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Road Tripping The South Island of New Zealand From A Pillion's Perspective

By Sally O'Brien

When a week opens up where work and life create space to jump on the bike, you should listen to what the universe tells you.

And so my first motorbike touring ride with my husband Fletcher is planned - Destination a 1500km drive through the South Islands' scenic countryside.

I grew up on the South Island; however, this trip was as much about being a tourist as it was about nostalgia.

While I had spent a fair bit of time in the back of Fletcher’s Triumph Street Twin, an excellent way to run errands in Auckland, I had not experienced a bike tour.

Arriving in Christchurch, Carole, from South Pacific Motorcycle Tours, a bike enthusiast and business owner, met us in the van.

She got her bike licence at 53 and has never looked back. She loves riding with her partner Mike and daughter Kim, who now runs the Motorcycle rental business.

Our bike, nicknamed ‘Blossom’, is a BMW RT 1200. A beautifully designed bike with plenty of bells and whistles, including a heated seat for the pillion. She was an impressive sight.

Kim and her dog Molly took us through a health and safety video and a demonstration drive to prove we were bike-road worthy.

And with a wave and a toot, we hit the road.

From the moment we cleared the hinterland of Christchurch, one of the first things that hit me was the sensation of speed and smell.

Autumn is a busy time for this part of the country. Stubble burns off after harvesting barley for winter feed, and the silage pits brew incredible smells. All may be acquired tastes, but for me, it revived a strong sense of growing up farming and the change of season.

We make our way towards the backbone of the South Island past irrigation lines and treelined paddocks, dominated by green and brown pasture country. The road opens to ski country, the entrance to Mt Hutt, changing the hue to browns and silvers.

Different colours are added to the palette as we head towards the South Island hydro lake country, and the rich turquoise blue changes the landscape's look rolling out before us.

NZ Poet JK Baxter described parts of the South Island landscape in a poem with these words;

“In this scarred country, this cold threshold land, The mountains crouch like tigers.

By the sea, Folk talk of them hid vaguely out of sight.”

As the landscape changes from flat and manicured into something wild, the feeling of being in the presence of something untamed and majestic is ever-present.

The bike handling is impressive. We glide around corners and get up to cruising speeds. The raised seat gives me a great view. The seat warmer adds an extra layer of comfort.

We arrive at our first overnight stop, Lake Tekapo and walk to the church of the Good Shepherd, take a few snaps and admire the wind-beaten beauty of the place.

Day two trip is to Aoraki Mt Cook. The weather looked changeable, as you can only expect in this part of the country, but we decided that heading up the lake to take a look was worth the risk of a few drops of rain.

Driving up the side of Lake Pukaki, the colours and carved glacial shapes of the view hold your attention and remind us how small we are on the bike compared to the hills and valleys. There is a lot of country out there.

The weather Gods decided to have their way and keep Aoaraki Mt Cook hidden on this day, so it could only mean a coffee and a slice of carrot cake waiting out the moving rain clouds further up the valley.

We head back out, stopping for a shot of the Tasman Glacier peeking through the mist.

When the kickstand went down, it landed on a dislodged piece of rock, meaning that when I dismounted, the bike dived to the left only to be caught by Fletcher in time before it nearly toppled to the ground.

We might have had to lift about 450 kg with gear plus our body weight. It would have been a disaster to spend time trying to raise that bike between the two of us !!

Mental note: Make sure the bike is stable before dismounting.

The road takes us down the Southern Alps and out towards mid-south Canterbury. This is the countryside of my teenage years of end-of-term bus rides into the Mckenzie basin and Lindis Pass.

The road conditions are excellent, and we get to Wanaka in time for a spa and a meal before returning to the accommodation.

The following day after fuelling with a big breakfast and coffee, we head towards ‘the neck’, an appropriately named road between the two lakes of Wanaka and Hawera, which brought us to the beginning of the Hasst pass and into the west coast.

Road conditions are good, and despite some road works from previous weather events, our travel time is hardly ever hampered by slowed traffic.

Hills covered with thick native bush push the roads to the edges of the rivers demanding your driving attention and reminding you of who controls the landscape. State Highway Six is carved out of the rock in this part of the country. It follows the riverbed and needs regular maintenance as the natural environment dominates and pushes back.

Above us are waterfalls formed from snow drifts packed into rock crevices that never disappear between summer and winter and act as permanent water sources.

A Sparrow Hawk swoop overhead, and the road ebbs and flows from right to left, giving the bike a workout. We love every minute of it.

Eventually, the bush and mountains clear a path to the sea, which the Haast River navigates.

The desire for a whitebait fritter is strong, and mercifully in Haast, we find the food truck which provides the goods.

We follow the coast road winding in and out with the Tasman Sea on our left and mountains and bush on our right.

We reach Franz Joseph just before dusk and check into our accommodation, just a short walk out of town.

‘Blossom’ is parked for the night, and we return to town on foot through a bush track to a restaurant named ‘Alice May, a West Coast heroine whose life was plagued with tragic circumstances. We enjoyed a warm and friendly atmosphere with a good meal.

After a good night's sleep, we headed to Hokitika, indulging in more coffee, carrot cake, and a beautiful possum fur blanket. Hokitika turned on the sun, and we enjoyed looking around the streets at public art and old pubs.

Hokitika to Greymouth provided great coastal riding and sunshine all the way.

A night in Greymouth is quiet, a quick pub meal and an early night, so we were ready for the next day's riding and a reward waiting for us at Hamner Springs.

Riding between Greymouth and Hamner Springs provides plenty of curves in the road and a feeling of being blanketed in the west coast bush. It's dense, green and damp, and a national treasure.

A visit to Hamner Springs must always be followed up with a soak and massage at the spa, especially if you have been riding a bike.

A great treat at the end of a few days of riding, we enjoyed the soak and made our way to our accommodation with goodies from the supermarket to settle in for the night.

The next morning we marked our last day on the bike. The ride from Hammner to Christchurch was ahead of us. We hit the ride after finding more coffee and carrot cake.

The landscape changed from the thick green bush to the browns and greys of the north Canterbury.

The valleys open up again, and the horizon becomes more prominent as the hills open towards the South Island's east coast.

The drive back to Christchurch provided a contrast to the rugged coastal roads and a reminder that the reality of the daily grind of life is about to kick in soon.

We arrive back at the home base and drop off the bike.

As a first-time experience from the pillion, I am hooked.

As I discovered, bike riding is more transformative than a car trip. The ability to see, feel, and smell is a big part of the heightened enjoyment.

Riding with someone you know has good bike handling allows you to take in the experience without fear, which is a big part of the ride.

I advise anyone who might want to hop on the back of the bike with a friend or significant other. Don’t hesitate - book it now.

About me

Sally O’Brien is a freelance writer and contractor. She enjoys riding on the back of her husband's Triumph Twin street racer. Usually a bit of a ‘Nervous Nelly’ at speed, this first road trip has opened her horizons to the joys of motorbikes, and she is now considering getting her bike licence. Watch this space.


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