Trips & Tales

American Flyers' Kiwi Adventure

by Arthur "Living Legend" Einstein • March 2, 1999

Note: In the absences of the big fella (Rich) I have been chosen ISW (Ink Stained Wretch) pro tem. It’s the price one pays for bringing along a pencil and paper. In the interest of getting this report to you before Y2K problems shut down the US Postal service, text is being sent separately and in advance. Pictures will follow in the fullness of time. Same goes for the Fall ride report which may never actually appear due to computer crash.

Additional note: This report has been edited for family reading. Why go into stuff like Andy dancing on the tables at The Blues Café in Clyde, or Barbara muttering about “ethnic cleansing” after that parking lot incident on the road to Milford Sound? Why dredge up Karen & Peter’s route discussions which culminated in “The Battle of Dunedin”…a conflict decided after many had departed anyway? Nor is it necessary to know exactly what was in Jean’s heart as with compressed lips she hissed “Bob, I’m NOT enjoying this”. Water under the dam, we say. So, if you wish, leave this report lying about on the kitchen table where wives, children, and parents can see it. As they say in New Zealand “no worries, mate.”

Saturday, February 20

American Flyers converge on Nelson NZ, bleary but primed for adventure. We are met at the airport by John Fitzwater, proprietor of Adventure New Zealand Motorcycle Tours and Rental Ltd., and his lovely companion Jo. They drop us at Cambria House, the first of many fine bed and breakfasts we will visit in the coming 9 days. Bob arrives with Jean, luggage, and a bottle of The Glenlivet which he projects will last the trip. (Bob is an ‘operations’ guy whose grasp of the marketplace and customer demand is fuzzy at best. His projections for the Glenlivet are dashed later that evening with the help of Andy and your ISW ). Before dinner, John gives us a bit of orientation. Flyers are somewhat intimidated by his description of decreasing radius turns, road-hogging campers, and disrespectful drivers. These warnings, we discover later, turn out to be gross exaggerations, which are probably designed to keep us from wrecking his rental fleet the first day out. John also dashes hopes of gigantic jury awards, should someone put the shiny side down and try to sue. New Zealand threw out its liability laws a while back, which turns out to be one reason it’s the world’s capital of bungee jumping. John tells us that he, his brother Ian who runs their Triumph dealership, Thunderbike NZ, and Alex the cinematographer who will be videotaping the trip, will be bringing up the rear in the luggage van. Several Flyers glance at the mirror, straighten their hair, and contemplate second careers in film. Chastened, but not much, by John’s warnings we dine in the garden at Le Chef, a charmer within walking distance. (At this point everything in Nelson NZ seems to be within walking distance). Home to sleep with a plan to get bikes early in the AM while Karen’s at church, and take a warmup run in the afternoon.

Sunday, February 21

The beds aren’t always perfect, but the breakfasts turn out to be meals of mighty proportions in New Zealand B&Bs. An array of dry cereals including the ever-present muesli, stewed fruit, fresh fruit, rolls, toast, and the additional enticement of a “cooked breakfast” (eggs, sausage, hash-browns, bacon etc.,) at your option. Barbara asks for baked oatmeal and finding it not available threatens to wreck the place. It’s sunny, shirtsleeve weather as we head for Thunderbike. After signing lives away and notifying John of our next of kin we head west for Upper Moutere to visit Bob and Susan Hunt, friends of the O’Connell’s. The Hunts have moved to New Zealand from the US, bought a large farm (they run 3000 head of sheep and deer are being added) on which they are building an elegant, small resort. If the Bentley in the car port wasn’t a clue, an inspection of the building site makes it clear that “The Lodge at Paradiho’ will exceed American Flyer expectations (and budgets) when it opens in December. This magnificent property hints at the fabulous scenery that awaits us on this tour. Later John, his brother Ian and wife Robin, and Jo host dinner at the Sea Shed. Here we meet the 3 other Yanks who’ll be part of the tour: Herb & Ellen Gross of New York City and Jay Bliss of Grand Junction Colorado. The menu is encouraging. Your ISW landed in NZ fearing menus chock-a-block with lamb and mutton. We learn soon enough that, NZ being an island, fish is a menu staple. Nelson has a considerable fishing fleet. And Havelock to the east is “The Green-Lipped Mussel Capital of the World”. These wee beasts are larger than mussels we’re used to and sport a bright green band on the leading edge of the shell. Later in the trip Bob gives a gripping description of how shell fish like these are turned into chowder material in about 12 _ seconds, which has put us off clam dip for a while.

