The ferry from Wellington to Picton, gateway to the South Island of New Zealand, was like no other sea crossing in the world. The boat left early in the afternoon and sailed out from the calm waters afforded by the lee shores of Wellington harbour. The city shone like a little jewel, stacked buildings lining an amphitheatre of hills as we bade farewell to the North Island. Then out into the Cook Strait, a mere 14-miles (22-km) across, yet considered to be one of the most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water in the world. Immediately, deep midnight blue seas began cresting and frothing into a furious spume of whitecaps as the wind escalated into a fury. We’ve ridden in some wicked crosswinds and felt the effect as the bikes get knocked around; it was something else to stand on the top deck of a 20,000-ton ferry and experience the entire ship getting slapped hither and thither as we crabbed our way across the strait. We stood in awe as the sheer bluffs of the South Island hove into view, feeling slightly alarmed as the ship seemed to be steered straight for the sheer wall of rock ahead. And then, as if it were all some colossal moving stage set, the cliffs parted to permit entry to the stupendous sights of Queen Charlotte Sound. The wind desisted, the engines rumbled at a slow tick-over and we drifted silently up serene waters to reach our destination.
Picton; what a glorious reception to a new island… Within minutes of parking up at the campsite, Gary and Jane, a pair of retired coppers from Essex thrust a couple of chilled beers into our mitts. By the time we’d had a natter and got our gear set up it was too late to cook so we implemented our tried and trusted Plan ‘B’, developed with much consideration as a contingency for such emergencies: blow the expenses; wander the streets and find the Irish Bar. A plethora of gold-on-black Guinness Harps and vivid green shamrocks drew us towards a fine looking place, the signage proclaiming the establishment as “Seumus’s Irish Bar – Purveyors of Fine Beverages – Drinking Consultants.” Live music on tap too, not the diddly-dee mind, but a young solo guitarist rendering a mix of fine covers amongst a smattering of his own original work. We ordered beer and food and snared the last free table in the buzzing hostelry. Moments later a couple approached us and requested in a beautiful Irish lilt, if it was not too much trouble, could they possibly share the last two free seats at our table?
Ann and Liam hailed from Limerick, where Ann was a retired schoolteacher from an all-girls school she referred to as ‘hormone house’ and Liam had also retired from a life as a sales rep for C&C, the Irish lemonade company. On their first visit to New Zealand they attained refugee status, having arrived in Christchurch the day before the big earthquake struck. They lost everything; luggage, ID, money and were wandering around in the clothes they were wearing. They forever hold the New Zealand people in high esteem as people took them in and looked after them until they could replace their lost belongings. Their son subsequently married a Kiwi lass and they were over for a visit. In all this time chatting, it seemed that our food order had gone astray. At an interval between songs the singer noticed our plight and left the stage to enquire at the kitchen. It turned out that the order had been taken at the bar but not sent through to the kitchen. The staff were mortified and we were immediately plied with a round of free drinks! The food finally arrived and was just fantastic and well worth the wait. The music continued and the craic was good. To cap it all Liam disappeared to the bar and returned with a house specialty; a ‘Baileys and Whisky Slushy’ for a final toast to a splendid evening. And so our trip ends here as we took up residency at this fine establishment, set in such luscious surroundings. I mean why would you need to go on? It soooo very nearly came to that I can tell you!
However it was not to be… Two things led to our eviction from paradise in Picton. Firstly, the gremlins returned to play on my bike. She had lost coolant over the past few weeks and I couldn’t find the leak. I checked the waterpump, which had proved troublesome in the past on Maggie’s bike, but there was no sign of any seepage around the inspection hole. I’d checked the oil tank, in case the head gasket had gone, but the oil looked clean every time I looked with no sign of contamination… up until this morning that is. When I checked, it was now topped with a fine head of white mousse suggesting that the gremlins had also visited Seumus’s Irish Bar and the little buggers had been plying the bike with Guinness (or more accurately; the head gasket had indeed blown). The second and slightly more worrying concern for eviction was that the remnants of cyclone ‘Gita’ were on their way, forecast to howl through the Cook Strait and cause considerable damage to land and property in it’s path. We ordered a head gasket from Avon City Motorcycles in Christchurch and decided to flee there to sit out the storm and sort out the bike.
The following days felt like we were being stalked by the storm. It ravaged the west coast and came through the Straits as forecast, blocking the single road to Takaka in the north west of the island and closing the coast road behind us from Picton to Christchurch with massive landslides. Not only that but the forecast predicted that, having passed through the Cook Strait, the severe weather would run out to sea and then head back to deliver a rabbit punch to the Christchurch area. A ‘state of emergency’ was formally declared in the city. All unnecessary travel was advised against. In the event the city was lashed by a bit of rain that would have been unremarkable had we not had all the weather warnings and we sat it out while waiting for the bike to be repaired. In the event Avon City did a splendid job, replacing the head gasket and also the waterpump, which failed under a pressure test.
