Thursday, June 13, 2013

VCB sends unsolicited help

This letter is simply fantastic and it is full of meaning and significance. Here is a club, the Vespa Club of Britain, that (at least at the time) cared and responded to its members. I can't even conceive of how blown away I'd be if I was a 20-year-old and someone in a distant scooter club read a letter in a non-club magazine and took it upon themselves to personally respond.

This is love. Ian Kirkpatrick, VCB General Secretary, must have been someone with real feeling. He reached out, felt and understood the passion and curiosity for life that was in John's original letter to Scooter World magazine.

Gestures like Mr Kirkpatrick's are ones that forge lifelong attachments. It's no wonder John kept the letter and later in life had such strong feelings toward the concept of international fellowship related to Vespa clubs.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

50 Years/414,000 Miles of Scootering

The following article appeared in a relatively obscure U.S. scooter club newsletter, Scootin’ the magazine of Scoot-Tours — the National Touring Scooter Riders Association. The club had its strongest presence mostly about five to fifteen years ago, serving the interests of large-displacement scooter riders.  Back then the scooter of choice for most Scoot-Tours members was the Honda Helix; later many members rode Suzuki Burgmans. It was mostly an older crowd and certainly many of the members were old enough to remember American scootering’s heyday in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Mr. Gerber’s letter was written in the early-1990s, when Helix sales were at their peak.

Herein Mr. Gerber outlines his scooter-riding career. It underscores some of the sources of his own unique origins in his interest in scooters. Like a young teenager of today who obsessively reads skateboarding magazines, he ate up each issue of Scootourist magazine. (See Flashback in this issue.) The magazine helped shape his passion for world scooter travel. His adolescent heroes were those people who bravely explored the world by scooter.

Mr. Gerber was known for his strident opinions. Even though we knew him better, he sometimes came across as excessively angry. I chalk this up to his burning life-long passion for all things scooter: for preserving the hobby and for keeping the community together. He had no kind things to say about the ET4 when it arrived in the U.S. Before Piaggio’s return to the U.S. in 2002, the VCOA raffled off a gray-market imported ET4 Vespa at Amerivespa San Diego in 1999. At the gala dinner and award ceremony Mr. Gerber won an award. (We think it was for furthest traveled.) While up at the stage he helped himself to the microphone and launched into a passionate non-sequitur about the ET4. He likened calling it a Vespa to a dolled-up transvestite winning a beauty pageant. Given the un-PC nature of his comments and how there were many dealers in the audience aspiring to someday soon sell  ET4s, many jaws dropped. To John Gerber, the ET4 was a betrayal of the utilitarian simplicity and long-range reliability of the manually-geared Vespa. There was a long list of outrages with this new modern “Vespa,” but at the top was the drive belt. He felt that no self-respecting long-range scootourist should have to put up with the indignity of a drive belt turning to confetti somewhere on the road.  

It is for this reason that it is interesting that at the end of the story below he gives a grudging acknowledgement to the Honda Helix. Maybe to him it was acceptable for some other scooter to go automatic but not his sacred Vespa? Some may disagree, but I think that more recently he was making a few side-long glances at modern Vespas, particularly the ones with touring capacity. (He still held out hope for a 250cc manual Vespa.) Above all — and there is no doubt about this — Mr. Gerber supported scootering in all forms. In spite of his strident pronouncements he would never let his own personal preferences be divisive to building a world fellowship of scootering.

The original title of the letter was Thirty Years/343,000 Miles of Scooters. I changed the title to more accurately reflect Mr. Gerber’s complete life in scootering at the time of his death.

I enjoyed the account of Jean Bartlow's amazing 600,000-700,000 miles of scootering. Surely, this must be a record for both total miles and continuous years of scootering. There are undoubtedly some real stories here and hopefully newsletter readers will have the opportunity to hear much more of Jean's exploits and scooter experiences.

Although my own three decades of scooter exploits pale in comparison, I would like to take this opportunity to share them with newsletter readers. My involvement with scooters began as a teenager in Oklahoma during the late-1950s and early-1960s. Like many other Midwestern states, Oklahoma allowed a 5hp scooter license at age 14. This meant there were few things as desirable to a teenage boy as a scooter. Approximately 30-40 graced the parking lot of my local high school, mainly Cushmans and Mustangs, but with a scattering of Vespas and Lambrettas. Unfortunately, my meager paper route earnings were not enough for a scooter, so my first machine was a used Ward's Mobylette moped, surely one of the most unreliable two-wheelers of all time. This was followed by a new Sear's Allstate Puch moped. Although the Puch was extremely reliable, I was soon disappointed by its lack of performance and continued to save for a scooter. Finally, in 1962 I had saved up enough to purchase a used 1957 Lambretta 150 LD for $150.

Several things converged to extend my interests into scooter touring. During this time, I subscribed to the San Francisco-based Scootourist magazine, which did a great deal to turn me into a hardcore scooter enthusiast. Each month's issue was eagerly awaited and read from cover to cover many times over. I was particularly fascinated by the articles of Ted Jacques describing various global scooter exploits. Several years earlier I had met a scooterist travelling around the world on a Lambretta. I vowed to do the same thing someday. By now living in Wisconsin, I took the Lambretta on numerous trips throughout the state and neighboring Minnesota, putting 8,000 miles on it in less than a year. The Lambretta met its end when it caught fire on a trip to Colorado in 1963. I immediately, I purchased a used 1961 Lambretta TV 175 Series II at a shop in Denver for $140 and continued back to Wisconsin, covering an amazing 950 miles in 24 hours. Although I put 9,000 miles on it, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the Lambretta's lack of reliability and poor parts service. I soon set my sights on a Vespa.

By the following year I had saved enough to buy a new Vespa Grand Sport 160. The GS, with amazing performance and near total reliability, was everything I had hoped for in a scooter. It was to be the start of a long love affair with the Vespa that has continued through a succession of six Vespas. Almost immediately, I set out to systematically tour the U.S. and later the rest of the world. To date, I have travelled by Vespa in all 48 of the continental states and over 80 foreign countries on five continents.

The Vespas owned, approximate mileage, and major trips taken (those over 4,000 miles; trips under 4,000 are too numerous to list) can be summarized as follows:

Model        Years used        Total mileage
GS 160        1964-1967        51,000
1964 Wisconsin to East Coast, 4,500 miles
1965 Wisconsin to West Coast, 7,000 miles
1966 Mexico and Central America tour (Wisconsin to Panama and back), 11,000 miles

SS 180        1967-1970        37,000
1967 European tour, 7,000 miles
1968 Minnesota to California, 7,000 miles
1979 Minnesota to East Coast via Trans-Canadian Highway, 4,000

Rally 180    1970-1972        35,000
1970 Minnesota to Quebec, 4,000 miles
1971-1972 Pan-American Highway tour (Minnesota to Tierra del Fuego), 25,000 miles

Rally 180    1973-1978        46,000
1973 European tour, 5,000 miles
1974 Rocky Mountain tour, 5,000 miles
1976 Southwest tour, 4,000 miles
1977 Pacific Northwest tour, 5,000 miles

Rally 200    1978-1983        60,000
1978 Trans-Asian Highway tour (Singapore to London), 20,000 miles
1979 Canadian Maritime provinces tour, 4,000 miles
1980 Rocky Mountain tour, 4,000 miles

P200e        1983-Present        74,000 (thus far)
1984 Southern tour, 4,000 miles
1986 Southern tour, 4,000 miles

In addition, I own two vintage Heinkel Tourists (a large luxury touring scooter much like the Helix) on which I have put 23,000 miles. Taken together, all of this adds up to a total scooter mileage of 343,000 miles. (Editor’s note: Again, as noted above, shortly before his death, he tabulated his total miles at 414,000.) Today, time and circumstances do not permit the amount of long distance touring I would like to do. Most trips are confined to weekend trips around New England on my Heinkel or an occasional 2,000 mile two week trip.

