How long is a piece of string?
When I speak to most people about a bike tour of the South Island, they recommend 10 to 14 days if not more. I had 7 days of leave available and a small window of opportunity before the weather turned which I am told is in late April. To miss this window would be to delay the trip to later in the year or, a more likely scenario, next year. Riding in the South Island during the snow season can be very dangerous for bikes and the snow can come until as late as October/November. So with my biker comrade, we decided to make hay while the sun shines and ride as far South as we could in 7 days including the return trip.
I ride a 2007 Suzuki Hayabusa GSXR1300 and my comrade in handlebars rides a 2007 Suzuki Boulevard M109R 1800cc. The Busa is [very very] quick on the straights and enjoyable in the corners although with a long wheel base and cautious rider you'd more enjoy other rides for quicker corners if that's are your thing. It is a comfortable "tourer" and could have the bars raised slightly if one was planning to primarily tour on it. It can be tiring under 110kmh but begins to simply purr anywhere from 120kmh and the faster it goes the safer it feels. The M109R is surprisingly light for its sheer presence but as my comrade stands over 6 feet tall and hardly complained of a sore butt, it must be pretty comfy to ride. It has great straight line grunt and, although I once followed one who handled twisties like a pro, it doesn't lend itself to sharp corners, especially with the fatter back tyre that wants to straighten up on itself. But with even with the thinner back tyre on now, its rider is equally as cautious as I am, so neither of us is over zealous in corners.
We chatted to many fellow biker tourers mostly on adventure bikes who were having a great time. Some were campers and others took motel rooms but all were real adventurers.
Rooms and accommodation...
Of course camping would be the cheapest option but several factors weighed against this for us. Firstly, we are not regular campers so the idea of pitching a tent at dusk was not appealing, added to which were likely days of adverse weather. A biker friend told me about a wonderful "pop-up" tent he used but hadn't yet provided any details. Secondly, the additional weight and space of tents may be a minor consideration given the new light weight technology but was still a negative. So we looked for rooms. The mate who did Harley tours said that, unlike a larger party, as 2 bikers we'd be able to just call ahead to the next stop the day before and book a place. NZ has a quaint and workable "Top 10" accommodation system which means that any lodgings included on the list meets basic standards of cleanliness. The idea of a room to throw the bags and dirty socks down on was, at our age, just too appealing and we opted for that. We decided to pre-book as we are both accountants and just couldn't cope with the uncertainty of not having booked. We found great deals on Bookings.com and Expedia . As it turned out I got one stop wrong and booked for the following night in error but the receptionist was very helpful and sourced us another room nearby at a similar rate which was well below the website advertised rate.
Some places had shared ablutions but even these were very clean with warm water. Others had their own en-suite shower/toilets with Sky TV.
Our rooms ranged from NZD $85-$110 which, when shared between 2 is a fair deal. All rooms were 2 singles or double/single.
Despite this, if you love camping or cost is a major consideration, then by all means go the with the camping option. We met a rider from the UK in his late 60s who had travelled the world and loved camping. By international standards, NZ must offer one of the safest camping environments anywhere on offer and even given the high NZ dollar parity it would be a cheap option by any standards. One other option, given the great Backpacker culture that exists in NZ, is to consider these as they are in all the major tourist areas and offer rough comfort without having to pitch tents.
Fly & Rent or Ride our own bikes?
With only 7 days to ride, the rides from Auckland to Wellington and back needed to be factored in as they are long distances in comparison to many of the South Island legs. Included in this decision is the 3½ hour ferry trip which runs at scheduled times and usually runs late, as we discovered. The obvious choice if these 2 days are critical deal breakers, is to fly down to the South Island and rent bikes. We love our rides and, since we haven't yet ridden South of Gisborne/Napier region, we decided to enjoy this North Island leg as part and parcel of the adventure.
Perhaps instinctively, or maybe just from what others have shared, we decided to ride from Picton to Nelson and down the West Coast then back up through the East Coast. This turned out to be a great route but I could now easily do it the other way if it worked better for planning. There seems to be no obvious reason to prefer one direction over another.
What we wanted out of the trip...
Obviously we wanted this to be a memorable trip in its own right as 2 white collar biker dudes with plenty of daily routine now riding off into the sunset to the theme tune of Wild Hogs, but it was also a bit of recce for when our wives, who ride their own bikes, can ride with us. The M109R rider wanted a casual ride with gentle twists and long straights. He wanted to stop and take photographs so ideally wanted to ride about 3½ - 4 hours a day in the saddle which, with photo, coffee and food stops would be about 5-6 hours travel. The Busa rider wanted long straights, twisties to lean and open up in, and was happy to be riding 4-5 hours a day as he only takes pics on his phone and just needs time to post his progress on social media.
