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"We're not riding in Kansas now"

- Jim Shaw from BMW MOA

New Zealand – Our Rider’s Bali Ha’i BMW MOA’s Jim Shaw discovers “We’re not riding in Kansas now, Toto!”

The recipe for New Zealand is not simple. Take two large islands in the south Pacific, add flowery rain forests, lofty mountains, long sandy beaches, bright people who live a less complicated life, a growing economy reminiscent of the US in the 50s and 60s. Add an ever-changing weather pattern, and perfectly paved roads that are never straight. Mix in drivers whose first and last thoughts seem to be of courtesy toward you and others, and you’re part way done. Let this mixture stand for years with little concern for world political craziness; add religious tolerance and a straightforward concern for others. Blend a lot of smiles and good spirit. Needs no cooking at all, just a long night’s sleep in a Boeing 747-400 and you are there.

“Most people live on a lonely island Lost in the middle of a foggy sea Most people long for another island One where they would like to be…”

If there ever was an Eden, I am pretty sure it must have been near New Zealand. Americans started with much of the same thing, but long ago, the Yanks bit into the apple. We have been turned out into a world of frantic road rage, multitasking minds, and Dow Jones watching. There is a road back to the better life, and I found it last February.

For the last few years, I have pestered the guys who own New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals and Tours for information about their country. They take a purely Kiwi attitude toward the whole matter: why don’t you just come down and find out for yourself? Thus invited to sample the NZ style, I was pretty quick to agree. I’ve been many places in this world, having chased business deals on five continents. I’ve been to many countries, but I had never touched New Zealand. Now, it is New Zealand that has touched me.

In the early 1940s, Pulitzer Prize author James Michener spent much of his wartime experience in the south Pacific. Oscar Hammerstein later teamed with Richard Rodgers to translate Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” into the musical (later a wildly successful movie), “South Pacific.” By far, the most enchanting song in the production is “Bali Ha’i” It tells of an island of that name, almost over the horizon, where everything is wonderful and beautiful. The people of Bali Ha’i are loving, and generous, and relaxed in their island paradise.

“Bali Ha’i may call you Any night, any day, In your heart, you’ll hear it call you, Come away, come away.”

It’s a personal thing, I suppose, but I found my Bali Ha’i in the island nation of New Zealand, seen mostly from the top of a nearly new R1150GS.

The road to New Zealand starts, not with a motorcycle, but with a plane ticket. For me, it read Cleveland to Los Angeles, to Auckland. In my case, frequent flyer miles allowed a business class seat, and I certainly didn’t regret that expenditure on the long ride over the south Pacific. Three meals and a nine-hour sleep later, we staggered off carrying satchels with helmets and riding suits. NZ Motorcycle Rentals had their man waiting for us at customs (a simple process, since New Zealand seems never to start wars against anyone else). We were brought to the NZMR offices, where we met our bikes and signed papers for insurance, etc. Thence to our hotel for a nap. In the evening, the guys met us for a good dinner on top of Auckland, in a revolving restaurant. There we met our touring companions (thirteen in total) and our guide, Stefan and van driver, Mike. Our group would ride three GSs, two RTs, three R80GSs, and a K1200LT.

I had selected NZMR’s ten day guided ride. Although I’ve traveled for thirty-five years in non-English speaking countries - and feel quite confident in so doing – I have also learned that it can add a nice dimension to a tour when you don’t have to waste mental effort over selecting hotels and finding good restaurants. Our guide, promised considerable freedom in how and with whom we rode to each night’s destination. For me, the tour was a wise decision. For one benefit, a cargo van carries your luggage to each night’s destination. I have well over a hundred thousand miles riding and camping with everything I need on the bike. That doesn’t mean I like packing all that gear, and strapping it to the bike every morning. And it doesn’t mean I enjoy staggering around mountain roads with all that extra weight.

On our second day of riding, my GS’s rear tire picked up a nail. Our guide plugged the hole and insisted on changing wheels with me from his GS. NZMR had a new tire couriered overnight to our hotel, and our guide was up early, mounting it on my bike before breakfast. If they hadn’t been there to support me, that episode might have cost me a day’s riding. I don’t trust plugged tires any more than you do.

The mechanics of the tour are fairly straightforward. NZMR provides a late model bike of your choice (as available), an experienced, riding tour guide who knows the best hotels and restaurants (not just bargain ones), a luggage and support van (and driver – in our case, the affable fellow Mike, who kept us amused with stories and New Zealand historical minutia at every stop).

