Trips & Tales

A Visit to Middle Earth: Motorcycle Touring in NZ

Next 3500 KM’s – all corners!

by Steve Larsen • October 10, 2004

Article appeared in Motorcycle Consumer News. References to the AFMC are eliminated to protect the secret identity of this group.


Dave Searle’s comment in an Open Road column, "…every day you put off a riding vacation, you can be absolutely sure you are getting older," really hit home. Consequently, my wife and I signed on for a 14-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island. Boarding the plane to spend two weeks with GoTourNZ on their “Luxury Tour,” I thought, would the Kiwi claims of having the best motorcycle roads in the world really be true? Would it be worth it to spend this much money and travel this far to ride? Would the scenery look at all like the wonderful landscapes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy? What was I really getting myself into? Would it be possible to combine the ultimate motorcycle tour with a great vacation?

The bottom line is this: the South Island of New Zealand is motorcycle perfection. This island country the size of Colorado has majestic, snow-capped mountains, scrub-dotted savannahs, endless sandy beaches, breath-taking waterfalls, towering fiords, volcanoes, turquoise lakes, thermal pools, tumultuous river rapids, and enormous glaciers.

Now, upon this pristine and fascinating landscape, insert twisty roads of endlessly variable corners. Pave the roads with a lava-based material that provides remarkable adhesion. Add a population density so low it is possible to ride for hours and see only a half-dozen other motorists, and very few highway patrol officers. If that’s not motorcycle heaven, I’m not sure what is.

Once you’ve decided to see NZ by motorcycle, your next choice is whether to rent a bike and head out on your own or take a guided tour. While we chose a guided tour, NZ’s well marked roads, courteous English speaking people and numerous bike rental places would help make a self-guided tour a good experience. In the guided tour category, there are two main types – the international, large group tour (e.g. those by Edelweiss) or the locally-based, small group tour (e.g. GoTourNZ).

“We became convinced eight years ago that we could provide a superior experience to what the large group motorcycle tour operators were doing,” said Ian Fitzwater, co-owner of Thunderbike and GoTourNZ ( “People coming into the shop from these tours were riding some pretty ratty bikes, the hotels were the same ones used by tour bus companies and the tours were organized and led by someone who knew very little of the local scene.” Brother and co-owner John Fitzwater added, “The whole reason we founded GoTourNZ was to provide an alternative to the large, herd-type trips. As a result, our two core principles are to have top notch, near-new equipment well-maintained and a focus on the entire trip experience – where you go, what you see, where you eat and sleep.”

The cost of a guided tour is more expensive than just “renting a bike,” although perhaps not as much as it may first appear. Once you factor in buying food, planning, reserving, and paying for lodging and extras, the premium paid for the guided package becomes obvious “value-added.” Several benefits turned out to be excellent values on our guided tour, not the least of which were having a chase van to carry luggage and a guide to arrange and pay for all lodging and restaurant bills. Having someone else focus on those details, as well as worrying about the health of the bikes, made it easy for us to focus on the quality of the experience. You can compare a guided tour like this to an ocean cruise; everything was covered except alcohol and souvenirs. And with a guide, you’ve got backup insurance should something unplanned happen. In our case, we awoke at Mt. Cook with a flat tire on one of the bikes. Because the van pulled a trailer, it took just five minutes to get the bike on the trailer and we were off. With his connections, John Fitzwater found a repair shop along our way open on Saturday (few are), and by noon everyone was back riding. Without a local guide and this preparation, we’d have been stuck at Mt. Cook until Monday, losing three full days of riding.

GoTourNZ provides a complete, personalized, printed tour itinerary. Ours was 103 pages long. It included detailed information about each day, every stop, things to do and see enroute, directions and information on various route options, driving distances, and cross references to the excellent Compact New Zealand Traveler’s Atlas. This small map book fit perfectly in a tank top bag. The itinerary included thumbnail photos of sights to see along the way.

Another undocumented benefit of a guided tour was being accompanied by a well-known guide. John Fitzwater is not only well-liked, he does a lot of business with those in the local tourist industry. So, in addition to his knowledge of the best deals, it meant clout in restaurants and lodgings; future business was at stake.

A potential drawback of a small group tour, if you don’t arrange to go with your regular riding buddies, is the risk of touring with motorcycle meanies with bad manners. A frequent dinner topic for John was to regale us with tales about past tours and “problem” riders. Although they were very few, my guess is they could ruin a trip. Fortunately, we did not have that problem. Our group consisted of two other couples, both excellent riders and pleasant company. Riding partners Philip Richter and his father, Max, were from NYC and CT, respectively, and Steve & Keevin Barkoff were from Waterloo, Iowa.

GoTourNZ offers a tantalizing selection of late models from Aprilla, BMW, Harley, Honda and Triumph. Although tempted to go with the familiar and ride what I have at home, John & Ian convinced me to try a brand new, 2004 Triumph Tiger 955i. The Tiger falls into the category of “sporty adventure” bike similar to the Suzuki V-Strom and BMW 1100GS. It delivers 104 bhp via a fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, 955cc, three-cylinder engine with 67 ft-lbs. of torque. It was flame-colored and painted with tiger stripes.

