This is my account, a very long account – because how can you write a short story of a 35 hour motorcycle trip – of the BunBurner 1500 I completed on 7 and 8 May 2016.
Those few of you who follow this blog will know that over recent years a lot of my recreational focus is on long distance motorcycle riding.
I have completed a 1600km ride inside a 24 hour window four times – that’s two Rusty Nuts Grand Challenges (2010 and 2011), then two North Island 1600’s (2014 and 2015). Earlier this year I competed in the TT2000 – 2,000km in 48 hours (a bit of a doddle by comparison).
On my last North Island 1600 I was able to gain accreditation to the Iron Butt Association of America. This group are outright leaders in the ‘sport’ of long distance motorcycling. Their membership numbers around 60,000 across the world, and their motto boasts “The World’s Toughest Riders!” I’m very proud of my accomplishment of joining their ranks, no less because the accreditation allows me the right to enter the greatest long distance ride of all time – the Iron Butt Rally.
This rally is held every two years, and involves a very select number of motorcyclists having to ride up to (and sometimes exceeding) 11,000 miles in eleven days. It sounds insane probably because it is. According to the IBA more people have launched into space than competed in, and successfully finished, an Iron Butt Rally. With my IBA membership confirmed I thought I’d put my name in the ring and see what would happen. I’d heard stories of riders entering this competition five times in a row (that’s ten years of trying) and not being selected so my chances were slim – or so I thought.
What do you know? I was selected. Holy shit! It was the most exciting day of my life (apart from the day my children were born, and the day I got married!) Long story short – after trying to work out how to actually make this happen I ended up withdrawing from the rally. The cost was too prohibitive. Even if I didn’t ship my bike over and instead hired one from Eagle Rider the cost was going to run over NZ$15,000. And just at the moment I don’t have that sort of money.
So, in order to allay my disappointment from the IBR 2017 withdrawal I decided to see if I could complete a BunBurner 1500. This ride is an official IBA ride and involves completing 1,500 miles (2,414km) within 36 hours. The route is entirely at my discretion. I can leave when I want, as long as I maintain appropriate documentation to show I did the ride, and as long as I complete the ride within the 36 hour window.
For those of you who might be reading this from outside New Zealand, I live in a very small country. The roading network is pretty rudimentary, with the main highways, in the main, narrow two lane roads – that’s one lane going one way, and the other lane going in the opposite direction! What’s more the maximum speed limit is 100 kph (60 mph). That’s not particularly fast when you want to travel 2,414 km in 36 hours. On top of that there are a lot of small towns where the speed drops to 50 kph (30 mph) and there’s no way to avoid these towns – you have to go through them. To do this ride you need to maintain a moving average speed of 67 kph for every one of the 36 hours. It sounds easy. It’s not.
I spent a few weeks planning this ride. I have a Garmin Zumo 590, and using Garmin Basecamp I plotted several routes around the North Island (I live in Wellington) trying to find a route that was the right length and was able to be done within the timeframe. The consensus is leave early in the morning of the first day; ride as far and as long as you can on that day until you need to rest; take a short break, and then ride until you’re finished.
Leaving early in the morning, especially from a city the size of Wellington, means you don’t get snarled up in heavy traffic when you’re trying to leave the city. The other thing to consider is to avoid heavily congested areas at peak times at the other end of the day. So, if I’m leaving Wellington when the traffic is light I don’t want to be hitting Auckland (for example) at 5.30pm in peak traffic, even if it’s the weekend. Time is of the essence!
0 – 12 hours
I leapt out of bed at 4.30am on Saturday 7 May 2016. I’d packed the bike (BMW R1200GS) the night before. I had a spare can of fuel in one of the panniers, and in the other some food and my gas cooker in case I needed to cook a meal somewhere on the side of the road. The rest of my gear, including a tent and a sleeping mat, were in dry bags lashed to the pillion seat. They acted like a back rest – something I felt sure I was going to need over the next two days.
My route had been already loaded into the Garmin Zumo – I knew exactly where I needed to be and when, and I knew how long I could stop at each waypoint to make it back within the 36 hours. To back this up I’d built a rudimentary spreadsheet that would keep the waypoints, departures and arrivals, top of mind so I didn’t lose track of the remaining time.
First stop was BP Roadmaster on Taranaki Street here in Wellington. The ride begins the minute I get that first gas receipt. The Iron Butt require a dated receipt with a timestamp, and they require a witness at the beginning and end of the ride. I had my witness, Linda. I filled up with gas, went inside and paid.
Start time: 5:16 am. The ride has begun!
Google said I should arrive at Hawera (my next fuel stop) at 8.58am. I got there and fueled up at 8.34 am. Making good time. I hung around on the forecourt and ate some beef jerky, had a drink, ate some nuts. Back on the bike.