Scoot-Tours members will undoubtedly wonder why, given my passion for scooter touring, I do not ride a Helix, the touring scooter par excellance. In part, this is due to a lingering resentment over what the Japanese motorcycle industry did to the European motorcycle and scooter industry in the U.S. during the early 1960s. I also find Vespa reliability second to none. The fact that Vespa parts cost only about a third the price of Helix parts is also of some significance. My current goal is to get one of the new Vespa Cosas, which are presently unavailable in the U.S. However, I do not think the Helix merits the criticism commonly leveled against other Japanese motorcycles and scooters (i.e. homogenous machines lacking in personality and character). Could any scooter possibly match the presence and personality of a Helix? I also admit to finding the freeway touring capability of the Helix highly appealing. And, as my nine-year-old son starts to do more touring with me, the passenger carrying capacity of the Helix assumes increasing importance. Perhaps at some point...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remembering John Gerber

For a number of years I worked with John in producing the magazine for the Vespa Club of America. We spent countless hours on the phone, talking from one coast to another. We'd talk late into the night. I'd hang up and couldn't believe what time it was. For John, a self-professed night owl, it was always three hours later.

 A few years ago I put together a special tribute issues of American Scooterist, the member magazine of the Vespa Club of America. It was devoted entirely to John Gerber. For the next number of posts in this blog I will post some of the stories I put together for the magazine. Below is my opening editorial. It's my summation of John's contributions to the world of scootering.

John died unexpectedly June 12, 2010. He had mentioned that he had a serious form of cancer. Only a very few knew it was pancreatic cancer, which has a slim chance of recovery. In spite of this cancer’s almost universal deadliness, he appeared to be doing well and responding to treatment. It looked as though he might be one of the few who survive but something happened shortly after he returned from Amerivespa San Antonio. The doctor’s account was that he probably died of a common cold or something equivalent due to the state of his weakened immune system from chemotherapy.

From early on, John was a scooterist. Oklahoma, along with a number of other Midwestern states, allowed for a restricted 5 hp motorcycle license at the age of 14 and in the 1950s many kids opted for scooters. John’s Stillwater high school regularly had about 50 scooters in the parking lot; it was the “in” thing. The parking lot was strictly segregated into two camps: American-made models such as Cushmans and Mustangs and European-derived scooters, almost exclusively Lambrettas and Allstates. (The Allstates were of course Vespas but at this time few appreciated this distinction.) He was very clear with me that the coolest group, the ones who got the most action from the girls, were the owners of European scooters.

I theorize that this unique social environment, coming at a sensitive stage in his life, imprinted him with a certain inferiority complex that inclined him toward a lifelong fixation on scooters. As a freshman with a meager paper route income, all he could afford were mopeds. First there was a Montgomery Ward Mobylette (French). This was soon followed by a Puch. He rode the Puch all over the state and region. However, he wanted proper power and performance and scrupulously saved for a real scooter. Unfortunately, before his heart’s desire could be fulfilled and he could join his friends in the high school parking lot with a respectable ride, his family was forced to make an emergency move to Wisconsin. The focus of his adolescent high school obsession, joining the “in” crowd with a scooter, remained forever unfulfilled.

Shortly after his move, he acquired a used Lambretta LD and he rode this everywhere, including longer trips west through the Black Hills of South Dakota and to Denver, Colorado. On his return home from Denver, a broken fuel line caused the LD (along with all his belongings) to burn up by the side of a road. Undeterred, he hitch-hiked back to Denver and bought a used Series 2 TV 175 to get him home. This Lambretta got him through the remainder of high school and part of college. All told, he put 9,000 miles on his TV.

In 1964 he bought a brand new Vespa GS 160. He had grown frustrated with his Lambrettas’ breakdowns and constant difficulty in obtaining even-simple replacement parts. His new GS was almost perfectly reliable and this characteristic made him a lifelong fan of Vespas. (Later in life his favorite models would expand to include Heinkels.) With his GS, he set about taking extended rides all over the U.S. and Canada. This culminated with a trip in 1966 (during his junior year in college) to Panama on the newly-opened Central American Highway, a section of road that would soon become part of the Pan-American Highway.

In 1971 on an SS 180 he completed a tour of the full Pan-American Highway from Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost tip of Argentina) to somewhere just south of San Francisco. His original intended route was to continue on to Alaska, but the trip was abruptly interrupted when he was rear-ended by a drunk driver. (The accident kept him in the hospital for a number of months.) In 1978 he conquered the Trans-Asian Highway. He succeeded in doing this probably at the last point in history when it was politically possible to cross so many borders. (Michael McWilliams, former VCOA president, now owns the Rally 200 that was used for this grand adventure.)

Cars and John did not mix. His family related a story of him attempting to learn to drive a car. He ended up putting the car in reverse and smashing into a garage door. He walked away from this accident never attempting to learn to drive again. To get to work in Boston (where he lived most of his adult life) he either walked to the nearby MTA station or rode a scooter. Over the course of his life he tabulated 412,000 miles riding various scooters. John was particularly proud of his scooter travels and, even though his miles logged were modest compared to some, he should be considered among an elite fraternity of scooterists who have traveled the world by scooter. His first goal when he retired was to pick up “scootouring” again and in the next few years he planned to re-ride the Pan-American highway.

In spite of his formidable riding accomplishments he should be most remembered for his writing. I didn’t know it until after his death, but John had a PhD in history. His doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, was titled Anton Pannekoek and the Socialism of Workers' Self Emancipation 1873-1960. It is very academic, so much so that most people have to put it down after the first or second page. Still, this grueling effort demonstrates the discipline he devoted to developing his skill and integrity as a historical writer. We were extremely lucky to have someone educated to his level bringing his abilities to bear on the topic of scootering.

He chronicled his own scootours in scooter and motorcycle magazines of the time but his most significant contributions came later in charting scootering history, and most particularly in our own unique and somewhat-forgotten American scootering history. In many ways American Scooterist, the member magazine of the Vespa Club of America, was his magazine. He led the production of a number of significant theme issues over the years, including the sidecar issue, the Heinkel issue, and the Lambretta issue. His Boston issue inspired me take up the cause of the magazine and the club. Much of my work with the magazine was to help give further voice to his work. The key story in the Boston issue related the history of Boston Vespa and Vescony, the distributor for Piaggio for the eastern half of the U.S. in the 1960s. This article helped me appreciate the scope of his mission: to construct a comprehensive history of American scootering. (I attribute reading this issue to me taking up the cause of working with John and club to help with the magazine.)

Two other issues stand out: the 50th Anniversary of the GS issue, and the Beat issue. Again, the important quality is his authoritative record of how these topics related to American scootering. In many instances he is responsible for preserving invaluable information. He interviewed a number of people shortly before they died. His work with the Beat issue pretty much single-handedly defined the true character of scootering in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Europeans had their Giornos, national rallies and the FIV; the British had the Mods. John taught us the primary driving force of early non-Cushman/Mustang scootering in the U.S. was the Beat culture. This is our legacy as American scooterists today.

Some members are probably aware of the all-Lambretta issue produced by the our club in 1997. It is now a rather obscure and rare magazine. While the layout and production were not particularly flashy, the quality of the content -- the words on paper -- remains unassailable. John gathered guest stories and, most significantly, mapped out the history of the various early Lambretta distributors in the U.S. This was information he pieced together over years of painstaking work, interviewing certain individuals, saving notes, magazine ads and sales brochures.

