Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand and translates as The Land of the Long White Cloud. After the three weeks of touring both islands on a motorbike, zigzagging from coast to coast, over the hills and the Southern Alps, I must conclude that this is a very beautiful country indeed and ideal for motorbiking.
The roads are exceptional. Road surface is generally very good and does not offer sudden challenges in the form of potholes or unexpected tight curves. Actually almost all curves that you can not ride at speed limit, have a sign suggesting the safe speed, indicating how tight the curve ahead will be. Road works are also well signposted and there are not too many of them. One lane bridges are characteristic for New Zealand and very common occurrence on the road virtually everywhere. With the very light traffic on the country roads crossing bridges is not a problem at all. The longer bridges even have wider passing bays. Roads everywhere are winding or curvy, usually hilly, with not many straights. Notable exception is the road leading from Queenstown to Christchurch. That must be the only route with very long completely straight stretches. Perhaps another is the road through the north island’s central plains. There are virtually no motorways. The only one we could find was 20 km leading to the capital, Wellington. Generally dual lanes are for passing and are from 50 meters to 500 meters in length. A longer dual carriageway was leading to Christchurch, with also more heavy traffic, trucks etc. Although the general speed limit is 100 km/h, cars tend to drive very close to one another, like dogs sniffing each others’ behinds, only a few meters apart. Even when they seem to have no intention to pass the car in front. Speed limits are well adhered to and everyone seems to try and stay close to the speed limit of the road. I did not see anyone really driving below the limit, apart from the numerous camper vans struggling to go uphill or admiring the scenery. Most of them give way when possible. Speeding was very rare, even when passing. Cars from behind also come very close to a motorbike. When you leave a bit of extra distance to the car in front, it is impossible for a car behind not to pass and fill the space. Even when they then just stay there, a few meters behind the next car. Anyway the traffic was polite and we had no particular incidents during the three weeks on the road.
We saw fewer motorbikes on the road than I was expecting. Bikes are everywhere but somehow I was expecting to see more of them touring the country. Not surprisingly thought, motorbikes seem to be a common means of commuting. We were well received anywhere we went and safe parking was offered even before asking. Garage or even a hotel’s loading bay behind closed gates. As a minimum we were directed to park in a place not visible to passers by. Everywhere we were told that it is safe and nothing will happen to the bikes but clearly better safe than sorry. One thing I did miss was the friendly wave from other bikers. Only less than half or a third responded to a wave or nodded their heads in greeting. This was surprising in an otherwise very friendly country. Touring bikes waved but perhaps the culture was not to wave to a tourer if you were on a plastic bullet or just commuting. In any case, biking is popular in NZ and there are plenty of signs on the side of the road reminding cars about bikes and bikers about safe riding. Some of then quite funny but to the point.
Weather wise NZ is really good for biking. Particularly if you are not afraid of some rain. Temperatures are generally mild in the summer and extreme heat is rare. Easier to put on some extra layers than to cope with the heat, I find. During our trip temperatures ranged from a cool 13c morning/evening to a rather hot 30c in the afternoon. This also can happen in a day as you may be on the hills, seaside or inland plain easily in a day.
Accommodation and Wi-Fi
Our accommodation was picked by Bularangi and without exception were very good. Even 2* motels were really good. This was no accident since once we had to go for a “distress accommodation” in a motel due to a road accident preventing our travel, and not all motels are alike. One top tip is to go for a quality B&B accommodation whenever possible. When you come from Europe, data roaming on a mobile is very expensive and a good wi-fi is really essential. NZ is somehow stuck in the 90’s when it comes to wi-fi in hotels. Wi-fi is usually chargeable, limited to a certain amount of data, or as we had in Wellington, was limited to 30 minutes on a coupon, although coupons were available free of charge at the reception. The 30 mins limit was annoying but so was the common practice of limiting the connection speed unless you paid more. Many restaurants had some varying quality connections as well. All wi-fi’s require you to sign-in. B&B’s offered by far the best wi-fi. The top tourist season starts from Christmas holidays after schools break for the summer. Christmas and new year are very busy and it was “No Vacancy” everywhere. Do not expect to pick up your accommodation on the go at any of the more popular places with ease. Strongly recommend booking in advance.
