The United Nations of Motorcyclists
Call me grumpy, but as the saying goes, the more people I meet, the better I like my dog—or my motorcycle. In other words, when it comes to crowds, my general impulse is to go as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
It was with trepidation that my wife Meredith and I embarked on a 16-day, 2,300-mile tour of the North and South Islands of New Zealand, when we heard that we’d be in the company of 26 other adrenaline-crazed riders from such far-flung places as Estonia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, Canada and Venezuela.
Almost immediately, we were confronted with a half-dozen languages colliding in the atmosphere and competing for supremacy in decibels. It was a regular Tower of Babel, further confused with the addition of the local Kiwi accent, in which “beautiful day today” becomes “beautiful die to die
Granted, we didn’t come here to be among our own people. But still, we had to wonder: What will this United Nations of Motorcyclists be like out on the road?
Overall, New Zealand is a place where the old is deftly mixed with the new—a slightly backward country that seems ironically forward—a little like Ozzie and Harriet packing cell phones. There isn’t a single modern amenity missing in this country of four million—it’s just that such things haven’t been adopted with crazed American compulsiveness.
Compared to the generally placid behavior of New Zealanders, it’s apparent that our group conducted itself as if we were all about to spontaneously combust. We may have been riding extremely rapid vehicles while we were there, but inside our helmets, the world was slowing by degrees – and we were glad for it.
From the outset, we split naturally into two groups according to velocity. The Venezuelans, many of whom had ridden together before, were gone like vapor, front wheels arching skyward. This was a little surprising, because while the nearly vacant roads invited a love of leaning, speed limits in New Zealand are not to be trifled with. The national limit is 100 km/h (62 mph). Should you be clocked at 140 km/h (87 mph), your vehicle is summarily confiscated. You go, as they say, from hero to zero.
Pretty soon, I noticed a strange thing starting to happen. Even though the Venezuelans disappeared every day to tempt vehicle confiscation and internment in foreign jails, at night, around the dinner table, they couldn’t be friendlier. (Lubrication with local sauvignon blanc didn’t hurt.)
Each day, I wondered if our little cultural mash-up would turn mutinous.
But as a group, we were gesticulating, grunting and generally laughing our way across linguistic barriers. Every coffee stop was a boisterous good time. I looked around and a Brazilian in tatty leathers and a borrowed helmet was working on a mechanical problem with two Germans in high-tech ballistic nylon packing Bluetooth communications; they were talking. The Estonians had sent a diplomatic envoy to the Canadian contingent; they were sharing a meal. Even my wife, one of the world’s foremost shy people, seemed to have signed a proclamation with Switzerland. They were having drinks in the hotel bar.
It didn’t hurt that the country is unfailingly beautiful, particularly from the seat of a motorcycle. In such conditions, who has time for antisocial behavior?
Queenstown, the site of our rest day, is fittingly known as the adrenaline capital of New Zealand.
Here, you can go jet boating, bungee jumping, downhill mountain biking, glacier climbing or perform any other manner of head-cracking pursuits. (Bungee-jumping was invented in New Zealand in 1988, and you can now pay to catapult yourself off seemingly any free-standing object in the country, including Auckland’s 1,076-foot Sky Tower, a dizzying leap that takes fully 16 seconds.)
The Venezuelans, in particular, found all this to their liking. They rode 80–90 mph all day, then to relax in the evening, they jumped out of airplanes, rented a helicopter to land atop glaciers or hurled themselves off precipices. I can only imagine that high-velocity pursuits are forms of meditation in that country.
Once settled into our Queenstown hotel, our group, fairly quivering in anticipation, dispersed, wild-eyed, to engage in the traditional mix of New Zealand head-cracking activities. Meredith and I decided that riding a motorcycle at 70 mph all day in the twisties, dodging little grease spots that were formerly possums, was sufficient risk-taking activity. So we opted for a walk in the local botanical gardens. I know. Call us boring.
But by afternoon, I was craving a two-wheel fix, so while Meredith enjoyed the view from our hotel, I opted for a two-hour blast along the lakeshore to Glenorchy. This is surely one of the most beautiful motorcycle roads in the world. Enormous Mount Earnslaw looms in the distance, while off to one side is the iridescent Lake Wakatipu, where the 1912 schooner, the TSS Earnslaw, endlessly plies the water with its load of gawking tourists.
