Southern jaunt with the “Sons of Agony”

There’s a group of old mates and “hangers on” that do a motorcycle jaunt around the country each November. This last November was our fifth outing. The rides have been mainly in the South Island – that island allows for longer distances and more spectacular and empty scenery.

For the 2016 southern jaunt we came up with the cunning plan for a “spoke and hub” – basing ourselves in one location – St. Arnaud in the Nelson Lakes region – and doing a long ride each day returning to St. Arnaud each night.

That brilliant idea didn’t last long. It was going to be easier, and we’d see more of the country, if we started in St. Arnaud but did a big circular route, over the Lewis Pass, then over Arthurs Pass, then up the West Coast almost as far as we could ride, then back to St. Arnaud. For those that were keen a jaunt on the last day over the Takaka Hill and back would make a great end to a pleasant four days.

The Sons of Agony (coined by our good friend Claire Ryan who has a “way with words”) is made up of the following:

Skinny – that’s me, on a 2005 BMW R1200GS

Jo – riding a 1986 BMW K75C

Pete – brother of Jo, on a 1986 Honda CB750F2 Integra

Bill – brother of Pete and Jo, riding a 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 650

Ken – riding a 2013 Triumph Explorer 1200

Glenn -astride a 1988 Yamaha FZR1000

Steve – riding a 2016 BMW R1200GS Triple Black

and lastly Tom – brother of Jo, Pete and Bill, who turned up two days late on a rental bike – another 2016 BMW R1200GS.

Day 1 – 22 November 2016:

Bill, Steve and I left from Wellington. We were booked on a 5.30pm ferry sailing but only one week before the devastating Kaikoura earthquake had struck, and the ferry sailings were inconsistent. Bill called me in the afternoon saying the 5.30pm had been cancelled but that we were re-booked on the 8.30pm meaning a check-in at 7.30pm.

When we made it down to the terminal there were a couple of other bikes, very few cars, and many, many trucks. And there were very few foot passengers.

We got on board the Kaitaki to find that pretty much the whole ship was locked down. No bar facilities, and no TV. Nothing much other than the café. Because of the inconvenience of the late sailing Interislander gave each of us a $15 food voucher.

The boat eventually pulled out late at around 9.15pm. This meant that we wouldn’t arrive in Picton until around 12.45pm (3.5 hour journey). We then had a two hour ride to St. Arnaud.

All three of us struggled to spend our $15 allowance, and as they wouldn’t give us change, and we were determined to “get our money’s worth”, we ended up buying stuff we didn’t really need.

We all had a bit of a nap expecting to be late into port. I have no idea how the captain did it, but he must have had his hand hard down on the throttle. We arrived in the South Island at 12.15am, three short/long hours later.

Bill sleeping on the ferry, the empty café in the distance
Bill sleeping on the ferry, the empty café in the distance

SH1 south was closed to all traffic because of massive slips due to the earthquake. An alternative but much longer route was in place up the Wairau Valley and through St. Arnaud – the route to the lake.

This secondary route (SH63) was getting really badly chopped up by the increase in trucks using the road. We’d heard that earlier that week 1,000 trucks had gone through a road that was barely two lanes in places, and dotted with one-lane bridges. We expected the worst.

As it turned out our ride to the lake was largely uneventful. We arrived around 2.10am and collapsed straight into bed knowing we had a big day on Wednesday.

Day 2 – 23 November 2016

Pete cooked us a big breakfast on Wednesday morning. The plan was that Jo, Glenn and Ken would leave Nelson and meet us at the lake around 10.00am. We’d head to Murchison, then over the Lewis Pass, through Culverden near the epicentre of the earthquake, then the inland route through to Springfield where we’d meet up with Tom who was joining us from Christchurch. Our second night would be at Flock Hill Station, 30 km east of Arthurs Pass.

The others arrived on cue, and we headed off. The traffic was noticeably busier on the road from Lake Rotoiti to Murchison. Lots of trucks with, in places, very little room to move. Bumper to bumper actually. I filled the tank in Murchison and headed off towards the Buller Gorge. The others were well ahead of me by now so I had a pleasant tootle through to Inangahua before meeting the crew by the fire station.

Lunch was in Reefton – the first town in New Zealand to get electricity (in 1888).

