Lower South Island

Lower South Island tour report

My now ex  partner and I completed a lower half circuit of South Island, in company with Stephen Battison of Canberra, maintainer of the Laverda in Australia web site.  This is a report of the ride, essentially the same as a message originally posted to the Laverda mailing list.  Hopefully it will give the impression of the sort of tour riding New Zealand's South Island is becoming increasingly famous for around the world.

Well, today is the first day back at work after the South Island ride with Steve Battisson last week and it is obvious that the weather gods at least were smiling on us.  Looking out the window, the weather here today is misty with steady drizzle, not overly cold but likely to take some time to burn off.  It has apparently been like this for most of last week here in Christchurch, so the weather on our trip away was good indeed!

Plans for our route were extremely fluid right up until the last minute, with the Internet weather oracles being consulted the night before and checked at the last minute before departure.  They never agree on the detail, but at least they were consistent in the 'broad brush' and they set the direction of travel as being clockwise, with the first section from Christchurch being inland to avoid coastal mist and drizzle (see above).

We started the trip as we meant to go on, not actually making it outside the city until close to noon, what with stops for fuel and to arrange a decent strap mechanism for attaching a backpack to the seat of Sue's BMW R850R.  The road from home out of Christchurch to Darfield is pretty boring and often reasonably heavily policed, although being a weekday and the first week back for schools after their third term break the traffic volumes were light.  The skies lightened as we went further away from the coast, although the temperatures were cool enough to make riding a bit unpleasant. 

Turning south at Darfield, we followed Provincial Highway 72 (a scenic heritage route the signs say) down through the upper Rakaia Gorge all the way down mostly empty roads to
Geraldine.  Speeds increased, with peaks, on the 668 and BMW at least, of close to 180 kph.  The Monza, with Steve B aboard, struggled to break 160 kph, but that wasn't for the want of trying!  The roads vary from long straights to some fun twisties, well worth the diversion away from the tedious and boring direct route along the coast.

Arriving at Geraldine, we stopped for a bite to eat at the home of Barkers fruit products.  There is a bake house, a tourist shop and a jam & condiments store, all attached to the berry fruit processing factory. The bake house makes wonderful pies and you get a 'bottomless cup' of coffee from an automated coffee machine that does a passable latte, so we took the opportunity to restore the lost body heat.  Sue discovered the tourist shop sold socks made from a unique New Zealand fibre, formed from blending sheep's wool with possum fur.  In New Zealand the Australian possum is regarded as a noxious pest, unlike in Australia where it is heavily protected.  Possum fur is almost unique in that it has hollow fibres, giving a yarn that is both light and very good insulation.  That was the end of cold feet on motorcycles!

From there we decided to make for Oamaru, via Timaru.  This took us along the coast, back into heavier traffic, but the alternative would have meant too much saddle time and too long a trip to make Gore in one day.  The coast road was still reasonably light traffic once we were past Timaru, so we made good time, arriving in Oamaru in good time for an afternoon snack at the Whitestone Cheese factory.  They specialize in boutique style gourmet cheese and do wonderful things with sheep's milk cheeses, so a quantity of this was purchased for dinner and breakfast the next day.  Moving along, we made Dunedin in good time, arriving at around 5:30.  At this stage we decided to make Gore our overnight stopping point, we were still fresh enough and Steve B was coping OK with the extremely low track focused clipon bars on the Monza, although he did admit to some strain on his wrists.  We rode on towards the sunset, arriving at dusk in Gore at our friend Bill Schroeders vicarage.  The bikes attracted quite a few favourable comments from the church group that had been holding a video evening in his front room, although the women who commented that Sue must have been tired by 'riding all the way from Christchurch on the bake of a bike' got a bit of the steely treatment for her fallacious assumptions ;-)

Sue and I had a good catch-up with our friend the motorcycling vicar, Bill, in the morning, with lots of good gossip exchanged.  The gear all packed neatly away, we were on the road before noon.  The road through to Lumsden is pretty boring, travelling along the Waimea Plain, there are few bends and almost no slopes.  Still, once again the roads were pretty much empty, so we made good time.  From Lumsden the roads improved, and once again the extremely light traffic meant we could open up a bit, limbering up for the wonderful roads to come.

The road gets progressively better, and we made a mandatory scenic beauty stop at the first lay-by on the edge of Lake Te Anau, the Hector Mountains to one side and the pretty township of Kingston nestled on the southernmost neck of the lake.  This is serious tourist country and we were being especially vigilant for the foreign tourists in camper vans who are rumoured to forget where they are and travel on the wrong side of the road from time to time.  A South African couple were parked in the same lay-by and the female partner came over with cheese and crackers to introduce herself and wax lyrical about the wonders on the New Zealand landscape.  Surrounded by the mountains and the picture postcard view of the lake we certainly couldn't disagree!