With the bike gremlins evicted we set off to ride across the South Island to the stormy west coast, taking advantage of a window of some settled weather. The day’s journey took us on another of motorcyclings greatest rides; Arthurs Pass a rollercoaster of a road that slashed across the midriff of the south island. The road ascended across arable plains into a heartland of fabulous mountains sporting the first snowy peaks of the late summer season. It then shot through a rapture of river valleys to deposit us on the West Coast and the wreck of a campsite at Rapahoe, just north of Greymouth. I say ‘wreck’ because Gita had been in to play causing high seas to inundate the camping greens replacing luscious lawns with a scree of grey sand and pebble. The site had been an old school house and they’d had to excavate the camping areas with a bulldozer. We felt sorry for the owners who’d run the site for 40-years to see all their effort ruined so badly in a single twenty-four hour period.
From Rapahoe, roads took us south to visit the marvelous Franz Josef Glacier, where a day hike led us up a valley festooned with waterfalls and deposited us at the leading edge of the glacier stub. The glacier has been in gradual retreat and only a hundred years ago the entire valley where we walked today had been buried in ice. Normally folk visit the twin glaciers of Franz Josef and the Fox in the adjacent valley, but ‘Gita’ had visited first and closed the access road to the Fox Glacier with another landslide. We rode on up the vast Haast Valley to escape more rainy forecasts and fled to Wanaka via a pair of sublimely beautiful Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. In Wanaka we caught up for a night in the bar and some dinner with my work colleague, Kevin Blackett and his wife Diane, on holiday to visit their daughter who is a doctor in Christchurch. Over dinner we discussed the lovely peculiarities of Kiwi English and how they love to mangle vowels… Thus you can have ‘fush and chups’ here for your tea. ‘Tint Pigs’ are not slightly shaded ovines but the things we use to peg our tent down. Kevin made me spew my beer when he asked had I heard about ‘Dick Oil!’ “It’s advertised on the radio… seriously. All the men use it here.” Turns out it is a wonderful Kiwi pronunciation of an oil used to weather proof your ‘deck’and other outdoor carpentry!
One of those useless statistics I remember learning at school is that the population of New Zealand has more sheep than people. I can confirm that, while this is still true, these days there are more camper-vans than sheep. From Wanaka down to Queenstown and on to Te Anua, gateway to Milford Sound, we were in ‘NZ tourist central’. In Queenstown the site was crammed with people to the point where our guy ropes actually crossed with those of the adjacent tents and this all in their shoulder season. But it is breathtaking country, hence the popularity; high snow-capped mountains draped in those long white clouds that the islands are named for and dreamy lakes offered up glorious vistas as we entered what were perhaps the finest days of all our travels in NZ. Autumn weather stayed kind as we hiked around Wanaka, rode out to Glenorchy and then that road to Milford Sound…
Milford Sound is a proper fjord, a glacial valley that has retreated and been inundated by the sea. We had booked a lunchtime cruise on the sound itself giving us a lazy morning to slowly head up the 70-miles from our campsite base at Te Anua. The ride itself was spectacular, chasing mercury-silvered lakes up broad valleys and into a fortress vault full of mountains with seemingly no way through. We met a Kea, one of New Zealand’s native parrots. Having parked at one of the little viewpoints along the way to take some photographs, a large jade-coloured bird came hopping across the carpark, straight to the bikes where he perched on my back seat, presumably scrounging for some grub. Keas are the world’s largest parrot and are possessed of a base intelligence and curiosity that can make them very destructive with a penchant for shredding windscreen wipers and rubbery bits on parked cars. Kiwi motorcyclists had warned us to watch them around the bike, as they will investigate everything from exposed wiring looms to seams in seat covers and wreak devastation. This is achieved by means of one of the wickedest looking beaks I ever saw on a bird. It was massive, shining black like a sacrificial obsidian blade. Fortunately his curiosity was short lived and he moved on but we decided to try and avoid parking anywhere where they are present.
Our road led us up a blind draw, with only a slab wall of mountain looming ahead and no obvious route to the sea. The mystery was solved when we arrived at a magical Ali-Baba gateway that cut straight through the mountain; the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel felt like we’d been blindfolded while someone whispered in our ear, “Big surprise coming up… if you think the ride so far has been amazing then you ain’t seen nothing yet!…. Just a little bit further now… wait for it… wait for it… Tah-Dah!!!” We exited the tunnel into bright sunshine and dropped down to the sea on a loopy road, surrounded by a majesty of mountains that rendered scenery surely unequalled in few places on this planet. This was wow-wow-wow stuff that had us jabbering over the intercom like we’d just won the jackpot on the lottery. At Milford Sound our cruise boat waited to take us up the fjord into a wonderland of cascades and waterfalls and… well, I’ll let the photogallery take over here… As an old comedian once said “and there’s more!” but that will have to wait until next time. For now just enjoy those photos…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, The Beautiful South.