The Other Side of the Planet

Across New Zealand on a magnificent Maori Meander

Rider Magazine, August, 1996
Story and photography by Bill Heald

"New Zealand is the way life in the United States used to be. Or, perhaps more precisely, the way life was meant to be."

Next weeks sweater

Next week's sweater

This intriguing statement comes from Beach's Motorcycle Adventures' Maori Meander Tour Book, the bible to their three-week New Zealand motorcycle tour and a critical document in my life at the moment. The reason for this book's importance is that I'm sitting aboard Air New Zealand's Mataatua, a 747-400 that is en route to Auckland and Beach's New Zealand expedition. I'm amazed when I consider that in just under 12 hours this movie theater with wings will transit the 6,500 miles from Los Angeles to the land of the Kiwi, completing my day's climate conversion from New England's winter to New Zealand's summer. I'll soon be riding on the other side of the planet, the other side of the road, and a day ahead of my loved ones in the States. I didn't know it at the time, but I would be in a world of endless isolated roads, native cuisine cooked underground, sheep, glaciers, fjords, more sheep, giant trees, awesome water falls, possums without silent letters at the front of their names, an extraordinary group of traveling companions, brilliant dogs, art deco architecture, still more sheep, rain forests, impressive plumbing, clean air, and (perhaps most important of all) Hokey-Pokey ice cream.

New Zealand is composed of two major islands, located roughly halfway between the equator and the South Pole. The population of 3.4 million resides in a land area about the size of Colorado (by comparison, the population of New York City is over twice that and crammed into the land area of a medium size sandbox). In other words, there's room to ride.

Our first day was spent in Auckland recovering from jet lag and meeting our tour companions, who had journeyed from as far away as England, Canada, America and China. We also met our guides and road messiahs, Rob Beach and Bob Wilkins.

Rob (as his last name implies) is a member of the Beach family, a jovial crew that has been in the motorcycle touring business for over 25 years (seven in New Zealand). In addition to being a walking encyclopedia of touring lore, Beach has ridden and raced just about everything with two wheels and possesses a tireless wanderlust that seems to be contagious. He also is superb at darts, but can be beaten provided he's distracted by a sufficient quantity of DB Draughts.

Bob Wilkins has worked with Beach on numerous adventures in New Zealand and Europe, where his wrenching and organizational abilities have helped keep tours running smoothly. As a native New Zealander he knows its roads, culture and history, and is a typical Kiwi in that he is friendly and resourceful. It was clear that with Beach and Wilkins looking after us we would be in excellent hands.

As for our two-wheeled pals, my companions were riding an interesting assortment of Beach machines including Suzuki VX800s, BMW R80 and R100GSs, a Honda Bros (that's a Hawk 650 GT to you and me), two BMW F650 singles, a brace of Triumph Tridents, and a BMW K75, Yamaha 900 and a Suzuki GS1100. The author managed to scam a BMW R1100GS, courtesy of John Glasswell and the fine chaps at BMW of New Zealand. This striking beast turned out to be the perfect mount for adventure touring because it's built for combat, and boasts a fuel capacity just slightly less than that of the 747 that brought us over.

Our examination of the North Island began with a trip up to Russell, a small town located on the eastern shore adjacent to the Bay of Islands. This first day of riding introduced us to just about every type of road condition we would encounter during our three weeks, including shingle roads and curvaceous bits of heaven that wound through pastures and forests. It also introduced us to riding on the left, fuel in liters, distance in kilometers and speed in kph.

Governors Bay, as seen from the Summit Road outside of Christchurch

Governors Bay, as seen from the
Summit Road outside of Christchurch

Rural New Zealand is fascinating, for this unique country blends the familiar with the unfamiliar in unexpected ways. For example, many of the cars appeared ordinary except for the fact that they were driven by dogs. Careful investigation revealed that since the steering wheel is placed on the right side of the vehicle, these clever canines were actually passengers rather than chauffeurs. Speaking of critters, it's rare to go very long on a highway without spotting a dead possum (which is not the familiar varmint from the States but a weird little gargoyle of a creature that destroys trees). Even rarer is a plot of open land that doesn't have sheep on it somewhere, excepting those occupied by cattle, horses or deer.

More than anything else, though, I think it's the trees in New Zealand that tell you you're in a different environment. Some look common but others appear bizarre and otherworldly, enough so that I half expected to see a band of Hobbits poking their heads around the trunks of some specimens. I'm not sure if Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien ever visited New Zealand, but I now feel I've ridden through Middle Earth.

A free day in Russell helped our bodies catch up with our heads and get acclimated to our new surroundings. This lovely little seaside community now thrives on tourism, but 150 years ago it was known as the "Hellhole of the Pacific." It seems that whaling crews used to stop here for a bit of liberty, and in the 1830s this tiny town sported 24 brothels, 30 grog shops, and nightly knifings and murders. It's considerably calmer today and an ideal vacation spot (plus a swordfisherman's paradise).

