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Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Derek Cheng: Chasing the high

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When he's not interviewing politicians, Derek Cheng spends his time travelling the world cheaply and rock climbing.

A climber tackles the famous archway of Moon Hill, in China's Yangshuo region. Photo / Derek Cheng
A climber tackles the famous archway of Moon Hill, in China's Yangshuo region. Photo / Derek Cheng

It's not easy to make the transition from 26 months of leisure and worldwide travel to sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen and bashing out newspaper stories for 10 hours a day.

The two worlds are distinctly different yet inextricably linked. Short of winning Lotto, extended round-the-world trips are unlikely without first building up some savings.

Over my time travelling I lived the life of a "dirtbag" - someone who shuns "real life" and regular employment in pursuit of eternal rock-climbing. There is a global community of us, moving from crag to crag as weather conditions dictate, not dissimilar to surfing bums who follow the endless summer.

And to extend this life for as long as possible, we live penniless. We are not above complete lack of hygiene, living for months in tents, or obtaining free food by breaking societal norms.

I've partaken of half-eaten plates left behind in cafes and restaurants, long abandoned.

In one embarrassing case, the plate was only temporarily abandoned when the diners stepped outside for some nicotine relief. They were unimpressed when they returned to find their nachos under attack by dirtbag vultures (and yes, we ended up paying for them).

Once, a mate found 11 beers in a supermarket dumpster: one of the dozen had somehow been damaged, making the box unfit for sale. A discussion ensued about the ethics of moving from beer box to beer box in the store, surreptitiously damaging one of a dozen at a time.

My journey took me from the majesty of limestone guardians in Castle Hill, to the sandstone cliffs of the Grampians in Australia, to the imposing rock arches of China.

It is a lifestyle that accumulates experiences, rather than wealth: the high passes of the Himalayas, the virgin quartzite of the Anti-Atlas range in Morocco, or watching the sun breathe dawn light into the peaks of the Bugaboos, deep in the Canadian Rockies.

I've followed the footsteps of St Paul through Anatolia, moved by the generosity of strangers who invited us into their humble homes every day for tea or dinner.

Culinary peculiarities have assaulted my tastebuds, sometimes against my better judgment: fertilised duck embryo in Vietnam, dog penis in China, as well as the heavenly cheeses of Greece and thickshakes of 1000 calories in American diners. I had a particular crush on the Moroccan miracle of amlou: a spread of crushed almonds, argan oil and honey.

Of course, none of this compares with wallowing in wintry, windy Wellington, fingers attacking the keyboard with ferocity as deadlines approach. Lovely.

Actually, I rather enjoy arriving home late at night, vision slightly blurry from the constant glare of the computer monitor, eating baked beans from a can because exhaustion rules out making the effort to cook something.

The biting cold that grips your lungs as you try to cycle against a capital southerly is far more appealing than, say, doing whatever you like, wherever you want, whenever you want.

It's character-building. It's making a man out of me and it's much better this way. Much better for my savings account, at least.

Derek Cheng is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald. In between stints at work, he has managed to spend almost five of the past seven years travelling.

- NZ Herald

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