The United Nations of Motorcyclists

Originally published in the BMW MOA MagazineCall me grumpy, but as the saying goes, the more people I meet, the better I like my dog. Or my motorcycle. In other words, when it comes to crowds and motorcycling, my general impulse is to go as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

And so it was with trepidation that my wife, Meredith, and I embarked on a 16-day, 2,300-mile tour of the North and South Islands of New Zealand when we heard that we’d be in the company of 26 other adrenaline-crazed riders from such far-flung places as Estonia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, Canada, and Venezuela.

Almost immediately, we’re confronted with a half-dozen languages colliding in the atmosphere and competing for supremacy in decibels. It’s a regular Tower of Babel, further confused with the addition of the local Kiwi accent, in which “beautiful day today” becomes “beautiful die to die.”

Granted, we didn’t come here to be among our own people. But still, we have to wonder: what will this United Nations of Motorcyclists be like out on the road?

Overall, New Zealand is a place where the old is deftly mixed with the new—a slightly backward country that seems ironically forward—a little like Ozzie and Harriet packing cell phones. There isn’t a single modern amenity missing in this country of 4 million—it’s just that such things haven’t been adopted with crazed American compulsiveness.

Compared to the generally placid behavior of New Zealanders, it’s apparent that our group conducts itself as if we’re all about to spontaneously combust. We may be riding extremely rapid vehicles while we’re here, but inside our helmets, the world is slowing by degrees. And we’re glad for it.

From the outset, we split naturally, into two groups, according to velocity. The Venezuelans, many of whom have ridden together before, are gone like vapor, front wheels arching skyward. This is a little surprising because, while the nearly vacant roads invite a love of leaning, speed limits in New Zealand are not to be trifled with. The national limit is 100 kph (62 mph). Should you be clocked at 140 (87 mph), your vehicle is summarily confiscated. You go, as they say, from hero to zero.

Pretty soon, I notice a strange thing starting to happen. Even though the Venezuelans disappear every day to tempt vehicle confiscation and internment in foreign jails, at night, around the dinner table, they couldn’t be friendlier. (Lubrication with local sauvignon blanc doesn’t hurt.)

Each day, I wonder if our little cultural mashup will turn mutinous. But as a group, we’re gesticulating, grunting and generally laughing our way across linguistic barriers. Every coffee stop is a boisterous good time. I look around and a Brazilian in tatty leathers and a borrowed helmet is working on a mechanical problem with two Germans in high-tech ballistic nylon packing Bluetooth communications; they’re talking. The Estonians have sent a diplomatic envoy to the Canadian contingent; they’re sharing a meal. Even my wife, one of the world’s foremost shy people, seems to have signed a proclamation with Switzerland. They’re having drinks in the hotel bar.

It doesn’t hurt that the country is unfailingly beautiful, particularly from the seat of a motorcycle. In such conditions, who has time for antisocial behavior?

Queenstown, the site of our rest day, is fittingly known as the adrenaline capital of New Zealand. Here, you can go jet boating, bungee jumping, downhill mountain biking, glacier climbing or perform any other manner of head-cracking pursuits. (Bungee-jumping was invented in New Zealand in 1988, and you can now pay to catapult yourself off seemingly any free-standing object in the country, including Auckland’s 1,076-foot Sky Tower, a dizzying leap that takes fully 16 seconds.)

The Venezuelans, in particular, find all this to their liking. They ride 80-90 mph all day then, to relax in the evening, they jump out of airplanes, rent a helicopter to land atop glaciers, or hurl themselves off precipices. I can only imagine that high-velocity pursuits are forms of meditation in that country.

Once settled into our Queenstown hotel, our group, fairly quivering in anticipation, disperses, wild-eyed, to engage in the traditional mix of New Zealand head-cracking activities. Meredith and I decide that riding a motorcycle 70 mph all day in the twisties, dodging little grease spots that were formerly possums, is sufficient risk-taking activity. So we opt for a walk in the local botanical gardens.

I know. Call us boring.

But by afternoon, I’m craving a two-wheel fix, so while Meredith enjoys the view from our hotel, I opt for a two-hour blast along the lakeshore to Glenorchy. This is surely one of the most beautiful motorcycle roads in the world. Enormous Mt. Earnslaw looms in the distance, while off to one side is the iridescent Lake Wakatipu, where the 1912 schooner, the TSS Earnslaw, endlessly plies the water with its load of gawking tourists.