Monday, February 22

Another massive breakfast under Flyer belts, we head for Thunderbike and more paperwork. Herb has come dressed as a downhill racer and will be on a 1200 Sportster. Ellen, thin as tissue paper, will be riding a 500cc Honda V-twin … a wraith riding a Shadow. The rest of us will ride Triumphs: Trophy’s, Tigers, a Thunderbird, a Sprint and the new Sprint ST. An early contingent gets away at 10:30AM. Others later. Barbara and I have made a valiant try at establishing a riding plan chairman Walt would approve of. But anarchy seems the order of the day. As a result this will be the first Flyer tour on which riders actually pause to look at the scenery, hit the cheap souvenir stands,and stop for coffee, entirely at their own discretion. A luncheon rendezvous at Murchison reassembles the group. Then on to the first serious twisties in Buller Gorge where Frank, Barbara, and Jay stop at an old gold mining camp, walk across the river on a single-walkway bridge, and ride back on a chair suspended from a cable. The faint-of-heart cheer them on. Ian says later that the bones and the Triumph of a biker who had disappeared in the Gorge in 1983 were discovered only last year. Onward to Cape Foulwind (named for the weather – this family show folks) and magnificent overlook of the Tasman Sea. With sea on the right and dense sub-tropic rainforest on the left we head for a night’s rest at Formerly the Blackball Hilton (sic) in Blackball NZ. Big news in town is that the sausage factory (which is next door to the firehouse) has burned to a crisp, severely limiting the menu options for that evening’s meal. The hotel is billed as an “authentic West Coast experience”, which means shared toilets, showers, washbasins etc. Dinner is served upon a first-ordered-first-served schedule. Suddenly Rich’s Best Westerns look like the Ritz. American Flyers suck it up and wonder what the future holds. At least the sun is shining on a coast that gets over 300 inches of rainfall annually.

Tuesday, February 23

The rendezvous for today is Franz Joseph Glacier (pronounced ‘glassier’ locally) and a 4 PM helicopter trip. It’s a short ride, which leaves ample time for side trips. Several Flyers opt for the ride to Arthur’s Pass along Rte 73, the main road across the middle of South Island. The first leg follows the Taramaku River valley and is mostly long sweepers. Arthur’s Pass, however, lies at 6000ft., due west of Mt. Misery, which pretty much describes the ascent…cold, windy, narrow, twisty, damp, and clogged with motor homes which take up more than half the road and have been warned not to make the climb. The Brines once again do their Admiral Byrd impression and ride to the top. The sane among us turn back at Otira after stopping at the scenic (?) overlook to survey the crevasse we’ve just climbed. At “Franz” The Westwood Lodge puts smiles back on Flyer faces. The brave (you know who you are) pile into a helicopter and land on Fox Glacier just below the summit of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s leading mountain (12,470 ft.). Later the cocktail hour is interrupted and we are herded into the van again for dinner at Fox. The Cook Saddle Saloon does its best to be an authentic Texas eatery but is unmasked by the dessert menu which features ‘pavlova’ a highly touted local confection made of fruit and cake topped with meringue. It tastes better than it sounds. Before going home we tramp through a genuine, authentic, glowworm habitat. Apparently rainforest is their thing. It’s dark in their and the worms turn themselves off and on like warning lights on your dashboard.

