Just a stone’s throw across the ditch lies the touring paradise of New Zealand’s Southland region
My recent trip to Invercargill, New Zealand, for the Burt Munro Classic was a chance to tick one item off my bucket list. But following a week on the roads touring the region, that item already been replaced by another: “Ride the South Island again”.
I spent eight glorious days riding down the east coast and back up the west coast of New Zealand’s Southland region, returning home to a mountain of questions from fellow riders. It turns out that touring the South Island of New Zealand is on a lot of bucket lists, and it’s only lack of knowledge on the best way to do it that is preventing many from going.
I was in the same position until Venture Southland extended a helping hand and put together an itinerary which led to the amazing adventure I hope will be the catalyst for others to finally cross the ditch and hit the road.
For a country so close to our own, New Zealand has a landscape unlike anything you are likely to see touring Australia on two wheels. The South Island was one of the final continents to shake free of the ice age, and its geographic isolation means its wildly varying landscapes have an untouched feel and almost prehistoric appearance. The 51,215km² area of New Zealand’s South Island makes it 11 times larger than Sydney but with only one-fifth the population – in other words, it’s motorcycling heaven.
Getting there is half the fun
Flying Air New Zealand into Queenstown is the perfect way to acclimatise. By the time you have enjoyed the hilarious flight safety movie by Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby and listened to the in-flight announcement about your serving of brikfast iggs you might find yourself speaking with a slight Kiwi accent. The approach to Queenstown Airport through the snow-capped mountains may not be for nervous flyers, but it does give you a taste of what’s ahead.
I got a rockstar welcome at the airport from Dave and Janeen who run Central Otago Motorcycle Hire. This is not preferential treatment for a journalist – it’s all part of the service provided by the pair for motorcycle bookings of two days or more, though the friendly Kiwi hospitality catches you by surprise at first. Dave and Janine also own the Hills of Gold B&B, meaning I could leave my gear bag with them until I returned the bike. Within six hours of leaving home, I was sitting in the grounds of Hills of Gold reading a book about Kiwi motorcycle legend Kim Newcombe, enjoying a glass of New Zealand red and soaking up the stunning scenery of Central Otago.
Let the games begin!
Central Otago Motorcycle Hire has a large selection of cruiser and adventure bikes including Harley-Davidsons and Indians. Having just completed AMCN Motorcycle of the Year I knew what the Honda Africa Twin was capable of, so I grabbed that along with a topbox and panniers for all my gear. http://comotorcyclehire.co.nz/
The plan for the day was to check out the giant fruit at Cromwell and then enjoy a relaxing ride to Tawanui via Clyde, Alexandra, Roxburgh and Millers Flat before arriving at Mohua Park. It was an easy three-hour ride according to my GPS. It is at this point I learned my first lesson about riding the South Island – if your GPS says it’s a three-hour ride, that’s how long it will take. The roads are so open and free of traffic that the GPS estimate is always best adhered to. Then there’s the scenery – it smashes you in the face at every turn, and no two turns are the same. A day spent stopping at most lookouts to appreciate the expansive scenery will make a three-hour ride take six hours and feel like two hours.
Highlights of the day included the Clyde dam and gorge as well as the historic Clyde township where I used the one-lane bridge to take a slight detour across the Clutha River into Earnscleugh – Sam Neill country. Sam wasn’t anywhere to be found, so I re-joined the main road where the mountainous vista quickly transformed into vast orchards; when it comes to landscapes in NZ, it never gets boring.
I rolled into the historic town of Alexandra for morning tea at the Courthouse Cafe, having covered a whopping 35km in 1.5 hours. Back in 1876 only judges and those causing trouble at the surrounding gold mines would have been seen at the Courthouse. Now it’s a trendy place for locals and visitors.
I didn’t have many must-do places marked on my list, but my map did have a big circle drawn around the town of Roxburgh with the words Jimmy’s, lunch and pie scribbled next to it.
Like any town you ride through in these parts, Roxburgh seems eerily quiet – you forget just how few people are spread over a wide area. But all the businesses are open, the locals are friendly, and the service is welcoming.
Jimmy’s has been making pies since 1959, and no matter where you go in the Southland region just mentioning the name gets people salivating. Two butter chicken pies and a tank of fuel later I was back on the road and still two hours from my destination. Where had the time gone?
