South Goes South - Two months in NZ
The Road Issue 1 - November - December 2005
David and I began saving for a two month trip to New Zealand, over the millennium. Our very friendly doctor from New Zealand, helped with ideas for routes and places not to miss, and we managed to hit our budget and get on our way. I am self employed, but David, who works in the bike industry, had to get permission to allow him to take his four weeks annual leave for two years all together. He got the go-ahead a month before we left, about ten months after we'd bought the air tickets!
I have an Uncle in Auckland, Dennis, and another Uncle and Aunt in the north of the north island. They all greeted us when we landed in Auckland on 2nd December 1999 and, after going round several good bike shops, we found that our money - with a very favourable NZ dollar exchange was going to buy us a couple of good used bikes. Bike hire is readily available, but we bought bikes and sold them before we left so we had the money to come home with. This worked out a lot cheaper than hiring bikes.
We didn't need big bikes as this was a tour, not a race. I fell in love with a 250cc Virago, and David bought a Yamaha SRX400 single. Legally, you don't have to have insurance, so if you choose to (we did) it's really cheap.
We had six weeks to ride plus a week at the beginning and end in Auckland to buy and sell the bikes, leaving six weeks to ride around the country. We were advised to book our tickets for the ferry between the two islands in advance and those tickets, along with our return flight, represented the only dates we had to worry about in our diary for two whole months. We never booked any accommodation but always found somewhere eventually despite being there in the height of summer.
We set off south from Auckland, then east around the Coromandel peninsular, which the Doc had recommended, and which really was very geologically beautiful, with rock formations all over the place and tiny unmade roads, with no warning signs for the narrow rickety bridge which doubled as a railway line.
We then went inland to Rotorua, a town essentially built on sulphur, where the steam can be seen rising out of drains! It heats the water and in many areas, our campsite for example, you can bathe in hot mineral baths after a long day's biking. At this point, three days after we left Auckland, the SRX decided its big end was going, so David biked to Auckland and back in a day (which shows you the out-of-the-way distance we'd travelled thus far!), returning with a Suzuki GS400 from the same shop.
Back in Rotorua we found an airfield and took turns to fly in an American 1940s Stearman two-seater biplane - with a far too laid back pilot - over volcanoes and the steaming sulphurous lakes. New Zealanders are, unlike most Brits, a very go-for-it people. There's no 'That sounds dangerous' or 'what's the point of that?' Indeed after talking about flying, our pilot remembered to take us to the office to do the paperwork. 'Right', he said, 'What's your name?' 'David', replied David. 'D a v i d', wrote the pilot on a bit of paper. 'Great, that's the paperwork done. Let's fly!'
From Rotorua we rode to Gisborne, a coastal city that would be the first in the world to see the sun rise on 2000, with flags and banners everywhere, and T-shirts on sale to sell the point. My Doctor had told me to visit his elderly Mum who lived there. Always happy to accept my doctor's advice, we knocked on her door, were invited in for tea, and told her what a wonderful doctor her son was.
We headed down the East coast and then across to Palmerston North where we hit our first heavy rain. In the eight weeks we were there, we only experienced five or six rainy days. I needed to buy some better waterproof trousers and found some friendly bikers who pointed the way to the bike shop.
North of Wellington is a beautiful seaside place called Paraparaumu (pronounced Para-prumu). We stayed at 'Barnacles' a lodge run by a great couple from the north of England, and the guy who ran the café where we had breakfast and lunch, was a Scouser.
Next day we cruised from Wellington through a lot of small islands on a packed ferry from the north to the south island. The difference between the two islands I think is subtle. The weather and country in the north is, in summer respectively good and beautiful, but in the south they are more spectacular and extreme. We set off the following morning from Blenheim on the East coast, heading west through Wine Country along a long straight road for ages to find breakfast at a place we had been recommended to 'an hour down the road'. Finally, we found it, and the owner opened up especially for us!
As we rode on through extreme heat with spectacular countryside either side, I suddenly felt an intense pain in my right wrist. I stopped the bike, opened the zip of my bike jacket sleeve and saw a crazy kamikaze killer kiwi bee attached to my skin. David took it out and all seemed fine.
Our journey continued west through Victoria Forest Park - very windy roads and mountain scenery - to Westport. We then went south down the west coast, in wet cold weather, to Greymouth. The flora and fauna, and the weird-looking Punakaiki Pancake Rocks were amazing to see. Two days after the bee sting, I could barely get my jacket sleeve on, as my lower arm had swollen. We asked for advice at the pharmacy in Greymouth that opened for just one hour. 'Mmmmm' said she. 'Taken any antihistamines?' 'Yes', I replied, trying to remain calm. I knew that antihistamines were good for stings. 'Then you need to see a doctor, and right now.'
