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Paradise Found: Touring New Zealand

June 07, 2013


Story by Phil Duprey

I’m convinced that before God tackled the job of creating the continents on this planet, He set aside a spare patch of ground down near the bottom where he could practice. On two islands in the middle of a vast sea, He tried out sandy beaches, towering mountains, rocky coastlines and fiords. He piled up volcanoes and scooped out gurgling thermal valleys. He grew desert palms, rain forest beeches and alpine meadow berries, all in their native habitats.

In particular, God seems to have spent a lot of time getting the birds just right. In addition to the standard varieties, He created some, like the kiwi, that can’t fly, and others, like the penguin, that fly under water.

On the other hand, He neglected snakes altogether.

When God was done building His test site, I’m guessing He got on his motorcycle and rode around, checking his work. This is mere speculation of course, but why else would He have packed so many scenic wonders into an area just big enough to contain them all, and just small enough to explore on a three-week ride?

It took a long, long time, but eventually our ancestors discovered God’s scratchpad in the far southern reaches of the Pacific Ocean. And when they did, they named it New Zealand.

Two dozen AMA members followed in God’s tire tracks last January, riding in the first AMA Tour to New Zealand. We came from all over the U.S., from all kinds of jobs, from all kinds of motorcycling backgrounds. And for three weeks, we soaked up scenery, sunshine, warmth and plenty of far Southern hospitality.

Wait a minute. Sunshine and warmth in January? Of course. While the American Midwest and Northeast were suffering through record-breaking cold and snow, New Zealand was in the midst of summer, making January not just the perfect time to get away from here, but the perfect time to go there.

Tour leader/magazine editor Greg Harrison did his homework in setting up this inaugural New Zealand tour. Our starting and ending point was at a large, well-stocked motorcycle dealership with a nice hotel just a few blocks away in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. From there, Greg laid out a route that nearly circumnavigated both of the country’s major islands, known, in the pragmatic way that is typical of New Zealanders, as North Island and South Island.

Greg arranged our hotels, motorcycle rentals, routes for each day’s ride, ferry trips between the islands—all of the details that make touring possible 10,000 miles from home. Plus, he planned several surprises for us that were announced each evening as he went over the next day’s route sheets, describing road conditions and scenic attractions.

We were free to ride at our own pace, in groups or solo, reassembling each afternoon at that day’s destination. Along the way, we knew we could count on Greg and his wife, Debbie, to make sure we had the trip of a lifetime.

The tour started with a day for internal clock resetting after the long flight from the U.S. Most of us also used that day for leisurely sightseeing in Auckland, where we discovered an unexpected bonus: The fleet was in! Specifically, the Whitbread Around the World Yacht Race had arrived just before us, making Auckland the focus of international sailing for a few days.

Auckland is called the City of Sails because of all the boaters who live there, so the arrival of the Whitbread fleet triggered a major celebration. And the fact that the New Zealand yacht Endeavor had won the leg of the race ending in Auckland just added to the festivities.

One of our tourers, Stacy Heinrich, had befriended the president of the Auckland chapter of the Harley Owners Group while he was traveling in the United States, and he returned the favor by acting as host for us in Auckland. At first I thought his hospitality was uncommon, but it soon became obvious that nearly all Kiwis (the semi-official name for New Zealanders) are equally friendly.

Once our entire group had arrived, we were ready to get down to the business of riding. And we quickly discovered that New Zealand’s touring motorcyclists have come up with an exceptionally practical way to pack a bike. Nearly every road machine we saw in the country (and almost every one of our rental machines) was equipped with an ingenious rack/pack system that simplifies the process of carrying luggage.

At the back of the seat, where you might see a sissy bar on an American bike, New Zealand motorcycles have a backpack frame mounted upright ahead of a medium-sized luggage rack. A commodious backpack slips over the frame, facing either rearward to leave room for rider and passenger, or forward, leaving the rack free for even more luggage. Add saddlebags and a tankbag, and you can carry about as much as a small car.

With our equipment stored, we headed south out of Auckland and found that New Zealand’s North Island becomes rural very quickly outside its largest city. What we didn’t realize was that the country would continue to get progressively more rural, all the way to the southern end of South Island, where the roads are narrow and you may not see another vehicle for miles.

That first day, we ended our ride in Rotorua, in the midst of an odoriferous thermal valley, complete with spewing geysers and bubbling mud pools. Here, the native New Zealand culture is showcased for tourists.

According to legend, four canoes brought the first Maori people from their Pacific island homes to New Zealand. Anthropologists say these island people arrived in New Zealand about 900 A.D., some 700 years before the islands were “discovered” by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. During two days in Rotorua, we saw entire Maori villages that had been buried by volcanic eruptions in distant centuries, and attended a traditional Maori ceremony and feast at a lakeside village surrounded by forested hills.