Even though John was a long-time member of numerous scooter club it should be mentioned that John did not have a high regard for the relatively-new club the Lambretta Club USA (LCUSA). He felt that a national Lambretta club should be part of larger umbrella organization. To him, in spite of our name, this was the Vespa Club of America. Well before the inception of the LCUSA, he worked with Lambretta enthusiasts to maintain a regular Lambretta-only column, the Lambretta Way, in American Scooterist. It was a good column, but, as with many volunteer efforts, it petered out after a few years.
John had strong opinions about many things. To some he came across as strident and angry. Working closely with him over the years, I certainly experienced this aspect of his personality. However, this was not a dominant character trait. Much of this might be explained by understanding his exposition style. As a shy person, he did much of his communicating by way of writing. Some of his writing was for magazine “letters” columns and editorials. In this writing he often used a somewhat old-fashioned didactic writing style where lines were very clearly drawn and there was no room for ambiguity. I sense that part of this style came from his academic background and his socialist leanings.

Some of his most strident letters related to Piaggio dropping production of manual-geared scooters. He saw this as an urgent pressing issue and the tone of his letters reflects this. John loved the Vespa scooter and the engineers and workers who created it, but after many years of negative experiences, he was either indifferent or scornful of the corporate organization, Piaggio.

We had strong debate with him over the inclusion of the LCUSA at Amerivespa in Denver in 2006. He was stubbornly opposed to this, feeling that this club was riding on Amerivespa’s success, but in the end he was significantly outvoted. To his credit, when he was overruled he went along with the decision and did his best to support the rally. I maintain great admiration for his faithful adherence to the democratic process in group decision-making and I use it as another example of how his writing style didn’t exactly represent who he was in person.

It is much more important to remember John’s incredibly supportive and generous nature. He was very conscientious about maintaining correspondence with scooterists all over the world. He was happy to share his own personal knowledge and information from his archive (probably the biggest collection of scooter paper in the world) and he would go out of his way to do so. He spearheaded an open exchange of articles with the VCOA and other world clubs such as the Veteran Vespa Club Great Britain and the Lambretta Club of Great Britain.

He did not, however, abide people whom he felt were gathering information for their own personal gain, private collections or fiefdoms. Scootering shares a peculiar trait with other collector-type hobbies: it tends to attract hoarders. He had a number of odd experiences where people would bizarrely withhold information from him. This was particularly galling when his motivation was to bring information to the larger scootering community. It’s worth noting he did all of this work with no remuneration and on his own spare time.

John Gerber was a visionary. As with many visionaries he was a little out of step with the larger community but he burned with a passion for our hobby that no one can match. He knew what scootering used to be (and almost became) here in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, and he selflessly lived to share and promote this knowledge with others. He worked tirelessly to bring greater depth of interest to our hobby. For this, we all owe him a debt. It is important that we learn from his life and continue to carry on his great work.

Scooter World sends good news

John's stories of his Pan-American scooter trip would have been one of the last articles ever printed in Scooter World magazine which was on its last days. I'd love to see copies of these issues. We should note that maybe it took a change in editors for someone to appreciate John's contribution. (See the previous post.) Look closely how the letterhead with the old editor's name has been "x'd" out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scooter World sends disappointment

Above is letter sent to John Gerber by the former editor of Scooter World magazine, Jon Stevens. This letter related directly to Mr. Gerber's story of his trip to Panama posted below.

If Mr. Gerber took his Central America trip in 1966 and submitted his story in 1967, Scooter World did indeed hold it for a long time in consideration of publishing it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

South to Panama and Back

Editor’s note: Mr. Gerber completed the journey that was the basis for the story below in 1966. The writing was probably finished in the next year. At the time of his travels he was 21, on summer break from the University of Minnesota where he studied history and political science. Some may find the writing a little green but even at this early age he had a great sense of observation and he tells a great tale.

The journey to Panama was his first significant international trip and the fulfillment of a longtime fantasy to live out adventures similar to the ones he had read about as a teenager in Scootourist, an early U.S. scootering magazine.

John was on two-wheels (first with mopeds) by age 14. At 21 he had already traveled over much of the U.S. and parts of Canada. The Vespa GS 160 he used for the trip was purchased new from his local dealer Jerry Comers of Cushman Motors Minneapolis. By the time he left for Panama he had already put 34,000 miles on the bike. Elsewhere he said that his GS was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Vespas. He previously owned two Lambrettas, an LD and a Series 2 TV 175. Even though he logged many hours and thousands of miles on Lambrettas, he deemed them unreliable and parts too difficult to obtain for long-distance touring.
The trip though Central America was the next logical step in his development as a world-traveling scooterist.

The impetus behind the creation of the Inter-American Highway, a sub-set of what was to become the Pan-American Highway, was to create a military land connection between the United States and Panama City during World War II. By the end of the war a vast amount of this work was completed and in 1946 there was at minimum a Jeep trail connecting the U.S. and Mexico with the Panama Canal. Below Mr. Gerber mentions that the highway was not finished until 1963. It is worth noting that current-day references to the highway say it was formally completed in 1967, a year after his journey. Even then, calling it a highway is generous by today’s standards. It would take many years to widen the roads and finish all of the paving.

The successful completion of his trip and the exposure to new and exotic cultures inspired Mr. Gerber to plan even more ambitious "scootours." In 1971 he competed a trip of the entire Pan-American Highway. This was followed by his epic journey across the Tran-Asian Highway in 1978. In between and after were many smaller trips, some impressive in their own right.

We are lucky to even see this story. Although many of his other travelogues were published, this remained a type-written manuscript buried among thousands of other papers in his home. It was submitted to Scooter World--then the world’s largest scooter magazine--for publication. Mr. Gerber still had the rejection letter. The magazine was interested in publishing it, but Scooter World had another submission from a Welsh writer/rider, who was possibly more-seasoned and who had undertaken an even longer trip. The Welsh writer’s story was serialized over a number of issues and a decision was made that there was not enough room for two epic travel tales. Scooter World’s loss is our gain.

To help celebrate John Gerber's life the Vespa Club of America is currently working on a special tribute issue to him in the club's member magazine, American Scooterist. The issue will collect some of his more note-worthy essays and travelogues and include remembrances from family, scooterists and fellow travelers.

South to Panama and Back
John Gerber

The snows of winter had melted, my university studies for the year were behind me, months of planning and preparation had culminated. To the south lay Mexico and the six Central American republics, areas co-habituating the same continent--yet, with the exception of Mexico, virtually unknown to the American people. The idea of a trip to Panama and back had intrigued me since the completion of the Inter-American Highway as far south as Panama City in 1963. Make no mistake, I had no illusions about the trip. Ahead of me lay seemingly endless miles and days of travel. Miles that would take me across burning deserts, steaming jungles, interminably monotonous prairies, and towering mountains.

My scooter was a 1964 Vespa GS, which had served me faithfully for over 34,000 miles throughout all sections of the U.S. and Canada. It’s greatest test lay ahead.

At last I was off! The route wound its way into Southern Minnesota along the gently rolling bluffs that lined the upper Mississippi River. A light drizzle began to fall. Just after crossing the Minnesota-Iowa border the drizzle turned into a torrential downpour and, much to my chagrin, I was forced to seek refuge in a telephone booth situated in a small Iowa town. After three hours, the rain showed no sign of abating. I reluctantly made a dash to a local rooming house for the night. The rain continued on into morning, and later I learned that the area had suffered extensive flooding. Being early July the Midwest was in the throes of a major heatwave. For the next six days the temperature hovered between 100 and 105 degrees. The monotony of the Midwestern prairies was broken by stops in Oklahoma and Texas to visit friends and obtain visas.

