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|09-20-2015, 05:50 PM||#1|
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Riding New Zealand | EPIC RIDES
“Good morning and welcome to New Zealand,” the immigration officer said. “And please remember we drive on the correct side of the road here.”
“Smart ,” I muttered under my breath, with a less-than-believable attempt at a New Zealand accent, and made a mental note to stick to the left side of the road to avoid a head-on with a bus or one of the ever-present rental RVs that crowd some of the country’s many stunning roads.
The ocean breeze propelled clean air across the isthmus, giving Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, a sense of continuous freshness. The entire country is just about the size of Colorado, divided between two main islands set deep in the South Pacific, about 14 hours aboard Air New Zealand from Los Angeles. Most of the country’s 4.4 million live on the North Island, where Auckland is located.
I set out from Auckland with two weeks’ worth of “stuff” packed into the panniers and top box of a borrowed Suzuki V-Strom 1000, with the excess squeezed into a waterproof duffel strapped across the passenger seat. The term “freeway” is rarely used in New Zealand because basically they have none, with the exception of a 28-mile stretch of Highway 1 south from Auckland, which makes New Zealand a nirvana for motorcyclists. Turning left off Highway 1 at Bombay, I was soon in a rural area with very light traffic. Perfect for a Saturday afternoon ride.
Strange names of obvious indigenous Maori derivation flew by as I wound through small towns and farming villages: Ngatea, Paeroa, Katikati… I have mixed feelings about GPS; on previous trips with other brands I had found myself not exactly where I planned to be. Leaving Tauranga, however, I decided to trust the “curvy roads” option on my Garmin Zumo. It was the right move, and it chose a great road from Tauranga to Rotorua, all fast sweepers alternating through coniferous forests and grass farmlands. Sheep and cows are grass-fed here, not housed in feedlots.
New Zealand, a country with 4.4 million people and allegedly 40 million sheep!
Rotorua is geyser country and one of the centers of the Maori culture. Like Native American tribes, the Maori are not one homogenous group. The Maori nation was made up of many warring tribes who battled for supremacy. I learned a lot about New Zealand’s pre-British history at the Te Puia Cultural center. (The Brits never conquered New Zealand; a partnership treaty brought this country under British rule and protection.)
The 78-kilometer road to Taupo seemed to be designed for two-wheeled pleasure. Taupo, in the center of the North Island, has the largest lake in New Zealand (239 square miles, roughly the same size as Arizona’s Lake Mead), and it is also the home of two-time World Champion and three-time American Superbike Champion Fred Merkel, who I worked with during the filming of my movie Take it to the Limit back in the early ’80s. Fred, who is married with a family and now owns an engineering company, has lived there for more than 20 years. Why Taupo? “The trout fishing in this lake,” he says, simply. Yes, there is a normal life after winning multiple world championships.
A fine spot for lunch.
Taupo to Napier was very cold—so cold the ice warning light on the V-Strom dash was illuminated most of the time. My first stop in Napier, then, was to buy merino-wool underwear. Destroyed by a 7.8 earthquake in 1931, the whole city was rebuilt in the style of the day—Art Deco—and remains today the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. During dinner and wine (Napier sits in the center of Hawke’s Bay wine country) I was told the weather was turning and the ferries across the Cook Strait had been canceled for the next day, when I was scheduled to travel to the South Island. A large storm was heading north directly into my path.
Dressed in my new wool thermals and rain gear, I headed south out of Napier the next day, into very heavy crosswinds. Light rain started at my first gas stop in the cute Danish community of Dannevirke and got heavier as I passed through Woodville and continued to Plimmerton on the west coast. That night I stayed with a fellow motorcyclist, John Forsythe, who performed a special Kiwi beer-drinking dance with some of his crazy off-roader friends, and—believe it or not—the rain stopped! The weather actually looked promising as I rode out in the 5 a.m. dark toward Wellington for the first ferry of the day, the Bluebridge Straitsman, where I joined a couple dozen other riders in light chop across the Cook Strait.
That’s Mount Cook, the highest point in New Zealand at 12,316 feet, behind the Suzuki V-Strom 1000.
Off-loading from the ferry, I had no time to dally if I was to get to Kaikoura, some two hours south, in time for an albatross encounter I had booked. I rolled into Kaikoura at 4 p.m., and by 4:15 I was on board a boat heading 3 miles out to sea. The sea was choppy, but the rewards were plenty, as we saw three species of great albatross, including the elusive wandering albatross, the legendary bird of many a sea-tale with a wingspan of 12 feet.
