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King of the Road

On Me Bike: Cycling around New Zealand 80 years ago by Lloyd Geering (Steele Roberts, $24.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

On-Me-Bike-coverAt 97 years of age, Emeritus Professor Sir Lloyd Geering has produced another book. But this is a shorter, less formal work than his previous books. As its title implies it is reminiscences about bike rides that he undertook in the 1930s and early 1940s in various parts of both the South and North Islands, often getting to his chosen starting point by train (and ferry from Christchurch if was heading to the North Island). It was during one of the early rides that he decided to apply to be a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. Some early rides were to reach summer holiday jobs, for example in Central Otago and South Westland while later ones were mostly to and from national conferences of the Student Christian Movement; one was following a visit to Government House for an interview for a Rhodes Scholarship. Excellent maps show the extent of the area he covered, from Invercargill to Nelson to Napier to Hamilton.

The book begins with a brief account of how the first ride with a school friend came about at the end of his last year at Otago Boys’ High School. Living in somewhat straitened circumstances in a small Mosgiel farmhouse without electricity or phone, Geering found his first challenge was to afford the cost of a suitable bike.

This he achieved, but as there were no such things as gears on bikes some of the rides were strenuous and slow. Most roads, such as the newly constructed road along the shores of Lake Wakatipu from Lumsden to Queenstown and the road through the Ureweras from Napier to Rotorua, were unsealed and so quite uncomfortable to ride on. Heading north from Wellington involved cycling over the Paekakariki Hill Road as neither the Ngauranga Gorge road nor the coastal Centennial Highway was yet open.

An astute observer of people and places, Geering provides some fascinating glimpses of what life was like in Depression New Zealand and the impact upon a patriotic, imperialistic nation of events such as the death of King George V, the after effects of the Napier earthquake, the outbreak of World War II and the entry of Japan into the war (which led to the cancellation of the Auckland SCM conference when Geering and his party had got as far as Hamilton on their bikes). This last ride was noteworthy because it included both sexes which posed a moral dilemma when the married couple pulled out part way through. This left the group without a chaperone and some of the places they stayed in did not have separate bedrooms.

This book is of most interest when describing areas known to the reader who can reflect how much places like Queenstown have changed in eighty years.