The Land of the Long White Cloud

Story by Thierry Cellier// Photos by Thierry Cellier
November 14 2018

It took decades for this rider to get to these islands of jagged mountains, fjords, tropical forests, sandy beaches and the largest hot springs in the world

Over 30 years ago, I set my heart on exploring one of the most beautiful countries in the world, New Zealand – a remote oasis miles from anywhere – on a motorbike trip, and have been dreaming of it ever since. This year, on turning 60, I decided it was time to turn my dream into reality and head to Aotearoa – (Māori for “Land of the Long White Cloud”) for a new road trip.

At first I thought about shipping my KLR from Vancouver to Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, but it was not the cheapest and easiest solution for a two-week trip. And doing this tour with my wife, Margaret, meant we needed a more comfortable motorcycle.

The best option was to rent a bike in New Zealand. Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals, based in Christchurch, on the country’s South Island, proved to be very accommodating and delivered a yellow Yamaha Super Ténéré 60th Anniversary to Auckland. We called her Yellow Peril.

Au Revoir, Auckland

highway-to-a-mountain-in-new-zealandAfter a short stop in the beautiful city of Auckland, we left its warm, summery climes and headed out of the metropolis into the bucolic landscapes of the countryside. Traffic flowed incredibly smoothly, and 250 km south of Auckland we found ourselves in the volcanic valley of Waimangu near Rotorua, one of the world’s youngest and most active geothermal systems. This incredible
valley was formed after Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886 and has some spectacular natural attractions, such as the Pink and White Terraces, and the Waimangu Geyser.

Off bike, we enjoyed a two-hour hike in this spectacular valley, which is home to several natural wonders that have become popular tourist attractions, such as Frying Pan Lake, which is the largest hot spring in the world, and the steaming and unusually pale blue Inferno Crater Lake, the largest geyser-like feature in the world.

Waimangu means “black water” in Māori, the indigenous language of New Zealand, and the Rotorua region is the best place to discover and explore the culture of the Māori, who arrived in New Zealand in the early 13th century.  

After the gentle ebb and flow of the valley’s geothermal energy, the peaceful and placid Lake Taupo welcomed us with a beautiful sunset, where we set up camp for the night.

Hawke’s Bay and Napier

After a morning coffee on the shores of Lake Taupo, we continued our adventure toward Hawke’s Bay, choosing to take the lesser-used back roads, which have minimal traffic and, very often, more beautiful scenery. Using well-used roadmaps rather than modern GPS – finding a route on the map and going with it is all part of the fun – we wound our way through rolling, grassy hills and knolls dotted with sheep until the landscape became more densely wooded as we neared the coast. Dense woodlands turned into neat rows of vineyards as we arrived in Hawke’s Bay and the beautiful seaside city of Napier.

Set in the heart of the world-class wine-producing region of Hawke’s Bay, Napier was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1931, and today is renowned for its breathtaking Art Deco landmarks, such as the zigzag-patterned Daily Telegraph Building. The charming tree-lined waterfront promenade is home to the statue of a Māori maiden known as Pania of the Reef, and who stands as a symbol of the city. This is a popular spot on a sunny day, which draws crowds of people who flock to soak up the stunning views of the bay.  


sealions-in-new-zealandAs Napier began to stir in the soft morning light, we headed out on Highway 2 in the direction of the country’s capital city, Wellington. On the last sections of the route leading to Wellington between Featherston and Upper Hut, the road snakes through 30 km of winding mountain passes with regular road signs along the way warning motorcyclists of the “high risk,” but to be honest, it was exhilarating to flick the bike through those bends.

The lovely seaside city of Wellington welcomed us with open arms. This southernmost capital in the world sits near the North Island’s farthest point on the Cook Strait and looks like a small provincial town. The compact city features a charming waterfront promenade and working harbour, beautiful sandy beaches and picturesque timber houses set among the surrounding hills.

We took a walk along the Wellington Marina as the setting sun began to soak up the incredible scenery, and admired some beautiful sailboats, reminding us that New Zealand has produced famous sailors such as Sir Peter Blake, the world’s most celebrated yachtsman of his day.

The next morning, we popped Yellow Peril on the ferry to cross the Queen Charlotte Sound, the easternmost of the main sounds of the Marlborough Sounds. On the ferry, we were seduced by the beauty of the surrounding scenery, and while the ferry ride was a little over three hours, time passed unnoticed until we heard the announcement of our arrival in Picton on the South Island. We pulled ourselves out of our peaceful reverie and headed down to the lower deck to head out on the next leg of our adventure.

Wairau Valley

After disembarking, we decided to take the narrow Queen Charlotte Drive through Whenuanui Bay Scenic Reserve, a spectacularly hilly and winding road at the edge of the sea with skirting creeks and hidden coves. Being so close to the sea, we felt we had to stop and enjoy some fresh seafood, particularly green mussels, for which the city of Havelock has the distinction as the green-lipped mussel capital of the world.

Our journey continued across the Wairau Valley, a world-famous wine region that produces some of the best wines in New Zealand, to join the west coast, where we wanted to explore the Franz Josef Glacier in the following days. However, the west coast of the South Island is renown for being the wettest region of New Zealand, and upon looking at the forecast, we discovered that the weather was expected to be bad over the next few days.

We awoke to pouring rain, so we decided to cut across the island to the east coast along Hwy 73 and Arthur’s Pass. Even though we learned that there was an extreme weather alert for the 800-metre-high Arthur’s Pass, we decided to try it anyway. As we advanced up the pass, the temperature dropped, it began to hail heavily, followed by snow, with the sides of the road becoming blanketed in white. However, our experience with Canadian winters helped us through this challenging weather, and we managed to make it to the top of the pass with beating hearts and adrenalin rushing through our veins.

