Dog Days of Autumn

I brace myself and walk into the room where Eric Cartman and Winston Churchill have been patiently waiting for my arrival.  They come at me both at once, heads down and aiming for my legs… This is not some weird dream; I’m about to be ‘pugged.’  Cartman (a.k.a Baxter) is the heavyweight senior pup and has first strike, shuffling up to my shin and rubbing his nose right in, snuffling and making little whimpering noises that can be roughly translated as ‘get your bitch-ass into the kitchen and get me some pie!’  Churchill (a.k.a Benny) is not far behind, rounding on my other leg for a good cuddle in what has become our usual morning greeting. It is the end of our days in New Zealand and we are spending them in a newfound vocation as professional pet-minders and house sitters…

It is now more than 1000 days since we left home, fast approaching three years on the road.  Back home folk are looking forward to the arrival of spring but here in New Zealand it is a weird sort of autumn.  While imported deciduous trees play the game, gloriously transforming through their traffic-light green-yellow-red-thru-naked routine, native tree ferns and cycads remain profusely evergreen. The hillsides are festooned with impressive stands of invasive Pampas Grass, looking like quivers of arrows stood ready for some South Seas Agincourt.  An abundance of jelly-tot flowers line the grass verges making it feel more like spring but nighttime temperatures say otherwise.  Luckily in these chillier days we have no more camping for a while in our new occupation.

In a journey of this magnitude, traveling around the world, the journey itself has a certain ‘fixed price’ element.  To see all of the highlights along the way, we need to ride a certain distance through each country, which requires petrol, accommodation and food. There are servicing costs for the bikes to cover consumables such as tyres, oil, chains etc and administration costs to cover visas, health insurance and vehicle insurance (where required).  Finally there are several major sea crossings that require packing, shipment and flights. Add some contingency for emergencies and you can derive a budget for the trip.  Work hard, save your pennies, load-up the bikes and off you go! However the duration of any trip can be greatly extended by ‘punctuating’ the schedule; halts where expenses are reduced to food and accommodation and if you can get free accommodation then these costs become very low indeed.  We already spent four-months in Malaysia and Singapore, waiting for weather to clear up ahead in Indonesia / Northern Australia, doing ‘Workaways’, where we were given a free bed and some free food in return for doing 5-hours work, 5 days a week.  Our personal expenditure over this period was negligible and we obtained a fantastic travel experience living with local people and gaining beautiful insights into their culture, cuisine and way of life.  Another option is ‘House-Sitting’: looking after someone’s home and sometimes their pets while they are off travelling themselves. There are a number of websites marrying hosts and would be house-sitters or, if you are lucky, you might even have some family or friends in far-away places offering the same opportunity. Such was our first experience in New Zealand when fellow travellers, Ruth and Ian who we met in Laos, offered us their home in Wellington for a month while they holidayed in the UK.

‘Windy Welly’ proved to be one of our favourite cities in all of New Zealand.  From our cosy home-sit we spent a couple of weeks mooching the winding, hilly streets that led down to a delightful waterfront area where we visited the spectacular Gallipoli exhibition at the Te Papa Museum.  Having visited the Turkish battlefield earlier in this trip and read quite a few books on the battle, our expectations were no more than a mildly different view of the campaign based on the Kiwi perspective. But ‘Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War’ was quite something else.  Focused on six differing Kiwi stories from the campaign, each participant was represented by a vignette of one or more figurines frozen at a specific moment in the campaign.  Each of the exhibits was exquisitely rendered, fully lifelike in expression and countenance down to hairs and freckles, sweat and grime.  The detail of the uniforms, webbing and brass buttons was outstanding and the environment for each setting, be it mud and dirt, the chaos of action and battle or reflection afterwards at what had just happened fully captured your attention and drew you in to what really happened during those dreadful times.  What was most spectacular of all was that each of the figurines was rendered on a scale of 2.4 : 1 so that they appeared as giants.  It was all executed by the people at Weta Workshops, who specialise in models and effects for films such as ‘Lord of the Rings’.  I will never forget entering the exhibit not knowing any of this and being greeted by the giant representation of Captain Westmacott as he was on the day of the landings… shot in the right arm not long after disembarking, clutching his service Webley revolver in his left hand as he crawled up the track that led to the front, determined to do his duty and take as many enemy soldiers with him to the grave.  His war lasted only one day.  He was evacuated but eventually lost his right arm and spent the rest of his life reflecting on that one day.  He was a watercolour painter and eventually taught himself to paint all over again with his remaining (left) hand.  This and the other images from the exhibit have affected and moved both of us like no other narrative of those dreadful times.  I hope the exhibition will eventually tour, as it is outstanding both in execution and in communicating a message that we really need to pay attention to these days.

The Te Papa Museum is next to Chaffers Marina on the waterfront, which turned out to be the home of Chris and Ina, a couple of fellow round-the-world motorcyclists (Kiwi and German) who we met by pure chance in a gas station in the South Island.  We had exchanged contact details and joined them on their boat for a breezy day sailing around the harbour and chewing the fat about life on the road.  Once again it is amazing, looking back, at how quickly you can make great friendships on the road and we both hope our paths will cross again someday.

