us over challenging terrain to the Stern Valley Hut 25km away. A 400m climb started our day with a short downhill section leading to the Ghost Lake Hut.  A stunning location perched at the highest (almost) point of the ride.

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We stopped for lunch and watched in awe as a helicopter zoomed in and landed next to us! Picking up the gear and food for a group ahead of us, he loaded 2 cases of empty beer bottles along with 4 big packs into the back of his little chopper and was off. No one told us we could fly in our food and supplies? 

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The elevation map looked promising from Ghost Lake hut to Stern Valley Hut but the terrain proved extremely challenging. Listed as a grade 5 trail in parts of this section and often unrideable for me but thankfully the epic views made up for any frustration.

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We finally reached Skyline ridge followed by the Skyline Steps, a series of narrow and winding steps going down 60m. It is recommended you carry your bike down the steep stairs but I slowly “bumped” my bike down this section while griping my brakes and praying my back tire didn’t flip over the handle bars and take me down with it!

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Following the Skyline steps the rest of the ride was ample reward for any previous challenges. Fun flowing single track all the way to Stern Hut and onward to Specimen Hut the next day made for an epic 2 days of flowy fun! 

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At the end of day 2 we arrived at Stern Hut at twilight and the candle light flickering through the cabin windows guided us into the little hut. The cabin was small and crowded with 2 groups of hikers. I plunked myself down on the bench between a family of 4 and a group of 3 older gentlemen and a man about our age. I was pretty exhausted. Rob poured me a glass of wine and we contemplated finding the energy to make supper. Around us the conversation flowed and out of the voices Rob heard one of the older gents mention he was a greeter on the Amazing Race. It took a few minutes to register and when it did Rob responded. 

Rob: “What? Did you just say you were on the Amazing Race.”

John: “Yes I was but only on one episode.  Phil here has been on every episode.”

In the dim light, we looked across the table and and realized we were sitting across from Phil Keoghan, host of the Amazing Race! 

Elaine: “WTF?”

I have often joked to Rob about how we would totally “ROCK” the Amazing Race (well other than the fact that I cannot run. Seriously, ask my kids. I kinda make the motions of running but even at a stretch it is definitely NOT running). After spending 2 nights hanging out in back country cabins with Phil, his dad and 2 family friends we were told we were far to “boring” to be contestants. In hindsight, we should have staged some dramatic fights, temper tantrums and turned on the “crazy”.  Damn, another missed opportunity! 

I have no pictures to prove this actually happened so you will just have to take my word for it. And no, we did not talk ourselves onto a spot as contestants on my favourite reality TV show but then again we’ve kinda been having our own Amazing Race the last two years. Life is Good. Who needs a million dollars anyway? Right?

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Our Tour Aotearoa: The Final Chapter

All good things must come to an end or so the saying goes and I have to admit it was with a heavy heart that I rode into Bluff on April 23.  When we started our ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff, I truly wondered what I was thinking. Was my fitness level up to it? What if I couldn’t complete the ride? But as I rode on, it started to get easier, I slowly became stronger and as we peddled the last 30 km towards Bluff, I really wanted to keep riding. During the last week of our TA ride, we started adding new detours, ultimately delaying our arrival at Bluff. Subconsciously I think we both wanted to extend the journey.

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Thinking back over the 10 weeks we spent travelling the TA (revised route) it was an incredible way to experience New Zealand and has left me dreaming about more cycling adventures in the years ahead. New Zealand really is all about the outdoors with absolutely stunning vistas around every corner and a huge amount of “goodness” packed into a small country. While travelling last year we met a young backpacker from the USA at a hostel in Bosnia. He had recently been to New Zealand and we excitedly asked about his experience. His response was pretty “meh” and something like “Well sure it has some amazing scenery but compared to the Rockies and what we have in North America, it’s not really that impressive”. Say what? I think you missed the point or perhaps riding a bicycle across this beautiful country leaves you with a different impression. Beauty aside, what really makes New Zealand a unique and special place is the people. Humble, kind, polite, down to earth and fun loving are adjectives that describe the many Kiwis we met during our journey. The people of New Zealand along with the many adventurous cyclists we befriended on our trip has made this trip unforgettable and filled with so many great memories. New Zealand hospitality has truly blown us away and we are flattered when our thanks is met with comments like “It was nothing. You Canadians are just like us. I am sure you’d do the same”.  Would we? Would we take in a stranded stranger and give them a bed for the night? Would we say hello to a tourist at the local restaurant and invite them to eat with us? Would we offer to pick up and store a parcel for someone while they travelled through our province? I would like to think the answer is yes but if I am honest I am not so sure. Certainly my time in New Zealand has made me want to pay it forward and be more “Kiwi” when I return home.