Skimming across four inches of water in a 700-hp jetboat—yeah, it’s a rush!
The longest day’s ride of my entire trip was from Kaikoura to Aoraki/Mount Cook, 320 miles through some outstanding countryside with very little traffic and only one policeman. Aoraki/Mount Cook is the highest in New Zealand at 12,316 feet and is part of the Southern Alps range that runs the length of the South Island. Mount Cook village is also the home of the Sir Edmund Hillary Museum, celebrating the first man to climb Mount Everest in May of 1953. If you like the solitude and grandeur that seems to accompany alpine villages, this is a must-stop.
Riding from Mount Cook to Queenstown took me back alongside Lake Pukaki and south along Highway 6 through Twizel. The low road to Queenstown looked dull, so I chose instead to take the Crown Range Road, a tight, twisty mountain pass that, as it descends into Queenstown, has a challenging series of very tight hairpin turns. Great for a motorcycle but not so good for the many campervans full of tourists I seemed forever stuck behind.
Queenstown is a tourist haven at the south end of Lake Wakatipu and for me it was a jumping off point for three adventures, the first of which was the Shotover River Jet Boat ride. YouTube videos do not prepare you for the experience of 700-hp boats that can operate in as little as 4 inches of water and rocket through the canyons barely skimming the rocks, sand bars, and other potential disasters. It was one of the best $140 I ever spent! That evening’s dinner cruise on the TSS Earnslaw vintage steamship was the exact opposite, a slow go on a 100-year-old, 170-foot steamer that burns a ton of coal each hour.
My third adventure was airborne, a 40-minute flight through the snow-covered mountains between Queenstown and the fjord of Milford Sound in an expertly piloted, six-seat Airvan single-engine plane that brought Jimi Hendrix lyrics sharply into focus: “Excuse me while I kiss the sky!” Only we were kissing the glaciers and granite peaks of New Zealand’s alpine range. This was my day off from riding, and I doubt that I could have spent it any better.
After so many days of perfect riding weather, I probably deserved the cloudy and cold 120-mile ride from Queenstown to Invercargill, where I stopped to visit friend and author Tim Hanna—best known for his fine book about the all-Kiwi hero John Britten. Invercargill is probably better known to most motorcyclists as the home of Burt Munro of The World’s Fastest Indian fame. A museum dedicated to his memory is located inside a huge hardware store and cared for by Neville Hayes. Neville’s father Norman sponsored Burt’s trips to Bonneville and the museum displays his bikes and a collection of pistons and other homemade parts that Burt created, alongside Hayes’s father’s own collection of vintage and antique bikes.
Oreti Beach, where Burt Munro set many a speed record.
You can see Munro’s streamliner in the museum dedicated to his memory in nearby Invercargill.
Ten kilometers west of Invercargill is Oreti Beach, a key location for The World’s Fastest Indian film. At 26 kilometers in length, the beach provided Munro with a testing and racing site for his modified Indian motorcycle, and it was there in February 1957 Munro set a New Zealand Open Beach record of 131.38 mph. Every year now there is the Burt Munro Challenge (see page 54), with some races held on the beach.
The road to Dunedin on the east coast is one more two-lane rhapsody where I found myself just floating around bends and over hills. That day’s riding ended at a local dealership owned by Dennis Ireland, a fascinating character who won the 1979 500cc Belgian Grand Prix and the Isle of Man TT.
A unique, open-air cab.
My time was running out, so I chose a fast route along the main highway to Christchurch, a city that was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 that killed 185 people. The rebuild has not been easy, but Kiwis are very resourceful—as evidenced by the shopping mall fabricated completely from shipping containers. The “temporary” shopping mall has been so successful that the city is thinking of keeping it as a tourist attraction.
It was a beautiful but somewhat saddening ride back to Picton to catch the ferry back to the North Island, mainly because I knew my ride was coming to an end soon. Just one more day to take the bike back to Suzuki headquarters at Wanganui and then a few hours to spend with New Zealand racing pioneer Rod Coleman—now 88 years old, he was the first Kiwi to win an Isle of Man TT in 1953—four-time World Champion Hugh Anderson, and Ken McIntosh, the world-famous purveyor of Manx Nortons, before my flight home.
Fog settling over one of New Zealand’s many fjords.
Hopefully I’ll have the chance to return to New Zealand again. It’s such an amazing country that has so much to offer the erstwhile adventure tourer—whether it’s actual riding or all the very good reasons to park your bike and sample the diverse range of other experiences and encounters.
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