To our unending delight, New Zealand seems to be a country that can’t settle on a single ecosystem. At times we imagined ourselves in California’s Sierra Mountains. Then, just as quickly, we were in a rainforest (including locations for the film Lord of the Rings). Traversing what seems like countries within countries was a little dizzying, but made for some amazing motorcycling. The Maori gods seemed remarkably indecisive in creating this land, but we were thankful for it.
It’s been said that in New Zealand, you can experience all four seasons in a single day, and true to form, our meteorological fortunes seemed to reverse almost hourly.
We headed out of Greymouth with the rain slanting down so hard it felt like it was giving our BMW R1200RT’s pseudo gas tank a shot-peen treatment.
Fortunately, since we ride year-round in Northern California, we were experts in electrics. For much of the trip we kept the bike’s generator working overtime, frying up a human sauté of heated seats, vests and grips. There was the faint smell of burning flesh as we went down the road, but we were happy.
We headed north to see the “Pancake Rocks” of Punakaiki—a remarkable, cliffside geological phenomenon that we enjoyed amid the crashing waves and rain. In the next 12 hours we would traverse this same 25-mile stretch of road three times due to road closures—experimenting with every compass direction like crazed rodents. At one point we approached an intersection to discover that the intended road was now submerged beneath a small lake. A road sign poked up comically in the middle of it all, like a channel marker in a harbor. On the other side, similarly befuddled motorists waved helplessly. A car ferry would have serves us all quite well at that moment.
Thus trapped, and lacking a boat, we did the only logical thing: descend, en masse, on the Taylorsville bar, the only open establishment in a 10-mile radius. It’s attached to a small house, and as we pulled up, two schoolchildren in pajamas pressed themselves against the windows, eyes like saucers at the prospect of 16 motorcycles emptying into their sleepy establishment. In a heartbeat they ran off to get the barkeep, their father.
The Taylorsville bar may have been empty, but no matter. In those moments we carried our own community with us. We were sensibly prohibited from drinking during the day, but it didn’t matter. In an instant the shaky jukebox was loaded up with change and bellowing Steve Earle. Venezuelans were bouncing up and down in dubious rhythm. Germans, Estonians and representatives of nearly every other European nation were sitting on barstools, alternately laughing and sneaking furtive glances out the window at the darkening skies.
As I scanned the whole assemblage, I realized how this disparate collection of countries and cultures was jelling, as everyone did their best imitation of a drunken bar scene, lubricated by Coke and coffee instead of beer. Given the warmth and community that had washed over everything in view, the Taylorsville bar seemed like a pretty good place to be at that time.
The epic day produced another, subtle shift in the chemistry of our multi-national contingent. In the evenings, wine was flowing more freely all the time, as was the conversation. It didn’t hurt that Meredith and I managed to endear ourselves to the gang with our uncanny knack for dumb, self-deprecating things. At one point, Meredith managed to briefly put her helmet on backward. (“Hey, it’s dark in here!”) Later, over a couple of drinks, one couple started extolling the virtues of the aperitif, Limoncello, to which I replied with astounding stupidity, “Hey, my mother used to make lemon Jello!” Those Americans.
With just a few days left, we fanned out to enjoy a local farmstead for a night. The next morning, at the appointed meeting place, our cultural mash-up of nations fairly bubbled over in the parking lot, the whole thing resembling a high school reunion (without the awkwardness). It was there that I realized how our little band had gelled—whatever barriers there may have been—social, linguisitic or otherwise—had now completely dissolved.
Back out on the road, the whole gang was flying in neat formation. No hairball moves. Not a single one considered the turn signal a sign of weakness. No one elected to experiment with the New Zealand criminal justice system. (During the trip, one bike went down on wet railroad tracks, and two others toppled over at a stoplight, but there was no damage beyond pride and plastic.)
In case further proof of our acceptance was needed, Meredith and I even received a small sticker that proclaimed, “Venezuela..my pais.” (Venezuela, my country.) We had, against all odds, become honorary citizens of that small and apparently very rapid nation.
By the time we finally surrendered the bike in Auckland, we carried the fond recollection of a rollicking good trip in what is surely one of the most beautiful countries in the world—in the company of some frenetic and very entertaining international company.
Imagine, a couple of weeks earlier—I was planning to run the other direction. It’s all got me rethinking my anti-social tendencies.
It seems the more people I meet on motorcycles, the better I like them.