Day 1: Christchurch to Mt. Cook

Day 1

Distance Traveled on Route: 370 km

Day 1 - Route

Today marks the first day of my motorcycle tour, which will begin with a day long trip from Christchurch to a hotel nestled up in the shadow of Mt. Cook, a nearly 400 km route. While it says it only should take 4-ish hours on the road, with frequent stops for pictures, food, and fuel, it takes me almost the entire day.

Before setting off, I grab a coffee and a bite to eat from a cafe just down the street from my hotel. It’s apparently run by an immigrant Malaysian family. I run into some other young travelers and strike up a conversation.

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This is Ashley and James, aussies from Melbourne who are also in NZ for a couple week long holiday. James is a plumber who recently finished his apprenticeship. We talk for about an hour, well beyond the time it takes me to down my coffee and my eggs benedict. Ashley asks me a lot of questions about the US, and I do my best to give a geography lesson wiIthout the aid of anything to write or draw with.

Once we say our goodbyes, it’s time to pick up the bike! I call a cab, and an old kiwi driver named Alan drives me to the depot. We talk about the earthquake. In his words, rebuilding the city “will be the work of a generation”. The bike depot is called “Te Waipounamu” Motorcycle Tours, which Alan kindly explains as meaning “green rock waters” in Maori. He also lends some friendly advice about the rules of the road in NZ. It was a short cab ride, but he was a pleasure to talk to.

At the depot, I meet the owner, Matt, who’s an american expat who moved from Dallas to Christchurch back in the 80’s. His accent is an odd blend of flat american tones  and kiwi pronunciation and inflection. He introduces me to my ride, a 2011 BMW G650 GS.

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I decide to give the bike a good german-sounding name: Olga. Olga has 52,000 km on her, and a couple of chips and dings as evidence of the heavy workload she’s had over her short lifetime. Her single cylinder engine has an angry, thumpy growl at low revs that transitions to a smoother purr once it climbs over 3,000 RPM. Even with the luggage the bike feels light and the seat is just low enough for me to feel comfortable at a stop (normally, I’m having to stand on my toes with taller bikes). The power is decent, but not remarkable; just enough power to do everything you need to do, but not enough to get you in trouble at all. On my first turn out of the depot, I blast the horn by accident instead of hitting my turn signal, and then stall the bike. The engine has very little torque at low revs, but I quickly adjust to all the quirks as the morning goes on.

After the first few tense minutes in traffic, I start to get comfortable on the bike and on the roads. I was surprised how quickly riding on the left hand side felt natural to me. Maybe it’s because there’s no steering wheel and shifter swap like you would have in a car.

My ride takes me out of the city and into quiet farmland as I pass through the town of Darfield. Hedgerows on the side of the road alternate between hemming me in and opening up into wide swaths of farmland, filled with fallow fields, horses, cows, and of course, sheep. I see many more pastures with sheep as the trip goes on. The air has a humid, sweet, and earthy smell to it. Fresh cut grass with a twinge of livestock.

About an hour into my ride I’m greeted with my first magnificent vista, the Rakaia Gorge.

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This picture was taken at the bridge where I crossed, but I missed the first turnout at the top of the gorge that looked out over the whole thing. Of course, the pictures don’t quite capture it. It was quite spectacular. I was stunned by the color of the water. Very white, likely from the bleached stone it washes over and carries along in its flow.

Later on in my journey I stopped at the bottom of Lake Tekapo. Theres a tiny church here called the “Church of the Good Shepherd”, which is swarming with tourists. The majority of tourists are Asian, and I feel like I hear more Japanese and Mandarin than I do English through most of the day.

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The church sits on a small height that overlooks Lake Tekapo, which unlike the white Rakaia river, is a brilliantly bright teal color. Mountains ring the edge of the lake, and they stand out proudly in the clear afternoon sun.

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At this point in the day it’s somewhere around 2 in the afternoon, and I am sweltering in my gear. The air is probably 80-ish F, but with the direct sun beating down on me and the humid air, it feels like the Bahamas in July. I shed my layers and carry them in my arms as I stroll down to the waters edge. I take a few minutes to splash the fresh water on my face and neck to wash away the salt and sweat. My water bottle makes a comical squeaking sound as I greedily drain half of it for some refreshing hydration.

After Lake Tekapo, I proceed onwards towards Mt. Cook. The mountain sits on the north end of Lake Pukaiki, and I can see it as I approach. It grows a bit larger with each kilometer I ride. Once I reach SH80 and begin the ride north, it really starts to command attention.

Pete's lookout, approx. 40 km from Mt. Cook.
Pete’s lookout, approx. 40 km from Mt. Cook.

At the lookout I fish out my GoPro to record the 30 minute ride north towards the mountain, only to discover that the battery is dead. Apparently it was either left on, or was accidentally turned on in my bag. Videos would have to wait for another day.

Regardless, the ride north is beautiful, and I ride alongside the lake to my right and looming cliffs to my left. Single lane bridges pop up several times along the route, crossing over half-hearted, barely flowing streams. The contrast of the snow in the bright sunlight is striking.

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I reach my hotel and check-in, again outnumbered by Asian tourists maybe 5 to 1. Both employees working the front counter are Asian. Rather than pay the $69 they want for dinner at the hotel restaurant. I hike back south for 10 minutes to eat at the backpacker’s lodge. I get a fantastic meal of NZ mussels in a creamy sauce, and share a few beers with a 30-something German woman named Yvette, from Stuttgart. I recognize that the bartender also sounds German, and when ordering my second beer I say as much, only to discover that she’s Austrian, and it’s insulting that I would even suggest that she’s German. Whoops. Yvette explains that it’s kind of like calling an American a Canadian, but whatever. Canadians are friendly people.

After my food and my drinks it’s almost 10pm so I walk back to my hotel room to crash after a long day. I’m astonished by how bright the sky still is. It feels like 6pm. Staying up to try to see the southern sky yields no fruit. Even waking up at 2am to get a glass of water, I find that the sky is still glowing, like the sun is still up but just hiding out behind the mountains. I didn’t think I would be far enough south to experience this kind of summer sky, but apparently, I am wrong.

That’s it for Day 1, everyone! Day 2 recap should follow shortly after I find myself some dinner. Adios!

P.S. This beer called “Export” that they have down here is awesome, but I’ve never seen it exported to the states. A shame, that.

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2 thoughts on “Day 1: Christchurch to Mt. Cook

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