“…Your own special hopes Your own special dreams Bloom on the hillside And shine near the streams…”

Riding New Zealand is, stated simply, a blast. Mountain roads lead to coastal beaches or inland pastoral farms and pastures. Cities are smaller by American standards, and that is a good thing. There is nothing to dread in riding a motorcycle through any NZ city, and the roads carry you right into the center of the town. Auckland and Wellington can be busy at rush hour, but compared to American, European, and Asian megalopoli, NZ cities are fun. In the cities (and on the country roads), cage drivers are generally friendly – and motorcycle friendly, too. Get balled up in city traffic and have to change lanes to make a right turn? Put on your turn signal, and the driver behind you will most probably drop back and make room for you. Following a cage on a mountain road and want to play? He’ll probably pull over, first chance, to let you pass.

Some benevolent spirit has taught the good folk of New Zealand the true meaning of the Golden Rule, and they practice it everywhere. Without a single exception, every Kiwi I met was genuinely friendly and hospitable. Even in some of the fine restaurants where we dined, wait staff were genuinely friendly and anxious to please, none expected tips, tipping is not practiced in NZ. Other diners and bar customers were openly friendly. The two guys who own and manage NZMR are the same. Darren (in Auckland) and Gordon (in Christchurch) may be sharp businessmen, but they take the effort to treat others as equals. The result? I want these good New Zealand people as neighbors and friends.

“If you try, you’ll find me Where the sky meets the sea Here am I, your special island Come to me, come to me...”

So, you ask, what is New Zealand riding about? Oh, how I wish I could tell you! I wish I could tell you of the beauty of mountain and rain forest roads with ever changing twisites. I wish I could tell you of long, sweeping beach roads, past rocky shores with water breaking on them - of mountain peaks with views for miles. If only I could tell you of pastoral farms with sheep and cattle pastures – and gladly stopping for a few minutes while New Zealand cowboys drive cattle herds across a remote highway – smiling and laughing as they hurry the animals out of your way. Can I find the words to tell you about taking a rest break on a high desert road, and having a pipeline helicopter pilot stop and hover, waiting for our signal that all’s well. Or can I explain what it’s like to go to the cathedral in Christchurch for Sunday’s ritual, and after, to meet (and be served tea by) the current Christchurch mayor, Gary Moore. Let me try to explain the laughter inside my helmet when taking some serious mountain roads, and the smiles no one can see when the GS speeds down a dirt road – just right.

“Bali Ha’i will whisper On the wind of the sea Here am I, your special island Come to me, come to me…”

New Zealand is about scenic beauty, dream roads, gentle winds, soft rain showers, flowers growing in high trees, brilliantly colored birds, and people who smile a lot. As a brilliant part of our tour, we stayed one night in a private home on the south island. The owners had a considerable apple orchard, and a magnificent home they had designed themselves and built in ever expanding directions. The bed was fine, the dinner and breakfast finer, and their good company was memorable. The gardens around their home were filled with roses. The garden pond was complete with lilies and birds, and a private garden had a near life-sized chess set and board. We walked in the garden, laughed and told stories at the dinner table, and slept like babies until awakened by the birds at morning.

Another night, we dined at a Maori (native New Zealanders) village. Before dinner, we were treated to a visitor’s traditional introduction to the village – drums, and dancing, and fierce postures to frighten prospective tribal enemies – followed by demonstrations of tool making, music, and the acting out of typical tribal village life. It was the touristiest event on the tour, but good fun, too.

Stefan, our guide, has a flair for selecting great scenic roads. You can ride with him (as the less experienced riders chose), ride the same roads at your own pace (as Court Fisher and I mostly did), or take your own alternate, long way around (a path chosen by some of our canyon-carving co-riders). Court and I may have pressed the limits of speed a few times, as will testify a couple of friends we met who are the local constabulary. I must be the sweet talker; my encounter was free of charge, compliments of a most courteous, but firm, highway patrol sergeant.

Distances in New Zealand are very scaled down from America, and the first lesson you must learn is that the twisty mountainous roads will more than make up for the relatively short distances you will cover. I think Court and I averaged about 250 miles a day, and I had no trouble sleeping like a quarry slave at the end of any day. Some days, we probably covered a good deal fewer kilometers, enjoying lots of stops along the way. If American riding is the fast food of the world, Kiwi riding is a gourmet picnic. Try to hurry it, and you will miss the essence. This is the land where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed because it is a fiercely beautiful and ever-changing 360-degree panorama. Focus on the centerline of the road, and you’ll miss it all. My two-time Ironbutt Rally placing friend Paul Taylor, and wife Tricia, rode much of the trip with us. Last night, I chatted with him about the trip: “New Zealand isn’t about Ironbutt riding, “ says Paul. “New Zealand is about smelling the roses, which is what made it such a great time for Tricia and I.”

