Little by little, one travels far.—J.R. Tolkien "
Film director and New Zealand native Peter Jackson knows all too well the geographic wonders of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand), which is why he made a point of shooting the Lord of The Rings
films there. And if Gandalf the Grey, the wizard in the Lord of The Rings
, was a motorcyclist, you probably would have heard about all the epic back roads scrawling across this picturesque land by now. The high mountain passes, glacial rainforests and vast stretches of empty roadway tucked into these two islands are a dream for any motorcyclist—but still something of a secret to many.
It may be because just getting to New Zealand is a trek in itself. With a 12-hour flight between Los Angeles and Auckland, an international date change and any transfers you might pile on along the way, it can seem like you're traveling for days. Technically, it's less than 24 hours, but you'll cross back over the dateline and get to re-live the day you left home all over again.
Home is now behind you, the world is ahead—The Hobbit movie trailer "
Landing in Christchurch (on South Island), I poke around to get my bearings. Having been ravished by a string of massive earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the city center is a somber sight, with seemingly every historic building destroyed, damaged or shut down. While conservation efforts have begun to rebuild parts of the city, funds are lacking and progress is slow.
Acting on a suggestion, I had rented a Honda Shadow from Te Waipounamu Motorcycle Tours and Rentals in Christchurch, planning to overnight first in the super-cool capital city of Wellington (on the south end of North Island), and somewhere in the middle of North Island on the second night. My finish line would be Auckland.
Te Waipounamu (Maori for South Island) Motorcycle Tours offers a ton of bike options and a helpful, friendly vibe. Given the suggested 6-hour trek from there to the ferry in Picton, I'd also booked the ride across the Cook Strait in advance to save a few bucks and secure a spot onboard (space can be limited). After signing the paperwork, I head out on Route 74 toward State Highway 1 North. With a little over 1000 kilometers (621 miles) to cover, one might think that the ride between Christchurch and Auckland would require just a really long day in the saddle, but the route isn't a freeway—it's a two-lane road over mountains and sea, and pretty twisty for long stretches. Also, it was springtime, and unseasonably cold.
Landscapes swap back and forth from spectacular greens to tranquil blues as the road dips toward the ocean and back into the hills between Christchurch and the top of the island. Perhaps the warmest hours in my trip are found along the coast in the popular-but-not-too-touristy Kaikoura, with its beachside shellfish bars. From there it's two hours to Picton, but don't dally: If you miss the ferry, you'll have to wait four hours or more—like I did. And the competing ferries run on nearly the same schedule, so when you miss one, you're done. I didn't make Wellington until 1 a.m. that evening.
Island Number Two: Mount Doom
About 400 km (249 mi.) north lies Taupo, which looks like a good midpoint between Wellington and Auckland. Day two begins with a ride on Route 1 along the coastline of Pukerua Bay. Polishing off my lunch of fish and chips near Foxton I notice it's getting brisk, so I break out the insulation layers. My climb over Mount Doom has yet to come.
It's a good thing I do. The chill air soon becomes slick with rain and then pocked with hail. I jump at the chance to thaw out with a cup of hot coffee at Taihape, and consult some maps. It looks like there's no convenient path around the storm ahead so braving the elements is the only option. I had come ill-prepared for the elevations of North Island and New Zealand's frosty spring, and it's a lesson I'm learning the hard way. Crossing the frigid Rangipo Desert, I've since tucked away the camera and as the sun dips, sleet sets in. At the entrance to Tongariro National Park, the sight of three volcanic peaks to my left goes by unnoticed; I'm too busy focusing on the icy path ahead, blinking road signs warning me of dangerous conditions and snow plows parked along the road looking ominous. Of course this is the longest stretch of uninhabited road I've seen yet, not to mention the twistiest. With the DOT practically closing the road behind me, I poke my way to the other side of Mount Doom (Tongariro, in local-speak) by the skin of my teeth, and check into the first place l spot in Turangi. Whew.
Not all who wander are lost. "
Spring daffodils are blooming on the south shore of Lake Taupo and with a sense of renewed vigor, I begin the day's journey to a place known as Middle Earth. Scenic Taupo, North Island's center for outdoor activities, is but an hour north of Turangi, but it's just a waypoint this time. I take a diversion from State Highway 1 onto Route 27 in Tirau, bound for the farming and horse-breeding region of Waikato and the town of Matamata.
Peter Jackson knew how perfectly his homeland could stand in as a backdrop to the Tolkien films. New Zealand is otherworldly yet attainable; the locations seen on the silver screen can be experienced by boat, on foot, or on a motorcycle. But the place known as the Alexander farm in Matamata is the wormhole to that other universe I came to see.
Hobbiton is no longer just a location on Tolkien's maps, it's a living, breathing ranch within a 1250-acre sheep farm on North Island, replete with the Shire's Rest. Guided tours through the filming camp are given by locals that worked on the movie, and you'll see the Hobbit holes from the films, as well as the Green Dragon Inn. You'll stand on the spot where Sam exclaimed it's the farthest he'd been from home in The Fellowship of the Ring. Above all, the beauty of the countryside will amaze you. Every journey is bettered by setting down the side stand once in a while, so make you sure you take the time to explore the grounds.
With my mind now filled by gobs of LOTR trivia, it's back to open road. Auckland lies roughly 180 kilometers (112 miles) down the road, depending on how creative you are getting back to State Highway 1. Thanks to its status as a major metropolis and yachting hotspot, the City of Sails is the unofficial capital of New Zealand. Sandwiched by two major harbors and host to the America's Cup twice, this town takes boating very seriously. If you find time, check out Sail NZ for a tour of the waterways. There's nothing like letting someone else drive for a change!