Twisties, twisties and more twisties ahead!  The road travels along the bank of the lake for some distance and winds around the feet of first the Hector Mountains then the justly famed Remarkables, subject of many a tourist postcard and jigsaw.  A stop in Queenstown in the bright sunshine reminded me of the dangers of full on tourist destinations - a town that exists to cater to the vast numbers of foreign moneyed tourists that makes itself inaccessible to the locals.  We also experienced a far from satisfactory level of service from what looked, on the surface at least, to be a good little cafe, fortunately it appears to not have been aimed solely at the 'biker scum' in leathers, it also got directed at some foreign (German, perhaps) backpacker type tourists who made the mistake of wanting something not on the menu.  C'est la vie!

From there we moseyed on to Wanaka, a lower key destination but still squarely aimed at the tourist market.  On the way out of Queenstown we passed the famous AJ Hackett bungey jump site, but being sensible motorcyclists it had no attraction - after all, who wants to trust their life to a rubber band over a 100+ foot drop from a bridge to the river bed below?  The roads through to Wanaka are a fun ride too, so I reckon we had more than value for money!  One of the places I'd have liked to stop and always mean to whenever we pass is is the Wanaka Warbirds aerodrome, home to a sizeable private collection of old fighter aircraft, mostly from World War II.  I did manage to stop long enough to get photos of a stubby Russian biplane and a Mustang, parked outside the main hanger.  Next time, I promised myself, next time I'll plan the time in for a stop.

Wanaka is a pretty place and a good cafe yielded excellent latte and food, with views of the surrounding mountains and lake.  Ahead lay the beautiful Haast Pass, so we moved smartly along and into the dense dark green and black temperate rain forest that defines this part of the country.  Not that many years ago long stretches of this road weren't sealed, in fact the last time I was through four years or so ago they were just completing the final sections of road sealing, so this was effectively a first trip on what are now excellent motorcycling roads, full of sweepers, tighter twisties and lots of changes of gradient. Once again, very little traffic, with only the occasional camper van or car, meant we could make good time while taking in the views and the wonderful roads.

It was close to dark when we arrived in the little township of Haast, at the bottom of South Westland.  Not having booked ahead, we were surprised and pleased to chance upon a motorcycle friendly motelier, himself a serious distance bike rider, who warmly welcomed us to his motels.  We had a pleasant pub meal at the local tavern, before hitting the sack for a well deserved rest.  Overnight rain brought with it some concerns as to the weather we would find in the morning, and it was mildly drizzling as we left, not enough to convince us to wear rain suits though, and it soon cleared, maybe 10 km from Haast as we reached the coast of the Tasman Sea for the first time on this trip.  More photos, the coastline here is wild and untamed, with rocks standing in the sea at the base of rocky bluffs and stony beaches, beloved by hardy surfers in wet suits riding the waves that roll unimpeded across the southern ocean all the way from the coast of Africa.

The road from here through to Fox Glacier is maybe 120 km of well paved twisties and straights, through more of the beautiful dense West Coast rain forest.  With the southern parts of Westland and Fiordland receiving up to 200 inches of rain a year, vegetation grows abundantly and thick here.  Fortunately, the rain is here not constant but rather is heavy and focused, so there are many dry and sunny days, probably as many as places with a tenth the rainfall.  We were blessed with such a day, warm and mild with blue skies and fluffy clouds.  Just before the
township, Sue and Steve B stopped to admire the Fox Glacier, a long river of ice that originates from the slopes of Mount Cook.  Fox Glacier township was a good place to stop for lunch and we had a decent lunch at a cafe on the main road, sitting in the sun on the deck outside.

More good road goes on northwards, alternately winding along the coastline or further inland through more native bush, coming in most places right to the edge of the road.  Apart for some bumpy sections, the road itself is race track quality, paved here as in most other parts of the country with coarse gravel chips embedded in tar.  This provides excellent grip and probably contributes to higher tyre wear than smoother surfaces, but it is certainly a great surface for hard riding, even on damp roads.  We travelled on towards Hokitika with only one stop at Franz Joseph village for a refreshing coke and retail experience at the Bushmans Centre, home of the worlds largest sandfly.