A few days later I crossed the International Bridge at Laredo, Texas into Mexico. The trip had begun in earnest. The first impression one gains of Mexico is a dismal one. Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, like most Mexican border towns is a sleazy vice-ridden slum pandering largely to the American tourist. As far as the rest of Mexico is concerned these towns are a relative anomaly. For the first couple of hundred miles I rolled across the dry northern tableland with its purple and gray mountains and vast stretches of wasteland. Further south the countryside became richer, the villages more picturesque, and the highway curved up into the mountains. The 700 miles to Mexico City was covered in two and a half days.

This cosmopolitan and sophisticated capital far exceeded my expectations. A week was spent doing the usual tourist circuit: the pyramids, Nation University, National Cathedral, Chapultepec, National Archaeological Museum, bullfights, and other things. I was somewhat dismayed to learn that Vespas and Lambrettas can no longer be imported because the Government fears unfavorable competition with the Mexican-made Moto Islo and Carabela machines. Nevertheless, three-wheeled machines are still imported and there are two dealers left for parts and service. The week spent had been a pleasant one, and it was with reluctance that I left for the lands to the south.

Moto Islo scooter

Early on the second day out I reached Oaxaca, my first major stop. The remainder of the day was spent viewing the famous market and the world renowned Mayan Indian ruins. Fifty miles south of here I met a young Costa Rican riding a Vespa 150 heading north for San Francisco. Two days later I reached the Talsiman Bridge on the Mexico-Guatemala frontier. The border officials proved more officious than severe, and soon I was heading on towards the Guatemalan highlands.

Perhaps of all the countries I traveled through, Guatemala qualifies as the most interesting. Towns bearing exotic and romantic sounding Indian names such as Huehuetenango, Mazatenango, quezaltenango, Retalhuleu, and Chiquimulilla become realities rather than names on a map. Indians in colorful dress unlike that of anywhere in the world were in evidence everywhere, from the streets of the modern capital of Guatemala City to the most remote mountain village. On a typical market day they could be seen stoically trudging up the mountain roads that seem to tilt up into the sky, carrying on their heads heavy loads of pottery, fruit, corn vegetables, textiles and handicrafts to the nearest market town. One interesting feature of Guatemala s that 96 percent of its population is of Indian descent. Although deep in the tropics, Guatemala is a cool mountainous land of quiescent volcanoes and lofty lakes. Certainly the most beautiful of its many lakes is Late Atitlan, whose clear waters are flanked by long dormant volcanoes, their smooth sides gently plunging down to the water’s edge. Legend has it that there are twelve surrounding villages, each named after one of the twelve apostles. Less romantic observers have found considerably more than twelve, and only six bearing names of the apostles. After a short stop at the old colonial capital of Antigua I continued on to Guatemala City. Perhaps the most interesting sight of the capital is the public market located just behind the cathedral. Here Indians abound with items of every description for sale--often at unbelievably low prices. The tranquil atmosphere of the church and plaza belie the bustling activity that takes place here.

Two days later I left for El Salvador.The highway ascended still further into the pine covered mountains and then gradually began to descend. A few hours later I crossed the border into El Salvador. Of the six Central American Republics, El Salvador is the smallest and most populous. This fact soon becomes self evident by the large number of people seen walking alongside the highway. The road wound its way through gently rolling countryside dotted with neatly tended small farms, each with its own red tile-roofed dwelling. Villages were so close together that they almost overlapped. Gently sloping volcanoes dominated the scenery. I was told that one cannot lose sight of them anywhere in the country. By evening I had reached San Salvador, the capital. San Salvador, a rather drab and listless town of 250,000 lies cradled in a valley between the feet of two towering volcanoes which, if nothing else, provide a note of contrast to most capitals. The next day, a Sunday, I spent viewing the sights and made a short 25 mile jaunt to the famous beach at La Libertad which is noted for its fine black volcanic sand.

The first rays of sunlight found me heading towards Honduras. The remaining 160 miles of winding and hilly road to the border was covered in a relatively short time, and by noon I had passed through both customs. I proceeded to start the scooter. The engine ran a few seconds and then went out with a loud groan. Pushing and kicking proved to no avail. Villagers gathered around and lent a hand in dismantling the carburetor and ignition. After two hours work the engine still failed to respond. I had no other alternative but to secure the Vespa to the rear end of a rather dilapidated wooden framed bus of unknown vintage for the remaining 125 miles to Tegucigalpa. With a population of less than 100,000 Tegucigalpa is the smallest of the Central American capitals. Though with its narrow twisting, and tilting streets, its colonial architecture and red tiled roofs that climb up into the mountains, it is certainly the most picturesque. Naturally I had some trepidation about finding a major Vespa dealer. These fears were dispelled when early the next morning I spotted a row of shiny new Vespas gleaming in the showroom window. The engine was dismantled and examination revealed that both rings had become fused to the piston. Moreover, there were several large deep gashes in the sides of the piston, and a large chunk had been taken out of the cylinder wall. The situation was further compounded by the fact that the dealer, although carrying nine Vespa models, never carried the GS or SS models and consequently stocked no parts for them. However, Latin American mechanics are noted for their resourcefulness and the head mechanic proved to be no exception, with considerable difficulty these obstacles were overcome. The cylinder was bored out and a sleeve was machined to fit inside. The piston was welded and machined down, and a set of similar-sized rings was obtained from a Renault dealer. After four days the scooter was ready for the road again. The dealer and mechanics were extremely friendly and the four days were among the most pleasant spent of the entire trip.

Upon crossing into Nicaragua the countryside became a patchwork of large coffee fincas. Several hours after dusk I arrived in Managua, the languid capital which is cupped on the edge of a beautiful lake bearing the same name. Nicaragua, because of its low altitude is the most tropical of the six republics, but the heat is moderated somewhat by two large lakes, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, which actually deserve to be called inland seas. Lake Nicaragua, the larger of the two, is over one hundred miles long and forty-five miles wide and is noted for its fresh water sharks and island volcanoes complete with villages on the slopes.

A day later I was in Costa Rica. Of all the Central American countries I found Costa Rica to be my favorites. Its long rolling green hills, its innumerable rushing rivers, its mountains and deep valleys often veiled by a drifting mist, combine to make it something of a paradise. Indeed Costa Ricans take pride of their country as the “Switzerland of the Americas.” This analogy applies to political, economic, and social factors as well as climatic and scenic. Unlike most Latin American countries there is virtually no standing army, the system is entirely democratic, literacy is almost one hundred percent and the standard of living is comparatively high. Costa Rica also has the highest percentage of Vespas, and the riders are not confined to any particular age, sex, or economic grouping. The following morning I reached the polished and modern capital of San Jose. One of the high points of the journey came the next day with a trip to the summit of Irazu Volcano--one of the few active volcanos in the world where such a trip is possible. The twenty mile paved road to the top was steep and winding, requiring first gear most of the way. Once at the summit superlatives abound in the description--magnificent, stupendous, mighty, marvelous, unbelievable, beyond the imagination--they are all justified. The chasm is virtually bottomless, filled with steam, smoke, and ashes being disgorged from its innards, a dull hissing sond reverberates throughout the air, and the fetid smell of sulphur pervades the atmosphere. Through gaps in the mist both oceans can be seen.

