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Three Week Motorcycle Tour of New Zealand

— by Dick Fry

Anticipation & Planning

I didn't realize the article I read in the MOA News would lead to the trip of a lifetime. The article was written by Don Douglas, Editor of the News, about his trip with Beach's Motorcycle Tours to New Zealand. It was a nice article, interesting, and pretty much forgotten at the time. Then I decided to retire from 36 years at Optical Gaging Products. Now, they have a nice habit of sending some of their employees on a vacation trip of their choice. The last couple of choices were a cruise of Alaska's waters and a trip to Ireland. When they asked me, the article from the MOA News came to mind. A three week motorcycle tour of New Zealand. Now that sounds like a world class trip. So Beach's was contacted, applications were filled out, all by me, and given to the powers to be at OGP to process. And they went for it, a motorcycle trip for two for three weeks. All we had to do was get there. Mrs. Beach was heard to say that they have had birthday awards, anniversaries gifts, but never a retirement gift. On August 2, 1996, my official retirement date, certificates were received and planning started in earnest. We still had six months to wait, for our date was January 6, 1997; summer in New Zealand.

During one of these planning discussions, Nancy said: "You know how we never have enough time to do and see all the things we want to do on our trips. And we always say we'll come back another time to see this or that. Well New Zealand is a long ways away and we'll probably never get back there. May be, after going all that distance and expense, we should stay another week to do some of the things we missed the first time." And so it went! Pretty soon, "Australia is so close, while we're at it...", so a week in Australia was added to our plans. We needed help. A travel agent was contacted. Now they see a nice fat commission for arranging a 5 week tour, so they were a little surprised when told a three week motorcycle tour was already arranged. They needed details of the motorcycle trip and we hadn't received many yet. So I called Mrs. Beach and asked her just where the tour started and ended, and was told Christchurch and Auckland, respectively. So more consultations with the travel agent, and airline tickets were arranged. Rochester to Chicago, to Los Angeles on American Air Lines. Then Los Angeles to Auckland, to Christchurch with Air New Zealand. Then at the end of four weeks, Air New Zealand, Auckland to Sydney. And a week later, Air New Zealand, Sydney to Los Angeles, and American to Rochester. Some credit card foul ups not withstanding, tickets soon arrived. The travel agent also arranged a camper van for us, to be picked up in Auckland, for our extra week in New Zealand, a Hotel room in Sydney, and a car for us for our week in Australia. So they got a pretty good piece of business from us anyhow.

Some discussion, between Nancy and me, concerned what clothes to take, warm clothes or summer clothes, and how much luggage we could take on the airplane. Considerable discrepancy exists in published air line literature as to the number of bags, checked vs. carry on, and total pounds vs. pounds per bag. (This pounds vs. number of bags etc. didn't turn out to be any problem.) But, none the less, we weighed bags, rearranged what went in what bags etc. several times. Nancy wanted to take plenty of heavy clothes, and I pointed out it was the middle of their summer. Nancy sent a couple of e-mails to the Beach's, and their reply was to be prepared. I drew the line at taking long underwear; electric vest, you bet. (I'll eat some crow later)

One of the mailings from Beach was about motorcycles available and your choice. They had BMW K75s and 100s, F650 Funduros, Triumphs, and Suzukis. We had to fill in our first three choices, and there was a blank for DON'T PUT ME ON ONE OF THESE!. One evening I received a phone call from Rob Beach, concerning our choices. Nancy had requested an F650 and this was no problem, but I had put down a K75RT. Rob explained that the RT fairing was not used except in the USA. After a few minutes of discussion, my riding style and experience, Rob had decided exactly which bike would be available for me, a K75S. (I was going to miss that barn door fairing that makes about a 10 degree comfort level difference. Do we detect a pattern developing here?)