Jo bought two pies - he was hungry
Jo bought two pies – he was hungry
The lineup in Reefton
The lineup in Reefton

We had a beautiful ride from Reefton to Springs Junction. Jo and I somehow found ourselves together and tootled through the gentle curves of SH7. Just before we got to Springs Junction with Jo ahead, his bike dislodged a piece of fairing. It landed in the middle of the road. We stopped on a hairpin bend while Jo dismounted and ran back to pick it up.

The weather was stunning through Culverden. Around 30 deg C. We stopped for a drink and a refuel. There was no evidence of the earthquake even though we were very close to the epicentre of the quake. Minor cracking was evident on some of the bridges, and they were reduced to one lane as a result. But in Waipara (the actual epicentre) there was no obvious damage that we could see from the main road.

The plan was that Tom would ride over from Christchurch and meet us in Springfield. It didn’t happen as there’d been some mix up with the bike he was renting. So we pushed on to Flock Hill where we were staying for the night.

Flock Hill was fantastic. Cheap accommodation in the shearers quarters (refurbished as very comfortable bunk rooms). I shared with Ken. The meal was perfect. The staff were great. We were entertained by a small dog – a terrier of some description – which Jo took an intense liking to as the photos show.

Jo's new friend.
Jo’s new friend.


The classic bikes on the trip. That's Jo and his BMW K75 on the right
The classic bikes at Flock Hill. Glenn’s Yamaha FZR1000, Pete’s Honda 750F2 Integra, and Jo with his BMW K75C.

Day 3 – 24 November 2016

In the morning some of us wandered around the working farm heading over to the huge wool shed. It’s a huge property with a lot of history.

After breakfast we headed through to Arthurs Pass – about 40kms away. We didn’t stop as the weather wasn’t great. In fact riding over the viaduct the cloud was so low that visibility was reduced to around 100m. It made for a very surreal experience.

Our next night was in Karamea, nearly as far north as you can ride on the West Coast of the South Island (that’s a great sentence).

I have no idea why but for some reason we went to Hokitika first. This was weird because it was a southern diversion.

In Hokitika we refuelled at the BP. Bill popped next door to the Farmlands store and bought some long, fluffy lined rubber gloves. The intention was to wear them over his motorcycle gloves to improve waterproofing (see the video later in this post). They seemed to work well.

Heading north we had coffee and a bit to eat in Greymouth. Bill had a wee surprise in his pack – some “ear glasses” that he thought I could benefit from. They are supposed to mimic putting your hand up to your ear to hear better. They didn’t work. At all. Not one bit. And Bill paid money for this snake oil 🙂

I try on Bill's ear glasses.
I try on Bill’s ear glasses.

We left Greymouth to ride up the Denniston Incline. This has to be one of the best motorcycling roads in New Zealand. We didn’t hang around at the top as it was overcast and the views were not good. The ride down was as good as the ride up.

On to Karamea. An amazing road, at times straight and closely following the coast. At others winding through dense rain forest. We were still fortunate that it wasn’t raining hard – just overcast and grey. But there was rain ahead.

We stayed at the Last Resort, an establishment rumoured to have been built with drug money (not by the current owner). I was feeling crap and so took to my bed for a couple of hours rest. Jo, Bill and Steve decided to ride to the end of the road and then walk to the famous cave system in the Kahurangi National Park. They returned around 7.30pm when we went into the restaurant for dinner.

There was a roast and seven vegetables for $23. How could we refuse? It was delicious. Half way through the meal we heard a motorbike arrive. It was Tom on his BMW R1200GS rental. He’d ridden over from Christchurch and was only two days late due to a mix up in his booking. It was good to see him. He managed to get a meal before the kitchen shut. Then we retired to the bar.

Roast and seven vegetables for $23 at The Last Resort
Roast and seven vegetables for $23 at The Last Resort

Now, what follows has been censored to protect the main protagonists. The short story is that there was an electronic keyboard in the bar which had been gifted by a local woman. It looked like it had never been played. Tom was roped into giving it a whirl and for two and a half hours we sang and giggled and drank. Two of the locals in particular got pretty damn drunk. They had never witnessed the Sons of Agony in full voice before (a tradition that we aim to continue), and it was a bit of a shock to their system.

Towards the end of the night we noticed one of these gentlemen had a T-shirt advertising a local helicopter firm. We asked him what he did and he moved his hands back and forth in a mime demonstrating flying a helicopter. OMG! Hopefully he wasn’t flying tomorrow. In fact he said that the weather was going to be rubbish so he had the day off. Thank God!

