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Riding New Zealand's South Island - February 2016

Submitted by John_Cook on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 5:52pm

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After months of planning and anticipation, a group of 3 couples - Gayle and Pat, Margaret and John Taylor plus Kris and I met up in Christchurch.

We picked up our hired bikes (all 650cc Suzuki V Stroms) at 9.00 am on 16 February from Te Waipounamu (the Maori name for South Island) Motor Cycle Tours and were quickly sorted by Perry Rees.  I had first heard of this company many years ago in Bike Australia magazine and based on my experiences this time I would not hesitate to use them again.  The proprietor, John Rains was very helpful by advising improvements to the itinerary I had planned.  yes  Carolyn, the office manager is the editor of the local Ulysses Club newsletter and they offer a discount to Ulysses members to boot.

The bikes were far from new, but ideal for the job and we had no problems at all cool.   They were relatively light and manoeuvrable and still capable of carrying a pillion easily and came with Givi panniers attached.   It was a bit of an issue for us to remember to lubricate chains as none of us usually ride chain drive bikes.    Pat actually found it easier and much less fatiguing to ride than his Harley.   We also hired a support vehicle (small SUV) as the ladies wanted an option to avoid being on the back all the time (due to a couple of physical issues) and this proved to be a very good thing.

Once sorted and packed (the bikes remained light as most of our gear was in the SUV) we made our way west in warm humid conditions, quickly left the traffic behind and rode across the flat Canterbury Plains for about an hour.  We then stopped at a rather quirky café in Springfield for refreshment and a chat on our first impressions. 


From there the alps were already quite visible ahead of us and the starkness (brown alpine grasses and lots of rock) of the eastern slopes was quite a contrast to the Great Divide in Oz. 


We continued up into the mountains and the scenery became more and more spectacular with lot of loose shale / rock visible in the alpine gullies. 




The road provided great visibility along the flat river valleys.   We crossed quite a few single lane bridges

(they are everywhere but no problem in the light traffic)

and reached Arthur’s Pass without realising we had actually been climbing that much.  We then descended and crossed the spectacular Otira Viaduct. 



In contrast, the eastern side of the alps is heavily timbered with rain forest and beech trees.  We continued on to Hokitika, where we stayed the night.  Dinner was enjoyed at a pizza restaurant and Kris and I then took a walk along the stark beach

before turning in.

Then it rained - heavily.     This section of the west coast has an annual rainfall of about 2½ metres and we copped about 10% of that in our ride down to Haast Pass and on to Wanaka.  We stopped for a break at Franz Joseph and discovered that our waterproof clothing no longer was - waterproof.  I was wet in places I didn’t know I had!  Fortunately it was not cold.   All three ladies were wise enough to be in the car that day.  In view of the weather, we skipped visiting the glacier, continued on and climbed the Haast Pass.  We took in some spectacular views and river crossings before summiting and then rode beside Lakes Wanaka and Hawea to Wanaka.  This whole day’s riding provided some great roads and scenery but it was simply too wet to get the cameras out.  The coast had been a series of wooded headlands with tight bends interspersed with relatively barren coastal plains.  The alpine lakes then provided simply breathtaking views and scenery.

The next day

John getting some assistance from Marg as we prepared to leave Wanaka 

we crossed the Crown Range

and I found this section with its alpine grasses and hills to be simply stunning

Pat heading through the Crown Range

and a very enjoyable ride before a steep descent

via switchbacks to Arrowtown which was a lovely contrast with its old timber buildings. 

Then, after a brief stop and chat with the constabulary about visibility, speed limits and a warning about erratic foreign tourists not used to driving on the left, it was on to Queenstown.  The chat prompted Pat to start wearing his hi vis vest.  

A gondola ride up to the truly spectacular views over the surrounding lake and mountains was accompanied by a reasonably priced light lunch.

The road then took us south between The Remarkables

and Lake Wakatipu

which was an easy ride with excellent visibility and great views before arriving at Te Anau (after a relatively dry day’s riding) where we stayed two nights.  

The next day we headed out to Milford Sound.

I was the only one silly enough to ride that day and it was raining heavily by the time I reached Homer Tunnel (which was on my "must do" list) but I got through quickly and then stopped

and took in the many unnamed water cascades thundering down the mountain sides.  Simply stunning.   The tunnel is single lane, 1.2 kilometres long and descends at a rate of 1 in 10 so a bit of a challenge in damp conditions with poor visibility and a wet visor.  Once at Milford I took a break while the others took a boat tour (I had done that previously)

and then enjoyed my ride back again despite the weather.  The views along the wide flat river valleys with mountains rising steeply on both sides really make it a very worthwhile ride.