About two or three weeks before our scheduled departure, January 3, 1997, we received a package from Beach's. "The Maori Meander, Auckland to Christchurch, January 6 - 26, 1997". AUCKLAND TO CHRISTCHURCH!!! OH NO!!! Our airline tickets are to Christchurch. Our motor home is in Auckland. Now we have to go back to the travel agent and get this all changed around. More discussions and planning. Well, may be it won't be so bad, we land in Auckland first anyway. We'll just not take that last leg to Christchurch, and then just use the credit for that leg and fly from Christchurch to Auckland at the end of our motorcycle tour. (To make a long story short, that's just the way it worked out. We canceled the last leg, with Air New Zealand when we arrived in Los Angeles, arranged for a short flight from Christchurch to Auckland, with no penalty charges.) (And Air New Zealand has the best food you ever tasted on an airplane too.)

Anyhow, back to the itinerary, and maps, and polo shirt, that just arrived. The itinerary, a spiral bound booklet contains:

  1. A greeting from Rob Beach.
  2. A greeting from John Rains, Te Waipounamu Tours, the New Zealand component i.e. the motorcycles and one of the tour leaders (John Rains).
  3. A list of all tour members, 20 people from all over the US, several from California, one from Arizona, Alaska, Illinois, Florida; two from Georgia, three from Oregon, two from NY, Oh! That's us. (When we have our first group meeting in Auckland, Bob Wilkins, the other tour guide, introduces us as a group of friends who haven't met yet. That sure turns out to be true. But I get ahead of myself.)
  4. Some last minute reminders, and pieces of information, such as, passport, luggage, driver's license, emergencies, banking, money, riding on the left, road hazards, speed limits, gasoline, insurance, time zones and business hours, tipping, postage and telephone charges, weather, the place, country demographics, the people, the government, the economy. A pretty complete list, I think these people have done this before.
  5. Next is a complete list of the hotels we are staying at. Actually not just hotels, but hotels, motels, farm stays, (were they interesting), dates, cities, phone numbers, exactly where we were to be and when. Nice!
  6. The day by day, city by city, suggested roads and alternates, miles, (actually kilometers). Some background information, things to do and not do, etc. along the way.

More details than we could ever hope to ask for. Now this is the stuff anticipation is made from.

The North Island

All airplane flights are supposed to be uneventful. Fortunately, this one was. As long as you call losing January 4, 1997 uneventful (when you cross the international date line). One minor mishap, one piece of luggage was missing when we arrived in Auckland. One out of five's not bad. The usual, stand in line, fill out the reports, etc., the bag was delivered to the motel later in the day. We met a couple at the motel who were part of the group. They were missing all of their luggage. It was delivered the next day. As we were a full day early, we found a rent a wreck agency next to the motel, and the four of us rented a car for the day and toured Auckland. Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World is a worthwhile attraction. Great way to start.

Throughout Monday, bikers arrived at the motel. And gradually so did the motorcycles. Some paperwork was filled out and we were introduced to our bikes. A meeting was held prior to dinner (this was going to be the routine) and we were told to think left and look right; our introduction to driving on the left side of the road. We also were told to train our eyes to look to the left (of the vehicles coming toward you). It is a bit disconcerting when an oncoming car appears around a curve, you eyes automatically look to the right of the car for the space where you are accustomed to go. Our destination for Monday was discussed. For our first experience of riding on the left, and to get through Auckland, we were going to be led through the city.

Tuesday morning came soon enough and away we went. North to the town of Russell. Once outside the city of Auckland, the group stopped and we were on our own. Individually or small groups as you wished. Nancy and I followed our usual habit and went by ourselves. We were soon in some beautiful hilly country, overlooking pasture land, bays from the Tasman Sea, and wonderful twisty roads. These turned out to be some of the less twisty roads. This part of the North Island is very narrow so we were soon over on the Pacific side and stopped for lunch. This area of New Zealand has a high Maori population, with names like Whangarei, Whananaki, Whangamumu, and so forth. These being hard to pronounce, and hard to remember, plus the noticeable lack of route numbers, getting from point A to point B was going to be a challenge. If we were lucky, one sign would have the route number - right at the intersection. There would be a sign with an arrow, and the name of the town (which as we said all look alike). Real easy to get lost!!! Oh well, we're here for the tour anyway. As we made frequent stops to look at the map, we were apt to see bikes, which we recognize as members of the group, heading in the other direction. Maybe they're lost too! Throughout the afternoon we all managed to arrive at the beautiful resort town of Russell. We are here for two nights, time for more riding, walking, and learning some local history. In the good old days, Russell was known as the "Hell Hole of the Pacific". More grog shops and brothels!; getting shanghaied was pretty common. Now it's just a beautiful resort community. The bay is full of sail boats and yachts. It was nice and warm here, this is the northern end of the North Island, the warm end!!

