For years I’ve been hearing New Zealand’s a wonderful place to ride, I’ve got a standing invite from an old mate who lives on Waiheke Island and it’s summer there when it’s winter here. So it was always going to be a place I’d do a bike trip. Preparations finally started October last year and I quickly concluded that, NZ being a big place a long way away, a long weekend wasn’t going to cut it. A guided tour looked the best bet so I started by checking out NZ based tour companies online and, after a few email exchanges, settled on Paradise Tours (as subsequently featured in Bike Magazine). Upfront cost covered bike (a 2017 F800GS looked good), hotels, GPS, insurance, airport transfers, guide and luggage vehicle, plus helmet and textiles to help keep travel bags manageable. The dates worked for a January tour so end of October I booked and paid, easy via PayPal. Though quite late apparently – they said others had booked a year in advance.

Next up was getting there, and Google Flights was my friend. Did I say NZ’s a long way away? Yup, up to 40+ hours and no direct flights. I really didn’t fancy that in coach seats and packed transit lounges so held my nerve and at 2am on Black Friday booked bargain business class Heathrow – Auckland: two 12 hour flights each way with five hour layovers in Shanghai. I flew out on a chilly January Sunday and within hours was besotted with airline lounges and lie-flat seats.

Arriving in Auckland at 6.30am local time I made my way to my mate’s place, stayed there three days, then back to Auckland to pick up the tour. Arriving early had been a good move: despite sleeping well on the flight it took over a day to get properly onto NZ time and Paradise are, understandably, not keen on riders flying in one day and hopping on their bikes the next.

Mike, the owner, met me and three Americans also on the tour at our hotel to give us the keys and a full briefing with a lot of emphasis on the repercussions of speeding – 100kph is the national limit and law enforcement has no sense of humour. He also explained that their three January guided tours (21, 16 and 10 days), were all in fact the 21 day tour with extra riders joining on the 5th and 11th days. My 16 day tour was four days on the North Island meandering south to Wellington via beautiful art deco Napier, then 12 on the South Island, from Picton down the west coast to Invercargill, up to Dunedin and ending in Christchurch.

Mike led us out to Rotorua (volcanoes and hot springs) to pick up the rest of the group and hand us over to Wayne, the tour lead. There we met another half dozen riders, singles and couples from the UK, Australia and the US ranging in age from early forties to late seventies – a mature group (well, not really!), on a variety of BMs: F800’s, 1200RT’s and GS’s to full dress 1600GTL’s.

Glenorchy Road

Chinese photo stop.

Wayne set a pleasingly brisk pace on his 1200GS, Martyn and Sue bringing up the rear in a van full of luggage. Overtaking was allowed in the group but only by invitation of the rider in front, which mostly meant no overtaking; the riding standard was, er, variable: some seemed to have trouble taking in what was in front of them, never mind behind, though to be fair the frequent spellbinding views were quite a distraction as well.

We soon settled into a rhythm, the faster riders setting off first, others following at their own pace, and, despite the speed differences, we never had to wait more than 5 minutes to regroup. Large towns (there weren’t many) were the only tricky places, we had to ‘stay tight’ on the way in so’s not to get separated by traffic lights. This worked fine: a couple of times riders got snagged but the van was in contact with Wayne and always there to round up strays, very reassuring.

Roads were excellent, well surfaced (I saw three potholes in 2,500 miles), grippy and mostly with little traffic, though RV’s, (which Wayne assured us stood for ‘Road Vermin’) were a pain on narrow mountain twisties. There were occasional gravelly sections where roads were being top-dressed, but all well signed (apart from one brown trouser episode where the signs started about 50 metres after the gravel, ahem). The authorities are keen on advisory speed signs before bends (conservative – add at least 30kph), but strangely always set between posted limits – you’d see advisories from 35 to 85 kph (and 85 just meant ‘go faster’), but none divisible by 10.

We had three rest days, Hanmer Springs (where we picked up the 10 day tourers), Queenstown and Dunedin, all with stuff lined up to see and do if lolling around in bars wasn’t your thing. A riding day was 100 – 250 miles, setting off between 8 and 9 after breakfast and a briefing, with stops for lunch and photos as necessary plus coffee breaks morning and afternoon. The aim was to arrive at that night’s stop around 4, enough time to shower and explore before an evening meal. Hotels were never less than comfortable, in some cases luxurious, all with Wifi (though at widely differing speeds) and often on the seafront. Breakfast, always good, was included but everything else was down to us. My UK credit card worked fine, if harder than I’d hoped: a meal was £25 to £40, a beer £4 to £7 and a typical fuel stop around £16 on the GS – frugal compared to the bigger bikes.

North Island done we got the early ferry from Wellington, so no hotel breakfast, luggage out 6.45am, stands up at 7, on the boat by 8. Crossing the spectacular Cook Strait feet up scoffing unlimited food and drink in the posh lounge was lush, as was the scenery three hours later on landfall in Picton. Overall the South Island was the better to bike on, less traffic and more eye-catching scenery, though more RV’s too. It’s also the home of sand flies, evil little sods with bites that itch for days: jungle strength repellent is pretty much the only thing that fends them off, a necessity as they were after us for the rest of the trip.

According to Wayne when Brits enquire about New Zealand tours the most common question is ‘What’s the weather like?’ Well, it’s summer, but you’re in the tropics, complete with rain forests, so while it was never cold, even on the passes, the weather could, and did, change very quickly. We had one day of strong crosswinds (enough to scare a couple of pillions into the van) and two when we got totally drenched, though the roads remained grippy and the bikes, all with traction control, ABS and heated grips looked after us just fine. But mostly it was dry and warm, 28+ degrees some days so lots of water breaks and suntan lotion; there’s ozone depletion over NZ and the sun is fierce.

