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Road to Kiwis includes jet lag and sheep
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Mt. Eden is a long-dead volcano in the heart of Auckland with a huge, grass-covered crater at its top. - photo by Photo by Bill Rezak

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series chronicling a trip Bill Rezak made through New Zealand on a motorcycle.

I will celebrate my 70th birthday this summer, so I decided to treat myself to a birthday present early in the year. I’ve read so much about New Zealand and its incredible mountains, coasts and motorcycle venues that I thought that it might be a good place to try my first international bike trip.

"The Lord of the Rings" movies, which were filmed there and display the country’s beautiful vistas, also whetted my appetite.

Besides, they speak English in NZ!

There are several fine companies that conduct motorcycle tours around the islands of New Zealand. I investigated these and then decided to go it alone. Another "Smokey Lonesome" ride.

When I ride alone, I can stop wherever I wish for however long I wish and adjust plans on the fly. At this age, my sense of accomplishment at completing a ride like this alone is immense. Oh — did I neglect to point out that I saved several thousand dollars in this fashion?

I bought a good tour book on New Zealand along with a fine map and set about planning my excursion. Summer in NZ is from November to March.

I left Gainesville on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 14, and flew to Los Angeles, where I connected with a non-stop flight to Auckland, on the North Island of New Zealand. I arrived about 24 hours later on Saturday, Jan. 16, since I crossed the International Date Line in the process.

My daughter Sarah, who is an international globetrotter by virtue of her job in the high-end resort development business, advised that I plan a couple of days after arrival to recover from the travel and time difference. Boy, was that good advice! I arrived in Auckland at 5:30 a.m. — that was 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 15, Gainesville time, and I was a complete zombie for another 24 hours. I slept a little on the plane, but those coach seats weren’t made to accommodate someone my height.

In the Auckland airport I stopped and rented a local New Zealand cell phone thinking that I might need it to make hotel reservations or in the case of an emergency. I also changed my U.S. currency into New Zealand dollars. I learned NZ doesn’t use coins less than 10 cents — they just round up or down if something ends up costing an odd penny or two. How cool is that? It really cut down on the change in my pocket.

The exchange rate for $1 U.S. at that time equalled about NZ $1.33, so I felt quite affluent for a while.

My downtown Auckland hotel gave me an early check-in and I unpacked and took a much-needed shower. I then went out to explore, trying desperately to stay awake till later in the day. I took a trip to the top of the Auckland Sky Tower — not terribly impressive as such structures go, but it did give a nice vista of the city.

The Sky Tower is about 60 stories and provides a fine view of downtown Auckland and the Auckland Harbor. They did have one interesting feature at this tower that I had not run across before — you can bungee jump from the top! I decided to pass on this opportunity, but I did watch a couple of crazies getting their kicks in this manner. Guess it’s no more nuts than riding cross country alone on a motorcycle!

Let me set the stage regarding this fascinating part of the world. New Zealand consists of two large islands in the South Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles southeast of Australia. The islands are about 100 miles wide and about 1,000 miles long. The country is home to 4 million people and 14 million sheep. Three-quarters of the 4 million people live on the North Island with about 1.4 million in Auckland, the largest city.

The North Island was formed about 65 million years ago by volcanic eruption. There are about 60 active volcanos on the North Island. The South Island was formed about 225 million years ago by tectonic plate action. Both islands are fertile and agribusiness is the basis of the economy, with tourism a distant but vital second.

There are no aboriginal people from New Zealand. The Maoris arrived by 100-foot canoes from other South Pacific islands about 600 years ago. Westerners (the British) "discovered" NZ about 200 years ago, and of course immediately began to colonize. The Maoris held their own to some extent during this colonization process and today there is a strong Maori political party. The government is a British Commonwealth clone and no majority party is strong enough to form a government without Maori Party inclusion.

There were no mammals in NZ until outsiders bought them. The early Maoris subsisted on fish and fowl. There were a great many flightless birds. When the British arrived, they brought with them new species, which disrupted the ecology. Rats came on their ships and had no natural predators in the food chain, so they multiplied quickly. Westerners brought rabbits in 1859 and set them free to be hunted for food and sport. These too had no natural predators, so by 1920 there were 24 million of them covering the islands! Fox and opossums followed to reduce the rabbit population. These also made fast work of the flightless birds and most (excepting the kiwi) are now extinct.

It is quite difficult to obtain news of the outside world in New Zealand. Coverage tends to focus on local political issues and those of interest in Australia, known as Oz. I had a tough time trying to keep up with the Hawks, U.S. collegiate basketball and the NFL playoff games. I was able to drop by an internet café almost daily to satisfy my news habit.

New Zealand sports coverage involves in-depth reporting on cricket, tennis, golf, soccer, horse racing and — more than anything else — rugby. Cricket seems incredibly boring, but I don’t understand the rules, so who am I to criticize?

On Sunday, Jan. 17, I took a bus tour around Auckland to learn the lay of the land. We drove to the top of Mt. Eden in the heart of the city. This is a long-dead volcano with a huge crater (now grass covered) at the top.

The Auckland Harbor is a wonderful, happening place of ocean liners, freighters and pleasure boats. Auckland bills itself as the home to the America’s Cup sailing races. This in spite of the fact that the United States dominates this sport.

On Monday, Jan. 18, I flew from Auckland on the North Island to Nelson on the South Island to pick up my rented bike. This was a remarkable experience since there was absolutely no airport security for this local flight. That’s right, no luggage check (I carried mine on board) and no individual screening, let alone body scans. Must be nice to live in such a safe place! It was a most refreshing way to travel.

In the next episode, I pick up my rental bike an begin my 2,400 mile ride-about.

Bill Rezak retired in 2003 after 10 years as president of Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y. Prior to that, he was dean of the School of Technology at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta. He and his wife, Paula, moved to Gainesville, and Paula was diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2004. She passed away in late 2006, but not without maximizing her time on her motorcycle.

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