New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Blue Lakes

New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Blue Lakes
My goddaughter Beth was getting married in New Zealand. What better excuse could there be to do that South Island motorcycle trip we had so often dreamed of? After a long flight from Vienna with a jet lag-busting layover in Singapore, we arrived in Christchurch. We met up with Paul and Liz, our good biking friends from Austria, who were joining us for this part of the trip.

The next morning we picked up our three bikes from the friendly Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals just outside the city. Soon, we were out of Christchurch and heading into new territory. Arthur’s Pass would be our real introduction to our bikes: two Yamaha FJ-09 Tracers (known outside the U.S. as the MT-09) and one Honda NC750X. Arthur’s Pass is one of the most stunning rides in New Zealand. The road to the summit is New Zealand Hwy 73, also known as West Coast Rd. Climbing nearly 3,000 feet through Arthur’s Pass National Park, it is the highest pass across the Southern Alps. Rain and high winds were forecast for later in the day so we didn’t want to make too many stops before we were over the pass. Bad weather up there would be no fun at all!

As the weather got progressively more volatile, the ride grew more interesting in equal proportion. We passed through wide valleys reminiscent of North Wales, with gently rising mountains reaching up to the darkening clouds. The wonderful long, sweeping bends and straights encouraged a brisk pace, while the strong gusty side winds tried to slow us down just as hard.

New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Blue Lakes
Arthur's Pass Rd is the most direct route from Christchurch to the west side of the island. Although it only rises to 2,400 feet, it can be treacherous in bad weather.

The amazingly wide glacier-formed valley floors are traversed by single-track bridges with white wooden side fences, stretching away across deserts of gray gravel to a center point of turquoise water. They resemble wooden piers jutting out from a beach toward a distant ocean.

We eventually entered the town of Arthur’s Pass by yet another single-track bridge. Calling it a town is an over-exaggeration, though. We barely had time to blink before we had breezed through and were descending from the high point of the pass down to the famously wet West Coast. The wind was getting stronger as the sky ahead got blacker. As we approached the elegant Otira Viaduct that spans what used to be a dangerous, avalanche-prone section of the route, there were rows of orange cones on the road and a stopping point with a temporary traffic light that had just been set up. Of course, the light was red.

New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Blue Lakes
Mount Cook Rd snakes along the side of the impossibly blue Lake Pukaki toward its eponymous, majestic mountain.

During what seemed like an eternity of inactivity, the wind increased to concerning levels. Finally, we got the green light. Rolling carefully across the exposed bridge, buffeted by strong side gusts, I was pleased that at least no one could come the other way. The remainder of the day was a race against worsening weather through increasingly verdant surroundings. We finally emerged relatively dry and victorious in glorious sunshine on the West Coast. A very pleasant ride up the coastal road past farmsteads with white picket fences and fields full of sheep found us at our overnight base in Greymouth.

New Zealand: Mount Cook and the Blue Lakes
Hwy 6 brought us to our overnight stop at Wanaka, skirting the 20-mile-long Lake Hawea.

A Tunnel of Leaves

After a great breakfast at the Sevenpenny the next morning, we headed down SH 6 in the direction of Fox Glacier. The day started overcast, and the long straight road was fairly uneventful. That was about to change.

After some 37 miles of following the coast, the road turned inland and entered the Waitaha Scenic Reserve. The flat open land suddenly transformed into a dense temperate rainforest, crowding the road on both sides. It was a breathtaking corridor that snaked through towering trees, emerging from an impenetrable undergrowth of ferns, mosses, liverworts, orchids, and lichens. Simply fantastic.