The next day we headed south, just short of Auckland, to a little town of Waiwera. It was this day that we stopped to visit one of the few remaining Kauri trees. These don't necessarily grow so tall, but the diameter is constant from the ground up to the top, where the branches start. The tree we saw was 2000 years old, trunk height - 17.7 meters, total height - 51.5 meters, circumference - 13.8 meters, volume - 244.5 cubic meters. A humungus tree with a huge volume of lumber. We also visited a museum about these trees and they are a most beautiful golden yellow hard wood. Naturally when the first Europeans arrived, the trees were cut and the wood shipped to England. Now they are busy trying to replant these fantastic trees. As we gathered at our motel this evening, the camaraderie of the group was starting to show through. Let's see, we had Chicago Dave, Fireman Dave and his wife Blonde, and Alaska Dave. There was Gerry and Jim from Georgia, the other fireman, all from Oakland, CA, Ken and his wife Tina, Mark and friend Tally, there was also Catering Ken and his riding buddy Marty. Then there was the Camdens from Oregon, Dick, Cec, and Brad. Arizona Jack and Randy from Haiti. Let's not forget our two tour leaders, John and Bob, both from New Zealand. Nancy and I made up the group of 22. Many a local beer (Black Mac) and a story was shared in the evenings. This night also contained the forecast for our first hurricane, which they call a typhoon. The next day we were advised to avoid the high bridge through Auckland because of the high winds. We made it around and through without any difficulty as we headed toward Rotorua.

The threat of rain kept Nancy and I on main roads, (which are equivalent to our secondary country roads anyway), so we didn't take the tour of the Coromondel Peninsula. (We saved this corner of New Zealand for the week later when we had the motor home. Ask Nancy how she liked these roads.) On the way to Rotorua we passed through some of the very limited flat land and saw some nice farming country. Always interesting to an old farm boy like myself. We were supposed to go through Rotorua, to a small town just outside called Ngongotaha. As we got into Rotorua it started to rain and we couldn't find our way. So we stopped to ask directions. That's difficult to do when you can't pronounce the name of the town your trying to get to. We were running a little late as this was one of the few times we had to arrive on time for our induction into the Maori culture, and I quote: "Protocol or (kawa) on the marae is very important and must be observed. Each tribe differs in kawa and, as a mark of respect, the host tribes kawa is always observed. After several stops to ask directions, we finally made it to Ngongotaha and our host for the night, the Maori tribe of Te Arawa, without causing any outbreak of hostilities. We were formally welcomed and accepted with elaborate ceremonies. When visiting tribes of Maori travel around the islands, they are greeted and welcomed to their hosts marae (church?) as we were. They, like us, are welcomed to stay overnight. This hospitality is not normally extended to the white man, but thanks to the special relations of one of our guides, John Rains, we got to experience this special cultural exchange.

Before we headed for our next destination, it was decided that some of us would go for a white water rafting trip. It was cloudy and misty rain, but what the heck, we were probably going to get wet anyway. The rafting outfit provided the wet suits and, because it was a little chilly, a heavy long sleeved wool shirt, life vest, and helmet. We were a sight, but everyone looked alike. The trip was quite exciting, everyone survived, no rafts tipped over, and it was fun. The worst part was lugging the friggen rafts, on our heads, back up the banks to the parking lot, barefoot. The motorcycle ride to Taupo was short and uneventful. A dry room and a wet beer awaited.

The next day was sunny and nice. Rotorua and Taupo are in the center of the North Island. Today we headed to the east coast, town of Waipawa, where we would have our first farm stay. On the way we stopped in the town of Napier, also, right on the Pacific coast. An earthquake and resulting fire leveled the town in 1931. When they rebuilt in the early 30's, the style was art deco. A walking tour of the most complete Art Deco town in the world was very enjoyable. We spent about three hours enjoy this sunny city. A short ride in the afternoon brought us to the area of our farm stay.