Our days in the land of the Kiwi are now numbered and we are indeed in the autumn of our days on the road.  From our cosy home we began to organise the final leg of our trip.  We arranged shipping the bikes on to Canada and tidied them up for departure.  We also booked our final homebound flights to the UK (it is a condition of travel to Canada that tourists must have an onward / return ticket) so we even have an end date now of 10thSeptember.  We also made some of our last motorcycle trips in New Zealand, with a spectacular day ride out and over the Rimutaka Crossing and on to Wairarapa and a short mooch around the little vino-centric town of Martinborough.  Bidding farewell to Wellington we rode to Auckland, decent weather allowing a very scenic ride over the Tongariro Crossing to Lake Taupo.  The town planners of Lake Taupo need a good boot up the backside as they have allowed the foreshore of a pretty lakeside town to be spoiled by a frontage of horrid fast-food joints – Subway, KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut – none of whom strike me as being particularly Kiwi and not what I want to see when I visit a pretty place.  Still it was a good base to hike out to the thunderous chute known as the Huka Falls. And so on to Auckland, where the bikes were crated for shipment to Vancouver, a journey that will take 25 days. Thanks again to everyone at GT Logistics (the shipper we used to bring the bikes over from Australia) for making the process simple and smooth.

We rented a car and explored the delights of the Coromandel peninsular, definitely one of the highlights of the North Island and not to be missed.  Calm autumn days, strolling delectable beaches culminating in a visit to another of New Zealand’s highlights; the beautiful rock formations and islands of Cathedral Cove.  But we needed an additional ‘punctuation’ in our schedule to mark time while the bikes are at sea so we signed up to www.kiwihousesitters.co.nzwhere we were accepted to take care of a 5-bedroom beach house on the Bay of Plenty in the role of house-sitters looking after the pair of aforementioned octogenarian Pugs, not a role either of us ever envisioned as part of a round the world motorcycle ride…

Now I’ll be honest, the notion of looking after a dog in someone’s home while they are away is not a bad one to entertain.  Maybe look after a nice collie dog or a Labrador or even a scruffy mutt that will chase sticks and add delight to any walk… but a pair of Pugs? We called Paora, the homeowner and chatted.  The dogs, Baxter and Benny were both twelve years old, so 84 in human years.  They didn’t need walked as Benny was on heart tablets and also taking antibiotics for a chest infection he’d picked up. Baxter was just horribly overweight and both suffered from poor eyesight.  All we had to do was feed them twice a day, let them out on the lawn to do their business and then clean up after. We didn’t even have to walk them!  We did a little homework… Pugs are a brachycephalicbreed, where the shape of the skull is shorter than typical for other dogs, a feature that has been exaggerated over the years by breeders.  Pugs have some level of elongated palate, which interferes with breathing.  Brachycephalic dogs also have shallow eye sockets and can suffer from proptosis, where their bulging eyes can pop out without much force.  We read with horror that this can even happen during normal play or horsing around. Apparently if you’re quick you can pop the eye back in but… this was starting to sound like an awful lot of responsibility!  In the end we decided that if we just did as Paora asked, we’d probably be safe enough but none of what we read was really doing anything to endear the breed to us.

We turned up at the house on Pukehina Beach to find a gracious home in a beautiful location.  Paora was taking his grandkids to Disneyworld in LA and he quickly showed us the ropes around the house and gave us a run down on the doggy maintenance.  Next morning he was gone and we were home alone with Baxter and Benny for the next two weeks…  Benny looked decidedly under the weather and we were a little concerned that he might fret once Paora had gone but, dogs being dogs, once they realised who was putting the chow down every day they soon warmed to us.  One other thing I knew about Pugs is that they are lap dogs; a small breed suited to plonking themselves on your lap.  What I didn’t appreciate is that they really do love this and the first time I sat on the sofa Benny ran over to me like a small child demanding to be picked up.  I lifted him onto the sofa where he snuggled up on my legs and demanded to be stroked.  This and the early morning greetings soon won our hearts and we’d been well and truly ‘pugged’.

The house faced directly onto the beach and the Pugs were used to being left alone during the day (when Paora went to work) so we had lovely long walks on the golden sands, returning for idyllic dinners in this little corner of paradise.  We visited nearby Taranga and ascended Mount Manganui, a rump of a volcano, while out to sea we could see clouds of steam rise from the very active volcano on nearby White Island.  We made a short hike to visit the waterfalls at Kaiata and in the evening tracked the progress of our bikes online as their ship made its way to Vancouver via Fiji and Honolulu.  All too soon we were tidying up and packing for Paora’s return and our own flights to Canada.  Our first stint at House-Sitting was a grand success.  It was hugely rewarding to leave two very happy little Pugs (breathing normally, with all eyes intact) and a tidy home and our eternal gratitude for this wonderful opportunity to Paora (who also had a great time in LA).