The descent on the other side of the pass was more comfortable with drier roads and sunny skies, and we descended with our hearts still beating fast from our exhilarating experience. The views were breathtaking, and the landscape began to change from lush, tropical jungles on the west side of the pass to dry and desert-like mountains on the east side.  

The saddle, the rigidity of the chassis and the comfort of the suspensions of the Super Ténéré are perfect for travelling in the best possible conditions – Margaret confirms this! Traction control, ABS, touring and sport modes, and adjustable front and rear suspension are very helpful with continually changing weather and road conditions. Personally, I think it’s an underrated bike.

Lake Tekapo

motorcycle-riding-in-new-zealandIt is said that in New Zealand, you can experience four seasons in one day, and we know now precisely what that means. We had made it through a heavy hailstorm in Greymouth, slogged through blankets of snow on Arthur’s Pass, ridden under grey skies on the way to Mount Somers, and warmed our backs in the sun when arriving at Lake Tekapo in the island’s interior.

Picturesque by day and dazzling by night, Lake Tekapo is a spectacular turquoise lake that is in stark contrast to the green and yellow deciduous trees that populate the small islets and the chain of Southern Alps, which are covered with snow in the background. We arrived at Lake Tekapo at the beginning of autumn, and there were dramatic changes of colours in the landscapes, with the foliage taking on red, gold and bright brown tones that contrasted with the dominant green. It was absolutely stunning. We decided to make the shore of this beautiful lake our campsite for the night and enjoyed some sizzling lamb chops cooked over the fire for dinner, beneath a sky full of stars.

The Lakes Region

We spent a few beautiful days exploring this region of lakes, heading along the shore of Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook (Aoraki in the Māori language), the highest point of the country, at 3,724 metres. Standing sentry over the glistening lakes below, Mount Cook was a festival of clouds and light from every angle on the road, and was so awe-inspiring, it was sometimes difficult to stay focused on the road. We passed other shimmering lakes in the following days, including Lakes Ohua, Hawea, Wanaka, Wakatipu and Manapouri spending alternative nights in cabins and campsites.

The next morning, the Super Ténéré was charged and ready for an early-morning departure to the iconic destination of Milford Sound. The road was a treat with a variety of landscapes, ranging from majestic mountains and rolling hills to rural flatlands and mirror-like lakes that gave the impression of seeing double.
Milford Sound is a breathtakingly beautiful fjord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island and a place where mountains cascade into the Tasman Sea, creating an unforgettable spectacle.

With the setting sun on our backs and shadows dancing in the hills, I felt that the landscapes became even more spectacular than the day before. I have rarely had so much fun riding a motorcycle in such beautiful countryside with good roads and limited traffic. The South Island has only a little more than a million people, compared with the 1.5 million in Auckland alone, making travelling around the South Island very pleasant.

We spent the night in a cozy and inexpensive bungalow on a farm in Manapouri. The owner raises alpacas, and when we went to pay him for the night, we had the opportunity to meet this unusual animal and watch the way he shears them for their wool, which is sold to make clothing for astronomical prices.
We woke the next morning to disastrous weather; a cold snap from the Antarctic brought violent gales of freezing wind that forced us to become balancing artists on the bike. We had to ride at such angles that it didn’t constitute normal driving, and grazed the grass on the side of the road many times.

Invercargill, Burt Munro and John Britten

We were now nearing the southern tip of the South Island and the small town of Invercargill, the birthplace of Burt Munro. Herbert James (Burt) Munro was a New Zealand motorcycle racer famous for setting an under-1,000 cc world record at Bonneville in 1967, which still stands today. The story of his record attempts on the Bonneville Salt Flats was made famous in the 2005 film The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins.

We visited the E Hayes and Sons store in Invercargill, where the “Munro Special,” as Munro called his bike, is on display, along with many other beautiful machines. Our next visit in town was at Classic Motorcycle Mecca, a collection of nearly 300 motorcycles that includes Brough Superior, Ariel, Vincent, Norton, Ducati, BMW and Indian, to name a few. Special mention to the amazing Cardinal Britten V1100 built by the late John Britten. A legend in New Zealand, he designed and built the revolutionary Britten V-twin motorcycle. By the way, I was at the 1993 Isle of Man TT, and I will never forget Shaun Harris riding the Britten in the Senior TT.

After this tribute to Burt Munro and John Britten, we took the road back inland to the east coast of the island. Our journey took us past stunning lakes, rolling hills dotted with sheep, and high mountains at the edge of the ocean to the Shag Point Scenic Reserve, where large colonies of fur seals basked in the sun.
Over the next few days, we used the small coastal town of Oamaru as a base for further adventures and explorations around the island, which included the beautiful Route 83 along the Waitaki River and returning to the Lake District.


The last stop on our journey was the town of Christchurch, a charming town with lovely green parks and gardens, including Hagley Park and Christchurch Botanic Gardens, but which suffered terribly from the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Known for its rich English heritage, Christchurch is set on the Avon River, which meanders through the city centre. Despite the earthquake damage, which sadly destroyed many of the historic centre’s stone buildings, it’s still a very picturesque town. Before dropping off the Ténéré at Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals, we visited Mike Pero’s Motorcycle Museum in Avonhead, which has an excellent display of Japanese classics from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Only one regret, however: We did not see any kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird!


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