As there was 20 of us, too many for one farm, we were divide up to three or four farms. The farm Nancy and I visited was owned by an older couple who were selling off some land and had down sized their flock of sheep to about 70. The land had been sold to a large dairy interest. We learned most of the wool from the sheep in this area is used for carpets, and synthetic material is causing a decline in wool prices, thus more dairy, and as we would learn on our second farm stay, the raising of deer herds. One could not help but notice all the beautiful flowers growing around the farm house. In fact large beautiful flowers were quite common all around New Zealand. The next day we were heading west across the island and south to Wellington.

Another nice day. We had a couple of things to see options today. A bird sanctuary or a large car & motorcycle museum. Nancy and I chose Southward's Car Museum and it was huge. We have tried to estimate the size of the one main room. After looking at the video of the place, it has to be 150 x 200 yards. All brilliantly illuminated, crammed full of mostly cars, mostly English and European make, some motorcycles, some airplanes engines, in fact a little bit of everything. If you're any kind of a car buff and you're in New Zealand.... After a short ride, in some traffic, as this is the capitol of New Zealand, we found our hotel without undue difficulty.

The group hired a tour bus for a tour of Wellington. This was money well spent as we got to see some beautiful flower gardens, the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere, views from some very high lookouts on both sides of Wellington. The best you're going to do in a couple of hours. The usual evening meeting and meal was enjoyable as we learned of tomorrow's ferry crossing to the South Island. Seventeen bikes had to be there when the boat took off.

The next day was raining, a light misty rain. We all arrived at the fairy terminal without undue difficulty, and then we waited. The fairy was late. As we stood around in the rain, we watched the trains being unloaded, then another bunch loaded, then some cars. Then it was our turn, down this little road, with the RR tracks down the center, into the hold of the ship, with the wet RR tracks, & many track switches all across the floor of the ship which we had to maneuver our bikes across and over to the side of the ship. Hooray! No mishaps! The bikes were soon secured and we went to an upper deck where libations were available. We had about a three hour comfortable crossing.

Six months have elapsed since the trip to New Zealand. I removed a clear glass cup from the cupboard this morning for a cup of coffee. On the cup were the words, "Brightstone cider, Blues, Brew & BBQs", and I wondered where did this cup come from. Slowly it come back that, yes, it must have been New Zealand, but what city, what was the occasion. I realized that I had better get busy and finish recording this trip before the video of my mind fades any more. A terrible thing to waste.

The South Island

We arrived on the South Island in a slight drizzle & managed to get off the boat first with no problem. Most of us gassed up immediately and set off for Nelson. The first part of the journey was on a narrow and twisty road that was, of course, wet. Nancy and I were a bit cautious so some of the group soon passed. About half way there the road improved, or may be it was just that the sun came out. Nelson is noted as a retirement community because it has some of the sunniest weather. This turned out to be true. It is also a very beautiful city. Nancy and I did considerable walking around the city, shopping and just looking. I did some riding around the city and many of our group did a lot of riding around this beautiful area. When we got home we realized we had not taken any pictures or video of Nelson. Apparently nothing spectacular, just very nice.

Our next destination was Westport, a small town on the west coast. It was a short ride, about 300 kilometers, so all of us were looking for other points of interest. Cape Foulwind sounded intriguing so we headed there. We found a large bay with a sandy beach and a surfing contest in progress, sponsored by Coca Cola. We watched this for a few minutes. We could see the rocky outcroppings across the bay where there was supposed to be a seal colony. So we took the short ride over there, where many of our group were gathering. By walking up on top of the cliffs, paths provided, we could overlook large rocky areas below, and many seals, large and small, were soon evident. A sunny day, plenty of grass on top of the cliffs, and our riding friends, soon took care of the extra time we had.

