Wild NZ: A Most Epic Adventure

Wild NZ: A Most Epic Adventure

With the emphasis on off road rather than on, our two mates already had a fair idea of how we could spend our days. The top of the south was the region we’d ride, and, by good fortune, Miles already had five days’ backcountry riding programmed into his GPS. We were good to go!

Exploring the top of the south by motorbike

by Mike Cooney

Acky was the first casualty. The slippery rocks caught him out as he powered up the riverbed, dumping both the Yamaha and himself unceremoniously into the water. Not long after, the river took out Miles too. His front wheel ripped out from under him, and over he went … landing face-first in the drink. It was one of the funniest things I’d seen in ages, and thankfully, amidst all the carnage, I remembered to keep the camera rolling …

A bit over a year ago, me and my mate Roger were discussing what adventure we should go on to celebrate his recent half-century. Both of us had owned and ridden plenty of dirt-bikes over the years, but we hadn’t yet tried our hand at the latest motorcycle phenomenon … adventure riding.

‘Adventure riding’ is a relatively new expression, but one the industry has quickly capitalised on. It’s now one of the fastest growing segments in the ‘bikey’ world, with thousands of new products added every year, designed especially for those with an adventurous soul. From adventure bikes to adventure undies, riders can now finally have an adventure on a motorcycle … 

It didn’t take us long to put a plan in place – one which centred on getting our mate Acky, and his mate Miles, along for the ride. Both long-time motorcyclists themselves, these guys were mad-keen adventure riders, and had already tapped into the potential of the South Island, our chosen destination.

With the emphasis on off road rather than on, our two mates already had a fair idea of how we could spend our days. The top of the south was the region we’d ride, and, by good fortune, Miles already had five days’ backcountry riding programmed into his GPS. We were good to go! 

Less than a year later, on a beautiful February afternoon, we found ourselves riding our bikes onto a Cook Straight ferry bound for Picton. This was to be the start of a most epic adventure.

After spending the night at a local campground, we woke early, keen to get on the road. From the briefing we’d been given the night before, we had a fair few hundred kilometres to travel on our first full day. It was pretty cold – especially considering I’d left a Coromandel summer – and the first minutes out of Picton had me wishing I’d put another layer of clothing on. We were heading inland, past Blenheim, and into the northern end of the famous Molesworth Station.

At 180,787 ha, Molesworth is New Zealand’s largest farm and is a land of extremes. Vast landscapes of scree-scarred mountains, tussock clothed slopes and wide river valleys present themselves around every corner. The gravel road that runs its length, twists and turns in an effort to stay with the rivers it follows, creating stunning riding. And the weather was perfect. 

The only slight downside was the dust … unless you were riding out front. But given that Miles was chief navigator, he sat at pole position while I mooched around at the back, stopping every five minutes for yet another photo opportunity …

We hit Hanmer Springs just in time to fuel ourselves and our bikes before mounting up and heading north – this time up the Clarence River, past the beautiful Lake Tennyson and into the beech-covered headwaters of the Wairau River. We were now on the 112km Rainbow Road, more rugged than the one through Molesworth, and famous for its skifield. But there was to be no skiing today.

After hitting the Wairau Valley Highway, we rode into St Arnaud and refuelled. Our night’s accommodation took us 20km up the Leatham Valley to Greigs Hut, perched on the banks of the Branch River. After dinner, we traversed a steep, technical track behind the hut that summited the 2000m Mt Morris. It was a great way to finish the day – and as we watched the sun set behind the mountains, I wondered if this adventure ride could get any better …

We left Griegs Hut early, making it through an early-morning river crossing without falling off. (Phew!) After a quick breakfast in St Arnaud, we rode over the Porika Track and down to the shores of beautiful Lake Rotoroa – a popular holiday spot in the Nelson Lakes region. From here we rode to Reefton via a myriad of tracks, river valleys and backcountry roads. It was all a blur!