The route was taking me around Mount Taranaki, through Opunake and Oakura. The weather was warm with no wind. There was a clear view of the mountain when I left Hawera. No snow to speak of but unobstructed view right to the summit. By the time I got halfway around the mountain the cloud was rolling in. By the time I got to Oakura there was no mountain – it was shrouded in a thick blanket of dirty grey cloud, as if it didn’t exist.
I rode through New Plymouth around 10.00am. Next stop for fuel and some food was Taumarunui. The route took me north on SH3 past the beautiful rugged surf beaches near Mokau before I turned southeast on SH4. I got my gas at BP Taumarunui at 12:31 pm. Popped over the road for a very quick pie and coffee at the Training Cafe and was back on the road and out of town by 12.53 pm. I already had an hour up my sleeve – my spreadsheet said I would leave Taumarunui at 1:53pm. Nice!
I rode up SH32 around the western arm of Lake Taupo heading towards Tokoroa and SH1. I was due at my next fuel stop in Matamata at 16.15pm. I had to wait for construction unmanned traffic lights on the Whakamaru dam. It’s been a long time since I had driven through that part of the country. A lot of the forest has been milled and the land converted to what looks like dairy.
Matamata arrived quicker than I thought – my receipt said 14:59 pm. I now had an hour and a quarter up my sleeve. To tell you the truth I thought the traffic would slow down from here heading north. Despite the straight roads, the further north and the closer you get to Auckland the more congested the roads become. It didn’t really eventuate. There seemed to be more passing lanes and the traffic was moving at a good pace. Next stop was Waihi via SH 25 and the SH25A. SH25A is at the bottom of the Coromandel Peninsular and is a beautiful twisty road that sweeps through beautiful native forest. I arrived on the outskirts of Whangamata around 16:43 pm and took the bypass around the town, a nice curvy road that reminded me a lot of the Queen Charlotte Drive as you head towards Picton, except a lot greener.
Waihi was a hop, skip and a jump from Whangamata. I arrived at 17:15 pm a full hour and 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Things were looking good. I hung around Waihi on the forecourt for around 15 minutes taking in some food and water, and visiting the bathroom.
12 – 24 hours
SH2 out of Waihi takes me towards Tauranga. In the original plan I was going to get fuel at Bethlehem, but it was too close to Waihi to bother stopping. It would only slow me down. Turning southeast on SH29 through the Kaimai Range was slow. For a good deal of this road closest to Bethlehem the speed limit was 50kph. I can only assume this was to encourage drivers to use the toll road at 100kph. The traffic increased near McLaren Falls. An event had just finished and the stream of traffic trying to turn into SH29 was pretty impressive. It was already dark, and with these roads not being very familiar meant I didn’t really know where I was. I knew where I was heading, but that’s not the same as knowing when the roads would turn into something that I knew.
I came to the turn-off to SH28 which would link to SH5 leading into Rotorua from the west. I hit the middle of Rotorua at 19:28 pm. I was now nearly two hours ahead of my schedule. No time to stop for food. I carried on along the road to Atiamuri. I had last ridden this road on the 2015 North Island 1600, in the very early hours of the morning. It’s a lovely road, with very little traffic and easy passing if you do strike some. The road exits onto SH1 where you take a left turn to head towards Taupo. I was looking for fuel at the BP in Wairakei. I arrived at 20:13 pm.
I was a little bit weary. I filled up with gas and then spent some time working out where I might want to sleep. I thought that I might be getting to Opotiki around midnight and that that would be a good time to doss down for a snooze. I phoned the campground at Opotiki. The owner was surprised I even wanted to book a campsite at 8:30 pm at night. She told me she was just about to “put the barrier arm down” which meant no-one could get in or out of the campground. She did make another recommendation of a campground that didn’t have a barrier arm. I spent some time trying to get through but had no luck. I decided to press on and just play it by ear.
Back on the road around 20:41 pm heading north to the Murupara turn-off. This road goes through the forest. It’s a very straight road, ending in a seemingly infinite descent into the small forestry town of Murupara. I arrived there around 21:30 pm.
Turning north at the Murupara intersection on Kopuriki Road takes me (after some time) through to SH2 running across the Bay of Plenty. Kopuriki Road is a tiny country road, but it’s in really good condition and it’s not busy at that time of the night on a Saturday. I did have one scare though. I was driving through a small settlement when a small animal ran from the right of the road across to the left. It was so close, and so fast, I couldn’t work out whether it went in front of my front wheel, or between my two wheels. If it was between the wheels then it was the luckiest critter still alive, and I was lucky to stay on my bike. Actually, I’m confident that I could run over small animals and not come off the bike. I only assume this because last year I came around a corner in the dark and ran right over the top of a freshly deceased possum. It was a hell of a bump but the bike didn’t waver.
