I’ve been on a two-week motorcycle tour of New Zealand, and the first thing to say is that riding with groups is not something I do. Normally I ride alone, I figure out the route, find places to stay, deal with the problems, bump into people (figuratively speaking, usually) and write about it.
This can be demanding and tiring and productive. It’s not always fun, but for me it’s the best way to experience a country and its people.
So what got me involved with a caravan of seventeen people, two guides, a baggage train and a route planner?
Well, I was enticed by flattery. John Rains and Alison Fitzgerald are the creators of a mud house and a motorcycle rental business in Christchurch, and they’ve been running tours for ever.
They call themselves Te Waipounamou – it’s a Maori phrase – on the principle that if you can work your way around the syllables you’ve probably got what it takes to ride around New Zealand.
Hoping to get enough people down there in these difficult times, John and his American pal Fred Rau came up with the startling idea that if I would take part in a “Ted Simon Tour”, they would come. I didn’t share their faith but, Wow,just suppose they were right, woudn’t that be a kick. Anyway I said, Sure.
Well, they did come, enough of them at least to make it work, so I had to overcome my life-long disdain for cycling in flocks and console myself with the thought that I need never do it again. And I probably won’t, but that’s because I can’t imagine another tour coming anywhere near this one for sheer enjoyment and expertise. It was amazingly pleasant.
Of course John starts with the advantage of living in a country designed by God for motorcyclists. There are gravel roads if you want them, but his tour – all two thousand miles of it – is on sealed surfaces so well maintained that there is hardly ever a need to look down on them. And some of these roads, swooping around the mountains, have a curvaceous sensuality that comes pretty close to making love.
These islands also seem to be populated by people with a natural affinity for bikes and bikers – remember Burt Monro? Time and again vehicles ahead of me pulled over with a smile to let me through.
Intriguing! Why the difference?
There’s a museum near Wanaka, in the South Island, where they record the deeds of New Zealand’s fighter pilots and I learned that, per capita, the Kiwi’s have notched up more kills than any other nation. Strangely, I wasn’t surprised, and I’ve been letting my mind wander over the faces of the people I’ve seen during these two weeks.
Like Australia, and parts of the USA, the population is distributed quite thinly, so flying to places has a great attraction. In fact a New Zealander actually got a machine into the air some months before the Wright brothers but, with a characteristic aversion to showing off, never pressed his claim.
One of the nights on this tour was set aside for “farm stays.” I and four others were put up on a farm by the owners, Shona and Bay Delautour, an elderly couple of about my own age, obviously well-to-do but still interested enough in life to invite travelers for the pleasure of meeting new faces.
Bay is a tall, thin, vigorous gentleman who drove us around the farm in the evening, talking to his sheep and describing projects he had in mind. He promised to say goodbye in the morning, but I was down too late and he had already flown off somewhere.
I had noticed his plane the night before; a small, rather dusty white object, stowed nonchalantly in a shed by the house as you would an old car.
Apparently he uses it two or three times a week.
I imagine there must be hundreds, if not thousands of men like Bay sprinkled about these islands who take to the air as easily as I would jump on a bike, and it is equally easy to imagine that in 1939, when the mother country was being threatened by those nasty Nazis, a lot of them might have said, “Let’s get over there and have a go.”
Of course there were adventurous volunteers from all over – Canada, Australia, Africa, to name just a few – but something gave these Kiwis the cold-blooded courage to be top aces up there in the skies of Europe?
It seems to flow naturally from their temperament. Kiwi’s are cool, really cool.
In the six weeks I’ve spent on their islands I can’t remember a voice raised in passion or bombast. Perhaps there’s too much natural beauty around to be upset for long, but more probably it’s a strain of the old British stiff-upper-lip that has survived there, far from the corruption of the motherland.
Unbridled displays of emotion are frowned upon, and if there’s any swagger in a Kiwi I have yet to detect it.
They have irony instead, and somehow irony strikes me as being really useful in the cockpit of a Spitfire or a Hurricane.
