New Zealand: Canyons and Water Crossings

New Zealand: Canyons and Water Crossings
I don't like heights and what stood (actually, swung) between us and the other side of the 450-foot-deep canyon was a single-lane wooden suspension bridge that appeared to be doing the Mambo in the high wind. Ah, New Zealand, the land where bungee jumping originated, where some extreme Kiwis and tourists think nothing of jumping off of Auckland's 1,075-foot Sky Tower, the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. But then again, none of them have made that drop astride a 650-pound motorcycle.

We were near Queenstown on the South Island, weighing our options in Skippers Canyon, where daredevils jump from the famous 327-foot Pipeline Bridge. This second bridge, further along the canyon, was just as high. The wind was reportedly gusting at 75 mph that day  -  too high to safely bungee jump  -  but I could see the BMW 1150GS and me making a beautiful freefall into the Shotover River below. The Beemer slipped into first gear and off we went, trying to stay on one of the two-foot-wide wooden tracks laid across the bridge. I kept my eyes on the other bank to avoid the waves of nausea I get when I peer down from high places, especially when there's daylight between the slats below me.

The bridge was moving side to side and up and down, curving so much in the middle that at times you couldn't see the other bank. The only way to get across was to accelerate, so by the time we rolled off the other side, the bike was in third gear and we were cruisin'. The crossing was worth it, though. We had come to see the old Skippers schoolhouse used from about 1875 to 1920 when the canyon was a gold-mining center and a small settlement of miners' families lived high above it. Teachers didn't find this school very desirable because of its location in the middle of nowhere; so several slightly unconventional educators were hired. One teacher loved gardening, so each student had a plot of dirt. Another teacher built a nine-hole golf course (math lessons, anyone?).

A Unique View

Visions of such places are among the memories we have from riding on dirt and gravel roads in New Zealand. Although the islands have been described as the best place in the world to ride motorcycles, few people go to the land way down under to ride off-pavement. Most bikers typically visit what the native Maori people call Aotearoa, the "Land of the Long White Cloud," for the great asphalt.

But Kiwi back-roads motorcycle adventuring should be on dirt and dual-sport bikers' to-do lists. This is sheep-ranching country, after all, with sheep outnumbering people by about 25 to one. How else can ranchers get around vast and remote tracts except by dirt roads? While busloads of visitors enjoy the glaciers, high mountains, coastal rain forests, cute towns and Maori cultural centers, you'll have the backcountry to yourself.

When we headed for New Zealand to ride motorcycles, we chose to rent the 1150GS so we could veer off on an unpaved side road if the spirit moved us, as well as enjoy the pavement. The entire country has only a few miles of multi-lane freeway, on the outskirts of Auckland. The other 99 percent of the road system is extremely well maintained two-lane asphalt. Due to the high cost of gas, you seldom encounter cars, so, as one Austrian rider told us, "you have to assume these roads were built for motorcycles."

Traffic is even scarcer on the gravel roads. At most, we saw perhaps 10 vehicles on 200 miles of Kiwi gravel. Like the rest of the national road system, even the dirt routes are well maintained, with few ruts, potholes or large rocks in the roadway.

As we headed out to find gravel roads, we hooked up with some Germans. Dieter, Thomas and Ulrich get on dirt so rarely in Germany that they become slightly manic when it's under their wheels. They ride fast and close, so to someone a few kilometers behind, they resemble whirling dust devils chasing each other down the trail. Every 10 minutes or so, they would stop, point at each other's dirty clothes and bikes and laugh hysterically. We're not fluent in German, but we got the joke.