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