Take a Polynesian naming convention, add in the European dialect and influence of the 1600s, a dash of contemporary architecture, wildlife usually found only in a zoo, some rainforest glaciers, and the ease of communicating in English—and what do you get? A tour through the most-recently discovered landmass on earth: New Zealand.
While no clear dates can be given for the island’s first inhabitants, the mythical Polynesian navigator, Kupe, was estimated to have arrived in 925 AD. European settlers “discovered” Aotearoa (“ow-tee-uh-RO-uh,” the Māori name for the islands) in 1642, led by explorer Abel Tasman and later Captain James Cook in 1769.
Today, the islands are under British rule. Native Māori (literally translating to local or original people) chiefs and the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, creating a diverse and vibrant concoction for governing the land and its culture. Here you’ll find breathtaking scenery, more sheep than people, and 98 octane at the pump, despite the national speed limit of a meager 100 kph (62 mph). Born and bred in the vacuum of the pale-blue South Pacific, “En-Zed” is a unique gem.
Mapping two islands into one ride is a tricky feat. What to see, how much time to spend (more!), and where to ride weigh heavily on the planning process. So I enlisted the help of some friends-of-friends who run a rental company with offices on both islands. Though the country is not much larger than Colorado in area, some days will be long in the saddle, while others will be spent on foot, bicycle, or jet boat.
The more populous island of the two, Te Ika a Māui (Māori for the fish of Māui), is the North Island (NI), where I began my trip, in the country’s largest city, Auckland. The highways around Auckland are the only ones you’ll see on the islands; the rest of the roads are like your favorite long way home. The South Island (SI), or Te Wai Pounamu (the waters of greenstone, jade), is the cherry on the sundae, with landscapes to die for and thousands of miles of paved and unsealed roads just waiting to be explored.
The North Island’s terrain is built around a singular volcanic high point with valleys through which the roads meander. The South Island is more strictly divided by the ridgeline of the Southern Alps (and home to the country’s highest peak, 12,316-foot Mount Cook). Roadways generally flow north to south here with the eastern routes running through low-lying pastures and farmland. The most desolate roads are on the western side of the island and narrow down to one major route along the coast, through golden fields, rainforests, and a tourism industry of glacier hiking. The island’s unique proximity of ice to rainforest makes it one of earth’s true rarities.
On The Road Again
Stay left! The roads in NZ are fantastic, just remember to ride on the "wrong" side.
With limited time to see everything Aotearoa has to offer, a one-way rental from the folks at Te Waipounamu Rentals fit the bill. Their locations in the two islands’ largest cities enabled me to fly into Auckland (NI), ride both islands and fly out from Christchurch (SI). Outfitted with a fresh new BMW F800GS, Givi hard sidecases, detailed maps, and plenty more suggestions, I was off and running.
Spanning the two islands are nine posted scenic routes and a few lesser routes, locally known as themed highways. The Thermal Explorer route leads from Auckland to Hawkes Bay on the southeastern shore of the NI, and is my plate of scenic morsels for my first day on the road. Departing the City of Sails on Route 1, southbound towards the growing suburb of Hamilton, this multilane highway melts into the countryside, crossing the emerald-green landscape of the Waikato region to and through Rotorua, Taupo, and on to Napier.
Roads get tighter and tighter as you approach the coast. The region around Lake Taupo is the island’s recreation and thermal spa headquarters. Lord of the Rings fans will want to divert through Matamata to tour the latest Trilogy’s movie set. Māori cultural centers like Te Puia in Rotorua offer the perfect crash course in native music and arts, as well as boiling mud pools and the Pohutu geyser.