The Great Escape

By John Ullberg

John and Martha Ullberg spent from Jan 6 to Jan 27, 1996 riding through New Zealand in the company of 18 other escapees from the "Mid-winter, Three Months 'til the Bike is Out of the Garage, Northern Hemisphere Blues".

This is our story:

To start with let me warn you that I use a lot of superlatives in the description of this trip. Believe every one of them. This trip made my honeymoon seem ho-hum.

The Maori Meander - The Trip

What can I say? Four to six hours a day (mostly sunny, warm and sixteen hours long) in the saddle. Stop to explore fabulous countryside at will. Hang out with bikers from all over the world. Try out new hardware. Spend "quality time" with sheep ranchers and Maori natives. Travel through continuously changing landscape filled with big sky, fresh air and crystal clear daylight. If it cost twice as much to do again it would be worth it. That's the summary- here are some details:

New Zealand - The Country
Landscape

You've probably heard that New Zealand is full of variety. That's true. What is wonderful about touring by motorcycle is that you feel all that variety and tie it all together in a linear package. I looked at a map last night and had no trouble at all recalling the experiences of passing over all segments of the roads.

One, not atypical day, started on the west coast of the south island crossing flat farmland that rose to snow-covered mountains on the left and fell to oceanfront on the right. In an hour we were climbing hills that were close against the Tasman Sea.

Soon we were headed west to cross the mountains, following the trace of snow fed rivers of turquoise green. Within an hour we crossed from a landscape fed by 300 inches of rain per year to a landscape fed by 15 inches. Now we were riding roads that overlooked long glacial lakes much like the finger lakes but brilliant green and free of any human settlement.

By afternoon we were back on flat farmland enroute to Queenstown where we finished the day by riding a gondola up to a mountainside restaurant for dinner. Boredom was not a problem.

Kiwis - the People

New Zealanders are cool. "Not a problem mate," is the usual response to a request or what we might see as a crisis. They seem to know how to enjoy life. And there are just enough of them. New Zealand's population is about three and a half million spread over a territory the size of Colorado. And most of that number are in the cities- Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin.

New Zealand's Roads

The roads are nearly exclusively two lane blacktop. Lots of twisty turnies in the hilly bits. Many one lane bridges, some shared with railroad tracks!

Learning to stay left instinctively and how to negotiate the roundabouts without looking the fool or, worse yet, being the fool, are a challenge but not as difficult as one might think. You share the road with small cars, (usually well-controlled), trucks (usually fast), tour buses, (usually inconsiderate), camper vans, (usually blind), and livestock or farm machinery, (usually doing their own thing).

I'm told that the European alps roads are much more to the hard-core rider's liking but I couldn't be happier than I was sweeping back and forth through the hills.

The Tour Route

We started in Auckland on the north island, traveled north to spend two days in Russell then worked south over the following week to Wellington. A three hour ferry ride took us to the south island where we spent the next two weeks working down the rugged west coast then crossed the island and zig zagged up to the grand finale in Christchurch.

The People on the Tour

There were twenty of us including tour leader Rob Beach and New Zealander Bob Wilkins. Six bikes were ridden two-up. Six were one-up and there was a van to accompany us, carry bags and provide mobile repair facilities. There were six women and twelve men. One woman rode solo.

The daily routine

The day actually began the night before. We gathered together for dinner where we socialized, compared the day's experiences and scoped out the following day's riding. After that we were on our own. We could group together with others or make our ways however we wished as long as we made it to the next hotel by 7:30 that evening.

Needless to say, in a group of this size and the nature of the travel being on the risky side of "safe" there would be occasional lapses among the participants that cried out for recognition from time to time. Any screw-up observed by our ever-vigilant mates required full confession and penance at dinner where the gathered party could get their digs in before each of THEM screwed up.

Ages/experience levels

I was surprised to be, at 54, one of the younger members of the tour. On the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the vigor and riding skills of the seniors. This tour seems to serve those of us who are resuming life after kids.

Bonding

You can imagine that an experience like this promotes wonderful interpersonal connections. I couldn't hope to give justice to this aspect of the trip so won't even try.

The Riding
Riding styles covered the gamut

Some folks were Harley owners (actually split personalities who owned both Harleys and Beemers), four Gold Wing and ST1100 owners, a few ('til they can afford the Britten) Ducati wannabe's, and the rest rice burners. No BMW purists.

Five distinctive patterns developed: One couple was no-nonsense- get on the road early and enjoy the riding. They were always first to the destination. A couple of single riders were determined to squeeze every kilometer they could out of their three weeks. One of these people was an American living in China where he was not permitted to drive a car, much less a motorcycle. A group of easy riders who had no desire for acrobatics or endurance generally traveled together, took their time and enjoyed the countryside. One member of the tour was making his fifth trip. He knew New Zealand pretty well by now and had no particular need to string along so we would encounter him on the road from time to time but with long spaces in between.

The rest of us mixed it all together. The common thread though was a fairly uniform sense of independence. No-one wanted to be lead along the way.

The bikes

Would not win a beauty contest. Pretty rugged, hard worked bikes- a couple of BMW R/GS's, a couple of Suzuki 800's, a Honda Bros, a K75, a nice R1100GS, a couple of BMW 650 Funduros, and two Triumph Trident 900's. The Triumphs were almost new and I was happy to be riding one of them. A very quick bike, not to be confused with a tourer. The top three gears might as well have been one.

Road condition

Very uniform, usually good firm base- occasional extended encounters with "shingle" (gravel) roads. Except in cities you could ride miles without seeing a car in any direction. Usually two lane with passing permitted almost anywhere.

Adventure aspect vs. security aspect

Let's face it, riding is an adventure and that is why most of us ride. The tour was not disappointing in this respect. There were many surprises each day, some welcome, some not. The occasional decreasing radius curve, the top-heavy bike in loose gravel, etc.

The biggest adrenaline rush for Martha and me came when, after riding through a driving downpour, we entered a three quarter mile long tunnel that was unpaved, unlighted and we were being tailgated by a car. It was instrument navigation sans instruments.

Mileage

I put in something on the order of 2,800 miles. Others put in much more I am sure.

The Weather

We were never excessively hot and only once or twice were cold. We had three or four half-days of rain but were never uncomfortable. The predominant condition was bright crisp sunshine. More than normal, we were told.

What did we DO besides ride and rest?

One of the things that sets New Zealand apart is its offerings of nature thrill rides. Bungee jumping, parapenting, sky diving, jet boating, rafting, mini-rafting, helicopter rides, aerobatic flights, and on and on.

Queenstown was the place where all of this seemed to reach wretched excess. People on the tour got into feeding frenzies trying to squeeze in the most number of thrills in the shortest span of time. Fun but beside the point.

Unrealized concerns

I have to confess that there were times in the planning stages when I had hoped that I was going solo. Martha and I are fair-weather riders with not a lot of mileage under our belts. I wasn't sure how comfortable, or uncomfortable she would be and what the consequences of discomfort would be.

I was way off base. She not only did not hold me back, she gave brilliance (a frequently heard Kiwi term) to the whole affair. We have never had such concentrated fun before in our lives. Best of all it was a shared experience that we will always be able to turn back to.

One final note

Keep an eye on Rider Magazine for an article about the tour. A writer for the magazine, Bill Heald, accompanied us and will be writing it up. (Bill's article appeared in the August, 1996 issue of RIDER.)

John Ullberg 2/22/96

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