Wednesday, February 24

In New Zealand the mountains think nothing of going right down to the beach. In 9 days riding we are never out of sight of them and encounter only 3 tunnels. What you with mountains down under is either ride between them, around them, or over them. So, after another classic breakfast, over them we go, retracing last night’s route to Fox. The trip is mostly switchbacks taken in 1st and 2nd gear. After Fox the road plunges south through more rainforest with huge old firs and sequoias lining the road. More miles (kilometers, actually) of glorious deserted road. Our speedometers are calibrated in KPH and Bob is convinced that Jean hasn’t yet figured how to convert to MPH so that he’s free to do the Castleberry hustle as they motor on. Some Flyers stop along the way for coffee at a Salmon hatchery. Fuel tanks are topped up at Haast. The route then leads inland along the Haast River and winds upward through the Haast pass. Over the hill at Manakoura we get a first look at Lake Wanaka, a startlingly blue alpine lake more than 20 miles long. Colors of lakes and rivers in NZ are just astonishing. Some are crystal clear. Some are the blue as lagoons. Some are the color of the sand on their banks. We arrive at Te Wanaka Lodge and find we’ve landed at another gem. On a pre-dinner side trip to Cardrona (a 3-building town 6 or 7 miles to the south), Andy encounters Herb and Ellen who think they’ve arrived at their night’s lodgings. Herb has trouble breaking the news to Ellen. A fine dinner at Relishes on the lakefront. Much wine poured and the line between having fun and getting rowdy gets pretty fuzzy. No worries! An Aussie named Tom Mooney from Bryan’s Bay leaves his table to join our conversation. This guy is real Flyer material and some of us consider a recruiting trip to Byram’s Bay which is apparently the hippie capital of the Pacific Rim. Tom regales us with tales of his trip to New York … paying particular attention to the financial impact of his wife’s shopping trip at Bergdorf’s.

Thursday, February 25

There’s a very short ride today ending at Queenstown, but much to do along the way. The Kirby’s (we suspect she’s figured out the KPH to MPH conversion by now) Andy, Jay and your ISW ride out to Cardrona. We ride through a flock of sheep who make way, barely, to let us pass. Jay continues ahead on the Crown Road (dirt) for Queenstown on his Tiger, which bears close resemblance to a BMW Paris-Dakar. The rest of us meet at the Gibbston Vineyard for an outdoor lunch. All along our route we’ve been sampling excellent local wines and Gibbston produces prizewinners. In many vineyards we notice roses planted at the end of rows. We’re told this is a canary-in-the-mineshaft strategy that gives early warning of plant disease. Anything that will decimate the vines hits the roses first. After lunch a short ride lands us at Hacketts, New Zealand’s original bungee jumping venue. A slender bridge sways visibly in the wind and spans a 140-ft. gorge. Flyers watch, fascinated, as generation Xers jump, scream, and bounce. Later, in Queenstown, we check into the Dairy Guesthouse, then van to the Shotover Jetboat ride, yet another tribute to NZ’s unique view of liability. Carl, our jetboat jock slams our boat up and down a river gorge in as little as 6 inches of water. With a 400 hp Chevy under the hood he delights in racing along the canyon walls (“Please keep your hands inside the boat”), power sliding around bends and executing 360-degree turns. Wet and wild. Dinner that evening in a Thai restaurant is even more chaotic than usual as Flyers divide into teams to order. This totally confuses the waitress but despite mixed up orders nobody leave hungry. Afterward on the promenade by the lake a Japanese tourist picks the WRONG person to ask to snap his group’s picture. Peter stages a mock camera theft but these poor dudes don’t get the joke and leave Peter crestfallen. Herb and Andy close the cigar bar.

