In the Land of the Long White Cloud

Touring New Zealand by Triumph 1200 and F650 Beemer

Cycle World, May, 1995

By Peter Egan
Photos by David Edwards

"Here’s the key to your room, sir," the cheerful woman at the reception desk said." Would you like some nice fresh milk?"

She held out a cold, dripping carton of milk.

Okay. Non-sequitur time. My mind was addled for a moment. Maybe because I'd been on an airplane for 17 hours.

"Uh, thank you," I said, taking the carton. Perhaps it was the custom here to slam down a carton of milk every time you checked into a hotel room. Good health practice. Yet no one else in the lobby seemed to be drinking the stuff.

"It's for your afternoon tea" she said, smiling."There's a tea kettle in your room."

"Ah."

Needless to say, we weren't in Kansas anymore. We weren't even in Wisconsin or California. We were, in fact, about 1400 miles southwest of Oz, on the Colorado-sized twin-island nation of New Zealand, which I am here to tell you is a long way from anywhere, but none the worse for it.

More specifically, we were on a Beach's Motorcycle Adventure tour called the "Maori Meander," Editor Edwards and I. We'd boarded an airliner in L.A. just before midnight of an October's eve and awakened to a clear golden dawn over the endless blue South Pacific. An hour later the airplane banked and we could see New Zealand, or at least the long streaks of gray and white cloud that obscured New Zealand, off to starboard.

"Land of the Long White Cloud," was what the first Polynesian settlers, the Maoris (pronounced MAU-reez), had called these two big islands when they arrived in their open boats 1000 years ago. The mountaintops rising out of the sea make their own weather, forcing the moist Pacific air to rise and deliver.

Through holes in the broken ceiling we could see emerald-green sheep pasture and thick forest, then the mostly single-story houses and businesses of Auckland as the plane descended over Manukau Harbour (says the map) and landed. Lovely modern airport, but built on a human scale, just the right size. It's like landing on the set of Casablanca.

At the airport we hook up with Rob Beach himself, whose parents started this touring company (2763 West River Parkway Grand Island, NY 14072-2053 716/773-4960) in Europe, years ago. Rob, a former WERA roadracer, now lives in Niagara, New York, but leads New Zealand tours every chance he gets. He loves the country and has made a lot of Kiwi friends. We also meet the other seven members of our tour group-two married couples (the Werners from New Jersey and the Kulls from Florida) and several random single guys — and our other guide, a New Zealander from Christchurch named Bob Wilkins.

On the van ride from the airport it starts to rain. Hard. Someone asks Rob Beach what the weather forecast is like for the rest of the week.

"Hot and dusty," Rob says quickly, establishing a phrase that will be our standing joke for the rest of the tour.

It doesn't rain all the time in New Zealand, but it is seldom dusty. The climate, like the landscape, seems to combine elements of Washington state, Scotland, southern England and the Canadian Rockies. Also, October is early spring in New Zealand, about like March or April in the Midwest. We will end up using our raingear about every other day.

To say I've been looking forward to this trip would be an egregious understatement. First, there's the appeal of seeing a new country, which I know only from stunning travel posters and by reputation, for its legion of great racers, mountain climbers, bungee jumpers, yachtsmen, fighter pilots, ANZAC military heroes and other rugged outdoor risk-takers. It's a country where laughing at danger seems to be a national pastime.

And there is the added inducement that David Edwards and I are to ride a pair of new and (for us) untried bikes: a British Racing Green Triumph Trophy 1200 and a BMW F650 "Funduro." A big roadburner and a lightweight, agile single. Perfect yingyang combo.

The afternoon rain clears and we drive over to a large Harley/Honda/ Triumph dealership called, ambiguously, Shaft Motors to pick up the Trophy 1200. There we meet New Zealand's Triumph importer, a bearded, affable fellow named Geoff Robinson and I get to see my first new-generation Triumph in the flesh. It's stunning. Luminous dark green with Union Jack emblems. Handsome also are the Laverda-orange Speed Triple and the black Daytona. Hot damn; the Brits are back in business.

Geoff Robinson tells us the bikes have been virtually troublefree, and have been selling well to Harley owners who want more performance. The bikes, he says, have great appeal to traditionalists, as well as sportbike buffs. It turns out we will be borrowing two Triumphs, at least for the time being. One of Rob's BMW K75s has failed to make it to the hotel (trucking problems), so Shaft Motors is lending us the orange Speed Triple for a day or two. David and I do not protest.

As we leave the hotel the next morning, Beach reminds us about riding on the left side of the road. "All day long, I want you to say to yourself, 'Ride left, look right; ride left, look right,' so we don't have any accidents."

I smile to myself a private know-it-all smile, having had lots of experience riding in England. Then I almost pull out in front of a truck. "Ride left, look right; ride left, look right," I tell myself for the rest of the day. The mantra of the still-living.