The Best Motorcycle Ride in the World?
Is NZ then one of the greatest motorcycle rides in the world? I would say it is. This is based on the exceptional riding conditions throughout the country – road surface and markings, climate, versatility of the landscape and scenery, food (although often very British), local wine & beer, biker friendliness, quality of accommodation, safety in general. Additional bonus for us was the ease of touring particularly since Bularangi had pre-arranged everything for us.
Ride from Kaikoura to Arthur’s Pass is some 300+ km and we set off early – well, just before 9AM. Beautiful weather, although slightly nippy with wind picking up. Not long after news were repeating weather warnings “with occasional breaks of summer”. Gales up to 120 km/h on our route. Brunch after an hour’s ride at a very nice Waipara vineyard. Then some farm land again with Southern Alps at the horizon. Wind picking up… It is actually very good that helmet has a chin strap. Otherwise the hat would have been blown away! But we were blown away by the scenery. Again. The last hundred km to Arthur’s Pass was just magnificent. Some of the mountains were like the European Alps, some like Teletubbies meet Italian Dolomites. Some snow capped mountains to perfect the ride. We were lucky again weather wise and completed almost the entire ride in sunshine. Arthur’s Pass is a tiny village but has some of the most notorious inhabitants – the Kiwi birds! The birds are nocturnal and there is a slim chance of actually seeing any but they can be heard… There are however, the Keas, the mountain parrots chewing away bits of your bike or car, unless you are prepared. They left us in peace but they do look nice and colourful, as parrots should!
Franz Josef’s Glacier
Woke up several times during the night at Arthur’s Pass. News in the morning quoted wind speeds up to 140 km/h. But the morning was beautiful again after some early morning drizzle. Great ride to Franz Josef. A visit was due to the Glacier itself. De-ja-vu as we had all been to Franz Josef Glacier before – in Austria near Grossclockner.
Our accommodation at Franz Josef is a very comfortable Holly Homestead B&B. Must say that Kiwis know how to make a their B&Bs really comfortable.
We were completely unprepared for the snow capped mountains, lakes and a completely new landcape as we entered through Haast Pass, had lunch at Makarora and continued through the stretch of land between the lakes Wanaka and Hawea.
Suddenly the hills changed again, bare and beautiful, winding roads uphill and then quite without warning, the view to Queesntown opened from the top of the mountains. Queenstown is actually in a kettle surrounded by the mountains and Lake Wakatipu on one side. Terperature reached scorching 30c on arrival. Riding through the city, restaurants and lake side was very welcoming. Seemed like a really nice town. Check-in, arrival beers and a walk at the beach. Topping the evening with a great steak and local red wine. Nice. As we had a bit more time to sample Queestown, two restaurants stood out – Sasso for Italian and Wild Ginger for Asian fusion.
Actually… there are some straight roads in NZ. They lead from Queenstown to Mount Cook. But they are still fantastic with views to die for. Just (almost) no bends. The best way to describe the scenery is to say “too much of a good thing”. Just cannot take in it all. Still a great ride. Highlights include the gorges between the mountain ranges, most notably the Kawarau Gorge suspension bridge as the world’s first Bungy jump bridge! My favourite was Lake Pukaki with the most turquoise water I have ever seen. No photo can make it justice. The ride started at a low 13c, went down to 11c and we arrived to Mount Cook Hermitage hotel at a comfortable 17c. Overcast but no rain en route through fruit farms, sunny upon arrival. Great mountain views. The hotel also houses Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, The NZ explorer who amongst many of his heroic explorations first climbed Mount Everest.
The only straight roads in New Zealand – as far as we have seen – are indeed between Queenstown and Christchurch. Today we started our ride half way between the two towns from Mount Cook in glorious sunshine with the mountains majestically around us.
Some great views over the mountains and funny turquoise lakes. Most of the way to Christchurch the best way to describe the scenery might be prairie! Brown flats, green flats, sheep and cows. Occasional turn and a few hilly bits between the valleys, or gorges between the mountain ranges.
