New Zealand on a (small) Motorbike
Ever since getting my first bike, a KLX 250, I’ve been itching to do a mammoth ride. Not just a quick pottle out of Auckland, but a marathon effort that would test me and the bike to breaking point and beyond. So, when my mate got a brand new Ninja, it seemed the perfect excuse to go on a New Zealand tour. Unfortunately, on a warm-up run up north, the Ninja bucked it’s rider and the rider was invalidated. So, I found another riding buddy. Being raised on a farm, my fellow rider, who shall be known by his middle name “Danger”, had a considerable amount of off-road biking experience, so he was very keen to borrow a road legal bike and accompany me on the epic trip of a lifetime (as much as it can be on a 250 anyway).
Using all of his bargaining power and sheer charm, he managed to wrangle up a 2004 GN250 from a fellow army mate. After a bit of maintainence and care, we were set. 2 weeks later, and after much Christmas/New Years celebrations, we set off of the 3rd, with Danger nursing a slight hangover, and me recovering from a moderate amount of sleep deprivation. Little did we know how much of a pattern this would become.
3rd Jan – Day 1 – Auckland to Kaitaia
Falling quite far behind schedule, we hit Rawene by 1700, and just as we did the rain stopped. Seeing the ferry loading the last cars on, and not knowing if there was another for the day, we raced on board without looking at our petrol state. Kawasaki, in thier infinite wisdom, decided that KLX’s clearly don’t do long hauls, so they equiped them with a 7.7L tank, yielding a mere 120km range until reserve is reached. Blissfully light when on the trail, they are a bitch to work around when road triping. So it was that we spent the rest of the trip to Kaitaia fretting about when the KLX would cut out. Luckly it turned out it lasted until the edge of town, coughing its last just as the petrol station came into view.
Grateful of the short walk/push, we realised it was approaching 7pm. Too late to carry on to the cape, so we located the backpackers, accquired a pack of beer, and nursed them while chatting to some dutch backpackers.
4th Jan – Day 2 – Kaitaia to Cape Reinga to Auckland
Starting off with a hearty breaky of Egg in a Hole, we were on the road by 0900, blatting north for Cape Reinga, the northern most point of New Zealand. If anyone is planning on doing this trip on a bike with a small gas tank, fill up wherever you can, the station near the end is often out of gas, like it was today.
The morning went without a hitch, and we reached the edge of the metal road that claimed the pride and leg of my previous biking buddy. Naturally I had a slight amount of anxiety when we came to this, if there was a repeat performance, it was going to be a major downer on the rest of the trip, primarily due to the possible loss of one of my best wingmen in social arenas.
A couple of close calls later, and we got the Cape. This place never ceases to amaze me. Something about it makes it seem a significant place for any New Zealander. My hat goes off to the architects and planners of the new buildings at the carpark, the way the sea vista unrolls as you walk through the passageway is an awe inspiring experience.
We take the obligitory tourist photos, pay our respects to the Northern Most point on the trip, and head back to Auckland. Negotiating the returning Holiday Traffic, we hit Auckland around 1930, and went off to our own homes to have one last night in our own beds for a while.
5 Jan – Day 3 – Auckland to Wellington
0500 sees me blatting out to Danger’s farm house, taking in the pre dawn vista across the Bombay Hills.
I’ve mentally prepared for what will be our second longest day of the trip, there’s gas in the tank (for now) and the bike is purring for the attention it’s had. After a quick Salami on Toast (new for me) we are on the bikes, and hitting the road.
Our progress is quick, with the only stops being Hamilton and Taupo for petrol, and lunch in Waiouru with an army mate.
Heading south from Waiouru, we notice the GN’s chain is starting to hit the center stand, and by the time we hit Bulls, it was dragging across is more or less constantly. In laymans terms, as a bike matures and ages, the main chain that drives the motorbike naturally stretches and changes from general wear. Due to the fact that the GN250s are built as economically as possible, the cheap chain had stretched and loosened so much, it was nearly coming off. The consequences of this happening are quite dire, if you have experienced it on a pedal bike, imagine that, but while going at 100kmph.
