Riding the Ring of Fire

Story and photos by Chris Creed

Canadian Biker, Aug. 1996

I woke up after dreaming about an earthquake. Later that evening I found out that it hadn't been a dream and the earthquake had measured five plus on the Richter Scale. The earth's crust is thin underneath New Zealand and the country gets its share of quakes almost 400 a year. But it wasn't the hope of having the earth shake under my feet that brought me to New Zealand. Rather it was the thought of spending two weeks riding the twist and turns of a country that moves from sheep-grazing pastureland to rain forest to glacier-bound alpine meadow.

I was in Dunedin, the morning of my earthquake dream, on the third day of a two-week tour of New Zealand's South Island. I was sharing the tour, arranged through Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, with 16 other riders and four tour members. Beach's are a New York-based family with hundreds of thousands of miles of combined riding experience. They've been planning European adventure tours for riders since the 1960s and New Zealand trips for the last seven years.

Although Beach tours stress individual exploration, they take care of details like airline and hotel reservations, route planning and itineraries, and they arrange for the motorcycles. The tours are conducted by family members like Rob Beach, who accompanied us and provided the expertise in local riding conditions. Rob's logged over 150,000 miles on motorcycles and has coached at the BMW Club's Europa Fahrerlehrgang Riding School. He also offers riding seminars for each tour he conducts, so tour members who might be feeling a little rusty can fine-tune those riding skills.

Our bikes on parade

Our bikes on parade

We were a mixed bunch on the tour: Americans, Canadians, English, Australians and Dutch. We all had our own reasons for coming, but for most of the riders, New Zealand was a dream trip-the kind you wait years to take. New Zealand is particularly appealing as a winter getaway for Canadians because the country's seasons are inverted-when it's winter in Canada, New Zealand is enjoying summer. Still others were using the New Zealand tour as a jumping-off point for other destinations. The common denominator was the love of riding and a yearning to explore places new to them. In a sense, New Zealand is a new place for most of the world. The country has been inhabited only for the past thousand years. The Maoris were the first to arrive in this place at the edge of the Pacific, and Europeans didn't come along to colonize until the 19th Century. New Zealand is so far removed from established routes that even most animals couldn't find their way to the beautiful island and New Zealand's only indigenous mammal is the bat! The lack of predators, poisonous spiders and snakes makes New Zealand a paradise for campers who aren't wild about waking up with something slithery curling around in their sleeping bags or sharpening its fangs on their skulls.

New Zealand is divided into two major land masses, the North and the South Islands, with many smaller islands bunched in tight. It stretches out to a length of 1,600 kilometres and no one point is ever further than 75 kilometres from the ocean. The islands are situated in a Pacific Ocean hotspot sometimes called the Ring of Fire because volcanoes, geysers and earthquakes are commonplace. But the islands are also dotted with lakes, rainforests and farms. Beautiful rivers thread their way through the 17 mountain ranges and Mount Cook, at almost 13,000 feet, towers over the landscape. The North Island geography is punctuated by volcanoes while the South Island's spine is the Southern Alps, a place where glaciers sweep down into the rainforest. Temperatures in New Zealand range between 50� and 85�F, but it's a few degrees cooler in the South Island. Both islands receive snow in the winter which falls between the months of June and August, while the summer months are December to February. Continual winds blow over the country and the rainfall on South Island is far greater on the west side of the Southern Alps. New Zealand's economy is very close to Canada's-their dollar trades at about the same rate as Canada's and agriculture is the main industry. Gasoline costs about a dollar per litre, a cheap meal will run you about $6.50 and a cheap hotel room will cost $30 and upwards.

Because of the timing of my flight, I flew into the eastern coastal city of Christchurch one day behind the group. Beach's rep Allison Fitzgerald met me at the airport and, although I had never met the woman before, it was easy to recognize her as part of the tour: she was the only one at the airport holding a helmet. But, I was wired for sound after 18-plus hours in the air and there was no way I was going to do any riding on that first day. I caught up with the group the next day in Twizel, southwest of Christchurch, and from there we rode back toward the coast to Dunedin. Coming from North America, I had some trouble adjusting to driving on the left-hand side of the road but I soon geared myself toward "thinking left, looking right." Actually I seemed to have more trouble crossing roads when I was on foot than when I was riding. Also, New Zealand is very much a pastoral country and I found that one hazard of riding its rural roads are sheep and cattle crossing at unexpected places.

I spent the day around Dunedin, touring and visiting farms. I took pictures of deer, sheep and the spectacular mountains. I took a quick spin up Baldwin Street, the world's steepest road. Baldwin rises up out of a valley suburb and tilts upward at 33 degrees. You blow a shift running up this hill and you'll be sidewinding back down in a big hurry. Dunedin is considered the wealthiest city in New Zealand. It has a population of around 100,000 and was once the site of a major gold rush. New Zealand's economy is mainly agricultural but it does have a mining legacy which is a part of the country's colourful collage.

