Tuesday 17 September, 2013 by Uncle Spike
Who says taxis should have 4 wheels? Mine didn’t…
New Zealand; that beautiful collection of islands of the southern hemisphere, plonked rather conveniently between the shores of Australia and Antarctica. For anyone who’s been there or lived there, you would be hard pressed not to agree that it’s a land of astounding natural beauty, with an appealing mix of cultural heritage, often subject to a bizarre combination of weather systems, and by and large, inhabited.
In a nutshell, the North Island is generally considered to be the more commercial, more urbanised, and the more developed of the main islands with 77% of the population located there. On the other side of the coin, the South Island is more rugged, certainly commercially underdeveloped, but is host to a staggering array of natural wonders, and a wide variance of climatic conditions in what is after all, just one small island of 150k square kilometres (53k square miles).by a population comprised of a curious mix of indigenous and imported folk; either from dying days of the British Empire, or immigrants from various neighbouring Polynesian island nations.
Just thinking back to it, and how taken aback I was by the South Island, one has to marvel at the place, with the beautiful east coast, host to schools of dolphin and numerous sea lion colonies of places like Kaikoura, to the wide open Canterbury Plains. Then as you cut cross the island, there are the ever imposing snow-capped Southern Alps, with some incredibly stunning lakes and magnificent mountain passes. Beyond that, and you are into dense sub-tropical rainforests, before eventually you come across the long, deserted beaches of the West Coast. From the windswept southern tip of the island down near Invercargill, the tranquillity of the fiords, the extraordinary sight of those massive glaciers, still on the move after the last Ice Age, right up to the natural beauty of the northern coast and the famous Able Tasman National Park – the South Island has something for everyone; everyone that is who has even the slightest appreciation for the wonders of the naturals world.
On one of my longer stays in New Zealand, I was travelling the length and breadth of the country by motorbike. My ride was a sturdy old silver Yamaha XJ750, a shaft driven workhorse that seemed to cope quite adequately with dirt tracks, fast open roads, some very steep climbs through mountain passes and also as a taxi for hire. As a means to fund my travels, I would advertise the availability for long distance pillion transfers at hostels and backpacker establishments wherever I stayed. As a traveller, unless you had your own transport, be that a car, camper van or like me, a motorbike, and then most backpacking travellers relied on public buses or hitchhiking to get from A to B. Having previously hitch-hiked most of the country, I knew all too well how prolonged an affair some journeys could take, with a very small population, there were simply not that many vehicles passing by, and certainly not many heading beyond their local shops or perhaps just to the next township. Much of the traffic actually heading longer distances were travellers themselves; so naturally, there were rarely spare seats on offer, or even if there were, the occupants had no desire to share their honeymoon or prolonged holiday ride after saving up for two years for the luxury of it.
And so there I was, more often than not, travelling between places such as Christchurch across to Queenstown with a paying pillion sat behind me. I always carried a spare bike jacket, gloves, ankle wraps and a crash helmet that I picked up in Auckland. I had the bike fitted with a strong vertical L-shaped luggage rack, large throw-over pannier bags and 20 or so bungee cords of various lengths. The result being that all the gear for one more backpacker could be securely added to my stuff in order to travel in relative comfort and safety. They only paid a small amount, but it was generally enough to cover my fuel costs, but overall, they saved considerably on the equivalent travel costs by bus. For most, it was an opportunity to experience a totally new form of transport, and with the fact that we rode through such stunning scenery, slowly cruising along appreciating the fresh air was well worth the slight discomfort of a weary bum at the end of a long day in the saddle. In addition, we could set off when we wanted to, stop wherever peckish for a snack or to take advantage of another special Kodak moment and even to change plans mid journey when we stumbled across some place of interest that took our fancy.
All prospective riders were given a 10km test ride, which in actuality was more for my benefit than theirs. But to be honest, whilst nearly all were complete novices or inexperienced pillions at best, only one guy that I recall never took up the offer. In fact, that was largely my choice, as the guy was like an 85 kilo sack spuds sat on the back, and it would I am sure, have been a pretty dismal journey dragging him up and down the hills through Arthurs Pass. His main problem was a not atypical unfounded self-belief that as a male member of the species, he was a natural-born biker – alas, and much to his disappointment, he clearly wasn’t. Pushing aside any natural tendencies to assume the macho stance of ‘bikes are only for boys’, it has to be said that the majority of my passengers were female, and with only one exception, were by far the better pillion riders by a very long shot. Certainly I’ve known plenty of competent bikers over the years, male and female alike, but as a pillion, I would tend to pull over in front a girl every time to offer a lift before stopping for a guy. Ok, yeah, I admit that most young men would do the same for reasons of another nature, but for the sake of comfort, safety and companionship, girls ruled!
From an accountancy trainee, to a nurse for the elderly, my travel buddies were all quite unique in their own way. One girl, or woman rather in her early 30’s was about 10 years my senior at the time. Over a period of two months, she ended up as my paying pillion 5 times, as our paths crossed again and again on both the North and the South islands. She was a teacher by profession, but also a skilled hairdresser on the side. Needless to say, some of her travel payment was met in kind through her scissoring expertise, and often of an evening, she could be seen supplementing her travel purse through a small queue of backpackers requiring some trimming of their locks.
One young lad in particular from Canada was certainly memorable, and he made himself pretty useful during the 5 day ride we shared from Auckland up to the Bay of Islands by way of here, there and everywhere in between. Each day he would take the keys as I started my breakfast and that was that. Some 40 minutes later, I would venture outside to find him waiting there, helmet in hand. The bike was all cleaned, oil and fuel checks complete, both our luggage safely strapped in place, and the bike ticking over nicely, having been appropriately warmed up for a good 5-10 minutes. Couldn’t have asked for more.
Now every bike must have a name, of course, and this one was no exception; known simply as ‘Taxi’. It was a reliable beast, supremely comfortable in fact and very capable. Two-up with full luggage, the solid 4 cylinder shaft drive was well suited to the job. It was indeed an emotional day when it came to selling it prior to my departure for Australia. I know full well though, that without the freedom afforded to me having decided to bike the island independently, I would never have seen half as much as I did, and most probably never have been able to share the true experience of New Zealand with so many of my fellow travellers.