Riding the storm.


I am 58 years with a desire to experience some adventure before being buried. I took one of my own rental motorbikes and rode from Christchurch to Auckland over two days. The Suzuki Vstrom 650 (DL650) was the bike of my choice.

Riding with a difference! I waited until the biggest storm was about to strike, and I rode through it!

The weather forecast on TV1 with our famous weatherman, Jim Hickey, suggesting the combination of low pressures and various associated fronts in the Tasman Sea and slowly heading to enclose New Zealand was complicated by two high pressure systems squeezing together the complex trough and forming a sizable storm. It has also been referred to in the media as a weather bomb. The result over the next five days was a combination of deluge rain storms with strong gusty winds, sometimes gale force, brutally charging over most of the country. 

This is what I was waiting for, not some paltry rainy period, but a significant and memorable storm event to ride through. This was my challenge, and I reveled in the anticipation.

Most motorcycle riders enjoy riding in warm summer dry conditions. I do too. But occasionally, a variation and a challenge rise to greet us, and we seriously consider accepting these invitations to spice up the routines of life. NZ get only four or five decent storms in a year, mostly in winter. They are hard to find, and impossible to plan for. The country normally enjoys a 95% dry time throughout the year, so riding a motorbike is usually and normally a dry event. Finding a storm to ride through is quite difficult.

I found a storm coming and had but hours to plan and go for it. On Wednesday morning 7.30am at a house on Marine Parade in South New Brighton in Christchurch, I left with all my wet weather gear on. My daughter, Rebecca, said “Dad! You’re mad! Good luck.”

I left Christchurch in a moderate drizzle that soon dried up. The clouds were low and threatening, but I rode north in dry conditions. Funnily, the sky further north ahead of me started showing patches of blue.

I once previously had the unfortunate experience of riding a long way in rain and not being adequately dressed for it. Within an hour I was drenched through and cold to the bone. I suffered another hour travelling before capitulating to the bloody weather, when I pulled into a gas station and the cashier took pity on me standing in her shop in a puddle of my dripping rain water looking like an iceberg. This trip was different. I know how cold and wet a rider can get in New Zealand and I dressed to stay dry and warm. My main secret is plastic bags. I wore a large ‘Black Sack’ (trash can liner) over my shirt and under my bike jacket. Then I wore the bike jacket, another watertight Hi-Vis jacket, and another Black Sack over the top of that. My gloves are as waterproof as toilet paper, so I got a plastic bag over each and taped it around my wrists, keeping my gloves dry. Water usually runs into my boots so I taped smaller white bin liner plastic bags to my boots and calves (close to the knees). If water managed to get through that lot, I would be surprised. The overall effect is not your usual rider. In fact, laughable.

But dry.

I rode north using my GPS to tell me the route and headed for Hanmer Springs. I chose the Lewis Pass route through Murchison, Blenheim to Picton rather than the shorter east coast route through Kaikoura (pronounced kye-cow-raah). The Lewis Pass route has an amazing beauty. The trip to Hanmer Springs was uneventful.  I saw no more rain and the skies became more widespread blue. The roads were winding and rolling, and I reveled in these lovely riding conditions.

I gassed up at Springs Junction. I had to travel quickly because I had pre-paid the ferry at Picton for the  2.00pm sailing. At Springs Junction, my GPS showed I had 297km to travel in exactly three hours before the boat left. I could see I wasn’t allowed to dawdle, so I hightailed it. The weather was still clear, sunny and mainly blue with an occasional thunderhead passing me by. No rain yet.

I passed Murchison. The route headed east through Marlborough toward Blenheim and these roads were long and straight. I kept seeing signs where the speed limit of 100 was not a target, so I never aimed for that speed. I gained on my Estimated Arrival Time by some significant number of minutes and flew into Picton well on time.

I boarded the ferry. In the lounge during the 4 hour crossing, I sat with a group of other bikers, all travelling from the Ullysses Motorcycling club AGM in Invercargill and heading home to parts north. It was a convivial time. I met the latest Auckland club president, Rob Bisset, and had a chat for ages. I am myself a member of this club, and enjoyed the camaraderie. 

The boat docked in Wellington about 5.30pm, just at rush hour. The rain was pouring down, finally my wet weather gear was to be tested. I rode about 30km north, out of the Wellington crazy traffic and into a motel for the night in a suburb called Mana. I managed to park my Suzuki Vstrom 650 under the terrace dry and snug as the rain settled in.

In the morning the weather was raining. I dressed again in all my wet weather gear and headed north. The traffic was heavier than I expected and I settled into the traffic flow keeping a good clear distance ahead.