“Some day you’ll see me Floating in the sunshine My head sticking out From a low flying cloud…”

Where did we go, you may ask? Our ride included both the North and the South Islands. Day one was around Auckland (North Island) and north into the mountains for lunch. Mostly, it was getting used to riding on the wrong (for Americans) side of the road. Day two, we left Auckland and rode out to a thumb of land known as the Coromandel Peninsula. Spent some time at a sunny beach, with swimming for those who wished. After lunch, most of us started to buddy-up with another rider of similar riding preferences. Court foolishly chose me.

Next day, we rode down to Wellington. Wellington is the jumping off point for a ferry ride to the South Island. The weather was turning somewhat threatening as we arrived. In the morning, we found the ferries were overbooked because, due to high seas, some of the fast craft were out of service. This was another time it was good to be with a well-known touring company. I’m sure a lot of travelers with vehicles were forced to wait for calmer seas to obtain transit. Our group rode right aboard, on schedule. The seas were as expected – pretty rough. I employed my time-tested seasickness prevention trick – I slept most of the way. In the afternoon, we rode south to the beach, for a night right on the Tasmanian Sea. He who sleeps near the surf knows the sleep of the dead.

After breakfast, we rode along the beach at Pancake Rocks, and into the rain forest near the coastal mountains. New Zealand has become somewhat overrun with Possums. Some special cooking and seasoning makes Possum tolerable eating, and I had to have some. Gourmet Possum is memorable, if not something I’ll rush back for. Not surprisingly, it rained in the rain forest. Wise riders take rain gear to New Zealand, for a little rain is inevitable. My Darien was ideal for the tour.

Wise riders touring New Zealand will likewise take a warm lining and gloves. These mountain passes get tall enough to see some low temperatures, even in the NZ summer (December through March). I had not taken this precaution, and my hands were really cold, after getting my summer gloves wet in the forest, then cold in the mountains. Caveat rider! Another essential item is sun screen (of the highest order). You will be reminded that New Zealand’s South Island is not all that far from the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The local television and radio weather reports remind citizens daily of the maximum recommended exposure time to the midday sun. In the summer, 10-15 minutes is typical. Thus, sun block is a must.

Our next stay was in Queenstown. This tourist area is popular with adventurers from all over the world. In the winter, it is a skier’s nirvana. In summer, it features hiking, bungee jumping, white water rafting, overeating (and overpaying for everything). Queenstown may be your cup of tea; it is not mine. Besides, the cold ride had brought on a flare of an arthritis condition I have, so I spent my time riding down to the nearest major hospital at the southernmost tip of the South Island. It is the farthest south in this world I ever expect to travel.

I rejoined the tour after they had enjoyed some of the best and most beautiful part of their ride – the ride to the sea via New Zealand’s southwestern fjord coast. I am told that Milford Sound is as beautiful as Norway’s western coast. I was sorry to miss it, because I hoped to make my own comparison. The boat ride (and a helicopter trip to the top of one of NZ’s dozens of glaciers) got universal rave reviews from my companions.

After Queenstown, we rode the Kawarau Gorge and Lindis valley – where much of “Lord of the Rings” was filmed. Director Peter Jackson must have filmed in winter, for I saw it as anything but the brooding, gray, misty and sinister mountains and valleys I saw in the film. A night on the edge of a beautiful lake provided a memorable sunset. Riders were starting to get nostalgic, at this point. The end was near, and no one was anxious to end their ride.

The next day, we rode to Christchurch, capital of the South Island, a beautiful and slow paced city, and the end point of our tour. I turned in my bike, and Court and I had dinner with Gordon Lidgard of NZ Motorcycle Rentals – trying to pay back some bit of the hospitality we had found at his company’s hands. The following day, my ticket read Christchurch to Auckland to Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Cleveland. It’s a long ride, but a small price to pay for ten days of pure riding pleasure.

“You’ll hear me call you Singing through the sunlight Sweet and clear As can be…”

Before I rode New Zealand, I was thinking it would be the singular ride of a lifetime. In every way it was, except one: I have no intention of making it one ride. I will be back. It is worth the money. It is worth the long airplane ride. It is a time of smiles inside my helmet, laughter only I need to hear, memories that only I can see in dreams.

Who among us could let this happen only once?

“Come to me Here am I Bali Ha'i…”

Lyrics to the song Bali Ha’i are by Oscar Hammerstein III, reprinted from the Internet.

About NZMR

We have been providing overseas tourists with the motorcycle vacation of a lifetime for over 15 years. Our fleet of motorcycles includes the latest model BMWs, Suzukis, Hondas and Yamaha's. Tour New Zealand in style!

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We acknowledge Jamileh Pott of California for taking some of the photos used on this site from her recent trip to NZ in Feb 2011.