Despite running well behind schedule, I was still yet to learn my lesson and decided another dirt-road detour was in order. I was riding an adventure bike after all. Thankfully, this part of the world is so far south that night does not arrive until after 9pm. After getting lost a couple of times and then mesmerised by Tea Pot World at Owaka (just do it), I arrived at Mohua Park just in time for dinner and the wonderful company of Lyndon and his wife, Gill. Mohua Park, named after a bird native to the area, is situated on eight hectares of forest reserve. www.catlinsmohuapark.co.nz/
Lyndon took me out on one of his famous one-on-one tours to Kaka point and the old lighthouse at Nuggets to do a bit of seal spotting. Possibly the only man I know who can make being stuck at a road closure entertaining, Lyndon mesmerised me with his enthusiasm and knowledge of the local area. Whether you’re a bird spotter, nature walker, interested in the local Maori culture or just looking for glow-worms, Lyndon and Gill know about it and have tours so you can experience it. Only one thing could drag me away from Mohua Park, and that was the call of the Catlins.
It doesn’t get much better
I had already enjoyed a small taste of the Catlins on my travels so far, but the best was yet to come.
Almost 100km of southern scenic route lay ahead, including Florence Hill lookout, Curio Bay and Waipapa Point. Despite the forecast of rain, I was greeted with my third straight day of brilliant sunshine, though I had been warned about windy conditions as I headed further south.
Finally having learnt my lesson, I allocated six hours for the estimated ride time of 2.5 hours to Invercargill. The road through the Catlins is rated as one of the top 10 scenic drives in the world and for good reason – imagine the Great Ocean Road, and then remove all the cars. You still need to be on your guard though, as car-driving tourists often find themselves looking at the view rather than where they are going.
My day of carving through a seemingly never-ending series of left and right-hand opening bends was split into sections between stops to admire the rugged, scenic coastline with lookouts perched atop high cliffs. This is the region where the legends of big-wave surfing take on some of the most powerful ocean swells. Being the southernmost region of the South Island also means the wind can howl and the weather can change on a pinhead. Pack to be prepared.
With the lure of Invercargill becoming stronger as the kilometres rolled on, it was time to stretch the legs of the Africa Twin on the run to the home of Burt Munro and five days of nothing but motorcycle racing.
The Southland Motorcycle Club, organisers of the Burt Munro Challenge, recently rescheduled the annual event from its traditional December date to February, so the next Challenge will be held in February 2018. As I made my pilgrimage to the Burt Munro statue in Queens Park, I wondered what all the fuss about the weather was. The sun was shining, and I was cooking in my riding gear. I would soon learn how quickly things can change in the south.
When you study the geographical location of Invercargill you can’t help but picture a sleepy village where everyone is related. However, despite being located at the bottom of the world, this very southern city is a busy place with plenty to do and see.
Safari Lodge – my first stop in Ivercargill – is in the centre of town, and owners Ray and Trish are adventurers at heart. One day they simply packed everything up and moved from Invercargill to Mozambique … for 12 years! On their return they purchased their B&B, restored its heritage charm, and christened it Safari Lodge to commemorate their African adventure. http://www.safarilodge.co.nz/
Invercargill men are compulsive tinkerers; everyone seems to have a shed full of interesting mechanical allsorts. In addition to tinkering with his cars and bikes, Ray also likes to brew plum schnapps – next thing I remember I was waking up in my huge four-poster bed.
I then packed my increasingly relaxed frame onto the Africa Twin and headed to my next digs, Folster Gardens Trev and Lynne only accommodate one booking at a time, and you become part of the family. For three days I enjoyed their company and even spent an afternoon with Trev’s mates tinkering with old bikes, enjoying a few drinks and eating mutton-bird, a bird harvested by the Rakiura Maori people from the Stewart Island area. It’s a dark and oily meat which tastes like a combination of duck and anchovies – sounds delicious, right? http://www.folstergardens.co.nz/
Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated as my time in Invercargill came to an end, and on the final day I rode out of Trev’s driveway in a combination of snow and hail. It was time to point my front wheel at the west coast and head into the mountains of New Zealand’s famous Fiordland area and Milford Sound.
