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GREAT SOUTHERN LAND | Rides

It’s the rugged and remote tip of New Zealand’s South Island and it’s a motorcyclists’ dream

I’ve ridden in some wild wind before, but nothing like this. We’d just swung around the bottom western corner of New Zealand’s South Island and were met with a savage squall thrown at us by a ferocious Southern Ocean. It was wind so fierce that slow and steady wasn’t even an option.

Against my instincts, I eventually worked out that a smidgen over 100km/h and tucked as low as I could get behind the screen of the Yamaha Tracer GT was the best way to remain upright and with the most control amid such powerful and gusty winds. I was grateful for the region’s remoteness as wind blasts forced me on the wrong side of the road. The erratic headlight in my mirrors told me my two-up riding buddies were struggling, too.

We were on our way to the Burt Munro Challenge in Invercargill – the four-day motorcyclist must-do that plays host to six world-class race events in less than 100 hours – and we’d earmarked a few days either side to sample some of the beaut roads this part of the world serves in dollops.

An hour and a half earlier, we were sitting in the sun in Te Anau eating what the locals call Southland sushi – cheese rolled in a piece of buttered white bread and toasted in a sandwich press – liaising with a map and the radar, which had us expecting a heavy drenching for our last 150km dash south to Riverton.

Thankfully, the rain never came. In fact, aside from a light shower the previous day, we didn’t see a single drop of rain during our entire trip. And, despite packing for a cold and wet week, the clear blue skies for the majority of the time meant I ended up having to buy extra sunscreen and my thermals remained clean and folded in the bottom of my pannier.

The 610km Southern Scenic Route runs from Queenstown through to Dunedin via Invercargill. Named by many a publication as one of the world’s must-do roads, what the western side lacks in corners, it more than makes up for in breathtaking scenery.

And it doesn’t get much more breathtaking than Queenstown, where we flew in to and collected our bikes from. And, it turns out, a hell of a lot of people want to see it for themselves. Queenstown is a place 20,000 people call home but which on any given night plays hosts to well over 100,000 tourists.

“May’s our quiet month,” says the cab driver taking me from Queenstown airport to the motorcycle rental mob where I’m due to collect my bike. “There’s only 40 or 50,000 tourists a night then.”

Not only is it one of the most spectacular looking cities in the world, the weather is conducive to good times, too. We tend to look at the weather in New Zealand’s South Island in much the same way as we see Melbourne or Tasmania but, according to my very knowledgable taxi driver, Queenstown gets about 20 days a year of each wind and rain.

It was mid afternoon as we rolled out of Queenstown – 100,000 tourists doesn’t interest me – where we’re dished up astounding views for 50km as we meander wide-eyed down the south eastern side of Lake Wakatipu – the blue sky is reflected onto a large blue lake bordered by the dramatic mountains which burst out of the earth. And while the well-maintained road begins to lure you into to some faster fun as it furls around the base of the mountains, wide-eyed meandering is the best way to enjoy it due to the amount of campervans driven by tourists looking at everything else other than where they’re going.   

The mountains slowly begin to retreat to reveal lush, green farming land and about an hour south of Queenstown we come to the small but busy township of Lumsden. Once a major railway junction with tracks jutting off in all four directions, the disused platforms these days form a well-attended facility for travellers, offering outdoor cooking facilities, toilet and shower amenities, covered outdoor tables and, as a consequence, a passing-through community of like-minded people.

We opted for the pub across the road, where the facilities for the NZ$85 (AUD$80) a night asking price are some of the best I’ve experienced. While some rooms have an ensuite, the shared bathrooms are clean and modern, the food downstairs is decent and there’s a safe spot out the back to park your bike.

If you’re in a hurry, from Lumsden you’re less than an hour from Invercargill, but it’s a straight, flat and boring hour and we had an extra day and a half up our sleeves to drink in the scenery. We backtracked from Lumsden a few kays to pick up the Southern Scenic Route, which heads due west to the area’s spectacular Fiordland National Park. Flanked by the Takitimu Mountain range on our left and the Eyre Mountains on our right, I’m shaking my head once again at the sheer beauty of this place. The road itself is relatively uninspiring but I’m grateful that it affords me the opportunity to take in the remarkable scenery around me.