On the first day of the trip I'm on the Trophy 1200 as we head southeast out of Auckland, along the coast and then back inland to Rotorua, which sounds to me like a kitchen appliance but is actually a very nice resort area. The Trophy is a big, fast comfortable sporttourer, with hard Givi bags attached for plenty of luggage room.

The motor makes no particularly interesting sounds, but it has the kind of torque you could use to move your house to a new location. It feels and sounds somewhat like my old ZX-11, but pulls a little harder and more usefully at the bottom end and is not quite so silky and explosively fast near redline. No handling vices, a big-hearted motor and ergonomics that are just right for all day sport-touring.

Where the 1200 Trophy exudes a kind of solid, head-of-the-family virtue, the Speed Triple is the wild, good-looking son who smokes cigarettes, runs around with girls and stays out too late. It is a lithe, low and fast caferacer that feels dense and compact, as if cast from a single billet. It also has one of the most charismatic engines to enrich our sport since Ducati got back on its feet. Responsive and punchy, it has a growly, torn-canvas exhaust note that cures depression, boredom and ailments of the nervous system.

The riding position looks extreme before you get on the bike, but it isn't. It's at least as roomy and moderate a layout as my 90OSS and the seat is better. I manage to hog this bike for the entire afternoon and would gladly ride it on the whole trip if it didn't have to go back to the dealer. This is a motorcycle with enough personality to warrant its own Richard Thompson song.

That first night on the road we stop on a lake near Rotorua-an area of geysers, bubbling mud ponds and steam fissures spewing forth sulfurous gasses — and go to a Maori territorial meeting house called a Marae. At the edge of the property we are greeted by a fierce-looking Maori warrior who does a traditional threatening speardance of warning and/or greeting, depending upon our intentions, which are good. So he lets us into the Marae for a visit and a dinner cooked on hot rocks in a large underground pit.

The Maori are a lively, self-assured people who did not exactly roll over and play dead when Captain Cook first landed Englishmen on these islands 200 years ago. In fact, a few early landing parties were greeted, measured up, cooked and eaten.

These days, the Maori are famous for their musical talent (Kiri te Kanawa, the great opera soprano, is Maori) and they sing for us some of the most beautiful, rhythmic, multipart harmonies I've heard. Our group is handed a guitar and expected to sing a song. After a brief huddle, we burst forth with "Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore." It turns out Ralph Werner of our group is an excellent guitar player and Mary Ann Kull has a professional class voice. The rest of us muddle through and everyone is happy. Thank God for scout camp musical training.

In the morning we rise early and don wetsuits for a whitewater raft trip down a nearby river gorge. Our raft guide is a lovely woman of outdoor radiant health (does no one look sickly in this country?) who says her name is "Ista."

"Beautiful name," I remark. "Unusual."

"Not unusual here," she says. "Ista is a name from the Old Testament."

Edwards and I look at each other for a minute, blankly. "Ali," David says, "Esther."

"Right," she says, "lsta."

After years of canoeing in Canada, I have learned to be wary of water that moves fast enough to rip your arms off. Nevertheless, we go through some heavy rapids, then over a 20-foot fall with me in the front of the raft and nose straight into the roiling water below like a Stuka with a broken elevator cable. I am flung out of the raft (holding onto a rope) and then flung back in, with a little help from Ista. Thrilling stuff, even if I have sprained my thumb and will spend the rest of the trip putting on my right glove with my teeth. Such is the price of glory.

Riding south toward Taupo, the road takes us through high timber country with areas of towering green volcanic cones and wonderful winding roads. The roads in New Zealand are nearly all paved with a coarse-grained blacktop that seems to provide excellent grip, wet or dry, and they are smooth and unblemished by frost heaves, expansion strips or potholes. A dream surface through a fantastic landscape that lends itself to endless curves. This is a great country for sportbikes — or any bike that is quick and light. As I discover.

Midway through the morning, I trade my 1200 Trophy for David's BMW F650. It takes me about 10 minutes to decide that this, like the Speed Triple, is a fine motorbike. Having written a whole column on this bike (see Leanings, April), I won't belabor the subject, but on tight, winding roads I can actually keep up with the flying Mr. Edwards, and I find myself laughing at muddy-road construction sites and awkward parking spots. The F650 looks ugly as a warthog to me, but it is pure pleasure to ride, and it has a great engine. As the week goes on, its handling and maneuverability cause me to reconsider my whole concept of motorcycle design, back toward the lean and spare.

Just north of Lake Taupo, we come across Huka Falls, where there is a geothermal power station, a prawn farm, a waterfall and some jetboat rides. So David and I naturally take a wild jetboat ride to see the waterfall and the power station, then eat prawns in garlic butter at a riverside restaurant. We are in the country of doing stuff, so we must do it. God forbid we should go half an hour in New Zealand without a new thrill. I manage not to sprain my thumb, but now have garlic breath.