An attempted visit with an old friend of Sue's in Hokitika failed for lack of the friends (apparently not yet returned from attending a funeral in Christchurch) so we moved on towards our tentative accommodation for the evening, a holiday house in Kumara owned by our housekeeper.  We decided to move on, as there was still daylight and we did want to see the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki, 40 km north of Greymouth.  The road along the rugged coast from Greymouth takes in some more spectacular scenery, combined with good winding roads.  We arrived to find the place pretty much closed, apart from a small dairy/convenience store which was almost closed, so we ate there before going out to look at the pancake rocks and blow holes.

Unfortunately the tide was close to fully out, so there was no activity from the blow holes, but the scenery alone is well worth the short walk in from the highway.  We had the added bonus of being there just as the sun was setting and so we waited to watch the bright orange disk drift slowly down before suddenly disappearing over the sharp line of the horizon.  Steve Battisson, coming as he does from the eastern coast of Australia, had never before seen the sunset into the ocean.  I must have snapped over twenty photos of the sun as it sank, over a rugged rocky pinnacle into the Tasman Sea.  We stayed at a stunningly presented motel right on the beach in the little township about 1 km from the point, with the sound of the pounding waves in our ears as we drifted off to sleep.  There were no other guests, it being a Friday night and only just at the start of the summer tourist season.

The morning revealed the only negative effects of the 'Steve Battisson Curse', a slow leak having flattened the front tyre and a delaminated disk pad in one of the front disks on the Monza.  On reflection, I suspect the pad material had become detached and disappeared just before we arrived in Punakaiki the night before, fortunately the unique Guzzi linked brake system made it possible to shuffle pads about to give a safe level of braking on the rear brake lever alone, acting as it does on the rear pads as well as one of the front disks.  The other front disk is activated by the brake lever and simply adds a little extra to the stopping force.

We used a CO2 capsule from my tyre repair kit to inflate the front tyre and limped back the 40 km to Greymouth where we had a new tube fitted to the Monza.  This was quite some effort, as the tyre shop didn't have a specialist motorcycle tyre machine and the Monza has narrow tyres on
alloy wheels.  It takes considerable pressure to get the tyre to 'bead out', and the tyre jockeys were fearful of a tube failing when I happily informed them it had taken 110 lbs pressure the last time I had new tyres fitted!

From Greymouth we headed back towards Christchurch via a secondary road past Lake Brunner.  This road has been widened in recent years, to the point that it is now a great fast riding road through mostly typical West Coast farming country, with occasional one way bridges and one uncontrolled railway crossing.  We'd lost enough time getting the tube fitted that we didn't stop at the Moana Zoo to visit the friendly Capuchin monkey, Tuku, subject of a small political storm in a teacup a year or two back by virtue of his having been named after a certain Maori politician who objected to 'his' name being used is a disrespectful way.  Ah, the petty minds of politicians!

We returned to the main road at Jackson's, then a quick ride on to Otira, the last West Coast town before Athurs Pass.  The road over the pass is one of the most spectacular pieces of main road in the country, steep, narrow and winding.  We had what may well be our last ride over the infamous zig zag, a series of steep switchbacks that criss cross the face of an unstable shingle slope and which has been closed many times to repair damage from slips.  There is a new road nearing completion that bypasses this slope along a 1.5 km long viaduct on massive piers sunk into a riverbed at the base of the shingle slope which will eliminate the zig zag, although  not all of the narrow one way section carved into the rock face immediately before it.

As always, the stark contrast between the lush vegetation of the West Coast and the dry, brown arid high country on the eastern side of the Southern Alps is both sudden and dramatic.  We stopped at Arthurs Pass for a late lunch time snack, before pressing on through the high, wide mountain valley that leads towards Porters Pass and the Canterbury Plains.  This is another fast section of road, but we kept our speed down to no more than 120 kph, owing to the more 'policed' nature of the roads through here.  There is still some snow on the mountain peaks and the contrast of that with the brown tussock and grey shingle screes makes it as spectacular in its own way as the verdant greens of Westland.

Porters Pass drops you very rapidly from the high country down to the Canterbury Plains, and from Springfield it is a tedious ride across mostly very straight roads to Christchurch.  Being still spring, the fields were at least green, and all the little lambs were gambolling through the fields, unsuspecting of their eventual fate as lamb chops.  As summer approaches the fields will take on their dry summer colours of arid brown and dusty grey.

In all, we covered 1,700 kms in the four days we were away, across some of the better riding roads of the South Island.  Maybe for our next trip we will do the northern circuit through Nelson and Golden Bay, or maybe we'll be more adventurous and go down to Milford Sound, now apparently sealed all the way, via the Homer Tunnel.  In any case, the long distance summer travel bug seems to have bitten.  It should be a good way to celebrate the new year!

Copyright Steve Carr, 1999-2007

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