From Reefton – with bellies and tanks full – we made a beeline to Big River, an old gold-mining settlement. The track to the hut was tight and twisty, and would’ve been incredibly slow-going in 4WDs. I know, because 10 years earlier, I’d done it in my truck with my then five-year-old son! This time, the 25km trail travelled much faster.

Roger, who was revelling in the ‘tight-and-twisties’ thought he was racing in some hare-scramble, and gave his WR450 a good thrashing. It was good to see that hitting the nifty-fifties hadn’t slowed him down any!

As we sat outside the Big River Hut watching the sun set on another fantastic day’s riding, I felt a strange combination of exhaustion and contented bliss … 

From Big River, we headed for Napoleon Hill and what proved to be some of the funniest moments of the trip. The route followed the Waipuna and Nobles Creeks, which in most places, was literally in the river. Both Acky and Miles had unplanned swims, and the irony of our two best riders taking a dip wasn’t lost on me and Rog! 

We hit Greymouth for lunch, then finished the day bush-crashing through some technical, washed-out, overgrown trails before heading back to Greymouth. From there we rode up the coast to Westport and our night’s accommodation. Although this last section of road was sealed, the wild and beautiful West Coast backdrop still made it a fun ride.

I’d pretty much decided that the riding couldn’t get any better. But today I was going to be proved wrong again.

Riding up the coast from Westport, we headed inland and up to the Denniston Plateau, a historic coal-mining area. The views were incredible. At least they would’ve been if the fog hadn’t rolled in! It was here we had our first (and only) puncture. Roger was the culprit. But, in no time at all, Acky had his wheel off, tube out and replacement back in. 

We continued heading further east – up and over the Mt William Range and into the Mackley Basin. Seams of coal weaved their way along the clay cuttings we rode – a black testament to the region’s previous history. We were way off the beaten track here, heading deeper into the wilderness … and the riding was sublime. Crossing the Mackley River was a lot easier than the last time Miles and Acky rode here. Luckily, the river was low, but we still walked the bikes across. This was not the place to drop and drown your steed – after all, help was a long way off!

We finally made it out to the Upper Buller Gorge Road, and headed back into Murchison for supplies. Then, in the afternoon, we wound our way back up the Leatham Valley to Barbers Hut for the night. With one more full day’s riding ahead, our ‘cup runneth over’. This had simply been a fantastic day.

By now I’m sure you’re sick of hearing “the riding couldn’t get any better!” because I’m sick of writing it. At the end of day five, I’d realised what a great job Miles had done in the progression of riding we’d had over the last few days. Each day was so different, and hard to compare to others, but it gave you the impression that it was getting better. And our last day was no exception.

In a nutshell (because that’s all I’ve got time for), we rode down the Wairau Valley to Renwick, where we had the nicest coffee of the entire trip! We then headed across the Wairau River and back up the other side to Staircase Road. From here, we traversed 26 kilometres up one of the coolest tracks I’ve ridden. It wasn’t the most technical, or the fastest. It was rough and rocky and hard on the bikes. But it carried us through some of the most phenomenal vistas I’d seen – right to the base of Mt Patriarch’s peak. 

It was so beautiful it was dangerous, and I was continually gob-smacked! To drive off the edge of the track would’ve been fatal in some places, but it was hard to keep your eyes on the road! The weather was perfect, the scenery spectacular, the company awesome … it was an incredibly fitting end to our most excellent epic adventure.

And a fitting end to this story.

Because I realise some of you will want to know … these are the bikes we rode: Both Acky and Roger rode Yamaha WR450s, Miles a Husaberg 570, and I was on a Suzuki DRZ400. All of our bikes were modified from stock standard, with the most common upgrade being larger fuel tanks and softer seats! With (some days) nearly 300km between fuel stops, we would’ve been pushing our bikes the last 100km … and our butts would’ve been super sore!
Big thanks goes to Mal at Adventure Bike Australia for helping sort me and my DRZ out – check out www.adventurebikeaustralia.com.au