Not that all New Zealanders are modest heroes. They have their share of villains, no doubt, but even the crime strikes me as picaresque and quirky.
This is the only country where I’ve heard of a house being stolen – literally, taken away. And while I sat outside a bakery in Nelson at closing time, the owner came out to take down a large gilded wooden pretzel hanging from the awning. “Otherwise,” she explained, “it’d be gone by morning.”
I have to write about the people because trying to convey the beauty of the country is a mug’s game.
There are only so many words to use and pretty soon there’d be none left. Of course there are other countries with glorious, awe-inspiring sights but what New Zealand offers is all of it, bunched together, with quite unparalleled accessibility.
John Rains runs a tour that encompasses, in only two weeks, glaciers and rain forests, stupendous mountains, transparent blue-water lakes, heart-stopping views, bucolic landscapes, gamboling lambs, rocks twisted into the most fantastic shapes, wild ocean shores, fabulous water falls, old English pubs, weird birds, and rivers that make you want to be a trout.
All of this on roads that cause a biker’s heart to sing with joy.
Yet every night I slept in fine hotels and ate in great style – need I mention the wine? – except for that one night on Shona’s farm when she outdid them all with her delicious ratatouille.
As for the people I rode with, I just wish we’d had a spectacular murder to solve, because Agatha Christie herself could not have assembled a better cast.
There was the improbably mild oculist from the West Country, the phlegmatic couple from the North riding a flaming Ducati and obviously concealing fiery passions, the spare military gent from Pensylvania hinting broadly at a secret past of skullduggery and intrigue, the bluff and genial Alaskan entrepreneur (capable of who knows what ruthlessness), the meticulous German with the slightly sinister accent, and so on.
Actually a mysterious crime was committed, and when the perpetrator was revealed she was the last person any of us would have suspected.
The key to big Wayne Grega’s luggage disappeared on the dockside, and only after a dogged investigation was it discovered in the pocket of Voni Glaves, a famous and fashionable southern belle who affected total innocence with a blush to match her red riding boots.
And then, remarkably, she tried the same trick again, which makes one wonder what vital microfilms or blueprints the seemingly innocent Wayne was trafficking.
Well, we were not short of amusement, but for me the most dramatic revelation was the riding itself.
John gave me a Suzuki V-strom to ride. I was expecting a BMW and at first I was disconcerted. I had it a couple of days before the tour, riding north on my own, and getting used to it.
There’s a famous toilet up there at Kawakawa (yes, really, a toilet) decorated by an Austrian artist called Hundertwasser which I really wanted to see, but for some reason I couldn’t find it and got stuck in a cul-de-sac.
Trying to manoeuvre my way out on a slope I learned that the V-strom stalls unexpectedly at low revs, and with nowhere to put my foot we tumbled over. After much huffing and puffing, and feeling foolish as one does, I got it off the ground and lost my urge for toiletry. And that, so far, is the only complaint I have about the V-strom.
It turned out to be the best bike I’ve ridden in ages. The handling reminds me of my old Triumph, and now I am well on my way to acquiring one here in the states.
The beauty of this tour was that for the first time in my biking life I had nothing else to do but ride for the fun of it, and I am almost ashamed to admit that on none of my long journeys around the world did I enjoy riding as much as I did on this trip.
I learned a lot riding behind John on his Speed Triple. He is poetry in motion, and without being distracted by plans, routes, borders, languages, and local customs (all of which I normally find fascinating) I really got into riding those curves.
So, great time, great people, great experience. I even had good conversation with two Republicans, although it’s well-known that I am politically somewhere to the left of Trotsky. Biking trumps politics. Hurrah!
PS: At the recent Tea Party Convention one of it’s principal leaders said we should stop bandying about words like Socialism. He said it has a strict ideological meaning, and President Obama is ideologically a Socialist. My dictionary (as if I needed one) defines Socialism as: “A theory or policy of social organization which advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, land, capital, property, etc by the community as a whole and their administration and distribution in the interests of all.” Anyone who thinks Obama is a Socialist is too daft to be invited to anybody’s tea party, not even by the Mad Hatter herself.