The single lane bridge that crosses the Whakatane River at Taneatua was showing a red light when I arrived. It’s a little strange sitting on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere, with no other traffic, waiting for what seemed like a long time, to cross a bridge that had no traffic on it. I contemplated crossing against the red light but it’d be just my luck to meet a car coming the other way. My bike doesn’t have a reverse gear. I waited. The light eventually turned green.
Opotiki came into view around 23:00 pm. I was greeted on the main road by the flashing lights of a police car having pulled over a low slung modified sedan. Just another Saturday night. I found the petrol station. There were two attendants, and a lot of young people hanging around. One guy was on the forecourt, a little off to the side and just out of the glare of the station lights. He was drinking a bottle of beer and waiting for his mate who was inside negotiating the attendant for the cheapest pack of smokes he could buy. He was clearly drunk. He turned towards me and said “How’s it going boss?”. As I paid he left with his mate across the forecourt. I was distracted from paying as they were both heading right for my motorbike, I thought to do no good. My helmet and gloves were resting on the seat, I had a tank bag with a whole heap of goodies, and I had my GPS sitting on a stand. They walked past my bike. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then paid for my fuel. Probably kind of weird to see a motorcyclist all loaded up in the middle of the night in Opotiki. There aren’t many places to head to from there.
I wasn’t keen on using the bathroom in Opotiki as after I had paid for my fuel around three more cars turned up, as well as a small group of young people. None of these people bought fuel – they were all there for the takeaway food. Rightly or wrongly I was concerned with the security of my things, and short of taking it all into the bathroom with me I couldn’t think of a way to keep it safe. I decided to find a toilet stop further down the road. I was back on the road by 23:13 pm.
The next leg was heading through the gorge along SH2 towards Gisborne. This is a challenging road at the best of times let alone at night. It can be treacherous in the wet as that’s when the grey clay rock that is prevalent in that area tends to break off in football sized chunks create dangerous obstacles in the middle of the road. On my first Rusty Nuts ride I came across a rider who was down after hitting one of these rocks. I know what could happen. My bathroom stop came at Matawai at 00:15. It was now the second day and I’d been riding 19 hours solid. Absolutely no-one around while I used the public toilets. When I came back to my bike a big red cat scampered away across the road, stopped and looked back as if to say “bloody idiot”.
I made it to the Wairoa Z Station at 02:04 am. My receipt was dated one minute later. The petrol station had an attendant but she was working through the night window. There was one other parked car at a petrol pump but the chap inside appeared to be eating, and not buying fuel. It was a little chilly now so I decided to have a pie – what turned out to be a very nice steak and cheese. It re-juvenated me for the next leg through to Lake Tutira.
I decided that Lake Tutira was going to be where I’d spend the night (well, a couple of hours). I had stayed at the Department of Conservation campsite maybe 30 years previously when friends and I did a road trip around the East Cape. The road from Wairoa to Hawkes Bay is really windy. It was further compromised with a lot of dense fog. When I got to Lake Tutira the fog was so thick I was worried that I would miss the turn off. I didn’t. But, I couldn’t see a bloody thing once I turned off, and the unsealed track that led to the campsite was virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding land. I gingerly pushed forward worried that if I dropped the bike I’d be stumped. A fence loomed ahead with a lot of signage. I saw in the distance two camper vans. I pulled up under an enormous walnut tree and cut the engine. A couple of rabbits bounced off out of my way. It was 3.31 am.
With my head torch lighting my way I managed to get my tent up and all the important equipment off my bike and into the tent. I decided to climb into my sleeping bag with my motorcycle pants on. I used my jacket as a pillow, set my alarm clock for 6.00am (by now it was 4:00 am) and promptly fell asleep.
Minutes later I woke. Two hours had passed and my cell phone was playing my favourite song. I opened my eyes to find my head torch had been on all night. I was that tired I didn’t notice. By 6:30 am I was starting the motorbike and heading back out to the main road. I swear visibility was worse than the night before. I made it to the road and headed south towards Napier and the BP at Bay View.
As I rode south the road winds up out of the valley around a notorious bend called “Devils Elbow” Right about that point I emerged out of the fog and mist to see a stunning red sunrise. Looking back towards Tutira was a sea of fog. It was stunning, and if I’d had the time I would have stopped and taken a photo. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
24 – 36 hours
Bay View beckoned with a coffee and a muffin. I didn’t need fuel. I’d calculated that I could reach Waiouru for my next fill. I did check my oil though and did a small top-up just to be sure the bike kept going.
