It’s a crystal clear day as we leave Christchurch and the temperature soars to 27 degrees C across the Canterbury Plains, not bad for April and it’s now quite evident we won’t be seeing any snow-capped peaks before we leave the South Island! The Lewis Pass is the northernmost of the three major alpine passes and a fabulous motorcycle road, especially for a couple of adventure travellers who’ve been in a car for two weeks! We realise how much we’ve missed the adrenaline…and how New Zealand roads are made for riding.
After a night in Westport we visit Denniston, home to one of the richest, high quality coal seams in New Zealand. The road up to the mine is a series of steep, tight corners rising 600 metres above sea level with wonderful panoramic views of the Karamea Bight and the west coast plains. For decades it was the country’s largest producing coal mine, but it was definitely not a place for the fainthearted. The work was dangerous and amid the notorious climate and bleak living conditions on the barren windswept plateau, a proud and busy community of over 1,500 people carved out an existence.
The Denniston incline was recognised the world over as a remarkable feat of engineering falling 510 metres over 1.7 kilometres with dramatically steep gradients. In the early days when the only way up was via the coal wagons, some of the wives were known to have never left the little town as they couldn’t face the ride down!
The weather is glorious as we continue up the coast as far as the road will go and meet up with the start of the Heaphy Track, another of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”.
My second cousin Paul couldn’t make the recent family reunion as he has a dairy farm and it was too hard to find milkers at Easter so we time a stay at Little Wanganui. Their farm borders the beach and nearby river where Theresa catches whitebait so her fritters that night are a special treat.
The road round the Karamea Bluff is very rateable and it was a buzz to be able to ride it both ways and in perfect conditions.
We ride the scenic Dovedale Road through the Moutere Valley and find the church in Appleby where Paul’s ancestors are buried, the original O’Connor’s who came from Ireland five generations ago.
Paul finds more awesome back roads and the twists and turns around the Sounds are quite breathtaking as we take in the Tennyson Inlet and Kenepuru Head. April is marching on and a heavy storm front is coming in with a prediction of snow down to 500 metres – just as we are about to leave!
We bunker down in Havelock in a cabin for a couple of nights and the wind gusts reach 120km/h and it’s very cold.
It is time to say farewell to the South Island…wow, what an amazing journey it’s been (9,200 kilometres). It seems such a long time ago that we were heading down to the Burt Munro Rally, then enjoying Southland and the beautiful Catlins, Queenstown and magic Lake Wakatipu, majestic Central Otago with it’s snow-capped peaks, the gorges and forests of the north and west – the riding has been remarkable, especially those incredible passes.
Tip of the Day
Electronic pricing – we’ve never seen this before! What a wonderful idea that a central computer can change the prices at the click of a button to every Fresh Choice (New Zealand-owned) supermarket across the country!
Favourite of the Week
We ride over to Westport as Paul has contacted Kath O’Connor who is connected on the other side of his family tree. Her husband was the brother of John O’Connor and Paul’s Mum (Lesley) always talked about John. In the late forties, when she was around 19, Lesley hitchhiked round the South Island doing tomato picking and Kath remembers the brothers talking about her. Paul rings his Mum to share this news and she admits she “knocked around with John for a while”! Only three weeks ago, John O’Connor died and we would have loved to have met him. Kath shows us the local newspaper clipping for his large funeral and says “Here Paul…this could have been your father!!”
Show Me A Sign
Story of the Week
We are trying to book on the ferry to cross back to the North Island and hear a huge storm is coming. It happens to be the exact day and the 50th anniversary of New Zealand’s worst modern-time maritime disaster. On the 10th April 1968, the worst storm in local history devastated the Wellington region causing the interisland ferry, Wahine, to founder at the harbour entrance after it struck rocks.
The boat would eventually sink and 51 lives were lost. My Uncle Doug had just started work as a captain of the pilot boat Arahina and he and his crew tackled the conditions, put a scrambling net over the side and rescued 55 people from the water.
Many survivors and 49 of those who died were cast up on the coast and the local community around Eastbourne provided crucial assistance and support. A memorial has been erected so we decide to ride out along the waterfront and find it opposite the Eastbourne bus station in Korohiwa Bay where some grateful family have placed their own plaque.
A local lady walking her dog recalls the day to us and how hard it was for the survivors to come ashore on the treacherous rocks so I’m sure the 55 people Uncle Doug saved at sea will have never forgotten his bravery and efforts.