Obviously a lot happened after the last blog.  Our bedbug bites eventually healed (scratching lasted a week and scars are just now fading), we had to re-route and skip the West Coast Wilderness Trail, Franz Joseph/Fox Glacier and Haas when a huge storm hit the West Coast and we added in a few extra trails including the Alps to Ocean, Otago Rail and Lake to Lake trails. Blah, blah, blah.  Rather than bore you with long winded details of our journey, lets try something different. Here is a map of our route and a photo blog of the last few weeks of our revised TA ride. We are currently heading north to ride the Old Ghost Road starting tomorrow and I have become a lazy blogger! So, enjoy the photos, then get off your butt and onto your bike.  It’s always a great day for a ride and who knows what adventure is waiting around the next corner!

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Map of our South Island Journey
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Short section of the West Coast Wilderness Trail. After a huge storm on the West Coast we were forced to re-route our TA journey and headed over Arthurs Pass towards Christchurch.
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Climbing over Arthurs Pass.  Not our favourite kind of touring! Check out the tunnel, traffic and those small shoulders to ride on.
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Lyndon Lake Road. After climbing over Arthurs Pass we headed south east towards Methven on this beautiful back road.  So nice to be off the highway and away from traffic!
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I wasn’t feeling so great by the time we hit Methven. Splurged on a cute cabin and headed to the doctor. Turned out I was fighting a bladder infection. Felt much better after a few days on antibiotics.
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Lake Tekapo – on the way to stay with new friends in Twizel and ride the Alps to Oceans Trail.
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Hydroelectric dams along the start of the Alps to Oceans Trail. Beautiful fall weather and stunning views (not just this hunk of man but also the vistas!)
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Elephant Rocks – side trip enroute to Oamaru.
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Oamaru on the East Coast and end of Alps To Oceans trail.

 

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Otago Central Rail Trail.
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Our back road route over the Thomson Gorge Road and Thomson Saddle towards Wanaka. We only passed 3 cars on this road!
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Thomson Gorge Road
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Beautiful Clutha River Trails on the way into Wanaka
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The historic Cardrona Hotel on the way to Queenstown. Stopped for a coffee to fuel us up the Crown range!
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Top of the Crown Range and highest point on the TA route
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Rode through Queenstown early in the morning to catch a ride across the lake on the TSS Earnslaw Steamship.
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Feeling “fierce” after peddling to the top of the Von Hill without stopping or walking!
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Spent a beautiful but cold night in our tent at Mavora Lakes on the way to Te Anau
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Spent a couple days sitting out nasty weather in Te Anau.  Made a side trip to Milford sound and discovered my rain coat is really just a coat!
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Rode the Lakes to Lakes trail to Manapouri and then headed along the south coast on the Scenic Southern Route.  Arrived in Invercargill on April 23 in the late afternoon and decided to push on to Bluff that night, officially finishing our TA ride.

 

 

 

Bicycles, Beers and Bedbugs

A lot has happened since my last blog. We finished riding the North Island, visited our niece, who lives in New Zealand, spent an amazing 3 days kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, survived a West Coast epic storm and experienced bedbugs… Yep, that happened! I know you’re dying to hear about bedbugs but let me back track a little to where the last blog left off.

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I think we had just ridden the Timber Trail and continuing down the center of the North Island. Following the Timber Trail we decided to treat ourselves to a room and found the perfect “splurge” at the Inn at the Convent in Tamaranui. Once a nunnery, our hosts June and Jeff turned this historic building into a lovely bed and breakfast. After spending most nights camping, we really enjoyed the luxurious bed and cosy room with our own bathroom! The next day we did some bike maintenance and enjoyed a great home cooked meal and great conversation. June entertained us with stories of her former life as a women’s high fashion shoe designer and Jeff kept us in stitches with his frank and unfiltered comments. After a rest, it looked like the weather would cooperate and we headed off to ride to Whakahoro station and a remote Kaiwhakauka and Mangapurua tracks to the Bridge to Nowhere along the Whanganui river. Camping in the Department of Conservation sites at both Whakahoro and Hellawells, we split the ride into 2 days, ending with a jet boat ride down the river to Pipiriki. A bit of hike and bike on some sketchy sections but a great ride where we saw only a few folks over our two days in the forest and had the campgrounds pretty much to ourselves (oh and the wasps)!