The west coast was our riding area for the next few days. As we traveled south along the coast, the mountains increased dramatically. Fox Glacier, the town, was our next stop. Along the way is an area where jade is mined and turned into jewelry. Of course we had to stop there. After we all arrived at our motel, we were taken in the van, (our luggage van) up the Fox Glacier, the glacier. Living in the mountains around the glacier are some strange parrots that tear cars and motorcycles apart. Apparently these creatures have no fear of humans, you can chase them away but they come right back, and they peck at any rubber or soft part they can find. The tour guides didn't want the bikes to be parrot fodder. We didn't see any until we got to a zoo some days later. The glacier was a big mass of dirty ice and lots of rocky gravel. In some areas you could see the pretty blue ice that pictures are made of.

Our itinerary book admonition, "Be certain to fill your tank before you leave Fox Glacier". Our destination is Queenstown via Haast Pass. This is mountains and rain forest country, not a lot of population. It was very obvious when we passed over the divided and out of the rain forest. A much more desert like area, except that it was raining and very windy. We stopped at a couple of airplane museums along the way which told of New Zealand's part in World War II. We tried to wait out one of the showers at one. When it wasn't raining this was some great riding. It was in this area where we came upon a large flock of sheep walking down the road. The sheep have the right of way but the cars can slowly move through them. We stopped to watch. The cameras were packed away in the saddle bags so I figured, by the time I got them out the sheep would be gone. But the sheep kept coming. Finally I got the cameras out and the sheep still kept coming. With the snow capped mountains in the background they made quite a picture. There had to be 2000 sheep, and finally the shepherd and three or four dogs came walking along. Then we continued on towards Queenstown.

Queenstown is a ski resort area in winter, with some beautiful mountains to view in summer. As this was a two night stay, we had time for some extra curricular activities. All of us opted for the jet boat ride up the Dart River. This was a great ride. These boats have a 300 HP motor, & can go in water only 4" deep (when they are up to speed), through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. We were provided with waterproof ponchos, woolen caps, etc. and we still got drenched. We went about 36 km up this river, and them back down, only faster, about 565 feet change in elevation. The views of the snow capped peaks, all around us were breath taking. This was more fun than the white water rafting. A couple of our group tried the bungee jump. Nancy and I said, "Thanks but, No Thanks"

As we continue our travel to the south, our destination is Te Anau, or at least the area around Te Anau, where we will spend two nights (our second farms stay). Nancy and I and Bob Wilkins, one of our tour guides, stayed at the same farm. We chanced to meet Bob along the road, as we were heading toward the farm. He told us how he had grown up in this area, and asked if we would like to see his boyhood home. Of course we were delighted. So we had a special tour. When we arrived at the farm, no one was home. But the doors were open, so we sat down and waited. The owners, Ellerston and Sharon McDonald, soon arrived. Ellerston had been to an auction for deer. We were soon into an education of the declining sheep industry, (he still has about 6,000 sheep), and the increase of deer herds. Interestingly, the horns are cut off at the velvet stage and shipped to Korea. They are ground to a powder and used as an aphrodisiac. The meat, when the deer are slaughtered, is shipped to Germany. The wool from most of the sheep in New Zealand is used in carpets. Synthetic fibers is causing the decline of wool prices.

The next day, a special trip was planned for the group. We were to ride the only road through an area known as Fiordland National Park. We were advised that this is a very twisty road and there is a tunnel to be cautious of. It is about a mile long, two way traffic, gravel and no lights. Of course it was raining. In fact, rainfall averages about 21 FEET per year, it rains two out of three days. Consequently, the tunnel always has water dripping from the rocky roof. As I started through the tunnel, unable to see much of anything in the sudden darkness, I suddenly saw a sign, about 5 feet ahead of me, DANGER - WASH OUT, when BUMP, BANG, BOUNCE, I found the wash out. I didn't go down, just rode through it, but it sure got my attention. On the other side of the tunnel, the road starts a fairly rapid descent to sea level with many steep switch backs through this rain forest. Fantastic! Milford Sound, our destination, is just a few houses and lots of tour boats. We took a boat out through Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea and back, about a 4 hour ride. Very high cliffs straight down to the water, many water falls, more of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Then we had to head back to the tunnel. Experienced, I now missed the wash out. Once you leave the Fiordland area, it stops raining and you can enjoy the ride much more. The second night at the farm was very enjoyable. We know our hosts a little better, & are more relaxed, a couple of beers, and plenty of good conversation....