Our final day in New Zealand was a 150-mile drive back to Auckland for the evening flights to Vancouver undertaken in some of the filthiest wet weather of the entire trip to date as it lashed down for most of the journey. The grey dank day reflected our mood a little as we are genuinely sad to be leaving these islands.  We met a lot of great people here and saw a lot of amazing sights but the road must go on and we are also looking forward to that final leg; the ride across Canada and then home.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Dog Days of Autumn

 

Advertisements

The End of the World

Yellow roundel… Number 35… Red streamliner bodywork like a ‘50’s sci-fi movie prop for some guided missile…  1920 Scout…. The legend ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’writ large across a cabinet full of twisted metal, everything from thrown con-rods to melted pistons… ‘Munro Special’.  We can only be in one place on the planet; Invercargill, home of Burt Munro made famous to the wide world through Anthony Hopkins portrayal of the man in that great movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”.  Not just a movie about motorcycles; it’s the story of a man’s passion to chase his dreams and doing so in his senior years.  Burt hand-built and raced-tuned his old 1920’s Indian motorcycle and took it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, to attempt a world speed record.  He is seen initially as something of a joke when he unveils his home made contraption and presents it to the race scrutineers for permission to run it through a speed trial.  He is permitted to make one test-run, more out of pity and… well watch it for yourselves and see what happens!  One for all the family that’ll tug on every heartstring!

But today we’re not watching the bike on the big screen but in real life. Burt passed away in 1978 and his workshop and collection of bikes are now on display at E. Hayes Hardware Store in Invercargill.  It’s a hard place to describe… think of a local hardware store selling everything from paint and sealant to nails, nuts and bolts, with a mix of home and kitchenware, gifts and souvenirs and even a camping section. It’s a fairly big old shop but scattered throughout all of the hardware is a somewhat incongruous collection of vintage cars and motorcycles including the Burt Munro bikes; his original Indian, various replicas made for the movie and an old AJS he also used to obtain speed records.  There’s something for everyone in this emporium of delight and we spent hours mooching the aisles, ogling the bikes and chatting to the engaging staff over a complimentary coffee.

Invercargill was our base for a ride south to Bluff and the end of the South Island by road in New Zealand.  The wind felt a little blustery that morning, as we left the campsite for the short ride to the end of the world.  Once out of the confines of the city we gained exposure to some vicious, wicked winds, fully intent on knocking us off the bikes. From a crescendo of chop slaps about the head, like a bad-cop interrogation, to full on body blows that slammed broadside into the bikes, pummeling us brutally across the road first one way and then the other.  It was a horrible ride and we arrived at Stirling Point blown red in the cheeks and fully adrenalized by the trial.  Thankfully the wind desisted and the famous signpost proclaimed that the spot we were standing on was exactly 18,958 km from London.  White capped waves crashed on the rocks below and out on the horizon grey sea met bleak sky, smudged in places like an overdone watercolour. We took some photographs to mark the occasion and were in turn photographed by a smiley Korean family who were amazed by our journey to get here.  They left us to contemplate the fact that, right here on this spot, we were probably as far away from our point of origin as it is possible to get on the planet on our bikes. Not only that but from this point on, every mile turned would slowly take us back towards home…

Invercargill presented another link with home in the form of the Bill Richardson Transport Worldand Motorcycle Mecca.  The Richardson family hailed from Drummaul in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and came to the area as farming immigrants in the late 1800’s. With increasing mechanization in the twentieth century the family drifted into the transport business and in later years Bill Richardson began collecting old trucks, cars and motorcycles eventually acquiring an enormous private collection now housed in the aforementioned museums.  If you are thinking by now dreary sheds filled with dusty charabancs and crusty wagons then think again.  Both museums were deserving of the appellation ‘best in class’ with every vehicle beautifully restored and presented. We spent an entire day here and loved the fact that all of the exhibits were freely accessible, relying on trust for you not to touch anything, thus allowing one to peruse the exhibits from every angle and appreciate every line.  Attention to detail was magnificent down to the very toilets and each WC was themed around some aspect of motorized life.

To start the ride back north, we took to some fine motorcycling roads through the Caitlin Hill country.  Along the way we were met and escorted by Wayne Poll, another F650 aficionado, who had kindly offered to host us with his delightful family in Dunedin.  Wayne’s wife Greer and daughter Eden had a roast chicken dinner waiting and after this we settled in to a warm evening of some of the finest Kiwi hospitality.  We spent the following morning repairing the printed circuit board on the instrument cluster of my bike.  There is a known fault whereby a capacitor fails causing the speedo and rev-counter to flicker wildly and the digital odometer display start tumbling madly. Everything eventually settles down once the component warms up but it is annoying and Wayne had offered to fix it for me. In addition to helping wayward travellers, Wayne also organises the annual TT2000 event; a 2000-km, 48-hour motorcycle endurance ride (https://www.tt2000.org).  How would you fancy a weekend riding 2000-km around a series of checkpoints in the South Island on mix of sealed and gravel roads?  Entrants are given a T-Shirt and must photograph their bike with the shirt at each stop.  Points are awarded depending on ease of access in gaining each checkpoint.  It’s not a race and riders are expected to cover the ground while observing the legal speed limits.  You can ride the route anyway you please and select as many of the checkpoints as targets as you like.  The event was started over ten years ago by Kiwi Mike Hyde, author of the Twisted Throttleseries of books on motorcycle overlanding and touring.  Sadly Mike passed away in 2015 and Wayne stepped up to ensure the continuity of the event.  He does an amazing job too by all accounts and it was a privilege to meet him.