After two days I was ready for the challenge that lay ahead. Until now the Inter-American Highway had been entirely paved. But between San Jose and Panama City lay 300 miles of unpaved road, much of it over 11,000 foot mountains. The condition of the road confirmed my worst fears. In many places it narrowed into a single lane replete with blind hairpin curves. Foot-wide boulders and foot-deep pot holes were the rule rather than the exception. Miscellaneous odds and ends began to bounce off the scooter. As the altitude increased it became progressively colder. To make matters worse a steady rain began to fall and the road was soon enveloped in fog. The sharp curves and steep ascent limited the top speed to 10 mph. By mid-afternoon I had crossed the mountains and decided to call it quits for the day at the small town of San Isidro del General. Total mileage for the day: 80. From here on the road was now level but the potholes and boulders were still present. Fifty miles later a slightly battered silencer departed, broken at the stem by a large boulder. I was now in deep primeval jungle country, with strange growths, lush vegetation, python-like vines crawling about trees, and dark impenetrable thickets. Exotic tropical flowers often added a light fragrance to the air. Beyond the jungle lay endless miles of banana plantations, many recently cleared out of the jungle.

A few days later I was in Panama City. Exhausted, I spent a week resting and sightseeing before starting the trip back. The return was comparatively uneventful as I was mostly focused on making time. The piston, badly weakened by the work done to it, gave way 150 miles north of Panama City. By the next day a replacement had arrived by bus from the Vespa dealer in Panama City. Sixteen days later I was home. The trip had taken over two months. My scooter had taken me over 11,000 miles. Total mileage on the GS now exceeded 45,000 miles.

This by no means represents the end of my travels. For the upcoming summer, a 8,000 to 10,000 mile tour through Europe and parts of North Africa is already being prepared. In the more distant future, trips through South America and Africa, not to mention a round-the-world tour, are envisioned. But for the time being both the Vespa and its rider have earned a well-deserved rest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Vespa Touring New Zealand

Vespa Touring New Zealand

During the 1960s and '70s, I traveled by Vespa through approximately 70 countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, including a trip to Tierra del Fuego and a complete trip around the world. One area I did not travel in was Australia and New Zealand. For several decades, the idea of doing extended Vespa touring in these areas has been an unfulfilled dream, a void that needed to be filled.

About a year ago I learned that a dealer in Auckland, New Zealand, has a buyback program for new Vespas, with PX 200s still available, which suddenly made the dream of touring New Zealand feasible. When I contacted the dealership, Scooter e-Motion, the dealer turned out to be Goetz Neugebauer, a well-known former German Vespa enthusiast. In fact, Goetz and I had actually sat at the same table at the Vespa 50th anniversary celebration in Pontedera in 1996. Goetz emailed me back saying: Why buy one when I can just loan you one? The opportunity to be back once again in the saddle of a Vespa in a distant country halfway around the world was not one that could be easily resisted. Goetz offered me the choice of a Cosa, GTS, or PX 200 demonstrator. The power and touring capability of the GTS was appealing, but the bulletproof reliability of the PX – perfection in two-wheeled form – won out.

Leaving Boston’s harsh February weather behind, I arrived – after nearly 24 hours of plane travel – to sunny, mid-70s temperatures in Auckland. Goetz had invited me to stay with him, but since he was on his honeymoon he left a key hidden for me – a rather remarkable gesture since I was little more than a stranger. In the backyard, sleeping in a Mandarin tree, were their two pet “chooks” (New Zealand chickens), Desert and Nora, who have created a fad among the neighborhood children for pet chickens. I spent the remainder of the day soaking up the sun and a warm South Pacific breeze at the beach. While I was walking in the area, a Triumph Tigress drove by and I chased it for several blocks before it got away. A few minutes later, a Vespa VBB passed by. I had no doubt that this was a country I was going to like a lot.

Later that evening, Goetz and his lovely and talented wife Mandy returned, riding one of the shop’s MP3's from the airport. Along with being the leading figure in New Zealand scootering, Goetz owns the largest Vespa dealership in New Zealand (and probably Australia as well). Of the 400 or so Vespas sold in New Zealand per year, probably a third are sold by his shop. Goetz is also a highly accomplished scooterist with nearly a million kilometers (620,000 miles) by Vespa under his belt. My 407,000 miles seem humble by comparison. Except for an old van for shop use, Goetz and Mandy are strictly a scooter-only family. Their love of riding is so great that Goetz and Mandy often take a long, scenic, shoreline route to work to fully savor the joys of scootering.

Although they have many scooters, the great love of their life is the Vespa GT 200 that they fondly call “The Pickle,” because it was originally green. When it became slightly beat up, they painted it with matte blackboard paint and left chalk in the open glove box for pedestrians to scribble comments on the bike. Mandy often starts the day by writing clever advertising comments such as: “$15 to fill. And you?” “Did you get stuck in traffic? I didn’t.” It is probably the most famous scooter in New Zealand.

Before emigrating in 1996, Goetz was one of Germany’s most prominent Vespa enthusiasts. His long love affair with the Vespa began as a teenager in Germany during the 1980s, when his older sister, Stoffi, handed down her PK 80 to him. Like many European teenagers, he toured much of Europe on it. In the late 1980s and early '90s, he was one of Europe’s top Vespa racers, winning many awards, including the highest award of Vespa Sport Champion in 1993. In New Zealand, he gained fame competing directly against motorcycles in events such as the Southern Cross Challenge, Gypsy Tour, and the Tiki Challenge.

Goetz started out as shop manager for the Euroscoot dealership, but in 1998 opened Scooter e-Motion. The fact that New Zealand has a large and dynamic scooter scene is due in no small part to his efforts. Goetz is the driving force behind the Magnetos, New Zealand’s largest scooter club, and he is also trying to resurrect the Vespa Club New Zealand. Goetz is also famous for his themed and elaborately produced national rallies, which are New Zealand’s largest. This year’s rally featured a Mexican theme and Goetz and Mandy were busy buying sombreros and false mustaches.

If Goetz is the pre-eminent figure of New Zealand scootering, Mandy Robinson (“Moto Mandy”) is surely the first lady. Her nickname comes from the name she uses for a lifestyle column she writes for a community newspaper. The path leading to Goetz and Mandy’s marriage is something of a Vespa love story. About a decade ago, Mandy, a native Australian, moved to Auckland when her American boyfriend's job took him there. When his job then took him to China, Mandy stayed behind to manage her vintage clothing shop, Modesty Boutique.

But she needed some form of transportation and her boyfriend brought her to Scooter e-Motion to get a Vespa ET 2. Mandy took to the scooter immediately, pimped it with chrome accessories, christened it Magpie, and used it for everything, including carrying huge loads of clothing Third World style. Within a year she had put 9,000 miles on it. Mandy also swiftly became active in the Auckland scooter scene, where she got to know Goetz better. At the time, Goetz was still married to a German Vespa enthusiast, also renowned for her road-racing abilities. Gradually their other relationships deteriorated; they began dating a couple of years ago and married last December. She still runs her boutique on a limited basis in Goetz’s former office above the shop.

On my third day in Auckland I had a chance to sample the New Zealand scooter scene directly, when I went on one of the Magnetos' rides, which took me on a wonderful tour of Auckland, a dazzling city of waterfronts, winding roads, hills and small extinct volcanoes (some of which have cows grazing on them), all surrounding its most impressive sight, the huge volcano in the harbor called Rangitoto Island. The Magnetos, a diverse club of over 100 members catering to both vintage and modern scooters, is the largest of several clubs in Auckland. New Zealand has a long tradition of organized scootering with a major Vespa club active in the 1950s and '60s. In the mid-'60s one hospital had its own all-female Vespa club with 40 staff nurses. Each of the three major cities – Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch – has its own scooter scene and mini-scenes have cropped up spontaneously and independently in the smaller towns, with local scooterists often serving as home-based mechanics. The scene is similar to the American and European scooter scenes, with a mixture of countercultural and mainstream elements but, like so many other things in the country, has taken on a distinctly New Zealand character. Unlike the U.S., families play a much larger role. It is not uncommon for as many as four family members to have scooters and attend scootering events together. Unfortunately, some of the same uneasy tensions between different factions – modern automatics, vintage, mod purists, etc. – found elsewhere are also present. Compared to the U.S. and Europe, the total number of scooterists is quite small, but they probably constitute a higher percentage of the population. There are usually several major national rallies a year attended by scooterists from all over the two main islands. Except for those bringing their families, almost all scooterists ride to the rallies, which is not easy since much of the terrain is mountainous.