To our unending delight, New Zealand seems to be a country that can’t settle on a single ecosystem. At times we imagine ourselves in California’s Sierra mountains. Then, just as quickly, we’re in a rainforest (including locations for the film, “Lord of the Rings”). Traversing what seems like countries within countries is a little dizzying, but makes for some amazing motorcycling. The Maori gods seemed remarkably indecisive in creating this land, but we’re thankful for it.

It’s been said that in New Zealand, you can experience all four seasons in a single day, and true to form, our meteorological fortunes seem to reverse almost hourly. We head out of Greymouth with the rain slanting down so hard it feels like it’s giving our BMW R1200RT’s pseudo gas tank a shot-peen treatment.

Fortunately, since we ride year-round in Northern California, we’re experts in electrics. For much of the trip we keep the bike’s generator working overtime, frying up a human sauté of heated seats, vests and grips. There is the faint smell of burning flesh as we go down the road, but we’re happy.

We head north to see the “Pancake Rocks” of Punakaiki—a remarkable, cliffside geological phenomenon that we enjoy amidst the crashing waves and rain. In the next 12 hours we will traverse this same, 25-mile stretch of road three times due to road closures—experimenting with every compass direction like crazed rodents. At one point we approach an intersection to discover that the intended road is now submerged beneath a small lake. A road sign pokes up comically in the middle of it all, like a channel marker in a harbor. On the other side, similarly befuddled motorists wave helplessly. A car ferry would serve us all quite well right now.

Thus trapped, and lacking a boat, we do the only logical thing: descend, en masse, on the Taylorsville bar, the only open establishment in a 10-mile radius. It’s attached to a small house, and as we pull up, two schoolchildren in pajamas press themselves against the windows, eyes like saucers at the prospect of 16 motorcycles emptying into their sleepy establishment. In a heartbeat they run off to get the barkeep, their father.

The Taylorsville bar may be empty, but no matter: in these moments we carry our own community with us. We are sensibly prohibited from drinking during the day, but it doesn’t matter. In an instant the shaky jukebox is loaded up with change and bellowing Steve Earle. Venezuelans are bouncing up and down in dubious rhythm. Germans, Estonians, and representatives of nearly every other European nation are sitting on barstools, alternately laughing and sneaking furtive glances out the window at the darkening skies.

As I scan the whole assemblage, I realize how this disparate collection of countries and cultures is jelling, as everyone does their best imitation of a drunken bar scene, lubricated by Coke and coffee instead of beer. Given the warmth and community that has washed over everything in view, the Taylorsville bar seems like a pretty good place to be right now.

The epic day produces another, subtle shift in the chemistry of our multi-national contingent. In the evenings, wine is flowing more freely all the time, as is the conversation. It doesn’t hurt that Meredith and I manage to endear ourselves to the gang with our uncanny knack for dumb, self-deprecating things. At one point, Meredith manages to briefly put her helmet on backward. (“Hey, it’s dark in here!”) Later, over a couple of drinks, one couple starts extolling the virtues of the aperitif, Limoncello, to which I reply with astounding stupidity: “Hey, my mother used to make lemon Jello!”

Those Americans.

With just a few days left, we fan out to enjoy local farmstays for a night. The next morning, at the appointed meeting place, our cultural mashup of nations fairly bubbles over in the parking lot, the whole thing resembling a high school reunion (without the awkwardness). It’s here that I realize how our little band has gelled—whatever barriers there may have been—social, linguisitic, or otherwise—are now completely dissolved.

Back out on the road, the whole gang is flying in neat formation. No hairball moves. Not a single one considers the turn signal a sign of weakness. And no one elects to experiment with the New Zealand criminal justice system. (During the trip one bike goes down on wet railroad tracks, and two others topple over at a stoplight, but there is no damage beyond pride and plastic.)

In case further proof of our acceptance was needed, Meredith and I even receive a small sticker that proclaims, “ pais.” (“Venezuela, my country.”) We have, against all odds, become honorary citizens of that small and apparently very rapid nation.

By the time we finally surrender the bike in Auckland, we carry the fond recollection of a rollicking good trip in what is surely one of the most beautiful countries in the world—in the company of some frenetic and very entertaining international company.

And to imagine, a couple of weeks earlier, I was planning to run the other direction. It’s all got me rethinking my anti-social tendencies.

It seems the more people I meet on motorcycles, the better I like them.


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