Thursday, 11 March 2010

Looking Back

We’ve been back for a month now and it’s time to look back on our time Down Under.

It is a long journey to get to either Australia or New Zealand so we decided to stay awhile--we were gone for almost nine weeks and the time passed very quickly. There is a lot to see Down Under and we saw a lot, but there is much more to do and see for us, especially in Australia.

We barely scratched the surface of the island continent, but we did ride motorcycles there and visit the island state of Tasmania. We have friends that live there and it was a definite plus being able to visit with them. Pieter and Brian Vanden Hogen grew up down the street from us in De Pere, WI, and both are living in greater Sydney. Brian (Lord Brian) was very kind to let us use his apartment while we were in and out of Sydney for a three + week period. He also arranged for us to view the New Year’s Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbour from his place of employment, the Taronga Zoo. We got to meet his new lady friend, Jane, (Lady Jane) and had several enjoyable meals together. Piet and his new Aussie bride, Kim, met us for a farewell dinner with LB and LJ--what a great evening. Jerry and Mo (Brian’s and Piet’s folks) squired us to and from the Green Bay airport; sort of feel as though we are part of their family now!

New Zealand, the main reason for this trip, did not disappoint. In fact, as time passes we seem to be appreciating the place more and more everyday. When you are someplace doing things that are fun and interesting you begin to take them for granted. When we think about the things we saw and did, the roads we rode, the meals we ate, and the people we met, it all is packaged up into nice, warm, fuzzy memories. The Robertsons, Barnetts, Pilgrims, and Rebe Nolan were all kind enough to invite us into their homes demonstrating first hand the friendly folk that live in the land of the Long White Cloud and the Green Stone.

Our love of traveling on two wheels is what took us to New Zealand. The roads and scenery are second to none in our 700,000 miles of riding BMW motorcycles. Combined with the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, it makes for an near perfect biking experience. We were blessed with good weather and the bit of precipitation we did get did not seriously impact our travels.

Traveling Down Under is highly recommended; it is a very easy place to negotiate on a self-guided tour. Do it, the long plane ride is worth it.

Where to next? We’ve purchased two new BMW G650GS bikes for our next adventure. We are planning a trip south with Jean and Ross Copas (riding companions in India); south of the border to the tip of South America. We will cross the border into Mexico in October and hope to be in Ushuaia, Argentina, by Christmas. A cruise to Antarctica will follow with a ride up the east side of South America into Brazil. Not sure where that will lead…’ll have to follow the blog to find out.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Return Up Over

Thursday, February 11, 2010, lasted for two days; maybe that makes up for December 16, 2009, that we lost on our way Down Under.

We arrived at the airport in Nadi several hours before our 2250 departure for Los Angeles. The heat and humidity kept us inside the air conditioned terminal and we spent most of the time at the snack bar where we had some food that was called “pizza.”

After checking in and clearing security, we settled into the departure lounge happily discovering that we could get on line with our iPhones via a free wireless system. We soon noticed many white-shirted security people arriving in our vicinity and soon security barricades were being stretched around the lounge. We had noticed a large white “room” in the lounge that had not been there when we passed through in December. On one side of the room were two curtained doorways labeled “Male” and “Female.” We were all herded into two lines and, when called, went through the proper doorway. Inside all of our hand luggage was pawed through, and, courtesy of the “underwear bomber” last Christmas, were given the mother of all pat downs!

The 747 was not full so no chance of sitting up stairs and getting the pseudo-business class treatment this time. RA and I usually get aisle seats across from each other and I had the center section. Only two of the four seats were occupied which made for a more comfortable journey. Nine hours and thirty minutes after take-off we were back on American soil; it always feels good to hear the immigration officer say: “Welcome home.”

A short time after checking into the hotel, a friend, Paul Snyder, picked us up to give us a little tour of some of his favorite riding roads north of LA. We first met Paul four years ago in the mountains of Idaho north of Boise. I had hit a rock in the road which split the sidewall of the front tire and dented the rim. Paul, being the good Samaritan he is, stopped to help and then got RuthAnn settled in at a pull-off while I took her bike to ride back to find a phone to call for a tow. We again saw Paul at the BMWMOA rally in Vermont a few weeks later and have kept in touch by e-mail since then. We drove up Topanga Canyon and Mulholland Drive to the Rock Store, a popular motorcycle hang out. After several more twisty roads that did remind us of NZ we headed back to LA and had a nice dinner at one of Paul’s favorite restaurants. Thanks for the tour, Paul.

