Friday, January 20th, 2023

Distance travelled 516 kilometres

With a long way to go, we packed up and left our nice motel room in the bright, early morning sunshine. As I habitually do, I checked how much gas we had in the tank and the range was shown at a little over 100 kilometres. This tied in nicely with our planned first stop for breakfast in the town of Turangi which was about half of that distance away.

We drove down to the lake shore for some photos. It really was a glorious and peaceful sight in the early morning sunshine.

Then we set off on our ride along its eastern shore on the ever present SH1. It was one of those rides you dream about. A smooth, relatively deserted road, the lake shimmering behind a flickering curtain of exotic brush and Kauri trees just to our right  and, with my visor up, the glorious smell of all that sun-warmed vegetation.

A description like that generally means something bad is just around the corner and, of course, it was. On a steep, uphill, left-hand bend, the Harley gave a cough and misfired. This was only momentary, but I felt it clearly before it resumed its chugging and we topped the rise. On the accompanying downhill stretch, it coughed again. Nervous, I thumbed the gauges. The range NOW said 41 kilometres (we had gone just 29 kilometres) !! Not a problem though, the SatNav indicated a garage only six kilometres ahead. Then, the engine just stopped. I hastily pulled in the clutch and we coasted down the slope before coming to a halt. We (I) had run out of petrol !!! I had been riding motorcycles for over fifty years and had covered very close (at the time of writing) to two million kilometres and I had NEVER run out of petrol before !! Cruelly, the gauge still said we had a range of 32 kilometres (it had said 37 when I filled up in the far north ! Yikes). Lucie dismounted and, although she said nothing, she gave me a look that clearly indicated what a clown she thought I was. She sat down on the verge and began playing with her iPad – I set off to walk to the garage.

At that moment some cars came around the corner. More in hope than in expectation, I stuck out my thumb and the last car in the line pulled smoothly to a halt. It was driven by a lovely Kiwi lady called Denise who, it transpired, was from a family of “bikies” and had spotted my crash helmet.

Denise ferried me smoothly to the garage and then continued upon her way with a wave. I walked across the road and explained my “plight” (which almost seems too strong a word in retrospect) and the attendant produced a sturdy (and sixty year old) Jerry can into which he put 5 litres of 95 octane. He did not even ask me for a deposit. I walked back to the roadside and, before I could even stick my thumb out, a pickup swung to a halt. The driver, Andy (I think) merely said that, as I had a Jerry can and a crash helmet, it was fairly obvious what was needed. I was back at the Harley in less than five minutes. Hitch-hiking, Kiwi style !! What might have been an ultra-embarrassing incident ended up delaying us by less than twenty minutes.

I put in the petrol. The Jerry can was a clever thing with its own spout and I did not spill a single drop.

Then, we drove to the petrol station, filled up to the brim and had our breakfast in its attached café ,which was just opening. Lucie also bought a small flashlight to aid our search for glow worms when we got to the South Island.

We set off again assuming, at that point, that we had now had our daily dose of adventure. In Tuarangi, we left the SH1 for the SH41. This took us briefly along the western shore of Lake Taupo and then up and over the hills.

We rode through some glorious countryside. Everything was very green, the roads were almost deserted and the views, in every direction were spectacular. 

At Taumarunui, the SH41 turned into SH4 and then we turned onto SH43, which was billed as the “Forgotten World Highway” on its signs. It started wonderfully, almost romantically, as we came to green countryside that was obviously fairly sparsely populated.

There was the odd farm though and, at one point, we came across a flock of freshly shorn sheep that were walking up the carriageway and completely blocking it. In the distance was a small ATV and a couple of dogs moving them on their way. We stopped and the flock stopped and it became clear from their behaviour that they simply would not pass us until we turned off the engine. So we did. There were thousands of them, somebody had been busy with the shears. The drover gave us a cheery wave as he passed.

We started up and moved on. A little further along the road we met another flock of sheep, similarly denuded of their fleeces and exchanged a few words with the lady drover, who was also on a little ATV. Later on, I wondered why she did not tell us what lay in store for us only a few kilometres ahead…..

The highway gradually narrowed and zigzagged quite sharply as it rose and fell. This made the going hard work and a bit sweaty as it had really become quite hot. Although we were not moving very quickly, we caught up to a mini convoy of four RVs struggling up a steep, twisty incline. As is the custom, they made as much room as possible for us to squeeze by. Of course, as soon as the road levelled out, they all overtook us again, one by one. This procedure took place three or four times, by which point we were already happily waving to each other like old friends.

Then we came to a stretch of road that was, with no preceding warning signs, essentially just loose gravel. This was a bit perturbing, but we had seen stretches of highway like that before.

I cautiously edged forward onto it and went forward at around 10 kph, which actually felt suicidally quick in some places. There are some motorcycles built for surfaces like that and riders who actively seek them out – but it was no place for a 350 kilogram Harley-Davidson with luggage and two people. The gravel went on far longer than we had previously seen and the downhill stretches and sharpish bends were more than a little bit nerve wracking.