One area where the clubs have had a major impact is in the fight for scooter parking rights. This struggle began when the three major cities began banning sidewalk scooter parking, which had long been tolerated. The clubs, however, mobilized and the issue became front page news. Through their efforts they achieved a large number of free scooter and motorcycle parking spaces spread throughout the cities. Often there will be spaces every few blocks and maps of the locations are available.

Like their American counterparts, New Zealand scooterists have embraced tattoos. But in this case, many of their designs are inspired by the Maori’s moko tattoos. In Maori tradition, moko tattoos served important social, spiritual and cultural functions by denoting a person’s heritage and status – the equivalent of a coat of arms. Scooterists have used the elaborately stylized spiral patterns of the moko as a visual language for their own personal statements (often scooter-themed). Goetz’s is considered among the best.

After several days of leisurely sightseeing in Auckland, I was ready to head south on Route 1, New Zealand’s great transnational highway, which runs the length of both islands north to south. Unfortunately, the pleasant, sunny weather had given way to a steady rain, but I was soon on New Zealand’s longest stretch of freeway, which extends all of 35 miles. (Auckland, however, is bisected by American style freeways, which have badly deformed its rich urban culture.) I initially had some trepidation about driving British-style on the left side of the road, which I had not done for 30 years, but once I got outside Auckland it was never a problem. Many rental motorcycles in New Zealand often have a large yellow arrow between the speedometer and the handlebars pointing left with the words, “Keep Left.”

Despite the rain, I made good time and reached the Lake Taupo area in a couple of hours. Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake and is flanked by the still active volcanoes, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Nagauruhoe. Lake Taupo, which some say is the largest lake in the southern hemisphere, was formed out of a giant volcanic explosion 26,000 years ago that dwarfed the famous Krakatoa explosion several times over. The road paralleled the lake for 60 miles and then abruptly turned into a steep, twisting road that wound its way up to the Central Plateau. As I began inching my way upward in second gear, bands of small clouds appeared, only 15 or 20 feet above me. It made me feel more like I was flying a plane than driving a scooter. Soon I was completely enveloped by the clouds and pouring rain. Visibility was reduced to about 15 feet. To make matters worse, there were steep, several hundred foot drop-offs along much of the road that were often barely visible. I had to stop numerous times to wipe my fog-covered glasses. Although I have had a lifetime of scooter touring, whenever I get into these kinds of situations I invariably ask the question: What am I doing here?

The answer was soon forthcoming when I reached the plateau area known as the Great Desert. Almost magically, a rainbow appeared, arched over the roadway, and once again the sublime joys of scootering became apparent. Goetz had told me earlier that New Zealand is a mosaic of many microclimates, owing to its location and terrain, and that there can be sudden weather changes. Sometimes all four seasons could be experienced in a single day. This was my introduction to New Zealand weather.

I continued on a straight road through flat, largely uninhabited countryside that resembled the American west. The speedometer registered a steady 100 kph. When I stopped for gas, I discovered that the glove compartment lock would not open. A few drops of penetrating oil fixed the problem. This turned out to be the only mechanical problem I experienced during the trip.

A few hours later, I reached the small army town of Waiouru, where I stayed overnight with Goetz’s sister, Stoffi. Although she moved on to BMW motorcycles, Stoffi is a highly accomplished scooterist in her own right. On the PK 80 she handed down to Goetz, she once traveled from Germany to Morocco and back. Later she toured all of New Zealand on a Cosa.

Stoffi also gave me my first taste of Hokey Pokey-flavored Tip Top ice cream, which is as much a cultural icon as a culinary item. One of the defining pillars of New Zealand’s identity is the concept of Kiwiana, which means a fondness for certain items, both tangible and intangible, unique to New Zealand, particularly those associated with the 1950s. Many of these items had their origins in New Zealand’s protectionist trade policies, which resulted in many brands and products unavailable elsewhere. Weet-Bix (a breakfast wheat biscuit), Watties tomato sauce, Speight’s beer, Lemon & Paeroa (lemon juice mixed with carbonated water), and Marmite (a yeast spread) are some of the best known examples. For scooters it is the Nzeta (the New Zealand made version of the Jawa Czeta). Kiwiana helps give a kind of kitsch flavor to the fabric of daily life. Indeed, for many Kiwis, drinking Lemon & Paeroa or eating Tip Top ice cream is an emblematic way of affirming their New Zealand identity, a secular ritual analogous to religious Jews keeping kosher.

Not unsurprisingly, much of New Zealand has a nostalgic flavor. The country is a virtual time warp, a throwback to the 1950s. A road trip feels more like one through pre-Interstate America. Turn on a radio station and it is likely to be playing oldies music. Much of the county has a chatty neighborhood or small town feel to it. Strangers readily strike up conversations with each other even in the larger cities. The late Sir Edmund Hilary, the conqueror of Mount Everest, kept his phone number listed in the telephone directory and often chatted for hours with school children all over the world doing their homework assignments. Although soulless chains and franchises such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are present, the economy is dominated by small businesses of all types (about 70 per cent of the country is employed in small businesses). A main street of a small town of several thousand will have as many as half a dozen hippie-style cafes with funky '60s names such as the Golden Egg, Dog and Frog, and Hairy Lemon. In an era of predatory globalization, New Zealand’s small-scale people’s capitalism offers a humane alternative well worth considering.

Eager to get a good ferry connection at Wellington, I said good-bye to Stoffi and was back on Route 1 by 7 a.m. Although Route 1 is New Zealand’s most heavily traveled road, it – like all of New Zealand’s roads – has a distinct country road feel. Traffic was fairly light and sometimes 20 minutes would go by before I would see another car. The landscape was defined by barren, high, but gently undulating hills of dry grass, often dotted with hundreds of sheep and cattle. The road was like a gentle roller coaster ride and another reaffirmation of why scooter touring is so enjoyable. The day was warm and sunny and only one problem was encountered: Coming around a curve, I saw a sign that said “New Seal.” I thought it meant new pavement and slowed down only slightly. Suddenly I hit a section of gravel and the Vespa began fishtailing vigorously. Fortunately I managed to ride it out without going down. Later I found out “New Seal” meant that the pavement had been removed for re-paving. New Zealand’s roads are all scrupulously well maintained. During the entire trip I encountered just two potholes.

After a few hours, the road began to hug the Kapiti Coast, one of New Zealand’s many spectacular seacoasts. The area is famous for its blue penguins and I spent several hours penguin hunting. I continued on into Wellington, an hour away, and was able to book a 6 p.m. sailing on the InterIslander ferry to South Island. I spent the remainder of the day touring Wellington, a mini-San Francisco built on hills surrounding a bay and famous for its Patagonia-like winds.

I arrived in Picton, the gateway to fabled South Island, around 9 p.m. after crossing the Cook Straights and threading through a beautiful maze of islands illuminated by the evening sun. After getting off the ferry, I stopped, somewhat disoriented, and tried to get my bearings. A passerby asked if I was looking for a backpacker for the night. “Only if it’s a female one,” I responded, more out of naïve expectations than realism. Then I remembered that “Backpacker” is the Kiwi name for hostels. (New Zealanders love to come up with their own names for things.) A few minutes later I was at the Villa, one of New Zealand’s most famous Backpackers and renowned for its beautiful garden terrace. Backpackers offer an exceptionally low-cost way to tour the country. Dormitory accommodations run $15 - $22 and single rooms $25 - $50. Most of them have kitchens, which can help reduce costs further. Backpackers are everywhere in New Zealand, even in the smallest towns. A town of 3,000 might have three or four and a town of 20,000 a dozen or more.

