Final in a three part travelouge
By Joan Barnes
The howling winds and driving rain of the early morning hours had changed to showers as we carried our bulging bags to the bike. We were relieved to see it had survived the storm and was still standing upright.
As we rode around Queenstown Bay, rain started falling in sunlight and a rainbow formed over the Bay. We continued riding in the rain up through the mountains. We were constantly chasing a patch of blue sky that was always just ahead of us.
While we were stopped at a cafe the sky cleared and we had our New Zealand sun back. A man who was admiring the bike saw us stripping off our rain gear. He said, “You might have a wee bit of weather ahead.” We ignored his warning and rode down the road basking in the brilliant sun - for five minutes. Dark ominous clouds raced down the mountains toward us. We barely got off the bike and into our rain gear before the downpour started. Strong winds battered us. On the bike, the rain drops became ice needles driving into our faces. My helmet chin strap beat against my face viciously. The bike was blown across the road into the oncoming traffic lane or toward roadside ditches in spite of all Ely’s attempts to control it. The winds actually blew a large window out of one of the Wellington car ferries that day and the churning waves filled it with water. Fortunately all the passengers were rescued.
At right, a perfect New Zealand, especially as seen from a touring motorcycle.
We both lost circulation in our fingers. I nervously watched the road signs for distances to the next town. Nightcaps was supposed to be a nice coal mining town. My hopes for a warm spot to wait out the storm soared. We reached Nightcaps at the peak of the storm to find that it was basically a nice ghost town with no retail businesses of any kind.
We pushed on. Ohai was the next town. It had only an abandoned gas station where we sheltered from the rain and wind gusts for a few moments and then pressed into the storm again. At one point we saw the biggest hog imaginable contently eating behind a fence, totally oblivious to the wind and rain. I envied that hog.
In Tauperepere, we found a café where a compassionate woman looked at me and said, “You poor frozen dear, sit down by the heater while I get you a bowl of pumpkin soup!” I sat almost on top of the electric heater as I wrapped my white numb fingers around the bowl of soup.
Back on the bike, we saw public restrooms in a building that was wonderfully decorated in painted tiles. I thought, even the restrooms are done beautifully in New Zealand.
The rain diminished to intermittent raindrops that pounded us, went away and returned to attack us again. The wind was still fierce. Finally, we arrived at Invercargill and our hotel just as another deluge came. I vowed that the next time someone warned us about a “wee bit of weather” I would heed the warning.
We had arrived on the first day the famous Bluff Oysters were available. They are renowned for being the best oysters in the world (and at $56 a dozen, priced accordingly). Ely confirmed that they are indeed the best in the world. Bluff is at the tip of the South Island at the end of the world, or end of all land before Antarctica. It has signs pointing to the major cities of the world and the mileage to each one.
Burt Munro’s famous 1927 Indian Motorcycle racer is on display at the Hayes Hardware Store in Invercargill. The store occupies a city block and houses an array of antique motorcycles, cars and tools. Of course we had to see the bike and tour the store. The bike was really just a frame with a motor. It looked uncomfortable. It fit in a red aerodynamically designed metal shell that was also on display. Both were revered treasures to an Indian motorcycle rider like Ely.
We met earthquake victims. They talked about floors rolling up and down like ocean waves and cows falling down hillsides. For weeks after the quake up to 75 aftershocks a day, some very strong, continued to damage weakened buildings and frighten people. We felt one minor aftershock and it was dizzying, the floor swayed like a boat deck.
Volunteers from all over the world arrived to augment the three New Zealand rescue teams. They have only three because the population is so small. For the same reason, many towns do not have police stations and the military is a tiny special forces unit similar to the Navy Seals that help allies so if invaded they will get reciprocal help of air and ground forces.
I was moved by the detailed reporting. News anchors talked about the emotions the victims must be feeling as they heard rescuers trying to reach them. They talked about the cold rain falling on the rescuers and the trapped and about the pain and sorrow of the survivors who lost loved ones, their homes and their beloved City. To them, this was real, close to home, historic and painful.
The next day there was no rain but we were again tossed about by high winds. The face shield of my helmet was blown off its hinges. I clutched at it trying to keep it from becoming an airborne weapon and decapitating some innocent sheep, hung onto the bike and our map and attempted to take pictures of spectacular scenes as they emerged. Rocks jutted out above us from overhanging cliffs and I hoped an aftershock would not tumble them down on us.
We rode into Dunedin, a coastal town overlooking a bay. The sky was the splendid blue I have only seen in New Zealand. The topography of Dunedin is similar to San Francisco; the hills are straight up and down. We found that our B&B was a lovely home built in the early 1900’s with a beautiful Victorian flower garden and view of the bay. Its small parcel of land was filled with flowers, shrubs, fruit trees and herbs.
After a breakfast of delicious homemade bread and jams, we were off to Twizel. We picked the gentlest sloping road we could find to ride down to the bay as we didn’t want to be on a runaway motorcycle careening headlong into the statue of one of the city founders at the bottom of Dunedin Hill.
We saw a windmill farm with white blades “marching” across a long ridge of hills that was truly a beautiful sight. We arrived at the Gladstone Cottage, as picturesque as the name implies, and relaxed in the sun before riding into town for dinner.
Families were in a grassy City Square that had a playground. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, kids played on the slides and swings as their parents chatted with friends at picnic tables and sipped beer. Classic 1960’s American cars were commonplace in the meter-less parking spaces.
The next day was cloudy and chilly as we rode to Christchurch. We stopped at a café that had an adjoining shop with merino wool clothing including some made with possum fur. New Zealand possums are much prettier than our opossums with mink like brown and black fur and large black furry tails. They are hated because they rob bird nests and destroy plants and trees. They seem to have no defenders. Trapping them is legal and thus their fur is harvested for clothing; it is blended with merino wool and silk to make a wonderfully soft material. Poor possums!
The sun did not shine for us on this final bike day. But the lawns in the suburbs of Christchurch were so bright with yellow, red, pink and blue flowers they made their own special light. We stayed near the airport far away from the quake devastation in the city. We were disappointed that the Antarctica replica had been closed due to earthquake damage as I had hoped to tour it.
Our motorcycle riding in New Zealand was over. It had been fantastic, actually beautiful beyond imagination. But a warm rental car that kept the wind and rain out with a large trunk was nice. No more cramming and shoving overfilled bags into the bike or face shields flying in the breeze or helmet hair or itchy scalp.
But, the next day as we drove through snow capped mountains to Butler Pass, I longed to snap pictures from the bike, to breathe the scents of the countryside, to feel the ocean spray from crashing waves, to catch glimpses of sparkling rivers through foliage the wind from our bike blew aside and to revel in the beauty and freedom of it all. New Zealand is a precious, beautiful treasure to be enjoyed and appreciated from any vehicle. But to have experienced it from a motorcycle is a blessing that I will always cherish.