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On Top Down Under

Reprinted from SNS July 2002

Exploring New Zealand is an opportunity to see amazing scenery and participate in outrageous activities.

So here I am in a friend’s car, and I notice he has a book on the dash about bike touring in New Zealand. Flipping through the book, I ask him why he has it, and he tells me he had intended to bike the country but his planned partner could no longer do it. Being the naive and overenthusiastic person I am, I offer to be the fill-in. Of course, I have never bike toured before, and no worries that I don’t even have a bike—I can do it!  I saw it as a fun thing to do and a challenge. I’ve done some exciting things in the past, but never have I seen a country by cycle.

My friend Chris Wernert has done a lot of bike touring before, so he obviously was the experienced one. We work together at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) in Colorado where we teach people with disabilities outdoor skills and building confidence by overcoming barriers. 

In a matter of two weeks or so, we had the whole trip planned. I borrowed a Freedom Ryder handcycle from a friend, and Wernert and I put together some logistics that would get us through the trip. I’m not big on planning, so it didn’t take long. We expected to leave in two months, starting in the north out of Auckland and traveling south as far as we could go in our allotted one month’s time. 

Another detail we hadn’t yet figured out was how to transport my wheelchair with us on the bike tour. I wasn’t keen on having a support van following us. This trip is for freedom, not schedules, I believed, so I had to come up with something. One of the things I love to do most is problem-solve.

My friend Buddy Salayda and I hit the shop for a few hours and came up with our setup that carried my wheelchair throughout New Zealand. We now properly call them “trailer buddies.” It’s a real simple concept that has my wheelchair on the back of my handcycle and even allows me to place baggage in the chair’s seat. I took my wheels off and put  them on Wernert’s trailer, but I could have taken them if needed. They just fit better on his trailer, and we had to weigh him down as much as possible so we had comparable biking speeds. He definitely was the pack mule with all the weight…but hey, he was using his legs.

Beautiful, Modern Land

New Zealand is a beautiful country. The natural diversity and isolated wilderness of its two islands make it attractive to all. The hills are green and rolling, the mountains are snow-capped and menacing, the oceans are teeming with wildlife, and there’s a thriving rain forest and plenty of geothermal activity. The country is a lot like Australia (its nearest neighbor), but there are no expanses of desert, and all the other features are packed into a smaller area. New Zealand, about the size of Colorado, is a drastic and powerful land, so much so that Lord of the Rings was filmed there.

On a more personal note, New Zealand is attractive to me because it is modern, progressive, English-speaking—and the exchange rate is great for Americans. The  accessibility, in my opinion, is better than in the States. New Zealanders view a person in a wheelchair as just another person…not a person with a disability.  Sometimes I don’t want to be noticed as a person in a wheelchair, I just want to “be.” It’s comfortable there and easy to blend in.

A good example of this is apparent on the roadways.  In the United States when you are handcycling on roads, cars always make a big deal passing you, whereas in New Zealand they just fly by you like they would any other cyclist. Of course, this may not be the safest way to bike, but nothing annoys me more than a car going slow behind me and making a big deal about passing.

In New Zealand’s cities it was common to see many other wheelers. Whether they were pushing themselves or using power chairs,  I saw several wheelchair users each day out by themselves just living life. It was refreshing and inspiring!

In addition to biking and hang-gliding, Shannon Franks went kayaking with a Maori, who shared stories and songs about his culture.

The progressive government matches its forward thought in that New Zealand was one of the first countries to allow women to vote, it is hailed worldwide for its conservation efforts, and it has a strong antinuclear movement.

Adrenaline Junkies

New Zealand thrives on adrenaline. Constantly testing the laws of gravity, New Zealanders (called Kiwis) do anything and everything dealing with height, from skydiving to paragliding to their quintessential bungee jumping. While I was there, I tried the wacky “sport” called zorbing, where I was strapped into a huge plastic ball and rolled down a hill backward. What a weird sensation! By the bottom of the hill, the ball was bouncing and I was totally disoriented, loving every minute of it. I also got a chance at flying a plane, hang-gliding, and taking several kayak trips.