Filling up in Bulls, we were discussing the issue when we spied a large collection of bikes in an unlabelled warehouse across the road. Going across there, we find its no other than Bulls Motorcycles (or something like that) with the awesome slogan “Ride-a-bull” (every business in Bulls has a similar slogan, ie. Value-a-bull, Eat-a-bull, Save-a-bull etc. quite funny for the first 3 times you see it). Upon inspection, the chain was pronounced dead, and a new one fitted. It was also here that I noted a moderate amount of oil leaking through the seals on the rocker cover of my KLX. This is the part that covers the top of the main piston of the engine. On the KLX in particular, there is a jacket of oil that surrounds this, to provide lubrication and cooling. While a major leak would be a showstopper, it didn’t seem seem to be a major issue yet, so we shrugged it off and carried on.
We reached Wellington by 1900, found my Aunty and Uncle’s house, wrestled with the cousins, and crashed out on the lounge floor, amped for the journey to be made tomorrow.
Day 4 – Jan 6 – Wellington to Christchurch
Another 0500 start, partly due to the 0700 ferry time, mostly due to excitement, as this was, at least for me, when the trip started for real. The last time I had been to the South Island was now 5 years distant, and then it had only been around the Lakes district.
We found the BlueBridge ferry terminal by 630, parked up our bikes, and sat down to wait. Danger suddenly realised Parliament house was one block away, and thus our 30 minute Tour Wellington mission began, consisting of a quick walk to get the obligitory photos outside parliament, and a quick discussion with Gandhi, who turns out to be a bit of a silent type.
The crossing was enthralling for the first 20 minutes. It was then discovered that the scenery doesn’t change as fast as it does on a bike, so we settled in front of “Get Smart”, and chowed down on some breakfast.
Getting off the ferry, we got a quick photo of the Picton War Memorial, which on second thought was not a good note to start off the leg with.
The next stop was en route to Blenheim, where it was discovered the chain change in Bulls had not included replacing one of the chain tensioner bolts. This was quickly remedied by a quick visit to a hardware store to aquire a galvanised bolt. Unorthodox sure, but it seems to have worked.
Carrying on to Christchurch, arriving about 1830, we stayed in the one place that we had booked in advance for the whole trip, after being recommended it from a friend. Jailhouse Backpackers is a converted Prison, with the Cells now housing 4-8 bed dorms, and it has really taken off, with the owners capitalising well on the novalty of the building. I’d recommend it for anyone travelling through Christchurch if you’re looking for something different from your standard backpackers accomodation.
In an act that would become standard practise, we picked up a dozen beer, and spent the evening talking to the other ‘inmates’.
Day 5 – Jan 7 – Christchurch to Wanaka
The next target was for Wanaka, cutting inland to the Southern Alps, a trip of about 450kms. By this stage the oil leak on the KLX had gotten to the level where I was starting to get concerned about oil loss, so I got a spare litre of oil from Superior Motorcycles before leaving Christchurch. This turned out to be possibly the best decision I made on the entire trip (aside from the idea of the trip itself). After a small amount of initial confusion with getting out of Christchurch we bit the bullet and went halves in a map book of the South Island. We quickly managed to get out of the city and onto the plains. I have to say, as exciting as farm machinery is, this was one of the few bits of the trip that I severely wished I had slightly more that 250cc of power under me, especially when a headwind started up, cutting our average speed down even further.
Once out of the plains we made good time, stopping in Fairlie for some lunch, then the lakes started. Despite this not being the first time seeing them, I was still blown away with how blue they appear. We took the next bit leisurely, even getting a bit of off-road riding to get to the top of a small rise for a spot of photography.