My destination was Te Anau, a little under two hours north, and with the rain pelting down for the first hour I was glad I had chosen to wear my waterproof gear and heated gloves. The Africa Twin’s heated grips also remained locked on full. I eventually managed to break free of the storm cell and stopped to stretch my legs and to dry out at Mossburn. From this point there is only one road in and out of Te Anau and Milford sounds, and it’s one of the most stunning roads you are ever likely to ride.
Te Anau is home to the largest lake on the South Island which is inhabited by an incredible array of wildlife, including glow-worms which I took a night time tour to see. The glow-worm adventure is a combination of discovery, caving, boat riding and pitch-black underground extreme sport.
As the massive glaciers from the last ice age retracted, the huge chunks of rock they dragged with them carved the Fiordlands. Even at Te Anau, the doorway to New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, the views are incredible. The population of the town is around 1000, and with 4000 beds available in a wide range of accommodation, there’s plenty of places to lay your head.
If you are thinking of heading to Milford Sound on two wheels, I recommend spending a day in Te Anau. It will give you an opportunity to enjoy the local area, learn about the region and get a good night’s sleep and hit the road early the next morning – before the tour coaches arrive from Queenstown.
From Te Anau to Milford Sound it’s a 118km ride up and over the Darran mountain range that will take you two hours – but only if you can resist the urge to stop and check out the scenery and wildlife, so allow for three hours. While my friends back in Australia were complaining about the heat, I was sitting at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, one kilometre above sea level and surrounded by snow. As you ride through the one-way tunnel, the exposed granite walls reveal just how tough it would have been for the five men who initially started digging the tunnel during the Depression using nothing more than picks and wheelbarrows, while living in tents on the mountain in freezing conditions.
In the summer months, the snow line is quite high and at times non-existent, so riding a bike through to Milford Sound is straightforward and the slight discomfort of shivering while you ride is balanced out by the pure enjoyment of the experience and the reward of the sound at the end.
No trip to Milford Sound is complete without a cruise. The 2km high, snow-capped cliff faces that sprout vertically from the dark water with cascading waterfalls streaming from them make for a dramatic landscape.
Time to head home
The final day of my tour held one last surprise. Warm, dried out and rested after my trip to Milford Sound, I hit the road for Queenstown and discovered one final riding gem – the strip of winding bitumen that leads along the shore of Lake Wakatipu. It was the perfect way to end a magical road trip. The sun had returned, the roads were relatively empty and as the city of Queenstown appeared in the distance, I had a niggling urge to turn around and do it all again. By the time I had returned the bike to Janeen and Dave, and was on my Air New Zealand flight enjoying the Rhys Darby safety video again, I realised I would be home by dinner time. From the shores of Lake Te Anau in Fiordland to downtown Sydney and brilliant day of riding in between is proof that touring New Zealand’s Southland is as simple as booking your flights and doing it.
Looking back to my maps I barely scratched the surface of what New Zealand’s Southland has to offer, and that’s just the southern end of the South Island! Time to start looking north to Christchurch.
I flew into Queenstown direct from Sydney with Air New Zealand
My Honda Africa Twin was hired from Central Otago Motorcycle Hire (comotorcyclehire.co.nz). Dave and Janeen (above) will happily collect you from Queenstown airport for hire bookings of two or more days. If you want to base yourself in this stunning region, you can also book into their awesome B&B, a stone’s throw from the historic Bannockburn Hotel and a day’s ride to just about anywhere on the South Island.
Further information about visiting Invercargill and the Southland region can be obtained from the team at Venture Southland www.southlandnz.com
- If your GPS estimates a 2.5-hour trip, that’s how long it will take.
- If a Kiwi offers to help, they are not trying to sell you something
- Melbourne’s weather is stable compared to the Southland region, pack for four seasons in an hour
- Mutton-bird tastes like a duck that’s been rubbed on a fish – it sounds horrible but try it if you can
- If you get the chance to tinker in a shed with an Invercargill local – do it
- Eat two Jimmy’s pies, even if you are not hungry
- Stop at every lookout you can, it never gets boring
- Blind bends may hide a tourist on the wrong side of the road, or worse, a bus full of tourists
- Stay at a B&B with a friendly local
- Sample as many of the local red wines as possible
- Eat hokey pokey ice-cream
- Don’t rush, you may miss something
- Learn about the local history and culture