Everything went smoothly the next day and we were home in Green Bay right on time. Jerry Vanden Hogen was a welcome face at the luggage carousel and took us to his home where Mo had a nice welcome home dinner of delicious soups for us. We had a great time talking about Australia and reporting back on their two sons who live there! We even called Brian (LB) and had a nice chat with him despite the bad connection.

We finally got to our house a little after 2200 and were met by our two tuxedo cats who pretended that they had not missed us at all. They were both on the bed waiting for us to crawl under the comforter and turn off the lights. All was well; the dog would make his appearance in the morning and our little family would be complete once again.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


We got to the airport in Christchurch on Super Bowl Sunday via the van/trailer shuttle similar to the one we had used in Auckland on our arrival in New Zealand. I was worried that my big wheeled duffel was too heavy so weighed it on the digital scale at the Air New Zealand check-in area. There is a 20 kg limit on checked luggage; if you are over that weight, you must pay the excess baggage fees. My bag weighed 24 kg! We put as much heavy stuff into RA’s bag as we could and re-weighed my bag: exactly 20 kg! Our carry on bags both exceeded the nominal 7 kg limit, but no one ever checked them, so all went well when we finally made it to the front of the line.

The four hour flight to Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji, was uneventful. The only odd thing took place after we had cleared immigration and collected our bags; we had to go through security screening again, and all of our hand luggage was x-rayed. Our only guess is that they were looking for fruit and other foodstuffs that are not allowed into the island nation.

We signed the papers for our Suzuki Swift and were soon on our way down the Queen’s Road along Viti Levu’s Coral Coast to Crusoe’s Retreat. Fiji is a third world country and the roads and condition of the rental car suspension reflected it. After two hours of driving, we found the road to the resort--four kilometers of rising, falling, and narrowing gravel road. By the time we reached the hotel, it was dark, the road was not much wider than the car, and some of the last few hills were extremely steep.

The folks at Crusoe’s were expecting us, took us immediately to dinner, and then checked us in.

Our lodging for the next four nights was a bure; a tourist version of the native hut. Sort of an A-frame cabin with a high ceiling. We went for the bures on the hill which had the best view of the lagoon, coral reef and South Pacific Ocean beyond. These were the cheap “seats” with a steep set of steps to get to the top of the hill and no air-conditioning in our bure. The high, peaked ceiling collected most of the hot, humid air and the ceiling fan and breeze through the open windows kept us comfortable.

Our plan for this four night stay was to do nothing but eat, sleep, and relax. We had purchased the full meal plan so had three hot meals a day plus afternoon tea; we climbed those steep steps several times a day! Happy hour and dinner were announced with drumming on a large hollowed out log; seemed appropriate as there were no newspapers, televisions, or radios to distract us……..and the wireless internet died by noon of our first day! We finally got the Super Bowl score on Thursday at the airport in Nadi before our flight to Los Angeles.

We rented the car in case we felt like doing a little touring on the island, but it never moved after our arrival. By Tuesday we were in full tropical mode achieving our goal of doing “nothing.”

The resort clientele resembled a mini-United Nations and we met and talked with many interesting people. There were various evening “activities” after dinner and the one that garnered the most participation was on our last night; hermit crab and frog races! A little gambling was involved with our crab placing third and our frog finishing out of the money. Part of the entertainment was the singing of the national anthems by the people from each country. RA and I were the only Americans and I’m glad that none of you could hear our rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.

We did manage a little sightseeing when we drove back to Nadi for our flight to the USA. We stopped to see the colorfully painted Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Hindu temple (Indo-Fijians make up approximately 40% of Fiji’s population). The Garden of the Sleeping Giant was our next stop before arriving at the airport. The garden was established by the American actor Raymond Burr and showcases over 1500 species of orchids. The jungle boardwalk in the garden was a pleasant way to say good-bye to this tropical island.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Chillin' in Christchurch

On Wednesday afternoon (Feb 3) we wandered down to Cathedral Square and into the cathedral. We arrived just in time for the Evensong (Evening Prayer) service which was completely sung by the choir (20 boys and 12 men) except for two short lessons from the Old and New Testaments. It was a nice experience and an escape from all the hubbub out in the square.

The square, in the center of downtown Christchurch, is the home to a giant outdoor chess set (well used), food vendors (Fritz’s Wieners got my money), small market stands, and the venue for street musicians and religious-philosophical entreaties. Our favorite personality was The Wizard dressed in his black robe and pointed hat standing on his ladder espousing his philosophy of life. He arrives in the square in his red push-me-pull-you VW Beetle (two front ends joined together).

