A Tour Review - New Zealand with Beachs

By Karen Richardson

New Zealand is a very scenic country, with friendly, relaxed people, and a motorcycle tour was a terrific way to experience all of it. We were there from Jan. 30 to Feb. 17, (which is late summer in New Zealand) and spent 12 of those days riding. The tour was organized by Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, an American company that has been in this business for many years, guiding tours of New Zealand and the European Alps.

Our group consisted of 19 people (including two guides) driving 12 motorcycles and a luggage van. We were the only Canadians, and, other than a Dutch couple from Singapore, and our two New Zealand guides, the rest of the group were Americans. Ages ranged from 30s to 60s. Everyone was really nice and we made a few closer friendships with two or three couples. We rode with Kasey and Cindy Doolin, who were from Los Angeles.

The tour company provided locally rented motorcycles (we chose a 650cc BMW Funduro), and we brought our own helmets, boots, gloves and riding suits. The tour included accommodations and breakfasts, and all but two dinners. The food in New Zealand is excellent; our favorites were the lamb, fresh mussels and salmon, and a melt-in-your-mouth dessert called Pavlova. Also included in the package were some wonderful extras, such as a cruise in a fjord, a gondola ride up to a restaurant high on a mountaintop, and a helicopter ride to a glacier (which was canceled due to bad weather).

Each evening after dinner, our tour guide would speak to us for a few minutes about the itinerary for the following day, offering several scenic routes, famous or interesting places to see, road hazards to be aware of, good restaurants or pubs to stop for lunch, etc. We split up into small groups of two or three bikes each day, and usually rode from about 9:00 until 4:00 or so, stopping every now and then to stretch our legs, or to see something interesting, or to have lunch. Since there was a choice of different routes to take, we all had different stories and impressions of the day. Dinner started about 7:30, which allowed time beforehand to go for a walk, do laundry, catch up my trip diary, write a postcard, or whatever. Generally our group went to bed shortly after dinner, because we all wanted to be up before 7:00 in the morning. After all, the focus of the trip was motorcycle touring.

I chose to ride on the back of John's bike, rather than drive my own bike, so I could take pictures while we were on the move. I took almost 500 photos, most of them taken while I was holding onto the bike with my knees as we swooped around curvy, hilly roads. (I had a lot of faith in my driver!) We had asked to have a backrest on our bike, to make photography easier, but found backrests not available.

I did have an opportunity to drive one of the bikes for about 5 km on our last day, as I ferried a 600cc Yamaha back to the rental company. I felt kind of off balance, driving on the left. John did a great job driving in the wrong lane for two weeks, and we had no mishaps. One other couple did have a minor accident on the third day, dumping the bike on a high mountain road in the rain. The driver broke his collarbone and so the couple had to ride in the luggage van for a few days until they could arrange a rental car which the passenger could drive.

We had a variety of weather for the tour, from sunshine to typhoon, and covered all regions of the southern island. Most of the terrain was hills and mountains, with shallow gravelly rivers, and considerable rain forests on the west coast. Sheep were everywhere.

Temperatures ranged in the 60s and 70s, just nice for riding dressed in full gear. We only carried with us what we needed during the day (first aid kit, water, extra sweater and gloves, camera and film) and our luggage, which traveled in the van, was waiting for us in our hotel room each afternoon. One of the tour guides also rode a bike, and he watched for strays and made sure all of us reached our destination safely. We found the tour to be very well planned and a great way to explore a foreign country.

We flew Canadian Airlines and Air New Zealand, from Toronto to Honolulu to Auckland (north island) to Christchurch (south island). The trip there took 30 hours total, and the trip home took 26 hours. I enjoyed the flights, reading an entire book each way, and found the seating quite roomy and the food surprisingly good. We were very tired when we reached Christchurch, having had only a few hours sleep in 48 hours.

Christchurch is a lovely, clean and very British city, with emphasis on trees, parklands and cultural activities. We stayed there for three days before our tour, and two days after, and tried to see as much as we could in that time. Our motel was about a 20-minute walk from the downtown area, so we hiked everywhere. The weather was nice and sunny. The old university campus was made into an Arts Centre, showcasing superb art such as pottery, blown glass, woodturning (we bought a lovely Rimu wood vase there), paintings, clothing, jewelry, and live music. We took a ride up the Gondola in the mountain beside the city, to see the view of the city, harbour and surrounding golden hills.

We walked for several hours in the huge Botanical Gardens to see the flowers and unusual trees. (We noticed that almost all homes in New Zealand have lovely flower gardens, which were in late summer bloom when we were there. We saw lots of roses, dahlias, hollyhocks, and torch lilies during our stay.) We toured several fine art galleries and Canterbury Museum (exhibiting Maori and Antarctic history), and found everything to be of a high caliber. There was a Strawberry Fields festival held in the park while we were there, so we joined in. It was a free outdoor concert of music from the 60s and 70s. Families were there, sitting on the grass with their hampers of food and wine and beer, and not a policeman or security guard in sight. Very civilized. We also enjoyed a Wine and Food Festival in the park, which involved sampling the wares of 20 wineries and 40 restaurants, with the money going to charity.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR TOUR:

Otago Peninsula had spectacular mountain riding, with lots of sheep dotting the hillsides below us. John thought it was pretty funny to see 100 km speed limit signs on a twisty, narrow road full of hairpin bends and sheer drop-offs on either side, with no guardrails.