Maori Marae

A Maori Marae (meeting house)

Russell also marked my introduction to the Maoris, direct descendants of the Polynesians who originally settled in New Zealand centuries ago and today comprise about 13 percent of the population. As was the case with many territories in the Pacific, the landing of Captain James Cook in 1769 eventually led to British sovereignty in 1840. The Maoris were initially allowed to keep their lands, but the British with their military might soon confiscated or bought cheaply whatever they wanted. Today the Maoris have managed to regain some of their territory and are working hard to preserve their native culture. They're even sharing their traditions with their non-native neighbors (like visiting motorcyclists, for example).

Sometime during these early days we suffered our first injury, as the Triumph of Jack and Elaine Irving decided to viciously attack Elaine's ankle by hurling itself on the joint. A cast was the result, but after a day riding in the van with the luggage Elaine returned to the bike (which Jack had given a stern talking to) and the Scottish couple devised a way for her crutches to travel along with them. As I was to discover about all of my touring partners, these are hardy folk who came to ride and experience New Zealand to the fullest (come what may).

The daily scenario in the Beach Tour System starts with a briefing at dinner the night before covering suggested routes, places of interest, lunch, fuel and tea stops, and the next night's accommodations. You can then travel on your own, with members of the group, and/or with Beach or Wilkins, depending on who happens to be driving the van that day.

The next couple of days we sampled some of the North Island's most engaging roads, including superb twisties which were well engineered except for the occasional lack of a warning sign before unexpectedly abrupt turns. New Zealand's roads are a bitumen/gravel mosaic for the most part, offering excellent traction (except for the odd patch of loose gravel or animal exhaust). Road work is common, but long delays are rare.

One high point of the west coast of the North Island was the Waipoua National Forest, which is home to some of the last surviving kauri trees. These magnificent trees (which can live up to 2,000 years) regularly grow to a height of over 100 feet, with a circumference of nearly 70 feet. Sadly, most of the ancient kauri forests have been either plundered for lumber or cleared for agriculture, making them rare finds. These trees are protected now, but it takes them about a thousand years to reach their massive potential.

The next day I made a mistake in navigation, which in retrospect was a lot of fun. We were supposed to follow a straightforward route from Waiwera to Okere Falls; a critical destination because we had to meet at exactly 4:30 p.m. to be escorted to the Maori marae (meeting area) where we would be guests for the evening.

As is my usual procedure, I drafted a minimalist map to guide me but left a critical letter off one of the highways. Instead of going south toward Okere Falls I went north to the Coromandel Peninsula, or deep into the former stomping grounds of the Giant Moa.

New Zealand is a land of flightless birds, and the king of these was the Moa. These frightening beasts stood over 10 feet tall and could no doubt split a primitive motorcyclist in two with their massive feet. They've been extinct for centuries, although every once in a while someone sees one (a la Bigfoot).

I didn't see any of these monsters while lost, but I was treated to some fantastic scenery along Route 25 skirting the bay known as the Firth of Thames. Things turned nasty when I continued over unimproved roads , though, for they soon became seas of mud due to a morning rainstorm. It was here I realized something was definitely amiss, for I hadn't seen any of the other group members in hours and there was no mention of the road turning "primitive" during the previous night's briefing.

Fortunately, the mighty GS was up to the task of dealing with the muck and returned me to a gas station. Kiwis give great directions, but just remember when asking that highway numbers mean very little; it's your destination that counts. Once I was set on the right track I made an exhilarating beeline down to Okere Falls, where I managed to show up just in time.

Our stay on the marae of the Te Arawa Maoris gave us an intimate look at a unique culture. In order to be accepted into their meeting place our tribe had to follow their tribal protocol, starting with the testing of our warrior [Ivan Meyer, selected because a) his Harley-clad persona implies a potential for sudden violence, and b) he's from Chicago]. A speech from the elder of the group followed, ending with a song from all of us. Meyer accepted a peace offering from the warriors, Irvin Weber delivered an eloquent address that explained our motives, and finally our Musical Director (and resident Ironman) Gil Fetterley led us in a rousing rendition of You Are My Sunshine. The Maoris let us stay the night.

After a delightful evening of food, music and conversation, we bade a sad farewell to our new friends the next morning and resumed our trip. Naturally, we didn't get under way until after a number of the gang went whitewater rafting (which included a shot through a waterfall). As a spectator, their tackling of this splendid torrent reminded me of the astounding flushing power of the typical New Zealand toilet, but after sharing this observation with my colleagues I found myself riding alone the rest of the afternoon.