From Dunedin we road north on a short days ride to Oamaru, a lovely little coastal town that doesn’t seem to figure much on the tourist itinerary. Our next planned stop had been the mountain town of Twizel, base for exploring Mount Cook, but foul weather was at play making it unwise to continue in that direction for now.  Oamaru still oozed with that ‘end-of-the-world’ feel to it; the town even has it’s own penguin colony and the harbour is where the Terra Novamade landfall on the return from the fatal South Pole expedition, bringing first news to the world that Scott and his entire party had perished in the 1912 attempt on the pole.  There is a splendid Victorian quarter, complete with the outstanding ‘Adventure Book shop’, specialising in polar exploration and mountaineering books. The shop is home to a movie replica of the ‘James Caird’, the lifeboat that Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions used in 1916 in the southern Atlantic Ocean to escape from Elephant Island to reach South Georgia, an epic 800-mile (1,300 km) trip and still regarded as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken. We mooched the Grainstore Gallery, a wonderful jumble of a place set in a lofty old Victorian grain store.  The place resembled a fateful collision between museum, working art studio and gallery of Victoriana, the cavernous interior festooned with heads, faces and eyes of everything from saints and angels, demons and demi-gods to jokers, jesters and penguins all beautifully executed in a range of styles and fashions.

Final showpiece for Oamaru was ‘Steampunk HQ.’   ‘Steampunk’ is a science-fiction genre, projecting a future in which electricity never fully developed as a technology allowing for a world dominated by extrapolated steam powered mechanical devices and machines. Steampunk HQis a jaw dropping contraptuary; a collection of such relics and artifacts and quite unique and unlike anything else we’ve experienced on our travels. We visited the HQ with fellow overlanders, Martin Strebel and Xenia Sägesser, from Switzerland on their pair of XT660’s.  We spent a pleasant few days dining and chatting together in the campsite as we waited for better weather to move in.  They eventually rode on north to Christchurch while we headed west to Twizel and that appointment with Mount Cook and from museums and fine hosts to more of that spectacular New Zealand outdoor life.

Teal coloured lakeland competed with snow capped mountain in attracting the eye, all of it slightly otherworldly.  It felt remote and inaccessible and vestiges of the recent bad weather made for sci-fi skies filled with lenticular clouds and a highway-to-hell sunrise each and every day.  We tramped up the Hooker Valley to see Mount Cook itself, the weather veiling New Zealand’s highest peak with gossamer wisps of cloud that parted occasionally for tantalising glimpses of lofty granite summit iced with snow.  On the day we left Twizel, bad weather was forecast with heavy rain and high winds so an early alarm had us up, packed and ready to leave for 8am.  It was a day spent riding in escape-and-evasion mode, ever looking over our left shoulders at a huge bruise of a weather-front that seemed to be chasing us and obliterating everything in its path along the way.  The sky dominated the scenery, filled with smoke marbled clouds that seemed to herald the end of the world.   It was dangerous as our eyes kept drifting away from the road, ever drawn upwards to marvel at the Cistine ceiling of clouds above, at once monstrous and magnificent, beautiful and beastly and seemingly in possession of a life of their own. Who knows, maybe it was all camouflage for a Steampunk invasion, the clouds filled with gothic beings from another planet travelling in their zeppelins, aiming vaporizing death-rays at our bikes as we rode along?  I am glad to report that our evasion attempts were successful and we reached our destination warm and dry, once again awed by the beauty of the world in which we live.

We had new tyres fitted (possibly the last of the trip?) by Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals (https://www.citymotorcyclerentals.com), who are the NZ importer for Heidenau tyres.  We spent a morning in the company of Andrea and Alan who really went out of their way to look after us and we left with a very high opinion of their business, especially the attention to detail and customer care. The new tyres were run in on a ride up to Hanmer Springs where we spent Easter doing a spot of gentle hiking in warm settled weather before riding on to Westport back on the stormy west coast. Here we visited the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and spent a day slaloming on the coast road rendered wild and windy by the weather, although it thankfully remained dry.

Our penultimate stop on the South Island was up in Takaka with Joe Hambrook, a Kiwi ‘round-the-wordler’ who we met, on his way home, at Horizons Unlimited in Indonesia.  Takaka is up on Golden Bay in the very northwest corner of the island and is something of a little paradise.  Our initial plan had been to come here first on arrival in the South Island but the weather intervened when Cyclone Gita destroyed the only access road over Takaka Hill, a huge landslide taking out multiple sections of the road and closing it for ten days.  It had only recently re-opened, with traffic escorted at fixed times in each direction by a convoy system, so we had a good look at the clean up operation and could appreciate first-hand the damage done by the foul weather.  Joe was born here and works today as a Park Ranger for the DOC (Dept of Conservation) and he laid on some excellent days out to Wharariki Beach and Abel Tasman National Park. It was an immensely pleasurable experience and indeed a privilege to walk the land with such a local expert.