The next day we headed south on easy roads with alpine views to Fiordland National Park to our right and then followed the coast to Invercargill where we visited Hayes Hardware

and took in the great free display of old cars and bikes including the World's Fastest Indian. 

This bike was fitted inside a body like that above and the bike below is an example of the bike Bert modified heavily

Clearly a case of try and try again     - and some of the many other bikes on display

On exiting, we discovered it had been raining heavily but luckily that subsided as we headed further east along the coast.   

We wound our way through the Catlins Range with its lovely rolling hills,

visited another quirky café, and came across a wood chopping display at Owaka. 

We then overnighted at Dunedin, which, along with its peninsula, would have been worth more time than we could spare.

On Sunday we headed north along the coast including a lovely diversion via Seacliff and Karritane, which included repeated encounters with a small rural train, before stopping for a delightful lunch at the highly recommended Fleur's Place on the waterfront in Moeraki.

We eventually tore ourselves away and headed north for a bit before heading inland again, followed the Waitiki River valley

and climbed into sierra type dry countryside towards the alps. 

We turned north again and enjoyed easy riding on open roads past some incredibly blue alpine lakes and got clear views to Mt Cook

even though it was still some 70 km to our west before stopping at Lake Tekapo (which was quite busy with tourists) for the night.


On Monday we made our way north along mildly winding roads,


some flat coastal plains and then some lovely countryside for the last 30 km and another spectacular gorge and bridge

to Hanmer Springs, where we enjoyed spas and our last night on the road. 

The food at Hanmer Springs (and most other places ) was very nice

We also got to chat with three Malaysian guys at our accommodation, who were also riding hire bikes from a different company, which helped confirm we had got a good deal.

Tuesday, after the enjoyable descent from Hanmer Springs,

was a relatively simple "transport" session, which we broke up with a visit to the very worthwhile Air Force museum

at Christchurch.  Then it was stop at the accommodation, unpack and return the bikes.  The only hiccup throughout was minor damage to one bike after a fall from stationary which resulted in payment being required to replace a bent lever and painting of some minor scratches on the aftermarket crash bars. 

We then enjoyed some drinks and snacks

followed by some excellent NZ lamb as a final meal together to celebrate our trip.   Pat and Gayle flew out early Wednesday morning.

Margaret Kris and I then spent several hours walking around Christchurch which was both a sobering (earthquake damage) experience and yet uplifting. 

Many hotels such as the one behind the tree beside the tram are fenced off and awaiting destruction

The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 were simply too much for what was once the beautiful cathedral in the centre of Christchurch but much is happening

 John T decided to rest and took a break watching the cricket.  I had the joy of accompanying two women let loose in shops after a week on the road.surprise

That afternoon we flew home to Melbourne.


Kris and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  We took out travel insurance which actually covered motorcycling and vehicle hire excess (which can be high) and fortunately it wasn't needed.  We found the people of New Zealand welcoming and friendly almost without exception.  Riding (on almost exclusively two lane roads) was a pleasure with relatively light traffic, once away from towns, and people were courteous and used common sense in allowing others to pass (as repeatedly suggested by road signs) and crossing the many single lane bridges.  Even in the spectacular alpine areas of the south island roads were generally "open" and provided good vision ahead through bends.  Foreign tourists not used to driving on the left can be a danger and I was aware of two incidents (e.g not looking right when entering a roundabout) which could have caused collisions.

There is still a significant part of the south island we didn't manage including the north-west coast and Lewis Pass for example.   Bike hire costs were more expensive than cars but not over the top and for a relatively short riding trip and great experience well worth the expenditure.  February is a high demand month for accommodation.  We saw "No Vacancy" almost everywhere and we were glad we had followed John Rains' advice and pre-booked our accommodation well in advance.  The only problem with doing that is the lack of flexibility in daily travel.  So a word of advice from me if planning such a trip - do not try to do too much each day and do not plan to ride too far.   Take the time to enjoy things and events along the way.     It is the unexpected and unplanned things which add heaps to any travel experience.

Finally to Gayle and Pat plus Margaret and John - thanks for making it such great road trip, holiday and experience.smiley