Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any road trip around New Zealand's South Island, but hearing it's a place where 250-kilometre an hour winds can rip through the fiord, sweeping waterfalls straight up sheer cliffs, is unsettling news for any motorcyclist.
We were midway through a 12-day ride around the island and, after days enjoying vivid blue skies, gentle breezes and pleasant temperatures, it was time to nudge the comfort zone and confront New Zealand's wild side.
On the morning we headed out from the small gateway town of Te Anau, the forecast was for rain; hardly surprising as Milford Sound is known as one of the wettest places in the world, with an average 182 days of rain a year, keeping the waterfalls permanently gushing. A 6.30am start promised a jump on the conga line of coaches that makes the pilgrimage each day from Queenstown.
It's a 120km scenic ride north from Te Anau through the Southern Alps towards the famous fiord of Milford Sound, rugged plains stretching out towards the mountains, which the road eventually begins to climb. That's when the trouble started.
The winds, which had been strong but steady all the way, were now gusting in unpredictable bursts, about 100km/h, flinging the large BMW bikes around like butterflies. By the time we reached the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2km road cut through granite mountain, and were halted by traffic lights, the gusts were so strong we could barely keep the bikes upright. And it was raining. When one of our crew tried to hold on with one hand to snatch a quick photo, he and his bike were blown straight off the road.
Miraculously, as we transitioned through the dimly lit tunnel to the canyons on the other side, the gusts became tolerable and we were able to appreciate for the first time the raw magnificence of this Lord of the Rings terrain.
The two-hour cruise we'd pre-booked journeyed the length of the fiord to the Tasman, dwarfed by rock faces that soar up to 1000 metres above sea level. We pulled under pounding waterfalls that drenched anyone willing to brave the deck and alongside rocky outcrops crowded with fur seals. It's wild, dramatic terrain, and the only fiord in the South Island accessible by road, so the challenging ride in ultimately seemed fitting.
A loop of the South Island is like a sampler of global scenery; virtually every leg introduces a different postcard. Our group of nine started our trip in Christchurch, where we picked up our hire bikes, and headed north, first through farmlands and then winding country roads, before exiting abruptly at the South Pacific Ocean at Kaikoura.
From there it was a coast-hugging ride that swept around the cliff bends and then descended almost level with the sea flats. We then ducked inland again towards Blenheim and the famous Marlborough wine region, with a stop to stock up on some local pinot and sauvignon blanc before heading to Picton. It was just a typical day of contrasts, as it turned out.
The January weather we scored on our 12 days, apart from those pesky winds, was near perfect, with warm evenings that stayed light until 10pm, allowing plenty of time for apres-ride activities. Our aim was to reach each destination before 3pm each day, allowing plenty of time for rest and local immersion.
From Picton, it was straight up a series of hairpin bends that offered astounding views high over the Marlborough Sounds, then on to Nelson for the night, before plunging down through the centre to Hanmer Springs, where the town's famous warm springs are conveniently located directly across from the lively pub. Slip out of the steamy pool, into thongs, T-shirt and shorts and, within five minutes, you're across the road sipping a cold beer and listening to some great live music in the beer garden.
At Franz Josef Glacier, there's the hike up from the village through the glacier. Don't make the mistake some of our lot did. They underestimated the walk, arriving back in misty, near darkness, collapsing on the sofa as the rest of us polished off the last of the pinot and watched the closing credits of that classic motorcycle movie filmed in New Zealand, The World's Fastest Indian.
Wanaka was a real highlight, the "little sister" to Queenstown, with its idyllic lake setting and abundant outdoor activities. The ride in twisted around Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, glistening under a cloudless sky, and surrounded by the grey, crinkly mountains that frame these glacier-carved beauties.
Our only two-night stop was Queenstown, but you could so easily spend a week in this adventure capital. However, with bike hire (including hefty insurance) at roughly $250 a day, there was always the impetus to keep moving. Lakes and mountains were once again the backdrop to a very buzzy scene in peak summer season. The main tourist action centres around the bars, restaurants and shops along the waterfront of Lake Wakatipu. If you're a large group, don't even think about trying to rock up last minute for dinner, anywhere, and find a table spare.