Being “inseam-challenged,” I appreciated the bike shop for lowering the bike a couple of inches for me and putting the seat at its lowest setting. They outfitted the bike with custom stainless steel crash bars and headlight protectors from Thunderbike Powersports. Riding partner Philip chose a Honda Pan-European STX-1300ABS (ST1300 in the US) and Steve B boarded a BMW R1150RT. The NZ roads allow some aggressive riding, so unless you plan on leisurely sightseeing only, a sportier bike will pay big dividends in the twisties.

I found the Triumph Tiger ideal for New Zealand’s twisty roads. The motor is superb (and sounds great), the sitting position upright and comfortable for long distances, and the way it gripped the road left me feeling absolutely confident in the corners, even in the wet. The adventure touring aspect of the bike helped on a couple of occasions: 50 kilometers of gravel road with some tricky parts and then again on an optional ride into Skipper’s Canyon that would have been hell for the Honda or BMW. The Tiger’s light handling and eager responsiveness delivered thrills without threats.

This was the first tour on which my wife, Maggie, accompanied me. Although we have ridden together frequently in the past, spending long hours behind me on a narrow motorcycle seat has lost some of its allure for her over the years. Unfortunately, the Triumph’s small seat was uncomfortable for her for more than a couple of hours at a time. This was offset by the fact that the van carrying our luggage turned out to be extremely comfortable for passengers. Moreover, our van driver, John Fitzwater, is a highly-educated geologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of his home turf. To my surprise, Maggie had a great time without always being on the back of the motorcycle.

The biggest drawback to motorcycling in New Zealand is the constant conflict between “being one with your bike” and staring open-mouthed at the vistas beside the road. We stopped occasionally for photos, but sometimes the riding was just too good to interrupt. An example was the road through Lewis Pass. It was so much fun that we all looked forward to driving it again the next day.

On the practical side, you need to know all driving is on the left side of the road. The adjustment comes pretty quick as everyone else drives on the left side, too, a valuable visual reminder! Each rental bike boasted a large yellow arrow reading “keep left” between the speedometer and tachometer.

Another NZ road characteristic is traffic circles (called rotaries or round-abouts elsewhere). If your only experience with them is from the Boston area, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the civility and smooth traffic flow at these intersections. In rural areas, nearly all bridges are one-lane, and sometimes long, so these needed to be approached carefully.

New Zealand paves its roads with a mixture of a volcanic substance and regular asphalt resulting in a road surface with unbelievable grip and bite. “The down side is we only get 5 – 6,000 kilometers (3,000 to 3,500 miles) per rear tire,” said John Fitzwater. “These roads just tear them up.” The combination of the road surface and the Triumph’s excellent handling made me feel as if I were on a high performance sport bike in the corners. While doing my best to spread wear liberally around all sides of the Triumph’s rear tire, I never felt even close to the limit on adhesion. In addition, New Zealand civil engineers seemed to know what they were doing. Decreasing radius turns are rare and camber is fairly aggressive to the benefit of good riders.

New Zealand’s automobile drivers, when we saw them, helped make riding there a pleasure. They seemed to actually see motorcycles and reacted by moving aside to let us pass as we approached. We saw highway patrol types only rarely. We were never stopped, although our guide provided advance warning as to which portions of our route were most likely to be patrolled. We slowed down appropriately in those sections.

One can’t talk about New Zealand without discussing climate and weather. The seasons are the opposite of here. Being in the southern hemisphere, spring is in November. (That’s when we went; grass was vibrantly green, redbuds and dogwoods bloomed prolifically, and many yards looked like traditional English cottage gardens.) December, January, February and March are the very best riding months in New Zealand as they are the warm and dry summer months. April and May bring autumn tree colors, shorter days, and cooler temperatures. These small islands have a great variety of micro climates that change frequently and are unpredictable. Television weather forecasters confidently predicted the weather and, as best as I could tell, their forecasts bore little or no resemblance to what actually occurred. In short, bring rain gear; you may need it once a week or so, especially in the spring.

While riding in NZ, we saw many of the sites used in Peter Jackson’s “travelogue trilogy about New Zealand,” the The Lord of the Rings saga. Alan Lee, Conceptual Artist and Set Decorator, stated that New Zealand more than matched his hopes as a setting for The Lord of the Rings. “…from lush farmland, woods and rivers to dramatic gorges, endless plains and soaring mountains uninterrupted by roads and pylons. It’s a young land, primeval in places, still flexing in the aftermath of its creation. I can imagine Britain in a much earlier age, with higher peaks and the clearer light that illuminates Tolkien’s pages, might have had a similar quality.”

It’s hard to comprehend this landscape until you see it; the incredible variety in such a compressed area is amazing. It was fun to go by places we recognized from the movie. On the first day of the ride after passing the Ngarua Caves, we drove by the stand of trees where Aragorn led the Hobbits into the wilds after leaving Bree. We saw Mt. Aspiring near Wanaka, which was used in the opening sequence of The Two Towers to represent the high peaks around Moria, a spectacular mountain. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is fabulous on its own merits with stunning views of mountains and Lake Wakatipu, but also reveals the areas used to portray Ithilien.