We flew into and started our trip from Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, at the top of North Island. From the beginning I was introduced to the mountains and the extra weight of our gear. It was humbling. That night we stayed in a sweet cottage in a fishing town. As we approached the town, we heard what we thought was cheering and possibly a game or competition. But as we got closer, we realized sheep were making the sounds. The owner told us the sheep were crying because they were getting sheared the next day and knew it. That was an eerie night of sleep!

From there the mountains got bigger, and the rain came. We pushed on and on. At times I had no dry clothes, and my rain gear was holding water rather than repelling it. But that’s the nature of a trip like this: What does not kill you makes you stronger. The days that were nice were really nice. We spent most nights in campgrounds (called “holiday parks” in New Zealand), and on others we stayed in hostels (called “backpackers”). The holiday parks often had thermal hot springs, while the backpackers were a nice change of pace and an opportunity to meet other travelers. It’s hard to tell which accommodation I liked more.

The biking proved challenging some days, especially early in the trip. After riding for multiple days, my body told me I needed a rest. However, it was right in the middle of a small town with no accommodations. I was too tired to go to the next town, so we had to find a place to stay. Luckily, we met two kind women who told us we  could camp behind a nursery school.

Our plan was to wake up early and get moving before the kids came. Well, of course that didn’t happen. I was off in a nearby bathroom when I heard car doors closing and parents dropping off children. I thought to myself,  How am I going to explain to the parents and teachers that we’re camped behind the school? This can’t go well. True to Kiwi nature, they loved us! They even said if they had known the prior night, they would have opened up the school so we could have slept on the beds inside.

I knew New Zealanders were nice, but I was amazed. By the time we left, the kids loved us and were taking pictures like it was a photo shoot.

New Zealand’s people are what make it such a special place. I’ve been to many places and countries, but no other culture I know of has people as outgoing, helpful, and hospitable as the Kiwis.


My strength grew as we covered more miles. I gladly pushed hard on the flats and glided into the town of Rotorua after about ten days on the road. While there we learned of the land’s original settlers, the Maori, people who have a thriving cultural life and make up a noticeable 15% of the population. We were told that no visit to New Zealand is complete without spending an evening at the marae, the sacred grounds of the Maori, so one night in Rotorua that’s exactly what we did.

Upon our arrival at the marae, a warrior from the village greeted us (group of about 20) with an elaborate set of prowling steps, body movements, wailing screams, and a tongue-protruding facial gesture. Apparently he liked us because he made a peace offering, welcoming our group. In return, our chief (picked by our group) delivered a brief speech and sealed our bond of friendship by pressing together noses with their chief in their traditional greeting known as a hongi. There was no way I was volunteering to be our chief, but I did get to experience the hongi with one of the Maori woman. Originally I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face if I had to press my nose upon another, but luckily I had no urge to laugh and found it rather endearing.

The night concluded with their traditional dinner called a hangi (not hongi) where they roasted sweet potatoes, meat, mussels, and other seafood in a pit of heated stones. As a whole, this was undoubtedly my favorite night in New Zealand.

Would I make the trip again? Definitely! There’s something attractive about waking up in the morning and realizing the whole of your day is biking—nothing more and nothing less. Simple days allow for peaceful thinking and often put into perspective what life is really about. I can’t replace the amazing people I met, sights I saw like the mountains and ocean in Kaikoura, activities like flying a plane, or the simple adventure of trying to find a rest room I could fit into.

I enjoy culture and the opportunities it provides for learning. I think it’s funny that Kiwis call fast-food shops “take-aways,” cookies are “biscuits,” and convenience stores are known as “diaries.”

I know I didn’t do everything right on this trip. If I had some suggestions for other travelers it would be to go with an open mind, make a schedule but don’t plan on going by it, and don’t be afraid of feeling uncomfortable by doing something new. Train before you go, not just by pushing miles but by doing them with extra weight on your handcycle. And if you can, go into the hills and mountains.

As I write this I’m constantly thinking of why I’m doing this and what am I trying to say. My message is simple: You can do it!

Shannon Franks graduated from Northland College (Ashland, Wis.) with an environmental science/physics degree and currently lives in Blackwood, N.J. A T2–3 complete para, he was injured in a 1996 auto accident. Franks enjoys traveling, rock climbing, nordic skiing, kayaking, and handcycling. Check out his website Wheelchair Buddies


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