Approaching Christchurcs it became clear that we were heading to a bigger town. The traffic increased with many lorries on the road. Something we have not really seen on the roads we have been riding. The earthquake destroyed Christchurch some five years ago. The quake was one of the most violent in recorded history and it was very close to the surface. Consequences were catastrophic and the city is still today much in ruins and a very large building site. As the city centre was destroyed, a lot of temporary structures are in place. The city centre shopping mall for example is made of shipping containers.
In about three hours, the ferry sails from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. The ride west from Picton to Nelson is one of the best I have experienced. Some very tight curves to start off with followed by some winding hillsides. Much like Coromandel… Only better!?! Our home-away-from-home today is Kershaw house, a 4* B&B in Richmond just outside Nelson. Recommended! It seems that it is the B&B*s you want to stay in NZ, not any chain hotel! Take note!
On the norther shore on the way to Collingwood the ride along the Tasman bay and over the mountains to Golden bay was magnificent. Perfect weather, sunshine, plenty of corners over the hills and lower 20’s. Some fantastic scenery over and under ground. Wineries and vineyards and we also had an opportunity to visit stalagmite caves with Moa-bird skeletons and a nature formed cathedral under ground.
On the way back we visited the oldest pub in NZ, the Moutere Inn, est 1850! Topping the evening with local wine and cuisine in Richmond near Nelson.
One of the world’s best motorcycle rider? ABSOLUTELY! The ride east from Nelson/Richmond to Punakaiki on the western shore unfolds in sections of very different scenery and road style. Starting off through very beautiful agricultural landscape approaching mountains, then a wonderful gorge following a stream (Owen river?) leading through the very northern section of the southern alps and suddenly coming to the seaside with palm trees and tropical scenery. Curve after curve in very good road conditions. Dramatic cliffs to the ocean, tropical forests and long beaches. An unbelievable ride!!! We are staying right by the beach at an old country & western style Punakaiki Tavern. A short walk to pancake rocks & blowholes – a rock formation by the sea at Paparoa National Park.
…is a thermal spa town in a valley in the midst of the mountains. The route from Punakaki was again really enjoyable. Some seaside riding next to great cliffs, then some agricultural landscape, perhaps a little less interesting but with the mountains in the distance the ride was filled with excitement. Nothing I have seen in Europe prepared me for entering the mountains and the really dense tropical forests. Combined with winding roads, some sharp turns and great valleys, the day’s ride was perfect. Entering Hanmer Springs, sun was shining and temperature hit 24c. Great for an end-of-day’s-ride-beer and some bathing in the springs at the town’s popular spa.
Forecast for the northern parts of the island is gale force winds and heavy rain, warnings issued. Our evening at Hanmer Springs was warm and calm. Only to change during the night. Early morning I woke up for very strong winds and heavy rain. Around 9 AM we headed out with all the weather gear on. We hit a good opening in the clouds and rain was just moderate. Heavy clouds following and us trying to escape! Only a little drizzle and temp 25c – 28c. In rain gear! The scenery was out of this world. Nothing could dampen the feelings and the ride was just magnificent. Some 20 km before Kaikoura we pulled off, jumped out from the excess gear and got some deserved breakfast by the seaside! There were two colonies of dolphins jumping at sea just outside the cafe and two boatloads of tourists watching them play.
Again we got some drizzle but did not bother with rain gear. A good choice since the rain soon stopped and we can change into shorts and t-shirts and enjoy the summer!
Waihi Beach at the bottom of the Coromandel peninsula. What a fantastic place to spend a day getting rid of jet lag with a burger and beer at Flat White Hippie Shack. Our home away from home is the Seagulls boutique B&B right off the beach. Earlier we got our bikes from Baz at Bularangi Harley tours and rode to Waihi Beach. Now it is time for the famous Coromandel Loop ride. Coromandel loop is a tour around the Coromandel peninsula. One wrong turn took us over the hills and a little rain took us to the Ohinemuri winery (ohinemuri is maori language and means “the maiden left behind” and obviously has a nice story to it) The very friendly german owner gave us a history lesson of the winery’s past. This is former gold mining area.