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Mangapurua track
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Bridge to nowhere
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Loading bikes on jet boat – Whanganui river

From Pipiriki the next day we had a fun ride through rolling countryside with one big climb before riding Whanganui to meet our niece Roseanne who lives in New Plymouth.

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Big climb from river valley but an amazing view and zippy downhill as our reward

Had a great time catching up with her and exploring Whanganui. After leaving Whanganui we were on the homestretch, headed to Wellington. Highlights included arriving at Apiti soaked and cold from the rain to find a warm fire blazing in the Apiti Tavern as well as free camping on the lawn behind the Tavern, nice cycle trails into North Palmerston, arriving early and chilling on the pub patio in lovely Martinborough while waiting for our Warm Showers host and finally the epic ride over the Rimutaka Pass into Wellington.

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Start of the Remutaka trail
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More tunnels

We spent two days in Wellington enjoying the Te Papa museum, cable car and botanical gardens as well as 2 days of great food and craft beer. On our way back from dinner we passed through City Park and walked by a small flying fox (zip line) in the children’s playground. I convinced Rob to join me for a zip and after climbing the wooden ramp, I sat down, pushed off and hooked my foot on the ramp, wrenching my right knee badly. Safe for 5 year olds but not 50 year olds apparently! I managed the morning ride to the ferry and we crossed Cook Straight to Picton, officially ending our time on the North Island.

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We decided to bus to Nelson give my knee a rest and book a kayak trip into Abel Tasman National Park. Our 3 day trip with Abel Tasman Kayaks was truly special. Group tours are always a gamble but occasionally you get a winner. We had a blast with the other guests, Megan and Lee (a vet from Colorado – go figure), Alessandra from Italy, Pete and Amy from Toronto and Christine from Atlanta. Our guides were fun and relaxed and we were sad to say goodbye after 2 fun days.

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Beautiful Abel Tasman Park

Nelson is a great little city to hang out and we decided to treat ourselves to some craft beer (who am I kidding, we’ve been drinking beer since stepping off the plane, no wait, since getting on the plane!) and a real bed.

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Enjoying the finer things in life in Nelson NZ

Leaving Nelson we headed south towards Tapawera and Murchison. It was about this time… 24 hours later, that we started to itch. Que the creepy music.. our one night at the hostel left us covered in bites! I reacted dramatically with easily 100 bites covering upper back arms, belly and legs. Given we had not stayed anywhere except our tent we were pretty sure where we got them, the appropriately named Bug backpackers! A day out from riding ensued to run everything we owned including tent, panniers and dry bags through the dryer! Big creepy YUCK!

Not everyday is a good day but everyday is an adventure. More to come on wet West Coast weather disasters and our new EA route (thanks two kiwi cyclists, Eileen and Andy, who gave us a new “blue line” to follow in Pocket Earth). Til then drink beer and peddle on!

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I like to Ride my Bicycle

Considering my training for the Tour Aotearoa involved floating in the Caribbean Sea drinking considerable amounts of rum, followed by baking all the favourite Christmas cookies with my daughter Hannah (and eating all said cookies) and then enjoying 3 weeks of delicious Mexican food washed down with large volumes of beer, at 800km into my journey I am doing okay. As we peddle, Rob wishes for bigger legs to carry him up New Zealand’s significant hills while I wish for a smaller ass to carry up those hills!

I guess I have always loved bicycles but my love affair with the bicycle was not the typical “love at first sight” kind of romance. It started slowly, kind of like that guy who was just a friend. You know the one. The guy who your friends would ask you about and with a laugh, you’d say, “What, Bob? No, no we’re just pals.” A get a beer after work and have a few laughs kinda guy.  A solid friend who was there when you needed him until suddenly you realized, he’d become something more. Bicycles for me were kinda like that guy. A way to release some teenage angst and sadness, a break from my studies in university, an escape to forget about the stress at work and then suddenly in my middle age the realization hit that being on my bicycle was one of my happy places.

