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Riding the Open Road

By Mario

We’re well into winter, with all that means: short days, freezing temperatures and driving rain. So, naturally, we decided a motorcycle tour around the North Island would be just the thing. Here’s how we got on, on a pre-launch ride with Open Road Motorcycle Tours.

Open Road Motorcycle Tours is a new company, offering guided and self-guided trips around New Zealand. After a year or so of recce rides and research, owners Lance and Sally Mitchell are pretty much set to go, but they invited yours truly along for a pre-launch sampler. With time short, we arranged a condensed version of a typical tour, heading from Auckland to Rotorua, then Napier, Taihape and home.

I was interested to see whether the tour would make sense for a New Zealand rider, since we can all read a map and book a room for the night, right? For overseas guests a guided tour has obvious value, but what can it add for locals?

Day one, question answered

A drizzlier-than-forecast start from Auckland gave way to sunshine after turning off SH1 towards Te Kauwhata. This was not a route I’d ridden before, and negotiating a couple of junctions we then headed south along the shores of Lake Waikare. It was a revelation. I had no idea the lake was so huge and so scenic. Nor that the road was such fun: challenging in wintry conditions, but the machine I was riding quickly generated confidence.

Open Road has a fleet of seven bikes, and not the typical BMW line-up offered by most tour and hire companies. I was on a just-run-in Aprilia Caponord 1200. Other options include Kawasaki’s Versys 1000 and a Triumph Tiger 800XC. Having been in storage a while (Aprilia quietly dropped the Caponord from their line-up when Euro 4 came in, with these bikes getting diverted to NZ to avoid problems elsewhere), Lance wisely decided to replace the tyres. The new hoops being Michelin Pilot Road 5s and, combined with the Aprilia’s active electronic suspension, they delivered a sublime ride: magic carpet smooth with unbelievable levels of grip, feedback and reassurance.

On the give and take roads around Lake Waikare and south to the outskirts of Tirau I was already having the time my life. It was a route I had never considered but will now never forget, and the bike was just outstanding. Of course you can take your own machine and save money, or you can opt to hire the Capo for your own trip, or self-guide on one of Open Road’s itineraries. I was learning that, in any event, there was something to satisfy a lot of people’s priorities.

Bed and board

Open Road’s itineraries incorporate recommended places for a lunch stops as well as accomodation and evening meals. The accommodation can be pre-booked as part of the tour, but you’re free to choose where you want to eat. With a background in tourism, Sally has invested her expertise in selecting interesting places to stay, often with great food options. Our trip kept things simple, with evening meals and breakfasts at the places we stayed, and was all the better for it. Night one was at the characterful Princes Gate Hotel in Rotorua, night two was the iconic Art Deco Masonic on Napier’s waterfront and the third was a really unusual place: River Valley Lodge on the Rangitikei river, more than half an hour into the back blocks out of Taihape. They were all great choices, and all very different. But River Valley Lodge proved to be a real challenge…

Off-road adventure

Along with us for the ride was a friend and one-time neighbour of the Mitchells, Ian. He hadn’t done a lot of riding in recent years and, not currently owning a bike, was on the Tiger. For riders needing a slightly shorter seat height, the Tiger XC is a better choice than the high-riding Capo or Versys. Even so, when we approached River Vally Lodge things got a little tricky for Ian as the last few kilometres of gravel road turned into a hairpin descent, plunging to the valley floor. Lance–an ex-motorycle courier in London and highly competent rider–had swooped down without incident.

It’s at times like these electronic rider aids are best switched off. But the plunge had rather taken us by surprise. In the end, Ian walked down while I retrieved his bike, glad of some off-road experience and especially the course undertaken at Yamaha’s Off Road School in Wales a few years back.

Relief at having made it to the Lodge soon turned to nervousness as the rain set in. It was going to be hard to get a good nights sleep, mulling over the job of getting all three bikes out in the morning.

Our ‘adventure’ bikes were now being put to the test, and a lesson was learned about accessing the Lodge. With the right skills it was a fun challenge. In their absence, it’s probably best to park at the top and get shuttled down in the Lodge’s all-wheel-drive minibus.

Still, a hearty roast dinner in front of the lodge’s open fire was a welcome distraction. The next morning, deciding the safe way is always the best way, Lance and I ferried the three bikes up to the top of the hill while the others went up in the bus. The hard part was over.

Plateau to plateau

River Valley Lodge was the last night’s stop on our trip, requiring a long ride back to Auckland. The days before had involved some of the best riding roads I’ve ever experienced. From Rotorua to Opotiki, skirting lakes Rotoiti, Rotoehu and Rotoma, was great, but I was really looking forward to the Waioeka Gorge. It didn’t disappoint. Despite the odd bit of drizzle and frequent damp patches it was an amazing run. Comprising over 100km of non-stop bends, it was enjoyed with complete confidence thanks to the Caponord and its Road 5s.

Popping out into the sunshine on the plains around Gisborne, I thought it just couldn’t get any better. I’d be proved wrong the next day, and even the run down to Napier was fun, if occasionally blighted by sunstrike.

After a relaxing stay and wonderful food at the Art Deco Masonic we embarked on the part of the trip that held the most intrigue for me. The ‘Gentle Annie’ (there’s more than one) is the direct route between Napier and Taihape, but it’s not easy to find on a map. It climbs back up to the southern edge of the central plateau, and it used to be gravel. Now it’s sealed, and the combination of endless curves, smooth tarmac, zero traffic and stunning views is other-worldly. It’s a road that, however tempting the bends get, you find yourself slowing down just to take it all in. Another great ‘find’ by the Mitchells, and a treat in store for anyone who rides it.

Choices, choices

With guided and self-guided choices, and the option to hire bikes, Open Road has plenty on offer to suit most riders. My experience with Lance and Sally would lead me to recommend the guided alternative. Not only are they great company, their knowledge of the routes adds value to the experience. Just riding with Lance boosts your enjoyment and safety, as he effortlessly scribes the right lines to follow and is always alert to potential dangers. If you want to press on a bit on your own, that’s possible too, arranging a rendezvous further up the road.

You can find out more at www.openroad.nz, including all itineraries and pricing.