We got into Wanaka at quite an early 1600, after we decided not to do the side trip up to Mt Cook Village (low clouds would mean Mt Cook wouldn’t be seen anyway). After cruising the streets of Wanaka, we settled on Purple Cow Backpackers. By now we had formed a bit of a routine when getting to a backpackers, where we pick up a dozen beer, then walk in to the room/dorm offering a drink. This time we were greeted by 4 females, 2 german and 2 brits. Not one turned down a drink, and a few dozen turned into 2 dozen, a bottle of port, some wine, and tequila. Demons played their game, and morning saw us still drinking, watching the sunrise over the town. It was decided that we would have a Day Off.
Day 6 – Jan 8 – Day Off in Wanaka
I’d like to say we had a day off because we’d ridden hard, that we had to maintain our bikes, or that the weather forced us to stop.
But ultimately we had a day off because we were severely hung over and didn’t sleep, as our new friends were far too entertaining.
After a morning nap, we got up and accompanied our new German friends on a small hike up Iron Hill, highly recommended for the awesome vistas from the summit.
Coming down, we ended up at Puzzling World, a cool little theme park with all sorts of illusions/puzzles and a huge 2 floor maze.
However we quickly realised our mistake when we walked into the ’tilting room’, the floor of which is on a 15 degree angle. This would normally be fine, however it was almost the breaking point for those of us still inflicted with a severe hangover, especially when a large wall instructed us to look at it and wait to see the colours merge and the wall ‘magically’ begins to swim.
Walking back to Wanaka township, we vowed that we would have a quiet one that night.
That vow lasted until we got back to the dorm, when Danger asked ‘Anyone for a cheeky dozen?’
Alas. Another big night ensued.
Day 7 – Jan 9 – Wanaka to Bluff to Wanaka
Originally we had the notion that we’d go to Bluff from Wanaka, and stay there the night. However one of the German girls we’d befriended was having her birthday in Wanaka, so it would have been rude not to make it. Thus, hung over and reasonably sleep deprived, we dumped our cargo and decided to do the 540 km Wanaka to Bluff to Wanaka.
Topping the KLX up with oil, and making sure the GN’s chain was still healthy, we set off about 0900. The Crown Range is an excellent piece of road, every bit of it so well laid out for any motorbike, however I must admit that first hour of biking was hell. With Danger coping with a pounding head and me with eyes that threatened to pop out of their weary sockets, we survived the ride, and bee-lined to Queenstown to refresh with breakfast and coffee
Feeling more human we set out again, taking SH 6 to Bluff in torrential rain. I’d like to mention a remarkable happening on this leg, but that would be lying. The rain and wind forced us to be sensible road users, and we put our heads down and gritted out teeth, willing Invercargill closer. Due to the stinky weather, we got to Bluff by lunchtime, taking both of us off guard, as this was the first and only time we had beaten our time estimate.
It was at Bluff that I realised the greatest lie New Zealand has ever been told. Cape Reinga claimed that Bluff was 1452 kms distant. Bluff however insisted on it’s black and yellow sign that Cape Reinga was only 1401kms away. Which one is it! Have we gained 51 kms or lost it?
Returning to Wanaka, this time with clear skies, we got back about 1730.
We arranged a cake and candles for the German girl’s B’day, got dressed decently, and hit the town. Staggering down the street a few hours later, I spied a Red Camouflage biker with neon’s on his bike coming into town. Remembering this biker when he stopped to help my mate when he came off at Cape Reinga several weeks ago, I proceeded to chase him down the street on foot. He stopped at a Give Way sign, and I approached him, shouting “IT’S YOU!” I was on the verge of hugging him, when he saw me, U-turned, and rode off quickly.
Returning to the backpackers around 3am, and for the first time, we found a quiet dorm.
Day 8 – Jan 10 – Wanaka to Milford Sounds to Te Anau
We had planned originally to get on the road by 0900, so we had plenty of sightseeing time for the vista pinnacle of the trip, Milford Sounds.
However, by 1000, it was clear that Danger had indeed lost his wallet during the night, so after a town wide search was conducted, and a police report submitted, we were on the road for Te Anau by 1200.
