Travel Tale: New Zealand’s South Island

We met up in L.A. for the flight to New Zealand.  There were six of us, five males and one lady. We left Tuesday evening and got to Auckland twelve hours later where it was already Thursday.  We cleared customs and then boarded another plane headed for Christchurch on the south island.

After arriving, Delta called to get the van he had reserved.  I was glad I had reservations for a motorcycle.  The van’s odometer had in excess of 200,000 showing and even in kilometers that’s a lot of wear and tear.  Delta was chief pilot of the van, a Toyota Hi Ace with a 4-cylinder automatic, which carried four others and everybody’s (including the three motorcycle riders) luggage.  It made it all the way, but there were times they thought the rubber band was going to break.  It also seemed a possibility the thing would shuck a rod or piston right through the engine cowling as it crawled up some of the steep grades.

A book I read said don’t jump on a bike after a very long flight, rest for at least a night.  So we went to a motel, checked in, and waited for some friends to arrive from Australia.

Here’s a short bio on the other members of this adventure.
Delta Daggett – Frazee, Minnesota - Lifelong friend, trucker extraordinaire, president of Daggett Truck Line
Dan Gale - Toronto, Canada - Biker and golf partner, part time resident of the Plantation Country Club, Pres. of Pro Caissons.  (He drills big holes in the ground with expensive equipment).
JP Wiest  - Jamestown, ND  - Old friend, trucker, president of Wiest Truck Line
Gene Thorne - Rescue, CA   Delta’s cousin, civil engineer, Porsche driver and exceptional picture taker.  (I’m still waiting to see the pictures.)
Joan Thorne - Rescue, CA - Gene’s life partner and shirker of any duty having to do with laundry.
Bruce Wallace - Noosa Head, Australia – Friend of mine and Delta’s, Financier of equipment, especially trucks.
Ritchie Beaumont - Brisbane Australia  - Friend of Bruce and our new mate. Trucker of bulk commodities, President of Beaumont Transport.

Notice any connections amongst this group?

Friday morning we were up and on our way over to Waipounamu Motorcycle tours to get our bikes.  After a document inspection and a walk around the bikes we signed up and were ready to get on the way.   Dan was on a Honda VT750, JP on a 600 Suzuki Bandit and I got a Honda VT1100.  It was decided that I would lead, JP in the middle with Dan to bring up the rear.  We followed the van out of Christchurch but when we got to the highway it was easy to figure out that the 4 cylinder rubber-bander wasn’t going to be able to lead the way.  Bruce had brought along two cell phones from Australia that he had programmed for New Zealand. We knew we could get in touch so we passed them and took off.  We would meet at the Isabel Estates Vineyard in Marlborough. 

The ride up Highway 1 is pretty easy, which was good as we were still getting used to the bikes and riding on the wrong side of the road.  Things changed at the Conway River. From here on, the coastal road had twists and turns with steep uphill and downhill grades.  It was good training for the rest of the ride but it was hard to concentrate with the fantastic scenery which featured mountains on the left and the Pacific on the right.  When we entered towns we negotiated the roundabouts (they’re everywhere) and kept an eye out for the road signs.  Kiwi’s don’t mark their roads very well so you need to keep a sharp eye, especially in the towns at the roundabouts.  You could end up going from whence you came in a New York minute. 

We arrived at the winery after a wrong turn near Blenheim and found the van was already there and its occupants were savoring the vintages.  As we were done riding for the day, we endeavored to catch up.  We went into Renwick for dinner and retired to the Moose Lodge at the winery. It was on this night that we determined who snored and who didn’t and thus decided on roommates for the rest of the trip. We also set up our routine.  The bikers would get up and get going in the morning and when we found a nice place with lodging we’d make arrangements for the rest and give them a call.  We didn’t always get through because of the mountains, but this system worked well for the trip.

Saturday morning we rode the Wairau Valley, a beautiful river valley with the Richmond Range on our right and steep hills on our left.  There was little traffic and the weather was mild (50’s).  As we got close to the Raglan Range we started the climb to St Arnaud and its glacier lake. The town reminds you of something in the Alps as pictured in The Sound of Music.  I thought Julie Andrews was going to step out at any minute. We headed out on Hwy 63 toward Murchison and Inangahua.  This is real motorcycle country.  Right, left, up, and down, one lane bridges and very steep drop offs.  Harley-Davidson is going to sponsor a ride in New Zealand this year and their ad says “only experienced riders please”. When we got along the Butler River we ran into a packed road.  It seems they were having a kayakers run on the rapids and cars with Kayak racks were stretched for quite a ways.  Not far beyond here I ran out of gas on a tight curve on a steep grade.  The bike rental place said I could get 150 miles out of a tank of gas.  They were wrong.  After some anxious moments with the traffic and no decent place to get off the road I switched over to the reserve tank and we were off to Westport to find gas. 

Westport has a nice beach and plenty of shops for the ladies.  Lots of daylight left so we went out to Hwy 6 and headed for Hokitika.  When we arrived, we arranged for the rooms and gave our mates a call to let them know where they were to bunk. In Oz or Kiwi land everyone is your mate.  New Zealand is a beautiful country.  Delta said it best, “It’s like driving from the forest of Arkansas to the mountains of Colorado without going thru Kansas or Oklahoma”. 

The country is populated by sheep, dairy cows, and people – in that order.  A sign with a sheep on it means sheep may be on the road and you do not want to hit one on a bike. Speaking of sheep and cows, you can smell both in much of New Zealand.  You also smell the rainforest, the pines, and the sulfur from the artesian wells that boil up in a lot of places.  You can’t experience the same thing in a car and  I’ll never forget the smells or the scenery.   On the west coast (they call it the wet coast), the fishing is great, the scenery better, and the people friendly.  They advertise white bait for breakfast in Hokitika, the white bait capital of the world.  Delta was curious so he asked the waitress for a sample.  When she brought out the 6-inch long white worms, he changed his mind. The coast is rugged with a lot of blow holes and rock formations between intermittent stretches of wonderful beaches.