There’s no denying it: New Zealand is on the other side of the world. However, from a jet lag standpoint, the trip is no more difficult than a trip to Europe from the US and in some ways, it is easier.

Nearly all flights leave for NZ in the evening from Los Angeles. That gives you most of the day to work your way to LAX and find your all-night flight. We left Los Angeles on a Monday night at 9:10, had dinner on the plane, fell asleep, woke to breakfast and landed in Auckland at 7:10 the following morning, refreshed and ready for a day of exploring. “Following morning” is a slight misnomer because there is a 24-hour time change due to crossing the international dateline. Instead of arriving Tuesday morning, we arrived Wednesday morning, but it felt like Tuesday. Got that?
Air New Zealand (ANZ) and Quantas offer the most flights, but American and United fly there, too. ANZ and Quantas partner with many US carriers, and we made good use of airline miles we’d been saving. People in our group paid a low RT fare of just $499 pp all the way up to $1925 pp. So shop around and watch for specials.

During my investigations for this trip, I interviewed previous GoTourNZ tour participants who talked about their New Zealand trip as “different,” much more than “just another motorcycle tour.” Brit Alex Eggert has toured with John Fitzwater three times since 1997 and is planning his fourth trip now – as his honeymoon. I asked him if he’d recommend the trip to others. He responded, “Well, I’m going back and bringing friends. And I firmly believe that if you don’t go, at least once in your life, you will grow old and die a bitter and unfulfilled person.” For us, this truly ended up being the vacation of a lifetime versus a motorcycle tour.

Eight bikes is the maximum for any of the Fitzwater tours. For this trip, we had only three, resulting in a very close-knit, personal tour. We stayed at small, high-quality “boutique” lodges and bed & breakfasts. Our stay commenced at the incredible Grampian Villa in Nelson, where we had a warm, lushly decorated, oversized room, an awesome bed, and one of the most beautiful antique wood floors I’d ever seen. Imagine my surprise when I opened my computer and discovered wireless Internet access right from the table in our room.

Many inns had significant historic attributes and one could easily imagine staying several days in each of them. For example, after a ride on the only unsealed road of the whole
trip, we arrived at the Tokarahi Homestead built from locally quarried limestone by Alexander McMaster in 1878. Proprietors Mike and Lyn Gray spent three years restoring and transforming the building into a five-star B&B. Mike and Lyn dressed in period costumes and entertained us with stories of the life and times of that era. Mike’s stories of the “swaggers,” hobo-like characters who traveled the country-side avoiding work, were hilarious.

In Hokitika we stayed at the Kapitea Ridge Lodge, an upscale and highly stylish luxury, seven-suite B&B with a spectacular view overlooking the Tasman Sea. The evening included luxuriating in a hot tub and breakfast the next day included a native delicacy called whitebait fritters.

Restaurants were equally extraordinary. One could expect the lamb dishes to be fabulous (and they were) because sheep are raised more than any other livestock, but fellow traveler Steve Barkoff described his steak one night as the best he’d ever tasted. Deer are raised on farms in New Zealand, so venison is a frequent option and it was delicious. However, red meat dishes were regularly overshadowed by the outstanding sea food. The green lipped mussels were out of this world, the flounder delicate and buttery, and seafood chowder was a gourmet treat.

In addition to food and sleep, other interruptions to the ride included visits to places like WOW (the World of Wearable Art) in Nelson ( Not everyone’s cup of tea, it was positively mind-expanding to me. Besides museums and shopping, we explored natural caves, tidal blow holes, and exotic rock formations.

At the erroneously-named Milford “Sound” (it’s technically a fiord), we were tickled to watch busloads of visitors board large tour boats while we enjoyed a much smaller, private boat with a fully catered lunch and a highly personal tour through the Sound. Milford Sound is a narrow ocean inlet in which the water is hundreds of meters deep. It is eerie to float between such shear mountain walls rising straight up out of the water for thousands of meters. We passed one remarkable waterfall after another and eventually passed one, Bowen Falls, that our guide casually told us was three times as high as Niagara! In a phenomenon known as the “dwarfing effect,” spectators lose the sense of how big something is because everything around it is huge, also.

The link between all of these incredible experiences, of course, was days of riding winding roads that clung to mountainsides and followed twisting rivers of exquisite clarity. We were in constant danger of scenic overload. Often the temptation to stop the bike and simply stare at the awesome isolated beauty and tranquility of nature was irresistible.

After 14 days of motorcycling in New Zealand, I cannot say with certainty that it had the best motorcycle roads in the world, but only because I have not yet been everywhere in the world. It is without a doubt the best place I’ve ridden. Worth the price? As Dave Searle says, "An extended tour reaches deep into your fiber, transforming mental mush into clarity." Although expensive, for me it was worth it. What began as a motorcycle tour with my wife tagging along, in the end became one of the best vacation experiences of our lives. The people of New Zealand were pleasant, friendly and more accommodating than I could possibly have imagined. We came home with wonderful memories, new friends, and heads full of schemes for how and when we might go again.

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