While I was waiting for Danger to get back from the police station, I took the Bday girl on her promised motorbike ride, this time enjoying the Crown Range for what it was, a superb bit of road engineering, clearly designed and built by bikers, with an convenient lookout at the top.
After returning from the outing, just as Danger got back, we bid our farewells and departed Wanaka. Doing the Crown Range for the 5th time in 2 days, I could say I was warming into the route, possibly enjoying it a bit tooooo much for the likes of some of the car drivers. We arrived in Te Anau around 1700. After some discussion, we decided to do the Milford Sounds trip that evening.
We picked up two 5L gas cans to compliment our rather short fuel tanks, and set out.
When I said this would be the vista pinnicle of the trip, I may have slightly lied. This was the vista pinnicle of life in general. If you ever have the option, do the Milford Sounds in the evening. The light and shadows makes you realise how vast and how tall the stone walls are, and how deep the canyons go.
If I was to say I was exhilarated by the end to the point of hyperventilation would be an understatement. If there was a New Zealand ride to end all New Zealand rides, the Milford Sounds is definitely it.
We got back to Te Anau in dark, and the lack of bottle shops and supermarkets forced us to walk into our dorm room and ask ‘Anyone going to the pub?’. Fortunately for our bodies, only one tenant was keen, unfortunately for us, it was a Scots man.
Day 9 – Jan 11 – Te Anau to Haast
Turns out its hard to find a decent coffee in Te Anau. Ether that or the cafes that we found were the exactly wrong ones to go to. Not wanting that sour taste to ruin a day, we were out of the town by a reasonable 8am. Taking the same route back to Wanaka was a drag, the stretch of flats and straights gets mighty old mighty quick, especially when you are fighting to keep 100kph anyway.
Not bothering to brave the packed Queenstown streets again, we had lunch in Frankton, just out of Queenstown, and completed the Crown range in a record time of 42 minutes. We were pretty stoked with our effort, and even when we got the news Danger’s wallet was still not found we were still on a roll. After managing to miss the turn off for the West Coast, forcing us to backtrack several kms, we struck out along SH6, pootling around several large, beautiful lakes, so desperately wanting a swim, but not wanting the bother of the effort required.
The scenery rapidly changed at the Haast Pass. Suddenly the stretching tussock clothed vistas closed up to dense, close jungle, often forming a continuous roof over the road. After several days in the open plains and mountains, it was enough to make us feel slightly claustrophobic.
The Haast Pass itself is intense. Possibly made more intense to me because by this stage the oil leak had become so severe it was splattering onto my rear wheel, so any slight lean meant I could feel the back spin around.
It’s also intense because of the geography. Not only are the corners wicked, but the steep inclines and declines add in a third dimension, which made the riding experience very rich indeed.
Of course, with all this up and down, it took us quite by surprise by how many cyclists we saw in this area, you know, the hard ones, the ones without motors…
So it was that we adopted a habit, where upon spying a cyclist, we’d drop our feet off the pegs and make cycling actions with them as we sped past.
I think they saw the humour in it too…
We made one stop on the way through, at the Blue Pools, thinking it would be a refreshing swim. It was definitely refreshing, pity the swim lasted about 20 seconds before we realised it was far too cold.
Can’t say we took many photos on this leg, jungle starts to look the same quite quickly. So it was a twistie-weary biking duo that rolled into Haast that evening, searching for a feed, a coffee, and desperately hoping there wasn’t any tourists wanting to drink with true blooded kiwis.
Thankfully there were none, just a group of V-strom riders from Nelson. To celebrate the first time in several days that we weren’t socially obligated to drink, we went out and got a dozen.
Day 10 – Jan 12 – Haast to Franz Jospeh
Escaping the sandflies and trying to find cell phone reception were our main motivators to get out of Haast. Sure, nice town, good people, wouldn’t want to stay there too long. So we found the petrol station, filled up, and jumped back on the road.
Now, being an army officer, I pride myself in my ability to gauge direction and bearings. Navigation is drilled into any soldier, and is a core competency that any military person must become fluent with if he is to go anywhere in his career.