A bit over 120 kilometres later we found ourselves in the bustling town of Te Anau. From here you can turn right and follow the squalor of tourists 100km north to Milford Sound or you can hang a left, and head south like we did, towards Manapouri, on the South Island’s western most road to skirt the eastern edge of Fiordland.

As far as beautiful scenery goes , we’re pretty lucky in ‘Aussie’ – as the Kiwis refer to Australia; Tasmania, New South Wales’ south coast and Victoria’s Gippsland region to name a few. But nothing will prepare you for the mountains and valleys and lakes of the 1.2 million hectares of this World Heritage listed national park. It’s a good thing we only had 120 or so kays to cover, ’cos it took us all day, and that was just stopping for photos. No walks, cycles, helicopter flights, jet boat rides, sea plane tours or any other of the endless array of experiences offered to tourists in this corner of the world. No, we had a motorcycle event to get to offering its own endless array of bike racing.

With or without the Burt Munro Challenge, Invercargill has a high concentration of all things motorised; there’s Motorcycle Mecca and Transport World (see sidebars) which are far more impressive than you might first imagine, there’s E Hayes hardware store which houses the Motorworks collection including Burt Munro’s actual Indian Scout. There’s even Dig This, which lets you muck around in earthmoving machinery, crushing cars and carrying on as you play out your childhood sand pit imaginings.

And once that’s done, the 250-odd kays linking Invercargill and Dunedin on the Southern Scenic Route has got to be in the top 10 best motorcycle rides in either Australia or New Zealand – and if you want, it can take you days. While the greater public opt for the faster and straighter Taieri Plains Highway, the Southern Scenic roller coasters its way along the wild, stunning and vastly unpopulated coastline.

You climb out of Progress Valley and stride across pristine New Zealand wilderness, the roads bordered by beautiful native Toi Toi grasses and flax before you drop into the Catlins – my highlight of the entire road.

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It’s where lush, green farming land meets a spectacular and untouched coastline. It’s an area dotted with huge waterfalls, caves with 30-metre high ceilings, a blowhole, a bay frequented by dolphins and a rare species of penguin, an impressive lighthouse at Waipapa Point and
even a Jurassic fossil forest — one of just three
in the world.

That’s if you’re prepared to leave the road and get off your bike, of course. By far the most engaging section of the Southern Scenic, the surface is course and grippy and the route fast and flowing. With the sound of motorcycle racing still ringing in my ears from the Burt Munro Challenge, I’m lost in a heady mix of bikes, beauty and the flowing momentum of blacktop.

We emerge out of the trees into an open cliff section and we’re slapped in the face by an ocean view that brings you back to your glorious reality and, just when you think it can’t get any more beautiful, you round a corner, crest a small hill and Florence Hill Lookout takes your breath away.

It signals your arrival at the village of Papatowai where a big, green 1951 Leyland bus plays hosts to a bizarre and brilliant gallery called The Lost Gypsy. You’ll want to pull over – either to let what you just rode and saw actually sink in, or to turn around and do it in the other direction, but either way, be sure to stick your head into the big green bus. On display are fully interactive inventions created by Blair Somerville, a self-proclaimed ‘organic mechanic’ who takes everyday objects and turns them into working, moving and oh-so clever artworks that leave you shaking your head at both the complex intricacy and mechanical simplicity of his innovations.

One of the competitors at the Burt Munro Challenge had said to me that it was the South Island’s remoteness that has forced the locals to become resourceful and innovative over the years, especially in the pre-internet era, and you can’t help but completely understand the notion standing in that bus.

It’s also the reason the people are so friendly, honest and keen to stop for a yarn. Or why there’s a distinct lack of agro on the roads, why people are patient and common sense is customary. After peeling off from my travelling buddies and making my dash back to Queenstown I spotted another amazing view and had to pull over – no, it doesn’t get old in this part of the world.

By the time I’d whipped off a glove, pulled my small camera out of my pocket and snapped a couple of photos, three riders had stopped or slowed to make sure I was okay. And I know they were locals, because only someone who is used to a view as stunning as that would think there may actually be another reason to stop.

New Zealand’s Southland is a special place, made all the more extraordinary by the inclusion of a motorcycle and two ends of the Southern Scenic Route. Throw in the raucous riot of the Burt Munro Challenge, the gobsmack-gorgeous mountains of Queenstown and the breathtaking roads and views of the Catlins and there’s very little reason not to get yourself to New Zealand’s South Island.