Between us, we squeezed in a bungie jump, jet boat ride, a steamship cruise around the lake and (for the girls) a grimacing Thai massage and a soak in the divine Onsen Hot Pools. These are private tubs, with a retractable roof and window, on a cliffside looking down over the canyon where the jet boat hurls itself around narrow bends. It seemed a much more soothing way to soak up the alpine experience.
The home run back up to Christchurch took in a stopover at Lake Tekapo via Lake Pukaki, the most mesmerising Windex-blue lakes I've seen, with golden tussock grasslands and mountains in every direction. Lake Tekapo is a tiny township you can walk the length of in five minutes, but it's a special place.
There's a little stone church down on the scrubby foreshore of the lake, the Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1935, where the only couple in our group had been married a few years earlier. I've since read that the area is one of the most popular places for weddings in the world, which is a pretty good indicator of what a stunner the whole Lake Tekapo region is.
Unfortunately we never made it up to nearby Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest peak, at 3755 metres; the wind just defeated us that day.
Having grown up in Tasmania, it's tempting to make comparisons, but the South Island offers vignettes of vastly differing landscapes. And the roads are near perfect, with barely a pot hole or loose gravel in sight, and plenty of pull-over spots for the ubiquitous motorhomes, campervans and coaches that share the roads, so it's magic for motorcycling, but relaxing for any self-drive tourist.
And the big upside of a major tourist destination is that they really have nailed infrastructure and service, so there are surprisingly few hiccups on the restaurant and accommodation front – even with our large group and specific requirements. And, of course, there's the scenery, surprising and enchanting at every turn. Peter Jackson's tantalising cinemascape for Lord of the Rings is every bit as dramatic up close.
The writer travelled at her own expense.
Bike hire was from South Pacific Motorcycle Tours, see motorbiketours.co.nz. A range of touring bikes available.
CHRISTCHURCH Colombo in the City, 863 Colombo Street. Rooms from $170; see motelcolombo.co.nz/
PICTON Gateway Motel, 32 High Street. Spectacular views over the Malborough Sounds, rooms from $117; see gatewaypicton.co.nz/.
HANMER SPRINGS Chalets Motel, 56 Jacks Pass Road. Self-contained bushland cabins from $135 per cabin; see chaletsmotel.co.nz/.
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER Punga Grove, Cron Street, Franz Josef Glacier. Apartments from $145, see pungagrove.co.nz/
WANAKA Best Western Belvedere, 29 Warren Street, Wanaka. Fantastic views of the lake, from $175 per apartment, see bestwestern.co.nz.
TE ANAU Lakeside Motel Apartments, 36 Lakefront Drive. The standard rooms are small but, if there's a few of you, ask for the little house next door; from $130 per room, see lakesideteanau.co.nz/.
QUEENSTOWN Turner Townhouses, 14 Turner Street. Outstanding self-catering apartments from $165, see turnerheights.co.nz.
LAKE TEKAPO Lake Tekapo Scenic Resort, State Highway 8, Village Centre. If you were any closer to that impossibly blue lake you'd be in it; the pub is next door. From $165 per room, see laketekapo.com/.
SEE + DO
Mitre Peak Boat Cruises, Milford Sound; from $70 per person, see mitrepeak.com
Onsen Hot Pools, 160 Arthurs Point Road, Queenstown; from $35 per person, see onsen.co.nz
The Store, State Highway 1, Kekerengu. A lively eaterie on a headland of the Kaikoura coastline. Lounge in beanbags in the garden and drink up the view. See thestore.kiwi
The Boathouse, 326 Wakefield Quay, Nelson. An overwater restaurant taking in Tasman Bay. A Nelson institution – with good reason. See theboathousenelson.co.nz/
Fiddlesticks, 48 Worcester Street, Christchurch. The best dining experience of the trip. Fantastic seasonal fare, extensive wine list, knowledgeable staff, buzzy atmosphere. What's not to like? See fiddlesticksbar.co.nz