One by one, the RVs caught us up, edged past and moved away in a cloud of dust that made it even harder for me to pick a safe line. After about five kilometres of this I pulled over to let a large SUV that was coming towards us get by. When it was right by us, the driver stopped and Lucie asked him how much further the gravel went on for. This seemed to perplex him a bit – but probably in a big 4×4 with huge tyres it did not really make any difference to him. In the end, he said he “thought” maybe fifteen or twenty kilometres. That was very sobering ! We were driving at a speed of between 10 and 15 kph and the thought of driving like that for maybe another two hours worried us quite a bit.

Fortunately, as we proceeded, (going back being not an option), a few stretches of more compacted gravel appeared. There was even a short section of asphalt over a bridge where we had our last waving session with the RVs who seemed to be stopped for their lunch. In those places, my speed rose to almost 25 kph and that felt FAST ! Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the gravel ended and asphalt reappeared. It is hard to put into words just how happy that made us. Even its relatively poor surface felt as smooth as a snooker table. I think the SH43 should really be labelled “The Forgotten (to finish it properly) World Highway”. At the furthest end of the highway we passed through a very narrow, unpaved, unlit tunnel – although tunnel is probably too grand a term for what almost looked like a hand enlarged fissure. I wondered how the RVs would handle that when they came to it – it felt very confining even on the comparatively skinny Softail.

Lucie found out later, from the internet, that there is only one, single, 12 kilometre long section of highway in the whole of New Zealand that is not sealed. Naturally, we had found it and, luckily, we had survived it !

Glad to finally be able to drive normally, we stopped at a viewpoint in a place called the Tahora Saddle. In an account laden with superlatives, it becomes hard to elevate any place above the rest, but the view across the green, gently undulating countryside, were genuinely breathtaking.

I honestly think I could have stood there for hours. Sadly, a voice in my head, which turned out not to be in my head but coming instead from Lucie’s mouth, reminded me that, after the time delay crossing the gravel, we needed to be on or way. Our next destination, the town of Stratford, was very close and, despite a series of delays where road was being resurfaced (did they not know there was some road, not far away that needed just a surface ?) we soon arrived there without experiencing any further threat to life and limb.

In Stratford, we filled the tank (obviously) in the very shadow of the Taranaki volcano, which filled the horizon to the west. Taranaki was why we had come there. It is impressive, because it almost seems to rise directly out of the flat terrain of the Egmont National Park, but it is neither the highest, nor the most famous of New Zealand’s numerous volcanoes. Some of you might remember I have already mentioned a former colleague (the one who raved about Coromandel). When I knew him, he was a respectable family man, with two children, who ran a LOT of marathons, often for charity. No so in his youth, it appeared. It once came out that, when younger, he had enjoyed more than a passing flirtation with hand-rolled, “herbal” cigarettes, as it were. The phrase “Whacky baccy in Taranaki” was coined by me and somehow joined our collective team lexicon. I could not have passed nearby without going there. We took a few photos of the volcano which I immediately sent to all of those to whom it would still have some meaning and set off again south.

With the address of our evening’s accommodation in the SatNav, the rest of the trip would be a nice easy cruise……. Or not, as is so often the case.

A short way down the road, there were roadworks of a magnitude sufficient to warrant total closure of the SH3 highway and a diversion into the countryside. I followed the line of traffic, while Lucie was happily taking pictures and looking at the landscape. I was, of course, focused on the traffic in front of me. Luckily, Lucie noticed that instead of the volcano receding behind us and the sea being on the right, the volcano was again approaching and the sea was on the left.

We stopped to consult and found that I had somehow missed the diversion indicators and had ridden at least 20 kilometres in the completely opposite direction ! Whoops ! I was not having a good day.

Although we had left really early in the morning, we were glad to make it to Palmerston North before dark. We stayed in a lovely B&B called Charm on Chippendale (54 Chippendale Crescent, Highbury, Palmerston North) run by a couple of guys. Our accommodation, on the top floor was spacious and well-appointed. On arrival, we scared the guys a bit because, when I took of my gauntlet, it took the bandage over my burn with it – and I immediately had blood all over my hands ! This caused a mini panic. The boys could not remember, at first, where their first aid kit was, but once they found it, the flow was soon staunched. We did try to reassure them that it was nothing and this had been happening since day one of our trip, but it did not help much.

For dinner, the boys recommended the Cobb Hotel (528 Main Street, Palmerston North Central, Palmerston North). It did not look much like a hotel, it was a bit of a rowdy pub, but very “Kiwi” as we were beginning to understand it. People came in, ordered food, ate it and left. We did more or less the same. I had a passably good fish and chips and Lucie had breaded chicken. “Breaded” in front of almost anything seems a big thing in New Zealand. Such are the wonders of technology that we had a mobile alarm on out table that informed us when our food was ready to be collected. Using another technological wonder, Lucie’s iPad, we also managed to book our crossing to the South Island for the following day while we waited on our food !

We went home via an ATM as we were running out of cash. In the B&B Lucie added something called Valtrex to the growing list of drugs she was feeding me because, in addition to my stiff knee and my burned hand, I had managed to get so sunburned on my face that my lips had blistered. I slept the sleep of the just after a long and tiring day, or maybe I was just drugged-up to the eyeballs ….