Other forms of lodging that have become virtually extinct elsewhere continue to thrive in New Zealand. Country pubs usually have rooms for rent on the top floor and the character is definitely 19th century. Small town downtown hotels also continue to thrive. And although there are large motel chains, the proportion of small, family-owned motels is several times higher than in the U.S. (and in high season are almost always marked by no vacancy signs).

In South Island the best part of my trip was about to begin. North Island, which has three quarters of New Zealand’s population, is often described as a laid back land resembling pre-war California, while South Island is considered a combination of Colorado and Oregon, a land of rugged alpine mountains and lush forests. My first destination was Christchurch about 250 miles south, midway down the island. About 20 miles out I passed through Blenheim, the heart of the Marlborough wine district. One of the things New Zealand has become famous for in recent years is the high quality of its wines. Marlborough is only one of several wine regions that became popular for wine tasting touring.

Just past Blenheim I fell in behind a Buick Super 8 from the 1930s and tailed it for 50 miles, until I had to stop for gas. The Super 8 was not so super since I had no trouble keeping up with it, even though the route was over mountainous terrain. In New Zealand, one notices almost immediately the large number of vintage vehicles on the road. Goetz has described the country as “gearhead nation.” For many decades unusually high import duties made motor vehicles of all types exorbitantly expensive. They became a major purchase that was kept longer and better maintained than elsewhere. The rural nature of much of the country also made storage easier. Vintage cars are almost always used as practical classics and often driven daily. Kiwis almost never trailer a vintage car to a meet. On one occasion, I counted over 100 cars from the 1920s and '30s coming from a meet several hundred miles away. Only one was being trailered and I suspect it had broken down. New Zealand also has an equally vigorous vintage scooter scene, with its own national vintage scooter club.

All of this ties into what is called a “number eight fixing wire mentality,” another of New Zealand’s great pillars of identity. Number eight wire is the standard fence wire used by farmers and the term corresponds to what we would call baling wire. Because of their isolation, New Zealanders have learned to become self-reliant and capable of fixing anything. While this fierce can-do attitude applies most clearly to machinery, it also signifies an extremely pragmatic attitude toward many other things, both tangible and intangible. New Zealanders borrow freely from other countries, but always give everything a distinct Kiwi twist. Politically, New Zealand has avoided extremes of right and left. Instead Kiwis attempt to hammer out their own solutions to problems based strictly on how well things work (most famously when it became the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893). One of the most interesting applications of this attitude toward public policy can be found in the large number of public restrooms scattered throughout the country. A small town of 2,000 might have three or four. Often they can be found beside the road in the middle of nowhere and are even common throughout the suburbs. All are kept spotlessly clean.

For the first hundred miles, South Island resembled North Island, with barren, brown, high rolling hills and sweeping vistas. One big difference, however, is that almost all the roads have one-lane bridges that often are shared with railroads. Several times I had to stop to let herds of sheep pass, something that could never be imagined on busy transcontinental highway like Interstate 80 in the U.S. After several hours of riding, I came up the crest of one particularly large hill and saw below me, in bold panorama, the endless blue of the South Sea as the road slowly descended to the East Coast.

In a few hours I reached the famed Kaikoura Peninsula, another area of jaw-dropping scenery. The peninsula is home to the small town of Kaikoura, an old whaling settlement, now a center for whale watching. The area is flanked by the Inward and Seaward Kaikoura ranges, the northernmost extension of the Southern Alps. The drive became increasingly spectacular as I wound my way south, with the sea an almost magical blue, facing nearly horizontal mountains that seemed to jut straight out of it. A couple times I stopped to view colonies of Southern Fur Seals. Hundreds of seals were basking in the sun and I could stroll among them, an almost surreal experience not soon to be forgotten.

After a hundred miles or so, the road abruptly turned into the mountains. As I climbed into the Inward Kaikoura range, it was another low-cloud day and bad fog and rain soon enveloped me. But slickness on the roads was never as much of a problem as I had anticipated. New Zealand paves its roads with a mixture of volcanic lava-like substance and asphalt, resulting in a road surface that has an almost glue-like grip and bite.

One pleasant surprise was how well my Corazzo riding jacket functioned in all the different types of weather conditions I encountered. Although the jacket was water resistant rather than waterproof, it gave surprisingly good protection against all but the heaviest of rains. The jacket – rated for three seasons – was also unusually comfortable in all the diverse temperatures I rode in, which ranged from the mid 50s to upper 80s. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Following several hours of riding over mountains and through wide, open valleys, I came to the flat landscape and straight road across the Canterbury Plain for the last 50 miles to Christchurch. Nicknamed the “Garden City,” Christchurch, with its beautiful 19th century Edwardian architecture, large Anglican cathedral, and world class parks and botanical garden, is considered the most English city outside of England. It also has a strong bohemian twinge to it. Almost immediately, it became my favorite New Zealand city.

After exploring and relaxing in Christchurch, I made a day trip to the nearby Banks Peninsula and the fishing village of Akaroa, on another of the beautiful and challenging drives New Zealand has to offer. The road wound its way up and down the hillsides, some of which were ancient volcanoes. Akaroa itself, with its abundant 19th century architecture, has a French feel, which is not too surprising since it was once a French settlement. The harbor is formed by an ancient volcanic crater and is flanked by almost horizontal cliffs.

From Christchurch, I headed across the Canterbury Plain again, into the heart of the Southern Alps at Arthur’s Pass. Each mile I traveled, the spectacular mountain backdrop loomed ever larger and more dramatic. The Southern Alps form a rugged, towering backdrop to South Island, and Arthur’s Pass (a name that is at once a pass, village, and national park) is a national center of mountaineering and hiking. As I climbed higher, past mountains with colorful names such as Baldy Hill, Misery, and Damnfool, the view became a vast panorama of mountain beauty, exactly as I had imagined New Zealand. As I had on so many other occasions, I felt a constant danger of scenic overload. Often the temptation to stop the Vespa and simply contemplate the awesome isolated beauty and tranquility of nature was irresistible.

Descending from Arthur’s pass, I came to the Otira Gorge, another of New Zealand’s scenic wonders. When I stopped at an overlook several Kea birds descended on the Vespa. The Kea is a large mountain parrot, the size of a small chicken. They have metallic green feathers with bright red on the underside of their wings. Keas are warm and friendly, but they also pick at rubber parts and peck the skin off sheep. New Zealand is famous for its exotic birds; many are flightless, and although I am not a birder I found the ones I saw fascinating and almost otherworldly. Along with the Kea, the most common and interesting are the Takahe, Weke, black swans, many different kinds of penguins and, of course, the famed Kiwi.

The ride through the gorge was steep, curvy, and spectacular. Imagine San Francisco’s Lombard Street continuing for six miles. Unlike the east side of the pass, which is predominantly dry and barren, the west side is wet and lush with vegetation. After a few more hours of riding, the Tasman Sea suddenly came into view. It was pale turquoise, with surf pounding the beaches, which with all the tropical vegetation gave the area a Hawaiian feel. Within a few minutes, I was on the sparsely populated West Coast, a long narrow stretch of land running between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.

I began heading north up the coastal highway to Greymouth, the West Coast’s largest city and an old gold mining center. After a night in Greymouth and a $5 all-you-can-eat steak dinner at a 19th century railroad hotel, I continued up the area of the coast known as the Wild Coast. The Wild Coast is a cross between the brashness of California’s Big Sur and the lushness of Oregon’s coast, an area of stunning ocean vistas and weird rock formations. Shortly before I reached Westport, another gold mining and trading center, rain began lashing down. I took refuge for several hours in a couple of cafes.