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Hauraki Rail Trail

 

Through the fog of time, I recall my first bicycle. A two wheeled beauty with a banana seat, high bars and (I think) tassels coming off the handle bars that fluttered in the wind. I recall my older sister and I using cardboard and clothespins on the spokes to make a our bicycles sound like a motorcycle. The faster you rode, the more impressive the sound. Growing up on the farm I also had a horse. A beautiful pinto quarter horse creatively named Patches. For a period I forgot my bicycle as my mother created elaborate matching outfits complete with embellished saddle pads for my sister and I to ride in the local summer parades. It was great fun, but I do recall being a little jealous of my cousins who decorated their bicycles and donned costumes to ride with the other town kids during those same parades.

Eventually, I graduated to a big kid bike. An old school 10 speed, yellowish-beige in color with classic drop bars and skinny tires. I likely bought it with money saved from babysitting or raising pail bunters (dairy calves I would buy and feed until they were old enough to go on pasture). In my teenage years, I rode it regularly, around the block, a 6 mile trip on the grid-like gravel roads in rural Alberta. It was an escape, a place where no one could find me and where I had a good 30 minutes to work through all the “stuff” my teenage brain was dealing with. Occasionally I would make the 10-mile trek to town enjoying 4 miles of paved roads and soft serve at the local creamery as a reward.

After my acceptance into veterinary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan I decided it was time for a new bike.  This would be daily transportation to campus (until winter arrived) and needed to be a solid bike which could also transport me on regular escapes along the Saskatchewan river trails running through the city.  The Trek Antelope 520 was my first steel frame, old school mountain bike. With state of the art Shimano shifters and high-end caliber brakes, in 1987, it was a sweet ride and one that set me back $550. A huge purchase for a broke student but in the end supplied me with a cycle that traveled with me for 25 years!

As I cover the miles through New Zealand I daydream my days away. Passing the time thinking about a great number of meaningless things. It is a great way to travel. On a bicycle, you slow down and are forced to not just see the country you travel through but to also experience it. You take the good with the bad. The first warm sun that hits your face as it rises over the hills on those early morning starts along with the brutal headwinds that slow your progress and cause you to curse. The delicious smells coming from the local bakery as you pass through a small town along with the nasty road kill odor that lingers long after you pass by. People talk to you when you are on a bicycle and are quick to offer help or to join you for a coffee. But perhaps best of all is the satisfaction that comes from propelling yourself by your own determination and with the strength of your legs.

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Suspension Bridges along Timber Trail

Since my last blog Kiwis are Cool: Bikepacking New Zealand, we reached Dargaville and have made our way south passing back through Auckland, east through Hunua towards the Bay of Plenty, South along the Hauraki Rail trail, through Matamata, the Waikato River Trails and have just finished riding the Timber Trail arriving in Taumaruni last night.  I think we have traveled about 800 Km of the Tour Aotearoa route as well as several hundred km of extra riding on the way to Cape Regina. Tomorrow we continue on to a challenging ride on some paved roads and gravel but mostly single track in a remote area that ends at the Whanganui River and involves an hour journey by boat to reach Pipiriki.  Sounds challenging but super fun. Here is a map of our journey so far.

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So far the Tour Aotearoa has been a great adventure and I am so grateful to be able to experience New Zealand by bicycle.  Highlights (for me) from this portion of the journey include:

-sleeping in Dave’s old caravan (trailer) outside Auckland

-finding a handlebar riser to bring my bars up and back a little.  I now look like I should carry a bottle of wine and baguette in a cute little basket on the front of my bike.  Come to think of it that is a GREAT idea!

-Staying at the Bike Bunker in Hunua. A real bed, an ensuite shower and great conversation.

-Arriving at Miranda Hot Springs Holiday Park with no food and no groceries and having the park manager offer to drive us to town, over 20km away to pick up supplies.

-Morning coffee at the Bugger Cafe. So tasty after several days of instant coffee!

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-Almost free camping at Brock’s Place (aka some farmers field).

-Hobbiton. Okay, call me a nerd but it was super cool.

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-Arriving at Arapuni and finding an amazing backpackers with a warm, dry room to sit out the rain that night. Steve the host at Arapuni backpackers is a gem.

-The ride from Arapuni to Taumaruni.  Waikato River Trails, Ride to Timber trail and Timber Trail. Good to be back on mountain biking trails, even with overloaded bikes.