I was on the Napier Taupo road at around 7:30 am. I like this road. It’s really improved and is fast and interesting, especially in the early morning on a Sunday when there’s very little traffic. When I was little (45 years ago) we lived in Hawkes Bay and would often travel to Taupo for the hoildays. In those days it took nearly three hours to do a journey which is now half that time. Back in those days there was a big 40km section of unsealed track that cars would share with the many logging trucks that plied the route.
Days have changed. I got to Taupo around an hour later! As the road heads towards Taupo it starts to descend to lake level. The road is very straight but undulating. I could see this ‘thing’ up ahead and at first I had no idea what it was. It quickly became bigger until I realised it was a hawk holding something in its talons, and trying to use the updraught of the road undulations to gain altitude. At the last moment it realised it would have to jettison its cargo to avoid hitting me. A hedgehog (a small one) flew out of the sky and bounced several times in front of me before it rolled off into the long grass at the side of the road. If it wasn’t dead before the hawk had tried to carry it off surely it was now.
Crossing the Desert Road Mount Ruapehu on my right was shrouded in cloud, completely. By the time I made it to Waiouru it was completely visible – the opposite of my experience with Mount Taranaki 28 hours previously. No snow on the mountain at all. Nothing. It’s nearly June for goodness sake. Will there be a ski season? At this rate it doesn’t look like it.
A very quick stop at Waiouru for gas. The time was 9:37 am. Headed south to the turn off just before Taihape that would take me across the Taihape Napier road, otherwise known as “Gentle Annie”. It’s a stunning road for motorcyclists. There was a 20km section right in the middle that had remained unsealed until only a few years ago. I rode over that road when it wasn’t sealed. It was terrifyingly steep, and even more so when you met traffic, especially logging or sheep trucks. Now, it’s just a beautiful road. One of the scenic gems of New Zealand. I made it over in a couple of hours arriving for a stop near PakiPaki at around 11.30 am. I parked up next to a vineyard under a towering oak tree. Ate some more beef jerky. Took my rain suit off which I had used that morning really just to block the chill. Swapped my winter gloves for summer weight. It’s Hawkes Bay. It’s autumn. It’s still 21 deg C.
My mother lives in Waipukurau. Sunday happened to be Mother’s Day. I had calculated a visit to mum wouldn’t compromise my deadline of 36 hours. I can’t turn up without a present so I called into the supermarket and bought a box of Roses chocolate. It’s a cliché I know but I couldn’t think of anything that I could carry that mum would have appreciated as much as chocolate. As it turned out she loves Roses chocolate!!
I stayed for forty minutes before heading off for the last three and a bit hours back to Wellington. I’ve driven this road down through the Wairarapa so many times I’ve lost count. I did my penultimate fill at the BP in Pahiatua at 14:09pm. Just out of Pahiatua on a straight-ish piece of road a traffic cop flashed his lights, powered up the red and blue lights, did a U-turn and followed me down the road. My heart sank. At this stage I had travelled nearly 2,300km without so much as seeing a cop, apart from one parked on the side of the road on the way into Rotorua, and the policeman talking to the boy-racer in Opotiki.
He was only doing his job I guess, and he turned out to be a pretty decent chap. I was on my absolute best behaviour as I wanted this to be over as quickly as possible. He’d caught me at 115kph, but because I had pulled over immediately he was prepared to discount the ticket to 110kph. I didn’t argue. I also didn’t tell him I’d been riding for 33 hours solid with a two hour break for sleep. If I’d done that I imagined he’d get me to walk in a straight line with my eyes closed, and I doubted I could do that, at the best of times. I haven’t received the ticket yet – it gets sent in the mail – but he told me that the fine would be $30 and that I’d get 10 demerit points. Honestly, it didn’t sound worth the effort of writing the ticket. I was expecting a $300 fine, a real deterrent. I kept my mouth shut, said thanks, made sure my indicator was on, then pulled out onto the roadway for the remaining one hour journey back to Wellington, at the legal speed limit.
I rode into BP RoadMaster on Taranaki Street at 16:23 pm. I had just under an hour up my sleeve. The ride was witnessed, and I tootled home to Karori. It was over. Or was it?
No, not really. I spent the next two evenings preparing all my documentation. Ordering the receipts and scanning them. Writing up the fuel log and noting all the mileages. Drawing a google map to prove the mileage. Sorting out the links to my Spotwalla tracking map.
If I took the speedometer mileage from my motorbike I just squeaked through the required distance. By my calculations it was 1,500.61 miles (2,415km). I needed 1,500 miles, or 2,414 kms. Luckily IBA know that the speedo on a motorbike is notoriously inaccurate, so they rely more on distances gleaned from a GPS. That distance was 2,439km (1,515 miles). I am confident that I’ll get the accreditation. I just have to wait until they do it which could be anything from 2-3 months away.
While I was riding I whiled away my time by coming up with other hair-brained rides I could complete. But, as they say, that’s another story. Check back soon.