South: to Paradise
Expectations are sky high. The riding on New Zealand’s North Island has been superb… but rumour has it that the South Island is on another level. To say I’m looking forward to it is an understatement. I’ve been staying in a more expensive hotel in Wellington than I’d normally book, because it has secure parking and is a few hundred meters from the Blue Bridge ferry terminal, where I need to check in by 7am for the first crossing of the morning.
When I arrive, there are only two other bikes waiting for the boat: a local Aprilia Shiver, and I have a good chat with the rider; and a much-stickered, lightly crashed and repaired Honda step-through with loads of luggage and a Vietnam licence plate. When we get on the boat, I talk with the diminutive rider: Khao, who makes me look like a dilettante at this world-travel business.
He’s been on the road for two years and three months, so far, through Europe, Asia and the Americas… but still has to finish NZ, Australia and all of Africa before getting home. The best place, he says, was South America (and my heart sinks when I hear that, having sacked that leg of my trip to save time and money). The off-roading there was great, though the little Honda struggled at altitude, he says, and he was only robbed twice – once at gun-point. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about coming straight to the Antipodes.
The crossing of the Cook Straight is mercifully millpond-smooth, as I was very sceptical about strapping the bike down front and rear, rather than with a single ratchet-strap over the seat, as we’d do it in Europe. Still, I roll the Honda Crossrunner – rented from New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals & Tours – off the steep metal ramp in Picton and head out, following my nose. There’s rain forecast, hitting the west coast before the east so I head towards Blenheim. When I get there, I stop for a bite to eat and fire up the mobile internet to book a hotel in Christchurch now I’ve opted for this coast. But as I still have half a tank of fuel, I don’t bother filling up.
This turns out to be a mistake. I’m heading towards Kaikoura, as reader Geoff Davis recommended it (as well as lots of other fantastic-sounding routes – thanks Geoff!). And it is a glorious road, swooping and sweeping along beside the sea. But with no fuel stations. Once I hit the roadworks, I’m turning the engine off. The fuel light comes on about 20km outside Kaikoura… and I am massively relieved to coast in and fill up, having extracted 385km from the Honda 800's 20.8L tank. I also put my waterproofs on – which is a good move, as the heavens open about half an hour later.
Next morning, I head inland. Initially, it’s truly torrential and a wintery 14°C. I thank god, Honda and whoever spec’d the Crossrunner for the heated grips. I flick them on and they stay on for the rest of the trip... The riding isn’t the kind of eye-widening glory I’d been hoping for anyway: flat as the Fens and moderately busy. It's the kind of riding and weather that normally I’d hurry up to get past… but I’m still too nervous about the threat of lurking speed-camera-happy Kiwi coppers to do more than 3-4kph over the 100kph limit.
Picking up Highway 79 at Geraldine, the riding improves, with swooping turns through gentle hills. The rain packs in by the time I join Highway 8… but it’s bitterly cold and still quite overcast as I get to Tekapo – a stop recommended by Dave, when giving me the keys to the bike back in Auckland.
It’s a great tip – I just wish it was sunny. Not only because it’d be warmer, but also because clearly this is a majestic landscape and the low cloud isn’t doing it justice. Rolling hills backed by snow-capped mountains, the icy-blue waters of the lake… it should be stunning. Still, the riding is excellent – all long straights and sweeping turns, like the leg of the North Coast 500 that heads inland from Ullapool to Ledmore Junction… but much bigger. It’s like Scotland, built on the scale of the American West.
I stop for coffee in Wanaka and the sun comes out, finally – though it’s too late in the day to really add much heat. I’m taking another road recommended by my friend and former BiKE colleague Ben, heading to Cardrona and across the Crown Range. It’s a popular road for motorcycle launches down here, which tells me pretty much everything I need to know about it…
I like Cardrona when I get there. The first thing I see is a sign for the distillery and a fence draped with hundreds of bras. It’s a controversial attraction – it’s been removed several times in the past 20 years – but now seems to be established and popular, raising awareness of breast cancer. While I’m there taking a picture of one end of the fence, a lady gets out of a car and hangs a bra at the other end of it.
Just past the distillery and the bra fence are a clutch of historic buildings, including the Cardrona Hotel, which Ben told me is one of the oldest in New Zealand. It’s busy with other tourists, so I stop for a quick pic but then carry on… after all, I’m here for the riding rather than just the sightseeing.
And the riding is truly exceptional. The road twists along the bottom of a valley, criss-crossing the Cardrona River as it climbs. Corners get tighter, inclines get steeper and at the summit the views open out – as big as anything in the Alps. There’s a huge drop down to a broad glacial valley and, hugging the slopes, the road cascades downwards in rush of tight turns and short straights. It’s a frankly wonderful ride, flattening out over a short plateau, before a final run of hairpins down to the valley floor and my overnight stop in Queenstown.
Next morning, the sun is out. Hooray! I head south initially, even though I know I’m just going to turn around in about 30 miles. But I want to experience this next ride in full, as it’s said to be one of the best – not just in New Zealand, but in the world. I stop for a flat white in Kingston at the foot of Lake Wakatipu, sipping slightly apprehensively. Can today’s route possibly live up to the hype? I hope so, because this is the road to Paradise.
It really is a great ride. I find myself making comparisons to Scotland again: the open sections remind me of the run along the shore of Loch Assynt, all open and sweeping; then the road tightens at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase, hugging the cliffs in a series of brilliant, tighter turns that are exactly what the A82 around Loch Lomond should be but never is… before more sweeping riding back to Queenstown. Only my speed-ticket paranoia keeps speeds sensible – because this could be an extraordinarily fast road if you felt reckless.
Cutting across busy Queenstown, I’m worried that the next stretch of road will be busy with tourist traffic (ha!) but actually it’s still fairly quiet – at least as quiet as the NC500, anyway. But as the road runs westward towards Glenorchy, the Scottish comparison I keep making is to my favourite road: the road to the Isles. This is like the best bits of the A87 to Skye, but magnified. There’s even less traffic, there are even more corners and the views are on a truly heroic scale. It’s fabulous – 30 miles of motorcycling heaven.
But Glenorchy isn’t the end of the road. Not quite. I head on, towards Paradise. And that’s when things get a bit trickier… because no matter what the road to hell is paved with, it turns out that the road to Paradise is unpaved. After crashing on gravel and putting myself into intensive care in South Africa in March, I’ve promised my girlfriend Ali that I won’t do any unpaved roads on this trip – and frankly I’ve lost my bottle a bit (especially on a rental bike with a big deposit and road tyres). But if I want to get to Paradise, I’m going to have to conquer my demons. And it’s only 6km…
Actually, it’s pretty simple. In places there’s almost no gravel, though it seems to be thickest on the turns. It’s neither scary nor sketchy – though I’m keeping it extremely steady. Crossing one scenic bridge there’s a daunting sign, but I’m so close to the end that I just press on carefully. And when I get to Paradise… actually, there’s pretty much nothing there. One sign, some open space, some woods, some trees. It’s scenic enough, but it’s not the prettiest place I’ve been today. Still, I can say I’ve been here.
I turn round and steadily make my way back to Glenorchy, heading down to the beautiful jetty and soaking up the atmosphere. This really is heaven – and I'd say it’s as close to Paradise as anyone needs to get.