It was a Sunday, we were on the South island which is very sparsely populated (there are only 3.5m in the whole of NZ) and both of the town's doctors were away. I asked what a doctor might recommend. 'Steroids, 25mg for 3 days then reduce by 5mg per day.' I have a history of asthma and my lovely doctor had ensured I had steroids for emergencies. Phew! Had this not been the case I may have had to have been flown to the North Island for emergency treatment.
We saw a signpost near this point reading 'Next petrol 96 miles.' Continuing south down the West coast, the road hugs the edges of the Alps and the glaciers within. The little towns are touristy but pleasant, and we continued to Haast. Haast has nothing in it except eager expectation on the faces of the people who own the cafes and restaurants, which are huge and have seating for hundreds. The only thing that comes in hundreds in Haast is sand flies. Hundreds of millions. Especially on the beach. Haast sells souvenirs reading 'I survived the sand flies at Haast.' Do not lift up your visor outdoors!
The following morning we found ourselves riding on one of the best roads in the world in my limited experience. Between Haast and Wanaka the road passes either side of Lakes Hawea and Wanaka, you're pretty much on your own for hours, and you just have to stop to take it in. A few years before, I'd gone on a biking trip round Europe with my cousin and his mate who would stop for smoke breaks. David and I don't smoke but I invented the concept of the Grin Break.
There you are, riding a motorcycle somewhere vibrant, beautiful, whether New Zealand or London, Wales or California, getting overdosed on the pure natural joy of life and motorcycling. You just have to stop and grin! This road elicited several Grin Breaks. In Wanaka while David visited an airplane museum, I had a filling replaced by a dentist who asked me to choose the music! I chose XTC's English Roundabout.
David is a glider pilot and New Zealand has one of the best gliding sites in the world, which is in Omarama (our next stop), from which world records have been set. I had a flight with a stunt glider pilot. Whilst we did loop the loops and barrel rolls, David flew with an instructor to check his ability to fly solo. The next day, as David flew solo through the mountains for six hours and got to 12,000 feet, I rode up to Mount Cook and had my very first helicopter ride, and landed on one of the many (receding) glaciers for a walk around.
We found ourselves in Queenstown on Christmas Eve, and stayed in a brand new backpackers', lodge which was opening that very day, accepting anyone who would happen by. The League of Nations happened by, and the hosts Noel and Christy (yes, appropriate names for Christmas!) told us all to go buy meat and drink. We had a fabulous barbecue on Christmas Day in about 30 degrees of heat with new friends from Switzerland, Australia, Berlin, Japan, and Sussex. Even the dog kindly contributed some super fresh flat road kill that was ideal when the hamburgers ran out.
Queenstown is a touristy place, and the activity capital for people to do things like bungee-jumping that was invented nearby. We went up the mountainside in a cable car and drank cocktails in the bar at the top. The view below and layout of the town was spookily like that of Vancouver, with a spur of a park into the lake.
We then rode to Te Anau, from where we flew in a seaplane through Fiordland National Park, and sailed across Lake Manipoori to visit glow-worm caves. You had to be silent. The glows occur when horny males want to attract the females. 'Look at the size of my glow, darlin' 'Yeah lovely, but it's what you can do with it that counts. Look, him over there, he's waggling his around making Catherine Wheel effects!' 'Sshh!' interrupted David as I tried not to laugh at my own base humour.
We took a day to ride up to Milford Sound and back. It's a hard drive including a steep unlit tunnel through a mountain, within which it appears to be raining, but out the other side you're in a valley, and the Sound - basically a large inlet of water surrounded by mountains - is well worth the excursion. With nothing else around you can get a sense of how Captain Cook felt when his boat entered this water and the clouds dipped down the mountainsides to greet him.
Invercargill is at the bottom of the south island and came across as a very old friendly settled town. David decided to get a new tyre for the Suzuki, but the bike shop had to order one in. The next morning, a tyre - which had been flown in overnight from Auckland - was duly delivered and - bike fixed - we rode on, amazed at this efficient way of doing business. At this point I should mention how the bikes were otherwise performing - Brilliantly! No hassles, no breakdowns, no problems. But we did do regular checks and basic maintenance. Everywhere we went people welcomed us, where helpful and supportive, and other bikers - like in most other places in the world - were as interested in our stories as we were in theirs. One of the reasons we had decided upon this trip was that in 1995 I heard that all the top floors of tall buildings in London had been booked by companies for Millennium parties. We knew then and there that we should be as far away from London and human beings as possible at the turn of the millennium, and thus the idea to 'do' New Zealand was born.