After Lake Taupo, it's back to the east coast, along Hawke Bay to Napier. Vineyard country. New Zealand now produces a tremendous number of topflight wines, both red and white. Like the U.S., New Zealand has had a sort of revolution in food and wine over the past two decades, going from a meat and-potatoes Fifties culture to a land of fine restaurants and great wines.

The Kiwis may be a long way from anywhere, but they travel a lot (every young person is expected to have an OE, or Overseas Experience), and they bring good ideas home with them. The result is a remarkably cosmopolitan, open-minded and with-it population. Everything is up to date in Wanganui.

There is an oft-repeated (by Americans) myth that New Zealand is just like the U.S., only 25 years behind the times. But it seems to me we are ahead of them only in population growth, nihilistic violence, mean-spirited talk radio and the production of really stupid television shows. With any luck, they'll never catch up.

A sunny, late, cool afternoon finds us in the old mining town of Waipawa. David and I tour an old museum of local history and then meet our group in a nearby parking lot, where we are to meet our hosts for one of New Zealand's traditional "farm stays." It's a program that allows tourists to meet real people and stay on farms or sheep ranches. Our group is split in two, and David and I ride to the sheep ranch of Barbara and John Bibby, a 4000-acre slice of heaven on steep green hills overlooking the ocean, in terrain that reminds me of the California coast around Big Sur, but greener.

The Bibbys are charming, lively, well-traveled people whose children are grown and out of the house. John takes us on a late-afternoon Land Rover climb through the spectacular steep hills and then we have a roast lamb dinner that can't be beat and after-dinner drinks by the fireplace.

The Bibbys, for some reason, find themselves answering questions about local property values and the economics of sheep ranching. It has not escaped anyone's attention that this is a wonderful place to live. Imaginations soar into the night.

More supremely beautiful roads take us south toward Wellington, where we will board a ferry to go to the South Island. On the way south, we stop for lunch at a biker bar with a row of Harleys out front. Here we encounter the only New Zealanders of the trip who do not respond when we say hello. They've seen one too many American movies with bad actors playing dim bikers, and know exactly how they are supposed to behave. Life imitates artlessness.

Elsewhere on the road, we pass roving bands of vintage British bikes, Japanese sportbikes and a fair number of dual-purpose bikes rigged out for hard travel. New Zealand is a highly motorsports-conscious country, and seems to have far more than its fair per-capita share of motorcycles, sports cars, racetracks and transportation museums. English heritage and good roads make it almost inevitable.

Wellington, at the south tip of the North Island, turns out to be a lively port town with a Seattle flavor-and wind. The day we arrive, you can lean on the wind, unsupported; Marcel Marceau imitators are everywhere. This city is supposed to have 40 days a year when the wind blows at more than 60 mph. All of New Zealand, in fact, has been quite windy on this tour. The sky moves overhead quickly and, like England, it often feels more like a ship at sea than a large island.

We lash our bikes down in the hold of the car ferry, Isle-of-Man-style, and watch the north island disappear as the South Island hoves greenly and mountainously into view. Everyone has told us if we like the North Island, we will love the South Island. It's less populous, studded with the snow-capped Southern Alps, and generally wilder; kind of a large national park with the occasional city.

First impressions bear this out. Leaving Wellington and arriving at Picton is sort of like leaving Upper Michigan for Alaska. As we wend southward, deeper into the island, the ever-changing landscape becomes an unreal mixture of seashore, subtropical rain forest, cloud formations, volcanic peaks, pines, palm trees and giant fern-like fans of vegetation that seem left over from the Age of Dinosaurs, all held together with those same smooth, twisty, grippy roads. You don't know whether to ride or gape, so we do some of both.

We stay at Nelson and Westport, then head on to Fox Glacier, which is a product of the towering Mt. Cook. I dirt-track the Trophy down five miles of wallowing wet muddy road in a rainstorm to see the glacier, while Edwards rides the F650. Someday I will get even. The glacier is big. It is raining and cold.

We ride into clearing windy weather down to Queenstown, a pretty mountainside resort town on Lake Wakatipu, packed with expensive shops and hoards of Japanese tourists buying woolens and sheepskin coats. Unable to resist, I have my first hamburger of the trip at a cafe called Wisconsin Burger. I ask the waiter why it's called "Wisconsin Burger." He says, "I guess it just has a nice ring to it."

One of our group, Steve Reustle, returns to the hotel at night having just made a bungee jump from a high bridge on the nearby Shotover River. David and I look at each other. Our eyes narrow with resolve.