Day 4 – 25 November 2016

In the morning we woke to the sound of a helicopter taking off over the road from our accommodation. At breakfast we saw the other chap looking perfectly sober. He laughed about the night before and recounted what a great time he’d had. Then he told us that when we retired to bed he had driven the other chap home! Small remote towns, no cops!

The rain arrived with a vengeance before we were packed and ready to go. In fact it had been a downpour all night. There was debate about whether we should wait until it passed, but it was evident that we’d be waiting a long time and so we togged up. Bill tested his agricultural glove under a down pipe. His cunning plan seemed to be working OK. Braving the elements we headed south then east to St Arnaud.

It’s a running joke – although not many of the Sons of Agony are laughing anymore – that I have very good wet weather gear. I have Goretex jacket, pants and boots, and my gloves are rated dry as well. Despite all the manufacturers claims of weather-tightness what this doesn’t guarantee is that your helmet will stay fog free, especially when you’re combining moisture and heat (from your head).

A year or so previously we had ridden from Franz Josef to St. Arnaud in torrential rain, through flooded roads. My helmet fogged the whole way so that the only way I could see was by riding with my visor up. Even the pinlock system on my visor didn’t work.

This time for me there were absolutely no issues. I could ride with the visor locked down and still maintain perfect visibility as the famous West Coast rain sheeted horizontally across the road.

Others were not so fortunate. When we finally stopped for a break Pete recounted how his visibility was so bad he had to ride with his visor up, and his glasses off. Pete is blind without his glasses, but he had better vision without them in the rain than he did with them on!

The trip through to St Arnaud was pretty uneventful. We had to stop along the way while some pines were pruned near the road side. A huge spinning blade on an arm and attached to a small tractor with a caged cab chopped overhanging limbs. They’d crash to the ground and be scooped up by a little digger and a truck.

We had a home cooked dinner that night and whiled away the evening watching a YouTube documentary about motorcycling in the Himalayas on Royal Enfield motorbikes. We all agreed this would be a fun Sons of Agony trip, something for the bucket list.

Day 4 – 25 November 2016

The idea for the last big day was to ride over to Takaka and Golden Bay via the famous Takaka Hill. Glenn, who had returned to Nelson the previous day (cos that’s where he lives), was going to re-join us just out of Motueka.

The weather was clear and we had a nice run through to Motueka via the Moutere Valley.

Glenn had given directions to a small café over the road from a brewery on the main highway just out of Motueka. This proved more difficult to find that it sounded. I was at the back of the bunch and spotted Glenn on the side of the road. I couldn’t toot to tell the others because all the rain from the previous day had soaked into my horn and switch cluster. The horn had started running continuously so I’d disconnected it. The others weren’t looking in their mirrors and continued on as I peeled off. What followed was a 20 minute comedy of errors. I think the others went around a very large block maybe three times. In fact we watched them go past us twice, until they finally, one at a time, realised where we were.

There were only six of us in the group now: Glenn and a mate of his, Darryell who was joining for this ride; me; Tom; Steve; and Bill. Somehow we naturally split into two groups. Darryell races motorcycles and so we assumed he’d want to attack the hill from the front. Glenn would want to try and keep close to him. And I thought I’d like to stay close as well. The other three took up the rear guard. And we were off.

I didn’t see Darryell until we got to the other side of the hill. But on the way up I hugged as close to Glenn as I could. He let me pass him just over the summit. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I think we did the hill in about 23 minutes.

We waited (not long) for the others to catch up and then tootled through Takaka to Mussell Inn for lunch.

The ride back to Nelson was uneventful. This time Tom chased me over the hill. Popped into see our friends Claire and Ben for an afternoon tea (I was the only one who stayed to eat the impressive spread they’d laid on) and then back to Nelson to stay at Jo’s house.

Pete cooked an amazing meal that night and we reminisced and told tall-ish tales.

Day 6 – 27 November 2016

I left in the morning around 10.00am having breakfast with a friend before heading for the ferry in Picton via Queen Charlotte Drive. I arrived just in time for check-in.

Not a long (in terms of distance) trip, with a variety of weather and conditions, but it’s always good to travel with the Sons of Agony – we’re relaxed about our motorcycling. We maintained the tradition of singing in public. We ate a lot of pies.

Already looking forward to 2017.

Spotwalla track for the November 2016 Sons of Agony ride
Spotwalla track for the November 2016 Sons of Agony ride