So it was that two officers were absolutely stumped when they emerged from the dense jungle lane to find the road continuing …. south. Somehow we had taken the wrong road. To be perfectly honest, we hadn’t actually realised there WAS a wrong road to take. So the bikes were turned around, the map consulted, and Haast was reentered after a 1 hour/97 km detour. After filling up again, we relocated SH6, and cruised.
Our plan for the day was to get to Greymouth, as this would give us a good day to explore around the Nelson area, something that had be recommended to both of us. Our detour south had cost us an hour, so we pushed through the normal photostops, trying to make up for lost time. Ultimately we ended up in Fox around lunchtime. Here a chain adjustment was made to the GN, and we made our way out to Fox Glacier.
We walked right up to the glacier, braving the numerous warning signs, fording the rivers, and dodging the falling rocks (seriously, there would be a sizable fall every 5-10 seconds).
On the way back, it was decided that our bikes needed to see the glacier too, and that the shingle track would be fine for even the road faring GN.
This plan lasted about 30 seconds into the track, when we were told to turn around by a courteous DoC officer. Being rebellious youths, we did what came natural. We obliged, and instead took photos of our bikes in a rock field. As the day was already hitting around 25 degrees celcius, we had a quick shower in a glacial waterfall, much to the excitement of the Japanese tourists who chose that moment in time to walk past.
We carried on up the highway to Franz Joseph. Here I must explain; almost everyday of the trip we had managed to cheat ourselves of a decent breakfast, usually due to late starts and quick exits from backpackers. So we had become accustomed to having oversized lunches. The downside of this is that we would have oversized mid afternoon slumps.
Our pub lunch along with a cheeky pint at Fox managed to hit the spot just as we got to Franz Joseph. We felt f*@ked. It was unanimously decided that we would spend the night in Franz Joseph, so accomodation was found, and we were about to enter our assigned dorm when Danger stopped me, and reprimanded me for not having a dozen beer under my arm. So we acquired the liquid bread, and promptly found we were sharing a room with 2 aussie girls, an irishman, and a guy from sweden. It really sounded like the start of a bad joke. They were all game for a big night, so we hit the bar/s of Franz Joseph, returning for a quick sleep the wee hours.
Day 11 – Jan 13 – Franz Joseph to Nelson
Due to our failure to do our planned kms the day before, we faced a long day ahead of us. Farewelling our new friends, we hit the road at a reasonable 0900. The KLX only needed a quarter of a litre that morning, and the GN had managed to keep it’s tension in its chain over night. The day was set to be a stunner. Unfortunately the sheer length of the day ahead of us set a grey cloud, dampening our sightseeing moods, and sapping our photographic fervour.
About the biggest highlight of the day included a quick peek at Mt Cook’s summit, however it’s fleeting showing was too quick to get a shot of it. So you’ll have to take my word that we saw it.
The second biggest highlight was observing a rather humorous creek sign. It was too good to pass up a photo, even for our travel-weary minds.
The third highlight struck just before Greymouth, when my bike turned a very significant number, for which we had to pull over and celebrate. I apologised to the KLX for not having a cake for it. Instead I rewarded it with a quick top up of oil and a triumphant wheelie.
We reached Greymouth by lunchtime, and realised we weren’t close to half way. This cast an even larger cloud over us. However, one bright point came to surface, in that this was the first time I had ever seen Greymouth without overcast skies.
After a quick visit to the Monteiths brewery (it would have been an insult to the entire trip had we missed it) we pushed on through to Nelson, gritting our teeth and sucking up the soreness from our undersized motorbikes, arriving in Nelson at a very respectable 1900.
For the first time on the whole trip, there was no dormitory accommodation available to us, so we settled for a two bed room in the YHA, stinging us nearly double what we would pay for a dorm, and attractive European girls weren’t even provided!
Keeping true to the tradition and heritage of the tour thus far, we finished the day with a hearty steak and a couple of quiet ones at the local bar.