Going the distance..
So the next decision we had to make was where to go and how long to ride daily. Apart from the Auckland/Wellington legs which we decided we'd ride like 2 banditos on the run, once on the South Island, we had decisions to make around what a comfortable day's ride would be as this would dictate how far we could travel overall. The M109R rider had "researched" that a comfortable day's ride would be 350-400km which would be about 4-4½ hours in the saddle adding say 2 hours for stops and sight seeing at some "must see" places.
I was initially more ambitious but then I decided to think through some of my proposed distances to some North Island equivalent rides I've ridden and realised that every day at these ambitious distances would leave us quite tired and unable to take in the stunning scenery we'd heard so much about. So we agreed to reasonable distances each day with one or two days longer riding.
What to see, what to miss..?
Two of my biker acquaintances who know the South Island well were both unfortunately on their own SI trips - one at the Queenstown HOG rally and the other on his annual ride with his wife for 3 weeks, each on their own Harleys. He used to do Harley tours so would've been a wealth of local knowledge. Our initial thoughts were to go as far south as the glaciers and then head back and up and criss cross the inland passes to the other east coast, but after checking out biker forums we decided that it made sense to do the Haast Pass down to Wanaka and then back up to Christchurch. Although close to Queenstown it was never on our agenda for this trip as that is most certainly worth its own few days of exploration itinerary.
Weather forecasts showed several cold fronts moving across the entire South Island from South West heading Northwards so it was unlikely to expect to avoid these unless we stayed somewhere as it passed which was not the plan. Our hope was that if we encountered these, we'd be riding through them heading South. Mostly this is what happened and the weather was kind to us, considering this. The worst weather was probably our first day on the North Island and then later I made an individual dash for Aurthur's pass and hit rain, fog and mist on the way up. Apart from that we really just rode through a few patches of light rain from time to time.
I was warned by a local biker when heading out to the Kaikoura Coast to Blenheim that there can be extreme winds and I could see what he meant when we hit gusts that you fight from one direction and that then suddenly turn and gust in the opposite direction causing dangerous veering; and this was on a "not windy" day according to him!
Road and traffic conditions...
The road surface was, for the most part, excellent, although the actual surfaces vary which is great as some seem to be designed for grip even in the rain. Certainly they seem better overall than the North Island which I'm guessing is due to higher traffic volumes up North. North Island roads are well maintained but you can catch them just pre-repair or during repair, both of which results in non-ideal riding conditions. Another pleasant surprise was roads were frequently banked (cambered) at the correct angle, unlike the North Island which, for some obscure reason, are angled down so that you feel like inertia in every corner is spinning you off the road. A pleasant surprise for us was the combination of long, long, long stretches of straight roads with brilliant meandering corners and the odd sharp bend thrown in to ensure that at the end of every day you felt like you'd had a really complete biking experience. For some reason NZ is seen as a great cycling option but with the high trucking volumes, single lane narrow roads and high tourism volumes I simply have no clue why. We saw several cyclists and I felt quite sorry and afraid for them. Once a truck almost took one out in front of me and the cyclist was left shaking his fist having been forced onto the verge of the road as an "overtaking" truck realised there was an oncoming car and neither would slow down. There has been much press publicity of late about foreign national tourists causing road accidents by driving on the wrong side of the road but we didn't encounter any serious issues in this regard. I was also warned that Campervans are now an issue to bikers as they travel in convoy at close distance which don't allow of overtaking but again, we had no issues in this regard and found plenty of safe places to overtake without putting ourselves or other vehicles at any risk.
I must say, having recently watched Henry Cole on the Travel Channel doing "the world's best motorcycle rides" where he did Australia and New Zealand, I can't believe New Zealand isn't more popular as a biker destination for serious Australian bikers. From the programmme and the way he raved about NZ it seems like it should be a "bucket list" destination. Certainly the for the Australian trip he seemed as if he had to make long roads through desert storms arriving at little tin shacks in no-man's-land look interesting whereas the praise rolled off his tongue for the Kiwi trip and he even referred to it as his new benchmark. Here he says it's one of the top 3 rides he's done!
Our final itinerary...
Our itinerary is here South Island itinerary
Our experiences are here South Island Experiences