The next few days we made our way south toward the city of Wellington, where a ferry would eventually take us to the South Island. The ride down was a study in variety, as we passed through picturesque towns such as Rotorua (hot thermal pools), Lake Taupo (clear icy water) and Napier (extensive art deco). We ended up outside of Waipawa, where the tour split up and spent the evening at various working sheep farms. My group stayed with John and Barbara Bibby, whose generous hospitality made us feel right at home.

The 3�-hour ferry ride from Wellington to Picton on the South Island was extremely comfortable, although I thought the choice of film in the theater (Waterworld) was a bit predictable. Once we disembarked, a ride down Queen Charlotte Drive rewarded us with glorious views of the sound of the same name.

Our next bit of magic came during a run along the west coast, where we examined everything from seal colonies at Cape Foulwind (don't ask) to pancake rocks and blowholes (an interesting water/rock interface, not to be confused with certain politicians). The ride along Route 6 to Greymouth was especially spectacular; a serpentine route along the water's edge reminiscent of Big Sur, California.

Road conditions mimicked those of the North Island, although a new sign, "Slumps," confused me a little. Bob Wilkins told me that slumps were molelike creatures that burrowed under the highway, causing road subsidence. I could find no mention of these animals in any literature ... was he pulling my leg?

The journey from Greymouth to Fox Glacier was a rider's dream, because in the period of a few hours we went from ocean to forest to mountains. The glacier itself along with Mount Cook was an awesome sight, especially when viewed via helicopter (a ride was included in the tour, and lands on the glacier).

From here we sojourned to Queenstown, a city nestled in the shadow of the Remarkable Mountains and devoted to adventure sports such as jet boating, bungee jurnping and parapenting (tandem hang gliding). It's interesting to note that while New Zealand's most famous birds are pedestrians (such as the Kiwi, Weka and Takahe),the human population lives to fly, even off bridges suspended by their ankles when the mood strikes. Our group sampled a variety of airborne diversions, although the author refused to bungee jump due to an ugly incident he experienced as a child involving defective elastic in his gym shorts. Another time, perhaps.

An evening cruise aboard the steamship T.S.S. Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu topped off my day in Queenstown, and dinner at the Walter Peak Farm was part of this excellent voyage. I loved dining among candelabra with a live piano accompaniment, especially with sheep watching us just outside the window.

After Queenstown another farm stay followed (many thanks to John and Florence Pine for the good times at Crown Lea), topped off by a trip to the Milford Sound that wowed us with the most sensational riding and scenery of the South Island. Even though it rained most of the day the mountains and twisty tarmac were a moto-tourists dream. Another cause for excitement was the Homer Tunnel, which apart from being the dark est tube I've ever ridden through was a trifle rugged (or "spartan," as Florence Pine describes it). But on the far side a cruise on the Sound awaited, and the rain ensured that every waterfall in the area was turned on. As if on cue the sun came out revealing a granite paradise, making this one boat ride I won't soon forget. Unfortunately, three members of our group missed this trip as our own China Bob Paulger's BMW was bitten by slick pavement just outside the tunnel, and John and Martha Ullberg stopped to rescue him. Being the explorer he is, though, Bob dealt with his tweaked shoulder and was back in the saddle in a couple of days. As I mentioned before, this was one hardy group of adventurers.

The final days of this fantastic voyage continued to offer extraordinary scenic diversity with emerald lakes, a gothic castle and the only mainland nesting place in the world for the Royal Albatross all being part of my experience. The time passed far too quickly, and as our odyssey came to an end in Christchurch I came to the conclusion that not only is New Zealand a beautiful place to spend three weeks of touring, it's one of the most motorcycle friendly places I've ever visited. Even the little things (such as clean, easy-to-find public rest rooms in every small town) make this country a rider's Eden, and you'd be hard pressed to find more openly friendly and hospitable folks than the Kiwis. For those adventurers demanding decent cuisine I'm pleased to add that I generally thought the food was excellent (especially if you fancy lamb).

As for the Beach package, complaints from our group were rare and mainly centered on directions being a little vague on one or two occasions. But since over 60 percent of Beach's customers are return business, I think it's safe to say I'm not the only person out there who has had a good time on one of Beach's tours. I can't guarantee you'll have a group of co-adventurers as special as my bunch (whom I now consider extended family), but New Zealand is worth every second of that 12-hour plane ride. Keep in mind, too, that this recommendation comes without even touching on the heavenly subject of Hokey-Pokey ice cream.

Special thanks to the New Zealand Tourism Board, (800) 388-5494, for helping the author find his way to their lovely country.

European Tour reviews
Who takes Beach tours?
Why join a tour?
Been There, Done That
Been There, Done That
Other places!
Been There, Done That
New Zealand