A final ride took us on a series of twisty roads under luxurious cobalt skies through the Marlborough Sounds area back to Picton, both gateway and now exit to this South Island paradise.  On the ferry back to Wellington we contemplated how we very nearly skipped this ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ due to the difficulties and expenses of getting here.  It has been one of the highlights of our entire trip and a place we will be very sad to leave, as one day soon we surely must…

There are two photogalleries for this post that may be accessed by clicking the following links:

New Zealand, To the End of the World.

Invercargill: The Museums

 

The Beautiful South…

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.

 

Journey through the North Island

I’m completely blind. I can’t see a thing, stumbling along, my feet shuffling as I take tiny tenuous steps and edge my way forward in the darkness. We take our five senses for granted until deprived of one of them and then it’s a whole new ballgame; mildly terrifying too and all of this over a wee bird. Other senses try to compensate. I listen keenly for other footsteps and I can both smell and taste the mulchy wetness of the rainforest around me. I reach out to touch Maggie for reassurance; she was right there in front of me seconds ago but she’s gone, moved on. I feel like I’m going to fall forwards. To steady myself I crane my neck skywards to glimpse the heavens but primeval rainforest canopy has shredded the velvet cloth only granting bejeweled tatters here and there, none of it enough to make a familiar constellation. I am even abandoned by the moon, although for our purpose tonight that’s supposed to be a good thing. I look to the ground and am astounded to see that parts of the sky have fallen here and there, blue flames of starlight shining out of the murk and then I realise that it’s only glowworms doing their thing. Up ahead a low glimmer of red light and silhouettes suddenly dance out of the darkness. It’s enough to let me follow the path, catch up with the group and continue the hunt for the elusive Kiwi.

We are in the Kauri Rain Forest north of Auckland on a night safari to find the famous bird of New Zealand. Bob, our guide, leads with an infrared lamp, our only hope of illuminating this nocturnal prey. Expectations had been managed beforehand as Bob explained that only 3% of New Zealanders have actually seen one in the wild. At the sight of any white light, they’ll be gone long before we can get anywhere near and likewise with any noise and strong smells. In fact anything unfamiliar will send them on a speedy flight to their burrows. Totally flightless, they forage in the night probing the forest floor with their long proboscis beak for grubs and insects. Unlike normal birds, which are hollow boned to aid flight, Kiwis have weighty marrow in their bones to further bind them to the ground. Their unique skeleton has all of their organs suspended from the backbone in a tummy cavity supported by a diaphragm with no sternum bones so they are easily damaged when roughly handled by predators like dogs and cats. They smell like puppy dogs too, so are easy prey for any hound who can dispatch up to 30 birds in a night. They reached endangered status as they only lay one or two eggs a year in their burrow, which is easily pilfered by foreign predators such as stoats, rats and even hedgehogs for a feast on whopping Kiwi eggs which are about 20% of the size of the adult that laid them. That makes for the biggest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird in the world. For comparison, the kiwi is about the same size as a domestic chicken yet its eggs that are about six times the size of a chicken egg. Baby Kiwis spend only a few days with their parents after hatching, feeding on their egg remnants before being driven off by the adults, who are very territorial. This means that over a range of land the senior birds are at the centre of the colony, with younger birds driven to the outskirts, where they are vulnerable prey. Fortunately all of this has been recognised by conservationists so Kiwi habitat is well protected and numbers are on the increase.

Back on the trail there was no sight of the wee buggers. We heard both males and females calling way off in the dark but it seemed that would be our lot for tonight. Still the sensory deprivation on the 2km trail was a novel experience and we did see those marvelous glowworms and a somewhat incongruous long-tailed eel, another native unique to New Zealand, living in a little brook up in this forest, quite a way from the sea. We wound up back at the carpark resigned to mild disappointment when Bob illuminated a stretch of grass and there on the tree line a little fellow, looking like Captain Caveman with his arms folded behind his back, was probing the leaf mulch with his big nose for dinner. It was an amazing sight, nay a privilege and one that awed every one of us. Even the wildlife in New Zealand was utterly magical.

In the last post I described the wonderful serendipity you get when traveling and things go wrong. It seems our misfortune with the bike was to bring us more delicious encounters. Bypassing Auckland we headed south to Rotorua to visit the thermal features there. When my bike had broken down in the north we had a kind offer of help from Lindsay Goodwin and his son Dave, who live in Taupiri near Hamilton, to check the bike over on their computer with a GS-911 diagnostic tool. Although the bike was now repaired and running well, it seemed like a good idea to perform this simple check in case any sensors or electronics were on the blink so we called by their shop where the bike was efficiently checked and given the all clear. The rest of a sunny afternoon was spent chewing the fat on bikes and travel with Lindsay, Dave and one of their friends, Des O’Sullivan, who regaled us with tales from his time in Mongolia. We learned too that Des had a somewhat strange collection of vehicles and were invited that evening to visit his ‘shed’. Now you might be expecting me to relate next how he had a shed full of old British bikes; Nortons, Matchless, AJS etc or even a shed full of splendid American muscle cars but it was none of the above; Des has a collection of tanks! Next thing we were staring down the business end of a 120mm rifled cannon on the other end of which was a Berlin Brigade Chieftain Tank, resplendent in its blocky urban paint scheme.   In the corner sat a squat, mean looking WW2 era M41 Walker Bulldog. Several eastern-bloc armoured personnel carriers, a few trucks and other light armoured vehicles completed the collection and a great day was topped by a superb evening clambering over these monsters.