The first wet ride was Hokitika to Fox Glacier, only about 100 miles plus a ride-out to the Franz Joseph Glacier. Over dinner Wayne had become uncharacteristically pensive as he checked his phone, due, it transpired, to satellites showing a shedload of weather coming in fast complete with official severe warnings. So the group decided on an early breakfast to try and get ahead of it…

Setting off in the dry at 8, within an hour it was chucking it down. A damp coffee stop saw the rain get heavier and we pitched up, soaked, at Fox Glacier around 11.30am to find our rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple of hours and roads to both glaciers closed as they were now raging, cloud-shrouded torrents. Along with just about every backpacker in the area we dried out over an early lunch under heaters on the veranda of the only bar in town.

View over Queenstown

Arrowtown

The other wet run was a few days later, Te Anau to Milford Sound and back, 75 miles each way, a gorgeous mix of open sweepers and technical hairpins plus a tunnel. About halfway it was still dry and the dead straight road, prairie either side and mountains all around meant a photo stop. Popular, as shown by coach loads of Chinese tourists wandering around. We parked well clear of them, did our own wandering around and then, snaps snapped, Wayne and Martyn herded us together for a group photo. At which point another coach stopped right beside us and disgorged a horde of selfie-stick wielding Chinese who, seeing us as an interesting part of the scenery, rushed over to raucously photobomb us. Annoying, until Wayne gave up trying to politely usher them away and resorted to a very loud ‘F*CK OFF, THIS IS OUR PHOTO’, accompanied by wild gesticulations. Which worked a treat. Five minutes later the rain started and didn’t let up until we were pretty much back there on the way home. Plus side was torrential rain meant the Milford Sound waterfalls were going full pelt, very impressive up close on our boat, despite clifftops hidden in clouds.

Lake Hawea

Lake Pukaki

Through all of this my little GS just kept buzzing along. With engine modes of Road, Rain and Enduro I only used Rain twice and as it poured down each time I avoided it thereafter. Along with Enduro, as off-roading was also something I was keen to avoid. The dynamic suspension was useful though, Sport for the technical bits otherwise Comfort (noticeably softer). Which worked well on the occasional stretches over plains and plateaus, cosseting me as I sat back to enjoy big skies and pristine countryside, interspersed with countless sheep and the odd small town of bungalows with big back yards and corrugated iron roofs. But Sport was the choice 80% of the time, perfect for the fun roads. Picton to Nelson, Queenstown to Glenorchy, Invercargill to Dunedin, Dunedin to Mt Cook (the glacial lake we rode past on the way in was the bluest I’ve ever seen) were amazing, but my favourite was Fox Glacier to Queenstown via the Gates of Haast. A long blast on open sweeping roads around Lake Hawea with spectacular views, then tight hairpins and tricky overtakes up and down the pass, culminating in a stop high above Queenstown to look down on airliners coming along the valley to land at the airport. Stunning.

It wasn’t just great riding: there were trips and excursions to take in various tourist attractions, including a traditional Maori village complete with Haka, the very pretty Muruia falls (which appeared overnight in the 1920’s after an earthquake dropped the river bed by three meters), the strangely striated Punakaiki pancake rocks and old mining towns. New Zealand apparently had a bit of a gold rush in the late 1800s and we had stops in Arrowtown, which looked like something out of the wild west, and Reefton, famed for its Bearded Miners who looked like something out of ZZ Top. We even had a brewery tour, entertaining and informative (all Speight’s beer is lager, even the porter, aagh!), but, despite fierce competition, my highlight was Invercargill’s biking shrines.

First up was the Burt Munro ‘World’s Fastest Indian’ display, in a hardware shop for heaven’s sake! You enter to be confronted by a Hesketh, a couple of Ariel Square Fours, a Vincent, a Chevrolet engined bike and various other two wheeled curiosities. Pride of place is Burt’s original bike, a replica you can sit in (it’s tiny), another Ducati powered replica used in the film plus the ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’ display of broken pistons, con rods and barrels, also as seen in the film. Wonderful.

Burt Munroe’s display in Invercargill

Motorcycle Mecca

From there it was a short ride to Motorcycle Mecca for lunch. Set up by a private collector it’s home to a bike themed café and stunning displays of hundreds of bikes on two bright and airy levels. Everything from the last Vincent built (in 2007), Brittens (obviously), more Broughs than you can shake a stick at and less familiar bikes too – Peugeot, Mighty Atom, Nut, even a Ducati scooter. All displayed beautifully and close-up accessible, National Motorcycle Museum take note.

Maybe because we knew it would soon all be over the final ride from Mt Cook to drop off the bikes at Christchurch was a bit of a slog. By then we were 13 bikes and a well-bonded bantering group of 20 Americans, Aussies, Brits and a Croatian couple, and being treated to a farewell dinner by Paradise cheered us up no end: after several beers and bottles of wine to celebrate no prangs, no breakdowns and no learning moments with the Highway Patrol we all agreed it had been a stunningly good trip. And so, sadly, after a leisurely start the next day, for me it was final farewells and the short flight to Auckland. There I availed myself of the Air New Zealand lounge for several hours before picking up the midnight start of my long-haul home, arriving at Heathrow a day later to falling snow and traffic jams. More proof, were it needed, that New Zealand is indeed a wonderful place to ride, especially in January!

www.paradisemotorcycletours.co.nz – it does what it says on the website!

Nick Vale

First published in Slipstream April 2019