Friday February 26

We mount up early this morning to make it to Milford Sound for a scheduled 1:PM cruise. South on Rte. 6 we have mountains known simply as The Remarkables on the left and Lake Wakatipu on the right. This is another road carved into a mountainside, full of twisties and absent guardrails. This Flyer gets distinctly cautions when the threat of becoming part of the scenery looms. It’s cloudy, chilly and rain is rumored. Along the road we pass dozens of vintage Bentleys motoring north. We check in to the Cosy Kiwi B&B on the outskirts of Te Anu and bundle up for the next stage of the ride to Milford. In a continuing quest for enlightenment the group has challenged Newton’s law of gravity throughout this trip. Bikes have already dropped at gas stations, parking lots, roadside photo ops, etc. Some have dropped more than once evidently hewing to the scientific method which demands that the experiment can be replicated. This results in formulation of Newton's Law of American Flyer Biking, which states: “What goes down stays down, at least till someone arrives to help you pick it up”. Pressing onward we arrive at the Homer Tunnel, which is a “work in progress”. The Homer is simply a 2-lane black hole in solid rock. The roadway is unpaved, and lubricated by water dripping from the rock overhead. Beyond it a series of switchbacks descend past several scenic overlooks packed with busses and throngs of camera-laden tourists. At the parking lot at Milford, Barbara who was downed at one of these stops has gone ballistic. It seems one of the bus drivers who has watched the bike go down advised her that “if you can’t get that bike out of here you shouldn’t be riding it”. Barbara, always composed, always the lady, advised this tour jockey to “just grab the ****ing bike”. Flyers try to console her (“we’ll all laugh about this someday”) as we begin our cruise on Milford Sound. The sound isn’t really a sound but a fjord, which is kept full of fresh water by an average 22 ft of annual rainfall. All quite scenic and restful. After 3 hours cruising, we re-mount and head back through the Homer tunnel to Te Anu. Along the roads of the South Island we’ve seen a number of farms raising deer for the table and several Flyers opt to sample it at dinner in The Red Cliff Inn. Afterward we share some of Bob’s duty-free cigars in the garden and are regaled with tales of Bob’s marketing philosophy in the baking business and marching orders to Frank … “don’t get creative Frank”.

Saturday, February 27

Today’s ride is relatively short, destination Oliver’s Lodge & Restaurant in Clyde. The carefully prepared route map which John has given each of us notes that Oliver’s is on Sunderland St. On arrival this seems like more information than anyone needs as Clyde (pop. 200) seems to have only one street. It’s hard to get lost here. Andy almost does, but that’s another story for another time. To reach Clyde we backtracked and retraced much of yesterday’s route. By now any pretense of riding together is history and we run into one another along the way at random. The South Island of New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful, but from what we’ve seen of it so far it has none of the charm of small town America. The character is all in the landscape and the people. Clyde, however, is an exception. Oliver’s is a rambling old stone and timber building with lush gardens and spacious dining room. The Louisiana Blues bar across the street looks as thought is was lifted directly from the streets of New Orleans and has a charm of its own. Flyers partake fully of the spirit (and spirits) of the place. Some stay till well past bedtime.

Sunday, March 1

Frank and Barbara depart today which turns out to be excellent timing. During the night a wind has come up and today’s ride to Mt Cook, our next stop, turns out to be hair-raising. Very strong wind gusts blow bikes all over the road. At times some of us have a fight just keeping the bike in the left lane. The pity is this stretch of road is comparatively straight traversing beautiful plains of tussock grass. And the sun is shining again. Till now Flyers had been riding the western slope of the South Island’s Alps. Now we’ve crossed to the eastern side of the Southern Alps and are heading for Mt Cook from the southeast. As we approach Cook the winds continue to whip at us and the mountain is shrouded in clouds. Riding toward our room keys we ride directly into the rain. We arrive at the Hermitage Hotel early in the afternoon but nobody doesn’t want this ride to be over. It’s gloomy, rainy, and Mt Cook is hidden in mist. Some Flyers hop the van and visit the Tasman Glacier. The only view the rest of us have is of a rainbow in the valley and a few Keas on the wing. The Kea is a notably destructive New Zealand parrot. A flock will tear up a motorcycle’s seat and wiring for hors d’oeuvres and devour the rubber moldings from a car for their main course. We are warned not to park the bikes in the open. The Hermitage looks like an enormous ski lodge. It’s designed for the tour bus trade and is fully booked. Flyers are lodged in motel-like quarters nearby. Dinner in the lodge is cafeteria style and exceeds expectations, which in Flyer tradition were low anyway. We wine, dine, and pray for a better day tomorrow.