With a farewell to the guys who also kindly hosted us for the evening we had a pleasant days ride on to Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s top attractions with its famous fields of geysers, hot springs and other geothermal features. We visited the thermal park at Te Puia and I have to say we both found it a little underwhelming; perhaps we had been spoiled by having previously visited the insuperable thermals at Yellowstone. The hefty $69 per person admission fee made it a pricey excursion; at roughly $2 NZD to the pound that cost around seventy quid for both of us to enter. We had a grey day for our visit, which rendered a dullish tint of gloom to the setting of boiling grey mudflats. A horrid looking hotel spa had been built as a blot on the skyline giving the park the air of a back lot in Chernobyl. The saving grace was the Maori cultural experience, where we were entreated to a Haka welcoming ceremony followed by a splendid song and dance performance.

From Rotorua we took a short ride into the mountains to visit Waimangu volcanic rift valley, one of the youngest geothermal features in the world. On 10th June 1886 the Tarawera Volcano erupted, blowing the side off the mountain and opening a huge valley, which quickly filled to form several lakes and geothermal features including the largest hot spring in the world. Prior to the eruption, the area was already a tourist beauty spot and hosted a series of famous pink and white terraces, hailed in their day as the eighth wonder of the world as well as the world’s largest geyser. All of this was destroyed during the eruption, which killed 153 people and buried three nearby villages along with the famous terraces. It was quite a beautiful walk but again there was a hefty admission fee of $38 per head just to walk some tracks (this does include a bus ride back from the end of the trail but it would have been nice to decline this for a cheaper admission as we didn’t use it).

We decided against any further expensive excursions from Rotorua, a decision aided by the fact that the weather was now seriously impacting our activities. The remnants of a tropical storm washed in and we encountered heavy rain that drenched our little campsite over the next three days. We ensconced ourselves in the camp kitchen to utilize the time to write and edit photographs but the forecast showed no change to the wet weather and in the end we abandoned the central highlands and plans to walk to Tongariro Gap near Lake Taupo. We managed to pack the contents of our little tent and keep them dry but the outer skin was a soggy mess and we just rolled it into a bin bag and strapped it to the back of the bike. In over two and a half years on the road this was the first day we have had to set out to ride in seriously wet weather, in high country too. We had 150 miles to cover to get down to the east coast and the little town of Hastings and a promise of shelter in the form of a cheap motel.

The ride was anything but dreary in spite of a day so dreich and drizzled. The roads were pretty good allowing us to maintain a decent speed as we passed through miles of mountainous pine forest and dropped into a fantastic twisting descent that gradually lost the rain with the altitude. By the time we reached Hastings the sun was out and about. We unpacked the soggy luggage off the bikes and watched the steam rise as it warmed in the afternoon sun. We poured the tent outer from its bin bag and I swore there were actual fish in the deluge. We draped it over a hedge and within an hour or so it was dry.

Hastings was a little gem and it sparkled justly in the sun next day. It was largely destroyed in the 1930’s by an earthquake and was rebuilt in an art-deco style that was all the rage at that time. It made for a quaint and curious little town to while away a morning and plan our next steps. We already had a kindly offer to house-sit for some friends in Wellington for a month from the middle of April so that, plus the poor weather, decided us to abandon all further travels in the North Island and head south. Another splendid day’s ride took us to the beautiful city of Wellington, where our friends Ruth and Ian took us out for a somewhat unusual and brilliant St. Valentines Day evening at the local zoo. There we had a romantic picnic and a mooch around the animal enclosures. In the morning we bade our farewells and rode to the inter-island ferry that would take us on to Picton, the South Island and a whole new chapter of astounding places and what would prove to be some of the highlights of the entire trip.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, Journey through the North Island.

 

South Seas Serendipity…

The bus dropped us off with our bags at the downtown stop at 7am on a Saturday morning. We’d flown in on a very cramped Jetstar flight from Melbourne for a visa run, planning to spend four nights in the city. Once off the bus, the piquant smell of stale piss assailed our nostrils as Friday-night partygoers had evidently relieved themselves en masse on the streets. Our initial impressions were further dented at the sight of an inebriated man actually pissing in the street, urinating at a tree rather than up against it, wobbling around with his penis in his hand spaying the pavement and doing that weird ‘dance of the drunks’ with one foot firmly planted, the other stomping on invisible frogs that were scattered all around and only he could see. We moved on to quickly find our shoebox hotel and were relieved when the friendly receptionist informed us we could have the room immediately and not have to wait until 2pm, the official check-in time. Not exactly the kind of image you’d conjure up at the mention of ‘New Zealand’ as a travel destination. You tend to think more of snowy peaks and pinnacles rather than pissheads and pricks but thankfully it was not an image that would endure and was quickly replaced by more pleasant associations with these islands. Welcome to Auckland! Our four days flew by and, in spite of the odd blustery shower, we had a good look around exploring the quaint harbour area and taking a ferry trip over to Devonport.

