In a state of complete mental exhaustion at the airport in Auckland, I refuse to believe what the voice at the other end of the telephone line is saying: "You wanna collect two motorbikes from us? Shipped from Australia, you say?" An ominous, long silence follows. "I'm afraid that there's no such thing here." Putting the phone down, I take a desperate look at the heap of luggage in front of me. There are four aluminum panniers, a heavy backpack, scattered spares including a brand-new exhaust pipe, two helmets and four used knobbies, which Jason, an Australian motocross enthusiast, had given to us as a present.
The North Island
More investigation through calls to Sydney reveals that our shipping agent had "forgotten" to put our precious cargo on the ship. As things stand at the end of day, we will be stranded in Auckland for a while - bikeless, immobile and burdened with a lot of gear.
Although we often feel like we're at war with cities and backpacker places, Graeme, the owner of Central City Backpackers, immediately makes us feel at home in his hostel. He turns out to be an old bike hand who shared his riding experiences with us and marked the best two-wheel destinations to see in New Zealand on our map.
Ten days and a crate of beers later, the good news reaches us that the ship had stayed afloat and our motorbikes are ready for collection. With the skyline of the lively metropolis of Auckland fading from view, it's raining cats and dogs, and an ice-cold chill creeps into our bones. The first few miles are not very promising but we refuse to believe the Australians were right about their predictions of terribly cold, wet weather. In Africa, citizens routinely portray neighboring countries in the most negative terms possible. The second we revealed our travel plans there we were written off as murder and/or robbery victims. And come to think of it, we did have a few close calls. So, no matter how much the Australians badmouthed New Zealand, we brushed it off, convinced that we could easily handle unpredictable weather and safely dodge the 40 million stupid sheep that cause so many accidents here.
When mugs of steaming coffee in a roadhouse had warmed our blood sufficiently, a Kiwi explained the weather to us. "You can have four seasons in one day here," he said. "If it rains, simply wait for an hour. The weather is guaranteed to have changed by then." (For readers who may not know: The kiwi bird is the national symbol of New Zealand, and its people are referred to as Kiwis).
He's right. Soon there's a temperate breeze and the scent of freshly mown grass is in the air. To prolong our joyride through rolling pastures grazed by fleecy white sheep, we take the longest detour possible, along the East Cape where a wind-crooked sign still points the way "To the most easterly lighthouse of the world." We rode with abandon the 15 miles along the road that dead-ends at the edge of the sea. Some few leagues farther, in the Pacific, ships cross the International Date Line. It's a ride along rugged coastline where the gnarled trees have been bent and twisted into their bonsai shapes by years of furious storms, and having to return the way we came only doubles our riding pleasure.
A gravel road follows the Wanganui River through a fertile valley with steep mountain slopes on either side. Small, indigenous villages of the Maori people, whose history stretches back to the twelfth century, are scattered along the way. The Maori first named this beautiful country and they called it Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The scenery changes abruptly when we reach the barren plateau of Tongariro National Park. Three distinct volcanoes rise high above the plain: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Volcanic activity that began in the zone around two million years ago is ongoing. In fact, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are two of the most active composite volcanoes in the world. In 1995 and again in 1996, Ruapehu erupted in spectacular fashion, sending clouds of ash and steam skyward and mantling the surrounding snowfields and forest with a thick film of ash. They weren't expected to erupt during our appearance but we didn't hang around too long tempting fate either. Instead, we ventured on to another hot spot, the "Craters of the Moon" near Lake Taupo, where hot springs hiss steam and an obtrusive sulfurous stench bubbles up from the mud pools - a likely spot for a tony spa or even perhaps a movie location with little scene building needed to create a smoking crevasse that leads to hell.
The South Island
Wellington, the capital, is spread around a sheltering bay and hemmed in by mountains; and as luck would have it, we arrived just in time for a big party. The locals were celebrating Bonfire Night, otherwise known as Guy Fawlkes Day, with a grand fireworks display. Fawlkes, as you may recall from English History classes, was one of the principal conspirators captured on November 5, 1605, when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. To carry out a plan conceived to kill the Protestant king, James I, and to destroy much of Parliament during opening ceremonies, Guy Fawlkes and his fellow Catholic fanatics had rented a house next to the Palace of Westminster, knocked down a basement wall, and planted 20 barrels of gunpowder in the adjoining cellars. Every year since, these cellars have been searched before Parliament opens, and Guy Fawlkes is burned in effigy on bonfires throughout the realm.