The trusty BMW bikes went back to their home at Te Waipounamu on Thursday morning. Aside from the two flat tires, they performed flawlessly taking us a little over 3000 miles while giving us 60-65 mpg. We might be using this model for our trip to South America later this year. John Rains, the owner of the tour company, gave us a ride back to the hotel and mentioned the John Britten Motorcycle Company and the small bike exhibit they had near Cathedral Square. This set us off on another motorcycle history quest.

John Britten was a multi-talented Kiwi (mechanical engineer, artist, architectural designer, business man) whose first love was motorcycles. In the early 1990s, he built the V1000 racing motorcycle that won many races around the world in the 90s. We found the small sign on the street for the BMC, went through a small courtyard, up a set of stairs and through a small office to the one room display of John’s motorcycle building genius. Two of his earlier bikes along with two examples of the V1000 (#s 1 and 9) were on display; the walls were covered with posters, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia celebrating the success of the V1000. We had a very nice discussion with the lady there who knew in detail what John had accomplished. I saw the V1000 race at Daytona in 1994 and remember the big crowds gathered around admiring the bike when it was in the pits. John Britten died of skin cancer in 1995 at the too young age of 45.

On Friday morning, we packed and sorted in preparation for our flight to Fiji on Sunday. Then we walked to the square and climbed the 134 steps in the cathedral steeple to get a bird’s eye view of downtown Christchurch; RA went on her woolen goods buying spree. That evening we had dinner with Rebe Nolan (Angela Pilgrim’s grandmother). Rebe is a delightful octogenarian with whom we had a womderful evening full of conversation and laughter.

Saturday, the 5th, was our last full day in New Zealand and we started it off with an al fresco breakfast just feet from the tram tracks. While we were eating, RA saw a lady with a Corgi and was away to see the dog and talk to its owner. She was soon back to finish eating and then we walked to the shop where the Corgi resided. Lucky’s owners, the Hazeldines, were very gracious and RuthAnn got her Corgi fix.

We spent the rest of the day walking along the Avon River, touring the botanic garden and then the market at the Art Center. It was a very pleasant day in Christchurch and a low key ending to our time in Kiwiland.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Bagging Passes

Dunedin was the launching pad for some longer days on the road as we planned to cross the South Island twice in the next few days. We spent the night of the 30th in Twizel (pronounced with a long “i”, not like twizzle) at a self-contained cabin in a holiday park. I asked at reception if Mount Cook (Aoraki) was visible and was invited in to look at a web cam image of the mountain clear of cloud with the early evening sunlight reflecting off the snow covered slopes. So, despite being tired from a long day on the road, we rode the 60+ km to the
Mt. Cook village to get a closer look. The mountains were in view for most of the ride and finally gave us our first good view of NZ’s tallest peaks. Definitely worth the ride!

On the last day of January we crossed Arthur’s Pass (NZ’s highest at 924m) and rode through the incredibly deep and rugged Otira Gorge. A new and impressive viaduct eased the passage through the gorge on our way to Greymouth.

February 1st we headed back across the mountains (from the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean) via the Lewis Pass to Kaikoura with a short detour for lunch at Hanmer Springs. As were about to depart Hanmer Springs, we heard a familiar voice. It was Jan, an 80-year-old BMW riding Dutchman, whom we had met on the ferry to the South Island two weeks earlier. He immigrated to NZ when he was 22 years old and spent many years working in the paper industry so we had much to talk about.

From Kaikoura we headed south of Christchurch to the Banks Peninsula and Akaroa, a small town that touts its French heritage with “essence” available at the petrol station and the police station labeled “gendarmerie.” The Banks Peninsula was created by two huge volcanic eruptions and the drive around the edge of the crater on Summit Drive was literally breathtaking (not only due to the immense beauty, but also because of the narrowness of the road, steep drop-offs, and intermittent strong winds and fog). We “ate in” that evening after buying a baguette at the supermarket and supplementing it with cheese, salami (pepperoni) and red wine.

Christchurch is the main departure point for Antarctic expeditions, so a visit to the International Antarctic Center was in order. After a quick ride in a Swedish built Hagglund all-terrain vehicle (it swims as well as goes up and down ridiculously steep inclines) we entered the display area. I donned a parka to weather the Antarctic Storm (child’s play as it only got down to a wind chill of -1! Go green Bay--we get colder than that on a calm day!!) We watched the tiny blue penguins from above and below the water during their feeding time. Cute little buggers--most of them have been rescued so several challenged but contented birds were on display.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Burt and the Albatross

Invercargill lies near the southern tip of the South Island and was the home of Burt Munro. The story of Burt and his early 1920s Indian Scout racing bike was brought to the public in the 2005 movie, The World’s Fastest Indian starring Anthony Hopkins. Burt was bit of a speed freak, mechanical genius, and eccentric all rolled into one. His dream was to race his bike on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the movie details his exploits in gaining his dream. The E. Hays and Sons Hardware store in Invercargill has some of Burt’s bikes on display along with several other old motos. It is sort of fun to admire the machines scattered amonst the paint, chain saws and other things you find in a big hardware store; it was a memorable visit.