From Dunedin we turned west on a route that would eventually circumnavigate the South Island and lead us back to Christchurch. We covered 300 to 400 kilometres a day and while the riders were all at different skill levels, the itinerary offered different routes for those riders who were the least comfortable with the twists and switchbacks of some of the more challenging places. We were riding newer BMW F650 Singles or Triumph Tridents provided for Beach's by John Raines of Te Waipounamu Tours. The tour featured a support van to trail behind the riders which was an added bonus, because it allowed the riders to bring along the creature comforts and extra luggage; so we didn't have to stuff two weeks' gear into our saddlebags. The van also meant support in case of a breakdown in some remote location. Most other New Zealand tours do not offer van support and this feature was a major factor in some people's decision to take the Beach's tour. At night we'd stop at motels and the group would gather for supper and to plan the next day's route. We usually travelled in our own sub-groups because we all had different venues we wanted to explore, so the evening mixers were a good time to sit around with a beer and share experiences. We all found New Zealanders to be great people: conservative, down-to-earth folk who were always willing to open up to strangers. They may have found the concept of a group of bikers travelling en masse to be a bit strange but we were well-received regardless. There was absolutely no antagonism towards bikers.

Arthurs Pass, South Island

Arthurs Pass, South Island

Past Dunedin we went on to Te Anau and through Mossford, the windiest place in New Zealand. The big wind blasts made me grip the handlebars a little tighter, my knuckles turned white and my hands went numb from the effort. As part of the tour the group was broken up for a two-day farmstay at different farms. My group visited John and Florence Pine's farm at the edge of Fiordland National Park. Next day we took a trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound, 120 kilometres up the west coast. Along the road into Milford I passed through a tunnel which has to be ridden to be experienced. The road leads you straight into the tunnel, which abruptly drops into seeming oblivion. You're riding down in pitch dark, with only the sound of your engine bouncing off the walls as you crack the throttle, until you're spit out the other end into a rainforest valley complete with waterfalls. What a trip!

Our next stop was Queenstown, a ski resort with a population of about 3,000. The town has a cable car which rises 1,500 feet above the town and from that point you get a great view of the beautiful mountain range and lake near the town. Here you can go whitewater rafting, ride a jetboat or bungee-jump from a 300-foot bridge. Just outside of Queenstown is Arrowtown, a historic gold-mining site. I came across campers panning gold and happily pulling small nuggets out of the creek. After Queenstown, we rode on to Fox Glacier further up the coast. The road up to Fox Glacier crosses over the spine of the Southern Alps. It's a narrow, winding route knotted by switchbacks and is the boundary of an imposing wilderness. The road looks down on emerald lakes, rainforests and a rugged back-country where trappers and hunters make their living. Although the region experiences 250 inches of rain a year, we lucked out and the sun stayed in the sky.

Fox Glacier, South Island

Fox Glacier, South Island

I had never been on a glacier before and as part of the tour package, Beach's chartered a helicopter to lift us to the top of the big ice formation. Fox Glacier is one of only two in the world that are known to descend into a rainforest and it makes for a genuine contrast. After Fox Glacier, we rode on through Hanmer Forest Park, 300 kilometres away, and seven of us went jet boating at Hanmer Springs while another seven, on a dare, went bungee-jumping. In places like Hanmer Forest, you can see the kea, a trouble-making but friendly bird with an appetite for rubber and plastic. With the kea around, a rider has to consider that leaving an unattended bike might be like ringing a dinner bell.

Hanmer Springs was a great place to unwind, wash off the dirt of a day's ride and think about the trip up the coast to the city of Nelson. The road to Nelson threads through the forests of Spenser Mountains, Victoria and Nelson Lakes. We were warned that clouds of wasps swarm parts of the road and a rider better have his jacket zipped tight. Nothing like the feel of a few yellowjackets inside your shirt to throw your concentration off shifting gears and leaning into the curves. It was cold in the morning and I pulled on my Teknic all-weather riding jacket. Specialty Sports supplied the jacket for the trip and I was glad to have it along-it's fully waterproof and is just the ticket for keeping out the rain, wind or wasps.

Nelson is at the end of Tasman Bay near the tip of South Island and is said to be the sunniest city in New Zealand. The road into Nelson is full of sweeping turns and switchbacks. Nelson is also a fishing and logging community and riders have to watch for logging trucks rolling up and down the highways. Nelson was the point where the group began the return trip to Christchurch. I took the inland route to Greymouth and spent some time collecting stones at the Tasman Sea before setting out to Christchurch. The road back to Christchurch crosses two passes through the Southern Alps. Arthur's Pass is the highest pass in the Southern Alps; it's a wild road and I had to watch for any falling rock that might smack into my bike, my head or onto the road directly in front of me.

I spent one last day with the group in Christchurch before flying home, but I came to feel that New Zealand is a space I'd plug into again. The climate and flip-flopped seasons make it a perfect winter getaway; it's small enough that getting around isn't a hassle and big enough to accommodate some wild changes in terrain. Mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, forest reserves, deer, sheep farms and twisting roads are part of a landscape that's made for riding, and Beach's expertise made two weeks in New Zealand a tour I won't forget.

Editorial Contributions by John Campbell

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