Monday, March 2

Last nights prayers not answered. But rain doesn’t keep the group from another major breakfast at the lodge. Afterward we head for gas and coffee at Lake Tekapo. Once again the wind is up in bike-moving gusts as we head south along the shore of Lake Pukaki. Our early start meant we’d arrive at Geraldine, the lunch stop suggested in our itinerary at about 10:30AM so it’s agreed to meet in Sheffield. Route 8, and then 79 curl beautifully through brown hills with pastures full of cows, sheep, and some deer. Light rain shows no sign of letting up. At Geraldine, route 72, the “inner scenic highway” heads north on what would be a handsome ride on a sunny day. Cold and shivering we motor on to Sheffield where Brine and Kirby bikes are parked in front of a sign that says “Bakery”. Inside, a small counter, a single table and on the other side of a half-height wall, bread bakers and cake icers are working away. Our destination today is Kaikoura, the south island’s whale watching, swim-with-the-dolphins capital. Some head straight for it and some of us, hungry to ride in stop-and-go traffic detour to see Christchurch, New Zealand’s second city. Christchurch might have looked better on a warm, sunny afternoon. Heading north we find east coast traffic heavier. The beautifully winding roads are still there but here you’re lots likelier to see a double-bottomed Volvo log-hauler around the next blind curve. We are happy we brought rain suits. Arriving at The Old Convent it’s discovered that Bob and Jean’s luggage has been left behind at Mt Cook. Both show remarkable grace under pressure and resolve to dine this evening in road gear. Everyone piles into the van for dinner at Hilsops where John’s worst suspicions are confirmed: put Flyers in a confined space at a large table and they can get pretty rambunctious.

Tuesday March 3

Today is officially the last day of our tour. Bob, Jean, Jay, Herb, Ellen will be airborne by nightfall. We awake to a warm sunny day and depart The Old Convent, heading up the coast to a recommended seaside stop called “The Store” at Kekerengu, pronounced “kickapoo”. This handsome new building with coffee at Starbucks prices offers an opportunity to sit on a veranda and contemplate the South Pacific. Peter & Karen stop at formal gardens owned by the proprietors which are just up the road. Andy and your ISW head for, Blenheim and its many vineyards, and then Picton from which the ferry to the North Island departs. We ride back to Nelson along the Queen Charlotte drive, another amazing series of twists and turns carved into the mountainside. Here we reconnect with Peter & Karen. Before dinner the four of us repair to the Cambria House courtyard and toast the departed with Jack Daniels which Bob has left behind. Andy whips out plans for a new house he’s building on the Vineyard and we wonder, idly, why he has brought blueprints to New Zealand. At dinner that evening we toast ourselves, ‘the stragglers’, and review our impressions of the tour.

Impressions: The decision to tour with John’s firm was a good one. John & Ian’s concern for Flyer foibles and their Kiwi perspective made up for whatever glitches we encountered along the way. The wines of the South Island were terrific. Beer was no slouch either. The country is definitely wired. Seems as though everyone has a cell phone, and Internet connection is available in most places. There are few stop signs. Few traffic lights. Few police. The Kiwi sense of humor is wry and laid back. Billboards asking that drivers observe the speed laws don’t shake their finger. Instead they say “The Faster You Go, The Bigger the Mess” and “You’re a long time dead. What’s your hurry?” New Zealand roads and low traffic density make it great biking. The new Flyer touring style (meet you at the Seal Colony) worked. And everyone seemed to agree, to paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur “ We shall return”.

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