For the first time, we actually looked forwards in time and realised we would need a decent sleep, for the next day, the last day, was to be our longest day by nearly 200kms, and we would need all our wits about us to keep on the road.
Day 12 – Jan 14 – Nelson to Auckland
We awoke to the sound of my cellphone’s alarm at 0500. A quick packing and coffee from the dispensing machine in the kitchen and we were out the door. We had consulted the map book the night before and had worked out we had a cool 100 kms between Nelson and Picton, where we had a 0700 date with Bluebridge ferries. However, our plans were quickly put under pressure by a sign that proclaimed Picton actually lay 150kms distant.
Needless to say throttle was twisted, and our 250cc engines screamed through the twisting passes, with only well behaved trucks sharing the roads with us. By this stage my rear tyre was liberally doused with oil, so it was all I could do to keep up with the GN through the corners, making up any ground lost on the occasional straights.
I have to say, incredible adventure riding country around that region. Just from the highway, I could count many trails leading off over saddles and peaks, beckoning to be explored, and I cursed our short day to Franz Joseph, that had crippled us so much for time now. We hit Picton at 0710, and promptly found out we were actually booked for the same ferry one day later. After quick negotiations, we got a spot on the ferry about to depart. Aboard, strapped in, and with breakfast in hand, we were able to rest and relax. We waved goodbye to the South Island, and settled in to watch Hoodwinked and some teenage chick movie.
Arriving in Wellington, we made our way to the Lower Hutt Hospital to have lunch with an old army friend, which took us onto SH2.
Little did we know, this lunch that lasted 20 minutes would cost us close to 3 hours later on. We struck out going up SH2, planning on meeting up with SH1 at Palmy. Just short of Palmerston North however, I spied a sign pointing down a road claiming Taihape was 122kms away.
Thinking if this were true, it would be an epic shortcut, we turned up it. The sign warning us that is was not an alternative to SH1 should have stopped us, but we being reckless youths, we plugged on, and promptly hit gravel.
About 50kms and nearly 3 hours of fickle, coarse gravel later, Danger got impatient, and asked a farmer how to get back to SH1.
Armed with directions, we successfully rejoined SH1 at Mangaweka, and blasted to Waiouru, having dinner at the cafe on the base with our highly jealous army collegues, sharing stories and declining polite invitations for a beer. We were on a mission.
The ride to Taupo in twilight was nothing short of breathtaking, mainly because we were both still in wife beaters (singlets) and shorts under our gear, and the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees Celsius in the space of about 5 minutes. Too proud to admit we were cold (the first person to admit it clearly had the smallest male appendage) we shivered to Taupo, where a hot McD’s coffee and fries warmed us up.
From there, it was standard SH1 fare. As proof that I can do it with my eyes closed, I slept for half of it, as I cannot remember Putaruru, or many of the other smaller towns we must have passed through. I remember at one stage one of the petrol cans we purchased for the Milford leg threatened to come off. After trying to get it reattached securely for about 5 minutes, we lost patience and left it there on the side of the road. So if you’re passing through that way, keep an eye out for it. If you find it, it’s yours.
Supper in Hamilton at 0100 was a welcome relief, and with caffeine again surging through the veins, we strode on to Auckland. Here I hit the wall. My eyes wouldn’t stay open, no matter what I did. All the tricks in the book, including open visor, loud singing, disco dancing in the saddle, nothing seemed to be able to keep my eyes from rolling up and getting some shut eye. We resorted to refreshment breaks every 10 minutes, involving jumping off the bike, and dancing a jig to get the blood flowing again, and the cobwebs out of the head. If ever I have scrapped the bottom of the barrel and clawed my way to the finish line, this was it.
A tear nearly left my eye as we descended the Bombay hills with Auckland stretched out in front, and a lighting storm giving a demonstration off in the East. Then I realised I had left my visor open, and once closed my eyes were fine again.
The relief I had as I dismounted at home was rivalled only by the drive to get my photos uploaded to the computer. Unfortunately I only got to plugging in my camera before I collapsed on my bed and crashed out.