When it became clear that the rain was not going to stop (this is an area where the rain averages an inch a day), I decided to bite the bullet and continue on anyway. The route took me back into the mountains and through the spectacular Buller Gorge, another of New Zealand’s great natural wonders, but little known outside the country. The valleys of the gorge were full of dark black clouds, emerald green rain forests, and towering mountains and rock formations, giving it an eerie, primeval, Jurassic Park feel. With the rain pouring down, I learned first hand what rain forest actually meant. In the gorge, I crossed the Hope Saddle, a very steep ridge with serpentine roads up and down. A section of the road was actually cut into a rock overhang. One thing that impressed me was the number of bicyclists – many in their fifties and sixties – inching up the road in the rain at a snail’s pace with grim determination (and loving every minute of it). Immediately, it raised the question of why so many American scooterists are such wimps when it comes to scooter touring, when bicyclists are so gung ho about doing something far more difficult.

I wimped out myself after about 80 miles, when I reached the small whitewater rafting center of Murchison and immediately spotted a “Backpacker.” Although it was only early afternoon, I quickly grabbed a room to get relief from the rain.

When I left the next morning the rain had subsided and I was finally able to enjoy the mountain scenery. By noon I had reached Nelson in the “Top of the South” region. Nelson is a pure Birkenstock scene of art galleries, boutique wineries, artist and pottery studios, artisanal bakeries and trendy cafes. One such café, the legendary Lambretta Café, was a special treat in itself. Modeled on an Italian grand café, and probably the best scooter-themed café in the world, the Lambretta Café – not unsurprisingly – was filled with Lambrettas (some of which were hanging from the ceiling) and Lambretta parts, accessories and memorabilia. Even the restroom walls were covered with memorabilia.

Nelson is also the home of Mark Brown, who holds the world’s largest source of Triumph scooter parts (contact him at Mark has been restoring scooters and cars for 30 years and has his own museum, the New Zealand Scooter and Transport Museum, where his collection of 30 vintage scooters is on display. Unfortunately, I was not aware of Mark at the time, so I did not get a chance to meet him or see his museum. A couple of months later, while researching vintage scooters in New Zealand, I discovered him and emailed him with some questions. By a weird coincidence, it turned out that he had spotted me traveling through Nelson on the PX. He was on a Triumph T10 (the successor to the Tina) and tried to catch up with me, but unfortunately I was going too fast.

From Nelson it was a short two-hour ride through the Marlborough wine country back to Picton, where I booked the InterIslander to North Island. Since the ferry did not leave until the following day, I had time to ride the stunning Queen Charlotte Drive, one of the greatest drives in the world. Queen Charlotte Drive is an incredible road that seems almost made for two-wheelers. The drive follows the coast of the Marlborough Sound for 25 miles, overlooking islands, dramatic bays, and climbing up and down the mountains to the sea repeatedly in roller coaster-like zigzags. The longest straight sections are probably no more than 100 feet.

Back on North Island, I headed for the Hawkes Bay region on the East Coast and the twin cities of Hastings and Napier. Located only 12 miles apart, both cities were almost completely destroyed in 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake. After the earthquake, city planners in Hastings decided to rebuild the city in Spanish Mission style. This style was based on Spanish colonial architecture and was popularized in California in the 1920s. Hastings has one of the largest concentrations in the world, but the city has done almost nothing to promote tourism. Napier, on the other hand, chose to rebuild in the architecturally sophisticated Art Deco style (some of which incorporate Maori motifs) and the city fathers have turned the city into a major tourist destination. Except for Miami Beach and Havana, no area of the world has a larger concentration of such buildings.

From Napier, I set out on the Thermal Explorer’s Highway through New Zealand’s famous geothermal wonderland. New Zealand lies on a “ring of fire” at the junction of two massive tectonic plates, which have created mountains, volcanoes, earthquakes and various kinds of intense geothermic activity in the center of North Island. Only Iceland compares with it. In Wairakei I stopped to visit the Geothermal Power Station. The plant collects steam from the intense geothermal activity underground and turns it into electricity. The plant is surrounded by a vast field containing miles of large round steam pipes and steam hissing from the ground. It produces about five per cent of the country’s electricity.

Less than a mile away I found the Craters of the Moon, a desolate area with the appearance of a moonscape, where steam was venting from dozens of craters. There was a constant hissing sound, much like a kettle boiling and the rotten egg stench of the sulfur was overwhelming. I walked over to one crater big enough to swallow a house. I could see that the entire bottom was covered with boiling mud.

About 40 miles down the road I came to Wai – O – Tapu, another Dante’s Inferno of geysers, steam vents, and boiling mud pools. One of the larger pools was called the Artist’s Palette, since it had several round mineral wells of bright colors – bright yellow, blue and red, the colors of sulfur, arsenic and antimony, and the golden, sparkling Champagne Pool.

At the center of the geothermal region and the Bay of Plenty is Rotorua. The city is built on top of a geothermal field and the constant rotten egg smell of sulfur is everywhere (which led some to call it Rotten-ura). Steam often hisses between cracks in the pavement and the city is heated for free by geothermal heat. The city is a major tourist center for North Island and many people come to bathe in the hot mineral baths; virtually every motel has one.

Rotoura is also a major center of Maori culture, with several reconstructed villages and many places offering hangi (a Maori feast cooked in a hole lined with hot rocks and combined with an evening of cultural festivities). I spent an afternoon and evening at Te Puia, a reconstructed village and craft and cultural center, and took in several dance performances.

In recent years, New Zealand has appropriated elements of Maori culture as still another main pillar of its national identity. The history, cultural concepts, and values of Maori life have been integrated into New Zealand’s own culture. Maori words and phrases have seeped into the language. Newscasters open broadcasts with kia ora (hello); Kiwis talk about kai (food), their whanau (family), whares (home). It is not unusual to meet a Kiwi and fail to understand half the words he speaks, partly because of the accent, and partly because so many Maori and unique New Zealand words have crept into the vocabulary.

From Rotorua, it was an easy half-day ride back to Auckland. Soon the trip would be reduced to a kaleidoscopic blur of indelible images – Goetz and Mandy, the Magnetos, Tip Top ice cream, Speight’s beer, Southern Fur Seals, Keas, blue penguins, black swans, Kaikoura Peninsula, Arthur’s Pass, Wild Coast, Buller Gorge, Queen Charlotte Drive, thermal pools and many, many more. The link between all of these incredible images was a Vespa and days of riding through a pristine and fascinating country that compares with any in the world. If New Zealand is not scooter heaven, I’m not sure what is. In all, I covered nearly 2,500 miles in a little over three weeks. A nine-inch snowfall greeted me upon my return.

Anyone contemplating a similar trip will find that costs are far lower than you might expect. Air fare from the West Coast is only around $1,200 and I paid only $1,700 from the East Coast. By staying in Backpackers and cooking your meals, costs can be cut to $50 or less a day. A month-long stay can be easily managed for a few thousand dollars. Thanks to Goetz and Mandy, a Vespa tour is easily doable. They will go the extra mile and then some to outfit you with a Vespa and give you an exceptionally reasonable rate on a guaranteed buy back. Contact them at: Scooter e-Motion, 17 Rua St., Auckland, Mt. Eden, New Zealand. Tel 09 377 25 25. or

But keep in mind, New Zealand is a bewitching country. It casts a spell over you in a way few other countries could ever do. If you’ve never been there it’s an experience not to be missed. If you’ve been there, you will surely be back