The group reassembled for lunch one day on the sunny patio of an orchard farm in the central southern region. The farm was a large apple orchard, with a wonderful collection of perennial gardens, greenhouses and huge walnut trees, plus a large barn devoted to the restoration of classic cars and motorcycles. Most interesting for everyone.

My favorite part of the trip was when we stayed two nights on a sheep farm in the mountainous south western region. (Our group was divided among a half dozen farms.) We had two lovely lamb dinners, with lots of fresh vegetables, all grown on the farm. The farmer, his wife, and daughter were very hospitable and we talked for hours about life on the farm. He drove us to the top of the mountain behind the farmhouse, so we could get a good view of his 8500 acre property. Wow! We saw sheep being drafted (lambs and ewes separated into two separate flocks). There were 7000 sheep and 300 beef cattle on the farm. The farmer gave us a sheepdog demonstration, with both types of dogs, eye dogs and huntaways. Huntaways move the sheep by barking and running at them, and eye dogs are silent, controlling the sheep by staring at them and running. On the last evening, some neighbor lads came by in their pickup truck to show us the big wild boar they had killed on our farmer's land. It was a black monster with huge tusks. After the first night at the farm, we made a day trip to take a cruise on Milford Sound, which is a large fjord in the rainforest region of the west coast. Riding there and back was a magnificent experience , like being in a smaller version of the Canadian Rockies, complete with tunnel. The steep mountain walls of the fjord were incredibly high. The large sailing ship we were on took 3 � hours to go from one end of the sound to the other and back again. We saw seals sleeping on the rocks, waterfalls, and long white vertical scars on the mountains, caused by tree landslides.

Queenstown is a small town on a mountain lake, home to every daredevil sport you can name, from heli-bungey to river sledging. We were there for two days, and managed to fit in a walk all around town and through the botanical gardens; a gondola ride to the restaurant and lookout above Queenstown; an exciting ride on a 350hp jet boat on the Shotover River; a motorcycle ride to the top of a nearby ski hill to see the view over the valley, and to lunch in Arrowtown (a refurbished village from the gold rush days); and a thrilling but grueling ride on mountain trails on 4 wheel ATVs. Some of our fellow tourers went bungey jumping there, with mixed reviews. We decided not to risk it. New Zealanders are very active and involved in outdoor sports of all kinds. We saw lots of cyclists and backpackers during our tour.

We drove through a typhoon between Queenstown and Fox Glacier. It rained all day, and some bikes had to take a detour when an underpass flooded. By the time we reached our hotel that night, everyone was soaked through no matter what waterproof gear he or she had on. We were driving through rain forests thick with fern trees and waterfalls, beautiful despite the weather. All the rivers we passed were brown and overflowing with floodwater. We saw glowworms that night.

There were many lovely souvenirs available in New Zealand. Greenstone (jade) is mined there, so I bought several pieces of jade and paua shell jewelry. Of course, wool sweaters were everywhere, and I brought home a hand knitted Merino wool pullover, soft enough to wear over bare skin.

Hanmer Springs had a lovely spa at a natural hot spring, and we spent several hours treating our stiff muscles to a soak in the warm pools there.

Queen Charlotte Drive along the north coast was very pretty, winding around the mountain curves, overlooking the soft blue ocean. We got drenched in a sudden downpour as we entered the city of Nelson. The next day we walked all over the city, looking at interesting homes, gardens and excellent craft shops, and enjoyed the local seafood.

We spent our anniversary on Valentine's day in the hamlet of Westport on the northwest coast, and were presented with a heart-shaped cake that said Happy 20th John & Karen after dinner that night. We took a side trip to Cape Foulwind to see the seal breeding colony there. The pups were only a few months old, so the mother seals were still there nursing them. Very interesting (and noisy).

The pancake-like rock formations at Punakaiki were very impressive. Powerful wave action has carved the cliffs into unusual shapes. The west coast of New Zealand looks very much like the west coast of California.

We rode from the west coast back to Christchurch (on the east coast) by going over the central Alps at Arthurs Pass. The hairpin bends were pretty challenging, but John managed fine. The sun shone, water tumbled down rocky creeks, and the mountains on all sides were carpeted in green forests, punctuated with scarlet-flowered rata trees. It was a diamond day, and the last day of our motorcycle tour.

We hope to explore other countries of the world on the back of a bike. You meet the nicest people on motorcycles, and you really experience the land when you are out in the elements. We wouldn't mind a little less of the wet variety next trip, though!

�1997 Karen Richardson

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