The rain increased, and the winds rose. I was being buffeted as I rode by the cross winds. When I came to Bulls, the winds were very strong and directed east to west across my northern direction. The cross winds were moving me about my lane a fair bit now. The rain became deluge. The winds got stormier.

I saw the car in front of me raise a wash from the wet road and the wind whipped it into the fields to my left well before I got to it. Similarly, cars travelling south towards me were also whipping up the road wash and I was getting deluged from both the rain and the bow-waves of the oncoming traffic. Inside my dry-suit and helmet I was alternately swearing and laughing, swearing each time a bow-wave swamped me, and laughing cause I was still dry as a bone.

Then an 18-wheeler truck passed by.

Do you know the feeling? I’m heading north at 100km/hr in deluge rain, and the massive juggernaut truck comes barreling south only a meter away from me raising a huge wash of water from the road enough to fill a swimming pool. I saw the car in front of me disappear into this saturated gloom a moment before it too swallowed me.

It was not like walking under a lawn sprinkler.

It was more like a collision. The combination of the heavy rain, the serious crosswinds, the massive raised road wash, the huge pressure bow wave and the collective head-on speed of 200km/hr felt like a thumping second to none. I loved it! Enthralling and scary. I can’t avoid it, and the marvelous bike handled it with ease. I screamed inside my helmet with joy. Where’s the next one?!

The rain kept coming and the winds continued for hours. My dry wet suit continued to keep me dry, although my boots started leaking. The plastic bags covering my gloves shredded and eventually disappeared. But I remained dry and toastie warm. I love this storm riding. It is an exhilarating experience leaving me breathless and grinning ear to ear.

After Bulls, I rode into the hills around Taihape (pronounced tie-happy) and the rain lessened and the winds became milder. I ate the kilometers heading for Auckland. I stopped for gas and a bite to eat. Time was no problem, I had no timetable to follow.

The road passed Waiouru (pronounced Why-ooh [like in ooh, yuk!]- roo) and entered the fabulous Desert Road. This road has to be one of the greatest motorbiking roads in New Zealand. It has stunning views of the three mountains, when they are visible. It is often covered in snow in winter. It passes through the beautiful wild open wind-swept Tongariro National Park. It’s a paradise for riders.

The three mountains were not visible. Not even close!

The mild winds became gale force. The rains decided they had enough of pussy-footing about and started bucketing down in earnest. The wind direction was still tempestuous and across my road. Water spray from the cars ahead of me were carried way past my field of vision, and probably landed on the other side of the mountains to the west. I was being buffeted by the major cross-winds and hung onto my handle bars just a bit tighter. I didn’t feel the bike wheels skipping out from underneath me yet, but… It was something I was watching for.

And then the trucks passed me! Whew.

A motorbike is very little. And a truck isn’t. When the pressure wave of a hurtling truck raising the enormous rainwater wash encounters the very little motorcyclist with his relatively insignificant windscreen, the effect on the truck is rather minor. I saw no damage to the front steel fenders of the truck. My motorcycle road wash hindered the truck not one whit.

On the other hand, I felt a little bit like being swallowed by the dragon. The truck’s pressure wave and road water wash belted into me like a concrete wall. I was flung through the passing wash as if something grabbed me and shook me like a tumble dryer. I remained seated and riding and continued onto the next passing truck a few hundred meters further on. The force of the impact through the pressure wave was awful, and awesome. I always came through, sodden on the outside and visor covered in wash water, but dry and shaken on the inside. It’s a really hairy and exciting episode. This is the ride through the Desert Rd in stormy conditions. It lasted about 15 minutes until I entered the twisted part of this road. Here the rain continued but the winds were lessened because of the undulated land. The trucks ground their way slowly and the pressure waves were negligible.

Wow! That was great.

Soon I passed Turangi, Taupo and headed for Hamilton and Auckland. The remaining journey was uneventful except it continued raining heavily all the way to Hamilton. Then the rain eased to drizzle and showers.

I rode through one of New Zealand’s best storms and loved it. It was both scary and exciting. I finished in Auckland without a single dangerous traffic incident occurring. I had no close calls, or any near misses. The passing trucks in stormy deluge conditions at Bulls and on the Desert Road made for an exciting breathtaking ride. I’ll do it again anytime. The TV news that night reported all sorts of destruction from the storm through the country. Apparently, it was quite devastating.

Imagine that.

The next morning at home, the weather was fine and calm, blue skies and waterlogged lawns. Time to wash the bike.

This was an exciting ride for Pete. If you fancy riding in challenging conditions, and meeting difficulties with relish, consider renting a motorbike from Wild Freedom Motorcycle Rentals and follow your dreams!

You may only ever get this one chance - then its gone. Maybe forever!

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