Still, it was not certain that we would make it to New Zealand with the bikes. Fast approaching two and a half years on the road, our finances we starting to feel the strain. We had some alarming quotes to ship the bikes there from Oz and also had to consider onward shipment to the Americas to get home… Finally a more sensible quote arrived from specialist vehicle shipper GT Logistics, recommended by our buddy Tom Curtis from HU Indonesia. In fact they proved to be the best shipper we have used to date, responding promptly and efficiently to all our communications and everything happened like they said it would with no nasty surprises. New Zealand was back on the Itinerary!

Our third Christmas on the road was spent in the fold of our lovely family in Melbourne. Having returned from Tasmania, the plan was to have a lazy, relaxing run up to Christmas and then have a leisurely time preparing the bikes for shipping sometime in January. This was quickly turned on its head when GT requested we deliver the bikes to the Port of Melbourne before 30th December. A frantic week ensued, dismantling and cleaning the bikes, wary lest we fail another quarantine inspection. The bikes travelled to Auckland by RoRo ferry (so no expensive crating) and the only fly in the ointment was that we couldn’t send any luggage with them, only empty unlocked panniers. However we managed to secure some cheap flights with Air New Zealand that came with a generous baggage allowance and a couple of cheap kit bags from K-Mart sorted that problem.   Suddenly, amid a frantic rush to say goodbyes to family and friends in Melbourne, our time in Australia was all over. We had good news before we left too… GT are an accredited MPI Inspection facility (NZ Quarantine) and they had inspected and cleared the bikes so they would be ready for collection when we arrived.

Our cheap tent that we’d paid $70 AUD, from the Australian outdoor chain Anaconda, was a slight concern, as you must declare all camping and outdoor equipment for inspection on arrival in NZ. We cleaned the tent and had another look at the poles, which were bent causing the tent to lose shape. We called in to see Anaconda, thinking we could at least replace the poles but they gave us a new tent, an upgraded model for a few extra dollars. This was great news as we could present NZ Quarantine with a brand new, unused tent. In the end the arrivals procedure in Auckland was all very straightforward and we were out of the airport in about half an hour and off to the nearby Ramarama campsite.

With the bikes released we had to do a ‘Warranty of Fitness’ check and pay for road registration. This was again straightforward but the check found a dodgy wheel bearing on my front wheel. Given that we’d just replaced Maggie’s in Tasmania, we had the bearing changed by MR Motorcycles in Pukehohe, another great bike shop that gave us fantastic service. When we went back to Vehicle Inspection to get the work checked, we met a fellow overlander Kerry Davison who kindly treated us to a delicious and memorable lamb shank dinner and would prove a useful contact in the land of the Kiwi. From our base at Ramarama we planned our route to explore the northerly extremes of the north island. Question was did we go Waimauku, Waipu, Whangarai, Waitangi, Whangaroa to reach Whatuwhiwhi or should we go via Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kerikeri and Kaitaia? Yes, we were in for a shower of fun with vowels here, which, coming from ‘Norn Iron’ where we flatten the things, didn’t bode well when asking for directions or telling people where we’d been.

Aside from unpronounceable place names the ride north was simply beautiful on roads lined with millions of little yellow flowers through rolling hill country, real ‘shire’ land and it’s no surprise that the Hobbiton movie set is based on the North Island. New Zealand is another motorcyclist’s paradise. About the same size as the UK, where we share our living space with a whopping 65 million people, the population here is a tiny 4.5 million, with 1.5 million living around Auckland, the biggest city, so once free of the metropolis we reached another new nirvana on this trip. We spent a few days at Paihai and Russell on the beautiful Bay of Islands, enjoying a spot of ‘Tramping’ (as Kiwi’s call hiking) along the coast. Then more idyllic roads deposited us in Whatuwhiwhi (the ‘Wh’ sound is pronounced ‘f’ so it’s ‘Fatufifi’, which makes it less of a mouthful) our base for a ride up to Cape Reinga, the extreme tip of the North Island reached by a winding causeway route and the ride to the tip punctuated by blustery winds that gave the bikes a good slapping but kept us on our toes. The Cape itself was very beautiful, the place where the Tasman Sea meets the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of eddies and currents. We also visited the immense sand dunes at Te Paki and had a tramp in the soft stuff with views over nearby 90-Mile Beach.