Highway 1 ends just south of Invercargill in Bluff, and the AA has installed a sign post indicating the mileages to several distant parts of the world. The Drunken Sailor Restaurant sits on the bluff overlooking the cape and was a good place to chow down before the long ride to Dunedin.

We took the coastal road through the Catlins for the next 250 km. For the first time on our trip, the horizon was not punctuated by a mountain or two, but that did not last long and soon we were winding and twisting our way through more curvy roads.

The next morning (Jan 28) we rode out along the edge of the Otago Peninsula to the Royal Albatross Center to see these huge and graceful birds. They stand over three feet tall and have a nine foot wingspan; they are experts at energy conservation and swoop and soar with very little wing flapping involved. As a pilot, I admired the aerodynamics they so naturally exhibited. Our tour also included visiting the Armstrong Disappearing Gun at Fort Taiaroa which was built in the late 1860’s when the Kiwis thought they might be invaded by the Russians (never happened).

Friday, 29 January 2010


Sunday, the 24th, dawned overcast and rainy. After our croissant, flat white, and free internet fix at Patagonia Chocolate, we rode out on dry roads to Kawarau Bridge to see where commercial bungy jumping began (and continues today). After watching several jumpers and seeing how bungies are made in the flash visitors’ center, we started south along Lake Wakatipu on our way to Manapouri. About 25 km out of Queenstown my bike (now named Zeke after the rego 83ZEK) started to handle strangely; a flat rear tire brought us to an unexpected stop. It wasn’t a very good place to stop with a rock face on our side of the road with virtually no shoulder and the other side having a steep drop-off to the lake below. Luckily, there was cell phone service and eventually we were able to contact the Automobile Association (AA) and a flat bed truck was dispatched. The AA has agreements with the American Automobile Association and no money changed hands. While waiting for help, a NZ Highway Patrol car stopped to see what was happening--the officer was a Brit named Jim and his badge number……N007! Nice guy who told stories about riding bikes in England and had a good time “gassing” with us while on his Sunday afternoon shift. The AA truck arrived about three hours after the flat occurred. An hour later the bike was in the shop at Queenstown Motorcycles Limited (not normally open on Sunday, but the owner, Duncan Smith, was there working on a project in the new building). RA rode her bike back to the hotel and Duncan gave me and my bike luggage a ride in his car promising to have his guys fix the flat first thing in the morning.

At 0800 on Monday, RuthAnn and I rode two-up to the bike shop; RA stayed there with her luggage and I went back to the hotel get my top box and panniers. The bike was ready when I got back. Finally we were on our way to Milford Sound and our overnight stay on the Milford Mariner.

The ride into Milford from Te Anau got better as we rode north with the valley narrowing and mountains getting more rugged and high. The virtually unlit Homer Tunnel (10% grade/1.2 km) added to the riding experience. The long white cloud was gone and we were able to see all of the rugged peaks towering above us. The sound is really a fjord since it was formed by glaciers; whatever you call it, it is impressive.

At one point we anchored and were given the choice of a short tour in one of the tenders, or a chance to go kayaking or swimming. We opted for the tender ride to explore more of the shoreline and get commentary from our guide. The meals and cabin were very nice; we slept well on the water. The next morning we motored out to the Tasman Sea and on the way back saw fur seals and blue nose dolphins swimming along the side of the sound.

We spent most of Tuesday morning riding the 120 km back to Te Anau and ate lunch at The Fat Duck; fresh blue cod seems to be the catch of the day and it is delicious.

On Wednesday we did a day trip to Doubtful Sound (10 times the area of Milford). To get there was a bit more complicated than just driving to the wharf; an hour boat ride across Lake Manapouri, a 22 km bus ride over the Wilmot Pass (gradient of 1:6 going up and 1:5 down the other side) to the wharf at Deep Cove on the sound. Part of the tour was a visit to the underground (inside a mountain) Manapouri Hydro Power Station which included driving down a two kilometer spiral tunnel to see the station’s power hall. Very impressive!!

So from a deflated tire to the elation of visiting both sounds in near perfect weather, we are nearing the end of an exciting time in NZ. There is a lot to see as we proceed around the bottom and up the east side of the South Island.