The ceremony was spellbinding: A mist rose as the sun set, time was reset to the remote past, traditional chants of the Maori people echoed off the surrounding hills. Even the cooking process seemed magical. Our feast of meats and vegetables was warmed to perfection simply by burying it in the ground and letting the thermal heat of the earth do the job.

Outside Rotorua, road signs warned of steam from underground vents rather than fog. Regardless of its origin, the white mist was just as effective at obscuring the roadway, and it gave an otherworldly character to the rocky landscape covered with low scrub.

Before long, though, the terrain changed. Soon we were running across fertile farm land. And just when we needed a break, we came upon the Low Flying Tea Room, an old DC-3 with tables and chairs where the passenger seats used to be.

Reaching Wellington, at the southern tip of North Island, we boarded a ferry for a smooth trip through the Cook Straits. Lush, uninhabited islands set against the deep blue water made for breathtaking views.

Heading south from the ferry port of Picton, we came upon a seal colony on a remote Pacific beach. The seals lounged on the rocks below the road, oblivious to us. There are other colonies of albatrosses and even penguins to be found along the coast. The penguins were a surprise at first, but from this part of New Zealand the closest continent is Antarctica. Fortunately, the ocean’s influence moderates the climate, giving New Zealand warm, pleasant summers and allowing palm trees to thrive along the coast road.

From that tropical coastline, though, you can gaze up through the palms and see winter in the snow-capped heights of the Southern Alps, New Zealand’s mountain chain. The mountains are visible from almost everywhere on the south island, and the urge to stop and take pictures is often irresistible. Fortunately, you can give in to that urge fairly safely, since there is so little traffic. And stopping has another benefit: With the engine off you can appreciate the quiet, broken only by the sounds of grazing cows and sheep on the hillsides.

We stopped in Christchurch, which serves as the staging area for U.S. and New Zealand expeditions to Antarctica. The city offers a multimedia exhibit about the frozen continent at the airport, and although it was miles out of our way, most of us got a chance to see it on the way to the hotel. It seems that local authorities revised some of the road numbers after Greg laid out the tour, leading us all on a circuitous route into town. This was the biggest mistake we caught Greg in, and since none of the rest of us had ever made a wrong turn ourselves, we rubbed it in for the rest of the trip.

Many of our tour members ended up stopping at the same gas station to ask directions. All received detailed instructions from motorists there, and several were personally escorted to the hotel by local residents. As I said before, Kiwis are remarkably friendly.

Christchurch was laid out by folks from England to look just like home. They named the river that winds through it the Avon. They built proper English buildings according to a proper English city plan. And when they didn’t have enough stone for all the “stone” buildings, they just carved and painted the exterior wood to look like stone! We spent a few days in town, giving us plenty of opportunities to explore the city and the surrounding mountain roads on our own.

Down the road from Christchurch is a city which is every bit as Scottish as Christchurch is English. The Scottish settlers here tried their best to make this like a little bit of their homeland, even calling it by the original name of Edinburgh, Dunedin. The place looks thoroughly Scottish, right down to the statues of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. In Dunedin, you’ll also find the southernmost Harley-Davidson dealer in the world.

From there, we cut across to the west coast of the island for a visit to the wildest and most remote part of New Zealand. This region is the wettest area of the country, and it is here that God must have practiced His damp-climate themes. You can find rain forests, fiords and ski runs, all within a few hours of each other. Two boat rides capture the extremes: One is a misty, serene cruise between the sheer rock walls of Milford Sound, a spectacular fiord fed by majestic waterfalls; the other is a visceral jet-boat ride along the cold, rocky Shotover River.

The adventurous among us—Charlie Windels, Chris and Phyllis O’Brien, Patti DiPietro and Patty Mills—chose to bungee jump where bungee jumping was born, off an abandoned bridge in Queenstown. Stacy Heinrich and Ernie Anderson picked a different challenge, jumping off a mountain and floating gently back to town beneath a parasail.

There are ghost towns in these mountains, too—relics of New Zealand’s short gold rush late last century. And glaciers can be seen from the highway, far up on the highest mountains. Some are close enough to walk to; close enough that we could hear creaks and snaps as their leading edges oozed down the hillsides.

Inevitably, we had to turn north again, returning to Auckland for our flight home. But first, we enjoyed a traditional lamb roast at the home of Sandra Perry, who is in charge of New Zealand’s counterpart to the AMA.

Finally, there was nothing left on the schedule but to get on the airplane. Usually, after a three-week tour, I’m ready to get back home. Not this time.

Greg had done a great job of keeping us entertained for three weeks in paradise. But then, he could hardly have failed. From the geysers and deserts of the north island to the rain forests, mountains, rocky coasts and fiords of the south island, he had God’s own scratchpad to work with.

I can hardly wait to return.

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