We now started coming back, as it were, and rode north to Dunedin. On the evening of 31st December 1999, we sat alone on a hill looking down on Dunedin and then heard the most amazing noise in the distance, as the town celebrated midnight. But our ambition was yet to be fulfilled. At about 3.00am we headed south along the coast. We went on and on till we saw no more lights, but we knew that the sea was on our left. We parked the bikes and walked till we felt sand beneath our boots. The millions of stars were very bright, and we even saw a shooting star! A 535cc model I reckon! We sat on the beach with a bottle of Southern Comfort, and very slowly the sky started turning quietly pink as the stars hid and some early morning oystercatchers came out for their breakfast. This had been our ambition, to see the dawn rise on the millennium in a far away place with no one around for miles. The pink sky got bluer, and we explored a little. We were in a bay way south of a place called Brighton. We got back to Dunedin and slept for ages, then watched the telly to see how the rest of the world behind us was welcoming this special day. What a damp squib of a celebration London held! One of our closest pubs in London is called the Pyrotechnists Arms, by Brock Street. What happened!
We headed north and to the home of the parents of a glider mate of David's. They were so welcoming and showed us Christchurch, think Cambridge, same architecture, same academic feel without the snobbery, fed us well, and spoilt us rotten.
Finally, at long last, we saw our first kiwi, albeit in a Christchurch nature reserve. When the islands of New Zealand were formed, there were no creatures around to put the Kiwi in danger, so it lost the will to fly. Enter Europeans and their cats and rats!
From Christchurch in the South East we decided to cross inland Northwest, through the stunning Arthur's Pass, and then back North East to Kaikura. We stayed in the Moby Dick backpackers and went, guess what, whale watching. The sea was so rough that pregnant women and people with back problems were asked not to get on the boat. I'm proud to say that whilst around us grown men were very sick indeed, David and I were fine (we took anti-sickness pills in advance) and were delighted to see two whales.
We bombed North to Nelson to catch our ferry to the North Island. In Wellington we stayed in a B&B, which was being used by actors, and crew who were working on the Lord Of The Rings films. At 9.00pm that evening, David and I were in a late night bookshop, when I came face to face with a Dutch director I had worked with on a TV commercial in Amsterdam just four months before. How small is this world? Since Lord Of The Rings, New Zealand has become a tourist place to see the scenery from the film. Yawn! (What!!!! Ed) Leave your book and anorak at home and just bring good biking gear!
Over the next few days we covered quite a distance, as we wanted to get to the Northland area of the North Island, after a quick stop in Auckland. Aunt Ann and Uncle Mervyn live in a very remote area called Okaihau, which is about four hours north of Auckland, but we took the long way round, taking two days visiting ancient forests which fight with California for the right to claim the tallest trees in the world. Mervyn, a native, says that whereas logging was the main industry of the North island, these days it is the slightly less legal crops of marijuana that provide work for the locals. Mervyn and Ann took us to the site commemorating the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior, (blown up by French agents Ed) and to some very old settlements. There is a lot of poverty and unemployment in this area, no (legal) industry, and people do what they can. But the beauty of the land cannot be ignored.
When we returned to Auckland we couldn't find private buyers for the bikes, but the shop that sold them to us bought them back the day before we flew home. As I said earlier, it was still a lot cheaper than hiring! My Uncle Dennis, like many people who live in towns, had not been to all the best places in his own town. On our last evening we treated him to a wonderful meal in the revolving restaurant at the very top of the Sky Tower. I love heights and happily walked around looking straight down through the glass sections of the floor. It became slightly un-nerving when Dennis, a building inspector, said things like 'That rivet should not be rusty.'
With money from the bikes, David bought his first digital camera, and I bought time till I found another job. We'd covered about 4,500 miles, and seen most of New Zealand via the only way to see anywhere: motorcycles. This gives you an idea of the highlights, without Billy Connolly's jokes, and with only two wheels instead of his three!
We know we were lucky to do this trip, we were child-free, and in work, but if you really want to do something like this, don't wait till you're retired, try and make the memories now!
We're motorcyclists. It's what we do.
DIY can wait another ten years!
Apart from the memories and the photographs, my only memento of our trip is a T-shirt that reads, 'Take Only Photographs, Leave Only Footprints.'
Makes you grin.