The next day started off warm and sunny but turned into one of the worst days, weather wise, of the trip. Our destination was Dunedin, with a special lunch stop along the way. Nancy and I were still riding with Bob Wilkins and had stopped to talk to two or three others of the group. In less time than it takes me to type this, the weather changed. The wind switched to the south, the temperature dropped about 30 degrees and it started to rain. Bob said, "Put on everything you've got. It's coming straight from Antarctica." As we continued to ride the wind increased to the point where riding was difficult. My wife had my long underwear with her and I gladly accepted them and put them on. By the time we arrived at our luncheon rendezvous, my hands were so cold I had considerable trouble unzipping my leather jacket. We were late for lunch, but we weren't the last. One arrived considerably after we did and another couple decided to skip the lunch and just keep heading to Dunedin. After an hour or so we all set off again. The wind and rain had decreased a little. Our destination, Larnach Castle, was on a high peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean, near Dunedin, accessed by either of two roads. The high road was judged to be too windy. So the low road was chosen. The road up to the castle from the low road was very steep, many sheer switch backs. By the time we arrived, Nancy was pretty much stressed out. Not the time to joke about those sheer drop-off's. The compliments of members of the group who were riding behind Nancy, on her riding ability, soon restored her spirits.

The day after the horrible weather dawned sunny and nice. We took a tour of Larnach Castle; our rooms were in the converted stables on the castle grounds. All very nice. Dunedin is on the south east coast of the South Island. We had come south along the west coast, it was now time to zigzag north along the east coast to our end of tour city, Christchurch. We still had a couple of adventures to go. Our destination for this day was the small town of Twizel, near the mountains, but on the east side of them. The weather was beautiful and Nancy and I arrived early in the afternoon. We checked into the motel and inquired about a helicopter ride over the mountains. We were advised to go closer to the mountains where there was an airport, about 40 miles. So away we went. Very little traffic, a beautiful sunny afternoon and a nice twisty road. We poured on the coals. We arrived at the airport at about 4:30 PM. & inquired about rides, helicopter and fixed wing, hesitated only a little, when they offered us a deal. Almost closing time, potential customers! We accepted, and a nice long flight in a 6 passenger fixed wing resulted. First we flew to the next town where they had another airport, switched planes and picked up two other couples. Now they had a plane full. We had a tour of the Southern Alps. Mt. Cook, Fox Glacier and all the beautiful snow covered rugged peaks and valleys were pointed out. There was a possibility when we took off that we might land at Fox Glacier, but as soon as we crossed the divide, there were the clouds, solid up against the west side of the mountains. My but they are pretty from the top. We were dropped off at the airport where we started from and had to hurry back to our motel for dinner. Less traffic, nice twisty roads, no problem. A nice day!

The next day it's on to Christchurch. Another nice day and some wonderful mountain riding. Typical stops for lunch at some "tea shop" and ride some more. Christchurch is a fairly large city but our directions were clear and we found our motel without undue difficulty. As this was our second to last evening together some extra bottles of wine were passed around.

The next day was a free day, we could ride if we wished, or walk the city. Some of us opted to turn our bikes in and walk the city. An arts and crafts street show was in progress as well as a music and drinking fest nearby. When you pay you entrance fee to the music fest, you are given a mug as your entrance ticket. Now I know where that mug came from, "Brightstone cider, Blues, Brew & BBQs". Our last dinner together, extra beer and wine, promises to write and keep in touch, and all that, ended the day.

The next day would be flying home day. Bob and John (tour guides) had been getting departure times from everyone, trying to coordinate the shuttling of people to the airport at the right time. Nancy and I had the first flight, but we were only flying to Auckland to extend this trip a little longer with a motor home for another week on the North Island. We'll probably never get back so maybe this way we could get to see some of the things we missed. And we did indeed, but that's another story. The motorcycle tour of a lifetime was over.

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