On the ride out of Queenstown, we stop at the famous old Kawarau Suspension Bridge (built 1881) on the Shotover Gorge, where the world's first bungee jump was made. The bridge is 143 feet above the river. We join a big busload of Japanese tourists who are watching some of their own tourmates bungee jump off the bridge. It is freezing cold, dark and windy, and David and I are wearing motorcycle boots, leather pants and nine layers of under wear and sweaters. Not dressed for it, we tell ourselves.

"Besides," David says, "it has never been my lifelong desire to commit suicide in front of a busload of Japanese tourists." We decide not to jump and ride on.

Twenty-five miles later I pull over, flip up my shield and say to David, "I've been thinking about that jump ......

"Me too."

"Let's's go back and do it. We'll never be here again."

"Right."

David Edwards - off you go!

Making like lemmings. The Editor (above)
shows perfect form in his leap from the
143-foot-high Kawarau Bridge; Egan
(below) loses points for a slight knee bend.

Peter Egan - Bungee Jumping!

So, we ride back, pay our money, get weighed (for bungee length), walk out on the bridge and get in line, David first. They wrap a towel and a nylon strap around the ankles of his motorcycle boots and latch the bungee to the strap. David tells them, "I'm kind of worried, because my boots are about two sizes too big for me. They're pretty loose."

The kid who hooks up the rope says, "If it feels like you're going to slip out and fall into the river, just curl up your toes."

David does not laugh as hard at this joke as you'd think.

The man just ahead of David jumps off the bridge and disappears from our sight. The kid looks over the edge and cries, "Oh, NO!"

"What happened'?"

"Ripped both his legs off!"

David smiles wanly. Then it's his turn.

He bravely jumps without hesitation and disappears into oblivion. Then I see he's been lowered into the tethered raft on the river below and returned to the riverbank. He is actually waving and smiling.

If there was ever anything that goes against 5 million years of human evolution, it is the concept of diving head first off a 143-foot bridge over cold rushing water with your feet tied together. There is a special place in your brain set aside for the express purpose of telling you not to do this thing.

Nevertheless, I jump. The moment of jump is an odd existential experience, but the stretch and triple recoil of the bungee is pure and simple whoopdee-doo fun, like being tossed in a blanket, and is surprisingly unstressful on the joints, muscles and spine. When you are lowered into the raft (like a side of beef) you feel relaxed, refreshed and loose. Another triumph of endorphins over reality.

David and I have a celebratory Been-There-Done-That Coke from a vending machine, put on our riding jackets and hit the road, feeling years younger.

Farther down the road we stop for coffee and hook up with our sometime riding partner Wayne Henneck, and then we come across Steve Reustle and Guy Crossley, two riding buddies who signed up for this trip together. It's one of the nice aspects of this tour that you can ride in a big group, a small group, with a partner or even alone (though this isn't recommended). You have a map and a bike, and the only requirement is to show up that evening at the next hotel.

On a couple of days we ride with Rob Beach, who is one of those fast, smooth, skilled riders who can go at any pace you care to set. But most days we just meander, going fast or slow as roads, mood and scenery dictate.

As on the Alpine trips I've taken, every night is essentially party night at the hotels, which are well-chosen for their local charm and color as well as mattress and shower-stall quality. We eat well, drink lots of good New Zealand beer, wander through towns and sit around fireplaces telling true stories. And making friends. It is an unavoidable part of group motorcycle tours (this is my fourth) that you make friends for life. This is a natural byproduct of hanging around with examples of the world's only known species of consistently superior human, the avid motorcyclist.

Cost of a two-week trip like ours, for solo riders is $2700, and an extra $1975 for a passenger, including motorcycle with unlimited mileage, dinner, breakfast and hotel. Airfare, lunches and gas are on you, as are drinks and roadside snacks. Single riders can also add $200 to that if they are not willing to share a room. For those who have time, Rob Beach prefers to lead a three-week tour ($3775 solo and $2850 for a passenger; $275 extra for private single room) because you can see so much more of the country, and there's a lot to see. Maybe when I retire.

On our last day we ride from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch a lovely city on a bay, backed up by steep mountain ridges and looking northwest onto a coastal plain of Kentish-looking farms and fields. We have some time to kill before flying out, so David, Bob Wilkins and I make a visit to the superb New Zealand Air Force Museum.

Naturally there is a guy there giving aerobatic rides in a nice old yellow Tiger Moth biplane (one of my all-time favorite airplanes), so I am forced by fate to sign up, put on a sheepskin jacket and go for a ride. Besides, it's almost lunchtime, and I haven't risked my life since breakfast.

Egan in a Tiger Moth

Christchurch looks lovely upside down from 3000 feet on a crisp sunny October day. It's an odd view, what with the green, rugged horizon hanging above the blueness of deep space, but a fitting last vision of the land down under.

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