Coast, Country, Neighbourhood, City - a journey
When employees have been at Isthmus for ten years they’re given two weeks study leave to go off and do something that refreshes and inspires them. Most use it to go overseas but CEO Ralph Johns decided he wanted to stay and get to know New Zealand even better. So he combined his love of cycling with his love of landscape, spending eleven days visiting most of the 25 Isthmus projects documented in a book he co-wrote called Coast, Country, Neighbourhood, City .
All up he covered over 1,300 kilometres between Auckland and Wellington, returning to work rejuvenated and reflective. “It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he says. “I’ve not really done much ‘man-alone’ type of stuff. A lot of guys that I met riding their bikes were in their 50s, some in their 60s, so it gave me a sense of confidence and hope that I won’t get old and decay once I hit 50 next year; that you can get older and fitter and more adventurous.”
Johns’ odyssey was a step outside his comfort zone but one into freedom, away from the constraints of desk, computer, work and family commitments. Everything he needed he carried. And because he was cycling, his world slowed down. “It was just me and my bike, I was totally connected to everything around me. When you’re cycling you can see everything, smell everything, hear everything. It’s not like travelling through places in a car.”
The leisurely pace allowed space in his head to ruminate about the state of New Zealand’s smaller communities. “We get super myopic that cities are everything. But when we look at the size of the country our urban areas are just a dot on the map, most of the North Island’s empty of people, but there’s not that much wilderness either.”
"Forestry and agriculture are very industrialised so there simply aren’t the people and the communities out there that there used to be to work the land. As a result of that a lot of our small towns and rural communities are in serious trouble. They’re just falling apart, and communities are falling apart because they don’t have an economic and social base. You really experience these places when you get to stop and see them from another angle which you don’t when you’re just driving through."
“No-one’s really talking about rural poverty, nobody’s really talking about the social isolation that these rural communities have. Some people are moving out of the big cities, because they can’t afford to live there any more; they can afford to buy a house or rent a house in these small towns but they are not actually connected with the land or the people. It’s just a very weird mix of issues and poverty, you can just see it in people’s faces, and see it in the buildings, and see it in the landscape.”
While Johns enjoyed the camaraderie of plenty of cyclists along the way - many of them doing the Tour Aotearoa from Cape Reinga to Bluff - he only had himself to rely on when the going got tough. His most challenging day was day four - Matamata to Mangakino along the Waikato River trail. What made it so testing was dehydration. He ran out of water half way through the day.
“I got to the dairy (in Mangakino) just before it closed and bought half the fridge. I’ve never been in that situation before and you have to dig pretty deep. It wasn’t survival levels but it was pretty uncomfortable. I bought a litre of chocolate milk, a litre of powerade, a litre of juice and a big bottle of beer and drank all of them in quick succession outside the dairy, closely watched by the local kids.”
So at the end of the day, what did he learn about himself? “When everything is stripped away - all the normal stuff of work and life and how you define yourself - you find out who you are and how you relate to the world in just a more pure way. I don’t think it was a learning so much as a feeling. I just felt more present, more alive and more open to the world, rather than going around looking at my feet or my cell phone.”
Would he do it again? Absolutely. He’s planning to cycle the South Island in 2020. “It feels like unfinished business now because most of the cyclists I met were riding the Tour (Aotearoa). I followed the same route as them between Auckland and Wellington and I was seriously tempted to carry on. So, conceptually I’m just having a long break here in Wellington, and then I will carry on and cycle the length of the South Island.”