While I sipped champagne in my lofty perch aboard a 747 35,000 feet over the Pacific, a nagging thought kept rolling through my mind: All my life, I had tended to stay to the right, but in a few hours, I would become a Leftist. Rather than contemplating politics, I was thinking about which side of the road I would be riding my motorcycle on.
The reason for my concern involved my destination, a charming country some folks call the Land Under the Land Down Under. Others just call it New Zealand, and I was intent on using this setting to help cleanse the working world from my mind through a miraculous process known as therapy.
My arrival point was Auckland, where I would join a group of riders from all over the world and meet my hosts, Rob Beach and Bob Wilkins of Beach's Motorcycle Adventures. For three weeks, I'd be touring New Zealand on Beach's Maori Meander excursion.
Located about 1,400 miles to the southeast of Australia, New Zealand sits midway between the equator and the South Pole. It is made up of two geographically diverse islands, with a total land area the size of Colorado.
No matter how much international riding you have under your belt, the country's wealth of natural and cultural attractions is enough to keep even the most jaded motorcyclist entertained. The scenic diversity that characterizes each day's ride is matched only by the variety of recreational distractions available once you reach your destination.
They tend to do things a little differently in this corner of the southern hemisphere. In addition to driving on the left side of the road, the seasons are reversed compared to our calendar. Even water swirls down the drain in the opposite direction from the way we are accustomed - quite a treat if you appreciate such atmospheric nuances.
Unusual rituals are commonplace in this country. Hurling oneself off abridge is considered a recreational activity rather than a form of suicide. Bungee jumping got its start here, which tells you something about the fun-loving demeanor of the natives.
While Australians are known as "Aussies," New Zealanders are nicknamed "Kiwis" after a bizarre native bird which has chosen to remain pedestrian. Although the predominant language is English, native dialects are still spoken in the tribal settlements of the Maori, direct descendants of the Polynesians who settled here nearly a thousand years ago.
Beach's Motorcycle Adventures' method of touring this strange, wonderful country takes the worry out of foreign travel while leaving riders free to blaze their own trails. The system is simple: The night before a travel day, the group is given a rundown of the next destination, including selected routes, places of interest, suggested lunch spots, and any relevant information that might help you plan your itinerary.
All you have to do is show up at the correct hotel the next evening, where the luggage van will deliver any items you didn't want to haul around on your motorcycle. You have the option of riding alone, with group members, or with either Rob or Bob, depending on who pulled van duty for the day.
During my trip, the available motorcycles included BMW's R80 and 8100 GS models, as well as the new F650 Funduro. Suzuki aficionados could ride either a VX800 or GS 1100, and Yamaha and Honda were represented by an XJ900 and a BROS650 (that's a Hawk GT) respectively. Finally, the British heritage of the country was acknowledged by a brace of Triumph Tridents, adding some quiet dignity to our eclectic ensemble.
Our first week's ride on the North Island was characterized by rolling hills and forests, alternating with farms and sheep ranches. Those first few days previewed just about every type of road we would encounter during our trip. It's safe to say that no matter what type of riding you enjoy - from take-noprisoners apex carving to sedate cruising - you'll be comfortable. Once out of the major population centers, traffic is typically light, and riders can concentrate on the scenery.
North Island highlights include the Bay of islands, an area rich in Maori history as well as a haven for the sailing set. The town of Russell was once called the "Hellhole of the Pacific" due to a wild reputation during its whaling days, but it is now a peaceful resort community with great restaurants and marlin fishing.
Farther to the west, we motored through tropical forests populated by gigantic ferns whose enormous fronds gave the route a prehistoric atmosphere and concealed some rare kauri trees just off the highway. A short walk from our motorcycles revealed these centuries old survivors, ancient giants as awesome to behold as California's sequoias.
The country's accommodations vary almost as much as the terrain itself. Some hotels offer amenities comparable to high-quality chains in America, while others are more spartan but always clean and comfortable.
We spent one evening near Okere Falls on a marae (Maori sacred land), where we slept in a community gathering house as guests of the Te Arawa tribe. The evening's feast featured traditional Maori food and entertainment, leaving our group filled in both body and spirit.
Farm stays are another great way to meet the residents of New Zealand. Outside of Waipawa, we broke into smaller groups and stayed on working sheep farms. The home-cooked meals were as welcome as the excellent company. There's no better way to learn about a country's history, culture, and politics than chatting over dinner with some of its most amiable representatives.
Kiwis are famous for being friendly, gracious folks; it's a reputation well deserved. On more than one occasion when I was shooting pictures in isolated areas, locals would stop to see if I was OK and then fill me in on the history of the area. Their warmth makes New Zealand an explorer-friendly paradise.
Our last days on the North Island were characterized by a rich variety of scenery. Constantly changing surroundings made for superb riding, and the daily contrasts were typified by an afternoon's visit to the steaming thermal pools of Rotorua, followed by sampling the frigid waters of Wairere Falls a half hour later.
While it's clear that New Zealand's natural architecture rivals any other in the world, many man-made structures are impressive as well. Riding through the coastal town of Napier was especially interesting because, in 1931, a massive earthquake destroyed most of the downtown area. When rebuilt, the builders "embraced Art Deco with a vengeance," as Rob Beach puts it. The result is perhaps the most complete town of this style in the world.
Serpentine rides along unspoiled coastlines led to inland blasts through pristine valleys, and the delicious blacktop finally brought our intrepid band to the city of Wellington. The port was our embarkation point, and after bidding a fond farewell to the North Island, we strapped our bikes to the cargo deck of the ferry and crossed the Cook Strait to the sparsely populated South Island.
This side of New Zealand is more mountainous, and from the moment you leave the port in Picton, the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. The farther west we rode, the better it got, with the most rewarding day of riding beginning where the Grey River meets the coast.
The morning consisted of an invigorating romp along the water's edge south of Greymouth, changing to a slower waltz through exotic woodlands by noon. A post-lunch excursion through ranch land (briefly delayed by rush hour traffic of the woolly variety) guided us into glacier country, where mountains took the place of pastures.
Riding through the Southern Alps, we navigated our motorcycles through an exhilarating series of curves, made more memorable by the Franz Josef Glacier, which appeared bent on engulfing us. The glacier's maximum speed is less than a mile a year though, so the wall of ice is easy to evade. The experience was surpassed only by a trip up to the Fox Glacier by helicopter.
It's impossible to impart a true taste of my Maori Meander without mentioning my traveling companions, for these are some of the most dynamic individuals I have ever had the pleasure of riding with. They represent different walks of life and different countries, but have one thing in common-they live life to the fullest.
When these adventurers, ranging in age from late 40s to early 70s, weren't riding, they were white-water rafting, hanggliding, jet-boating, dancing, you name it. I'm half the age of most of these people, and I couldn't keep up.
The aggressive way my companions spent their vacation sums up what New Zealand is all about. There is no place on earth that offers more fantastic things to do in such a diverse and unique setting, and you won't find more gregarious hosts than the Kiwis. To fully appreciate this island country, you should explore it by motorcycle, and Beach's Motorcycle Adventures makes it a totally painless way to travel. They even made being a Leftist a rewarding experience.
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