The next day we rode down the coast to Haast and stopped at the Franz Joseph Glacier and then again at the Fox Glacier.  The town of Fox Glacier sits on the side of a mountain and again I know I saw Julie Andrews in front of one of those chalets.  As we rode along Lake Mapotrika the fog was rising off the deep blue lake.  The road was a challenge but we still hadn’t seen the most difficult.

When we got to Haast we again searched up some rooms. As we looked out to the east, which is up Haast Pass, we saw nothing but clouds and I was worried the next day we’d be riding in the rain. Again, our mates showed up and we compared notes, had a drink or two and another luscious lamb dinner.  You can eat about anything in New Zealand but white bait, the food is good and not terribly expensive.  And if you like lamb, you have just found Nirvana

When we left to go over Haast Pass I should have known it would be a challenging ride.  There are no Semis or large trucks allowed on this road.  The road is steep and winding, the turns so sharp that not many trucks could get around them.  At Haast you are at the beach and then in a few miles you’re in an alpine valley, next you’re in a rain forest with giant ferns which transitions into a pine forest, and then you’re at the summit. When you clear the summit you come out on another beautiful valley.  There is a café near the top where we stopped for coffee and talked to a pilot who flies people to Milford Sound.  The sod strip was right along the road and they flew 206 Cessna’s from there.  I didn’t get what the charge was but we should have taken that ride as we found out the next day.

We followed Hwy 6 as it snaked along Lake Wanaka for 50 or 60 Km until we got to the town of Wanaka. When we asked about going to Queenstown the young lady at the gas station said the ride thru Cardona was famous and we should go that way.  We went that way and the van went the other thru Cromwell. It’s a good thing as I’m not sure that Toyota could have made this run.  This was probably the steepest, most challenging road in New Zealand.  A sign at the beginning says no cars with trailers, no trucks, and no to about everything else on the road except cars and motorcycles.  At the top you can see Queenstown and that’s a long way off (25  miles or so) and it looks straight down with no guardrails.

Ah, Queenstown.  Something like Aspen, Snowmass, and Steamboat Springs all mixed together.  They hang-glide right off the mountain behind the town. If you look up while you’re walking the streets, they’re flying right above you.  The town is at the midpoint of Lake Wakatipu (another glacial lake) and if you ride to the west toward Glenorchy the road ends, but you’ll find magnificent views of the mountains and glaciers. They hope to build a suitable road over to Milford Sound from here but because the terrain is so tough all they have is a gravel trail that they don’t recommend, even for motorcycles.

When the van showed up at Queenstown we laid a plan for the next day.  If we could get a flight to Milford we’d go.  Delta thought a sail on the lake in a boat like the one that won the America’s Cup would be great.  There was also a cruise on an authentic 100-foot steamboat that plied the lake.  Dan, JP, and I had ridden up the lake so we were ready for a plane ride. We went out for dinner and ate at a restaurant in a converted old bank. They put us in a vault (what ambiance).  I think they saw us coming in and figured they’d be safer with us in a lockable room.  Them Kiwis aren’t stupid.

As it turned out, the pilot cancelled the next morning because Milford Sound was socked in.  The sail was cancelled because it was too windy.  So the van folks went for a jet boat ride and we rode off to Invercargill.  This town is the southernmost city in the British Empire and it is usually misty and cool.  Just as we got there it started to mist. I was anxious to get off the road and we stopped at a motel with a very charming young lady at the desk.  She informed us there were no rooms in town as there was some kind of motor racing meet and things were booked solid.  That’s when Dan turned on the charm.  We were doing fine until Dan said her hair was beautiful and he’d know because he was a stylist.  That’s when I lost it and couldn’t contain myself anymore.  She took it for the good fun it was and got on the phone and found us rooms on the outskirts of town for a good rate.  I just don’t think I could ever get by with that stylist line.

The following morning we were off to the museum where the artifacts of Bill Monroe are housed.  Bill Monroe was the famous Kiwi who built a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle into the machine that holds the world’s fastest speed record for a 1000cc or less motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats. If you want to know more, rent the movie The Worlds Fastest Indian.  We found out a lot about Monroe, he was a character, and saw the bike and his car.  It was worth the trip there and a T-shirt to remember it by.

The van people wangled a chance to visit a truck museum that I wish I had gone to but it was raining and the forecast was for it to get worse.  We rode in the rain quite a way and then it turned to mist.  We had coffee to warm up in Clinton and then headed for Dunedin.  By the time we got there the clouds were breaking. Dunedin is a university town and seaport, built on hills above the port. It’s very quaint yet cosmopolitan. We stopped at the Harley dealer to buy t-shirts but they didn’t have much. 

When we arrived at Oamaru we were informed that there was golf tournament in town and the rooms were full but we could get a room up the road at a truck park.  A truck park is a motel that caters to commercial truckers.  It was clean and when I asked if the bikes were safe I was informed that it was a truck park and no one messes with a truck park.

Next morning, we rode in the sunshine to Timaru for breakfast. It’s a resort town where you can play golf in the morning and then drive an hour to ski in the afternoon. From here the road is pretty flat and the traffic thicker as you get towards Christchurch.  We ate dinner at a river-walk café, then walked over to a pub. Then the music started and the old folks couldn’t take the noise so we went back to our rooms to get ready for the departure.  The rest would be off to their homes but I was going to Australia to have another adventure.



Tags: Motorcycle Road Trips & Travel Tales