Hobbiton Movie Set
Have you seen Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies? Then you would recognize these hills immediately. The surroundings on a farm near Matamata look just like in the films and the Hobbit caves are all there for the visitors to see. Well the outside that is. They are just a movie set and all the sections filmed inside the Hobbit houses are actually filmed in a studio. But the PUB is real and so is the ale. Entry includes a drink! On the way to Hobbiton we visited a Harley dealership in Hamilton to fix the CB on one of the bikes. The dealerships today look much the same anywhere, which is actually a pity. Anyway, the people were friendly and also some merchandise found their way into our bags…
Rotorua is a popular tourist destination and also jokingly called RotoVegas. As a small town it really does not have any resemblance with Las Vegas but the party was one anyway. Bands, tivoli, the popular Eat Street restaurants and end of the night fireworks for the New Year. Perhaps still a bit jet lagged, we struggled to stay awake until the new year but it was worth the wait and to be among the first to enter 2016!
Our next stop was to be Gisborne. Our route took us first to the pictoresque seaside town of Whakatane. After ice creams and coffees we continued the journey for some 30 km from Whakatane, where a traffic accident had closed the road. Two choppers had just arrived and there was really no hope for us to reach Gisborne in any decent hour. After some deliberation we ended up coming to Taupo a day early. This will give us some extra time to explore some local sights. No worries! The weather so far has been perfect for riding, Mid to upper 20’s. Arriving to Taupo close to 9PM it was 15c with light drizzle. Still very good weather for riding. Roads are winding and perfect for riding, mainly single lane, with only a few dual laned sections.
Taupo is a very busy holiday town on Lake Taupo. Our B&B is again a very good one, called “Above the Lake”. Visiting thermal spa was the highlight of the day and seeing the geothermal landscape and Huka falls was fascinating. Even in the rain, we had the perfect places to visit.
Central Plains and Wellington
Fittingly, our ride to Wellington started in heavy rain. The rain continued all the way through the central plains, spiced with more or less dense fog and temperature low at 14c. Central North Island is agricultural farm land and moor / marsh land. Not much to see – I believe, not sure due to the fog, though. After the plains we had a sunny spell with 25c, only to go back to 14c, heavy rain and even more wind on arrival to Wellington. Tomorrow it is the ferry across to Picton on the South Island. But now it is dinner and evenings entertainment in Wellington. Through the central North Island,as anywhere in NZ, roads are single lane with occasional passing lane. Only some 20 km before Wellington there is actually a stretch of motorway. People are friendly where ever one goes but surprisingly, only less than half of motorbikers do the friendly wave on meeting on the road.
Was this the greatest motorcycle ride? Well, we saw some great roads in the north but perhaps the weather dampened our enjoyment on the way through the plains. Anyway we had fun and now it is off to the South Island and new, different scenery and roads. Just need to manage three hours on the windy sea first…
Is New Zealand One of the World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides?
Well, according to Henry Cole it is. And I need to find out. Since I have not been there before – just to make sure – I’d better see it all. Or at least as much as possible on one go. This is promising to be a more sophisticated ride on a proper touring Harley and nice hotels. As a consequence, my wife Riitta has kindly agreed to join me for the ride. And so have Antti and Nina, our riding friends from many earlier road trips. Two bikes, two couples. Flight to Auckland from Helsinki is loooooong! Therefore we have decided to add a full day stop-over in Shanghai. Perhaps it will allow us not just to see a fantastic city but it will also make sure we are tired enough to sleep on the flight to Auckland. When day and night switch places, it may be a struggle and we really would want to start our tour of NZ on the high. The New Year? After Coromandel loop we will be heading towards Rotorua for the New Year. Haka-dancing, fireworks and natural hot springs. That will finalize our acclimating to this new part of the globe! Our tour is organised with Bularangi Motorbikes in New Zealand. There is also another blog of our trip! Antti’s blog can be found here!