We were all set for a leisurely ride down the west coast to visit the thermal features in Rotorua and possibly tramp the Tongariro Crossing near Lake Taupo. From there we planned to abandon the rest of the North Island and go directly for the south to see the wonders there before the summer ran out. We’d do the rest of the North Island on our way back to Auckland, our point of final departure from NZ. But the fates had other things in store for us… Some of the best times in our travels have been born out of apparent catastrophe, when the wheels came off the wagon and we were pitched headlong into an unanticipated bout of problem solving, nearly always laced with rich encounters with wonderful strangers and with some utterly unexpected but delicious outcomes. Looking back afterwards you can see a sort of lovely serendipity in it all, where the series of unplanned and apparently unconnected events string together to ultimately enrich the overall travel experience in ways you couldn’t possibly plan or foresee.

We packed up and parted the great little campsite at Whatuwhiwhi, where we’d made friends with staff, neighbours and local residents. They’re a friendly lot the Kiwis and, as we were soon to find, a rather caring lot too. With a short backwards wave, we set out on the day’s ride climbing up the steep hill from the campsite. About 2km down the road, I opened the throttle and my bike suddenly died with a bubba-bubba-bubba-pop! I pulled in the clutch and freewheeled to a halt at the bottom of a dip in the road. She refused to restart to the point where I gave up lest I flatten the battery. It felt like she was being starved of fuel so I unpacked the bike and set to performing a roadside investigation that revealed I had a spark, a working fuel pump that was delivering petrol but somehow no go in the bike. We ferried all the kit back to the campsite and then pushed the bike out of the dip to freewheel down the hill, where again she refused to even bump start. We spent an afternoon swapping components with Maggie’s bike but couldn’t find the problem.

Enter ‘Blackie’; a weather-scorched, wiry Kiwi retiree sporting a drover’s hat, who lives here permanently in an old bus that proudly sports the route destination ‘DILIGAF.’ Turns out he’s a fellow motorcyclist too and wandered over to see if he could help. He advised that the nearest support would be in Kaitaia and recommended ‘Kaitaia Auto Electrics’ to get the wiring and components checked out. We called in to see the owner, Chris Broughton, who explained he was up to his neck in work but agreed to let us use a corner of his workshop to strip the bike and then he’d be on call to check out various items on request. Getting the bike there was no problem as Blackie had already organised a trailer to take us over the following morning.

Leaving Whatuwhiwhi for the second time was really sad as the staff and fellow campers had all been over to see if they could help to the point where it felt a little like home. Blackie trailered the bike to the shop and then took Maggie on to nearby Ahipura with our luggage to the campsite there, as it was closer to the shop. We spent the rest of the day running diagnostics and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we found a dodgy relay in the electrics. With a new relay fitted, the bike started but was running rough, which we attributed to a low-charged battery. After an overnight charge she started up but was surging and stalling at any sort of high revs and we now decided that it was a possible fuel contamination issue. We said farewell to Chris and his crew at the Auto Electrics shop, a real gentleman who had helped us get back on the road.

At the new campsite, we dismantled the fuel delivery system and cleaned a lot of dirt in the throttle body assembly, which probably wasn’t helping things and settled down for the night in our tent. We awoke in the early hours to the pitter-patter of raindrops that soon escalated into a heavy downpour. Morning came with no respite to the wet weather other than the fact that our little emplacement was slowly filling into a nice pond. We’d also left some little ventilation flaps open allowing our new tent to leak somewhat! We ran to the camp kitchen and, over a late breakfast, decided things were getting too soggy for further camping so we booked into a little cabin on site. We worriedly observed our new tents performance in the bad weather as the wind administered a good slapping while it floated in its little pond, moored there seemingly by the tent pegs. It didn’t seem any more robust than the old tent we’d used in Australia. While these tents were fine in calm / dry weather it was clear that we would suffer badly in this tent in any kind of wind / wet weather, which New Zealand would most certainly have on tap for the future…

That evening we met our cabin neighbours, two lovely English roses, Em & Em (Emily and Emma) from Nottingham and shared a wine or two on the porch while we chatted about our respective travels. They were on an eleven-month trip through Asia, Australia, NZ and their next stop was South America. Like us the girls had declined camping in the foul weather. We told them the story of our cheapo Australian tent, its bendy tent-poles and the likelihood of it surviving any bad weather in NZ. “Why don’t you take ours?” said Em… “Yes!” agreed Em, “We leave New Zealand next week and aren’t planning on camping in South America. We need to dump the tent anyway so it would be great to see it go to a good home.” And so we acquired a rather splendid Vango Pulsar 300 tent thanks to this lovely act of charity from Em2.

Sitting now writing this up in the camp kitchen at another site further south, it is lashing outside as I ponder these twists of fate. When the bike stalled and refused to restart it seemed such a catastrophe as a pleasant day of riding and sightseeing turned into a dismal retreat and what proved to be a fruitless effort to find any fault. But then meeting delightful new friends in Blackie and Chris, the move to Ahipura, meeting a pair of angels in Em and Em and acquiring our new canvas; none of that would have happened had the day gone to plan. I look across to see our new home, a little green tent, a magnificent outpost standing there stalwart against the rain and it raises a smile that everything inside is safe and dry as this story comes to an end for now.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, the Far North.