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-Scoring free camping at Piropiro DOC site but enjoying a delicious hot meal at the Timber Lodge.

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-Sending 10 kg of crap we don’t need to our new friend Rod, (who we met on the street one day while looking lost). Rod lives in Auckland and we will pick it up when we exit New Zealand. Oh and Rod and his lovely wife Lynn (who we’ve never met) have offered us a bed the night before we leave New Zealand. These Kiwis are the BEST!

And finally what makes an adventure truly memorable is the people who join you on the journey. Hanging out with my partner in life and best friend has been pretty great too. He would probably travel faster and lighter if he ditched the wife, but thankfully it hasn’t come to that…yet.

And you are very old!

News flash, and this should not come as a surprise, but maybe once you hit your 50’s the bottom bunk in a dorm of 20 something backpackers may not be the wisest choice. It is after midnight on a Wednesday and the young guests talk in whispers and quiet giggles as they get to know each other and make a new, and temporary family while they are far from home. It is clean and modern and is not a “party” hostel, at least not tonight but still I cannot sleep. Rob and I have taken the bottom bunks in our 4 person dorm as we are the most likely ones to need a middle of the night trip to the bathroom. Of course we were the first ones to head off for sleep and despite my ear plugs, the snores coming from the bunk above, the oppressive heat and the smell of 4 pairs of sweaty, backpacker shoes (my own included) has kept the sandman away. So here I sit writing. 

I suspect these youngsters do not know what to make of us. “Mom and Dad” ruining the vibe.  We ate lunch at a cafe today and the young waitress who served me noticed we were riding bicycles. She struck up a conversation, as these New Zealanders are likely to do, and the topic of my children came up. She asked how old they were and at my reply said, “No that is crazy, they are my age. That means you are the about the age of my mom… and she is very old”. Touché, my dear, touché. At times like tonight, sleeping in a dorm bed at a backpackers hostel, I feel very old and just a little out of place. I wonder what the hell we are doing, living like gypsies, sleeping with strangers? Tomorrow we will be back in the Hubba Hubba, our cosy tent as we continue our journey down the length of New Zealand and one thing is sure, these crazy Kiwi’s will keep surprising us with their hospitality.

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We have been here about three weeks and have a growing list of contacts in our phones to use “in case you run into trouble, dear”. Random people see the bikes and strike up a conversation which usually ends something like this. “If you happen to find yourself in Gisborne, be sure to come by and stay with me”.  And here’s the crazy thing, they really mean it. If two tired and stinky cyclists happen to turn up on Ruth from Gisborne’s door step, I am sure she would be pleased as punch and pick up the conversation where we last left off! 

A few days ago we took a 6 hour boat charter in order to cross the Hokianga Harbour, part of the Tour Aotearoa route.  We arrived rested and decided to ride into Auckland that night.  A 5:30 start meant we would likely run out of daylight but we hoped to hit the cycle way into the city before dark, allowing us to avoid the morning rush hour traffic which is not a fun experience on New Zealand’s busy highways. The ride took longer than expected and before we knew it we were riding in the pitch black along a secondary highway. About 25 km outside the city limits, a car passed us, slowed down and then pulled over to wait for us to ride by. Despite our lights, we expected to get a good scolding for being out in the dark. The older man who greeted us, asked where we were going at this time of night and then questioned if we had a place to stay lined up in Auckland. After our non-committal response he suggested we follow him home and, if it was up to our “standards”, he had an old caravan in his yard that we were welcome to stay in for the night. Then tonight at dinner, the cafe owner came over and sat down with us and started chatting. The next thing we knew, we were invited to camp in his yard tomorrow night, “no worries mate, I have lots of space, a salt water pool and you can enjoy a beautiful sunset there”. I am not kidding, hasn’t anyone told these people about stranger danger? Why are they so doggone nice?

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It makes me think of a time, not so long ago, in our own country where we were more likely to pick up a stranger by the side of the road, or open our door to a person in need. To take the time to sit and talk with someone and actually listen to them. What has happened to us? Are we too busy, too self involved or just too afraid?  Afraid of them, the mass of humanity out there? Or are we afraid of ourselves and what that mass of humanity may think of us if we step outside our comfort zone and put ourselves out there ripe for rejection?

Food for thought. 

Ear plugs in and now its off to try and find some good dreams. Good night.