Writer and motorcycle traveller Zoë Cano tackles extreme weather in this exclusive excerpt from her latest book, Hellbent for Paradise, about a two-month solo trip through New Zealand on a 900cc Triumph Bonneville.
Te Anau in Fiordland to Glenorchy, South Island, New Zealand
Day 48; 217km
Te Anau disappears from the rear view mirror as I cross the Whitestone River and through the giant open plains bordering the Eyre Mountains. But only 30 minutes on the road I’m feeling miserable and frightened for the two habitual reasons that have haunted me and put me in danger throughout the journey. Firstly, the crazy, impatient camper vans and secondly, I’m being buffeted by some of the strongest winds I’d ever experienced anywhere in the world. Post-tropical cyclones had been ravaging New Zealand. Someone once told me that as a biker if you had the choice between rain or wind, rain would definitely be your better friend. Just keeping my balance from the ferocious strength of the wind knocking and battering me, I have no other option but to dramatically reduce my speed.
Before long, I’m riding high up along the ‘sea-size’ Lake Wakatipu, with its massive mountains dropping vertically into the deep waters and giant rain-laden clouds sweeping across the vista. But again it’s the wind, which is increasing in strength, and the little ‘white horses’ are crazily jumping over this watery landscape. Orange road signs at every bend also warn of tumbling rock debris. Glenorchy is just 45 kilometres away.
Against the elements
The wind violently arrives from across the lake in frightening, superhuman strength and coming directly from the north means it’s buffeting straight into the front of the bike. I have no shelter. I am literally on the edge of a cliff side using all my strength just to keep the heavy, luggage-laden bike from blowing over.
The unimaginable force of the wind has almost brought my bike to a total standstill at the top of an unprotected cliff top. I’m no longer able to move the bike forward. I put my feet down. I’m shaking with fear. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, with the wind battering and almost knocking me over. I’m scared in finding myself in such a vulnerable place where at any moment another vehicle could arrive and crash into me.
But just a little further up I notice a scenic lookout lay-by. Two minivans are parked up while their passengers are safely cocooned inside, unaware of the dramas unfolding outside. I immediately think of shelter. If I could somehow paddle the bike with superhuman strength up towards and alongside them, I’d be sheltered from the raging winds and have a moment to think of what to do next. But I can’t move. I desperately start to scream out against the battering wind for someone to impossibly hear me from inside their protective shells. “Help! Help! Please help me!”
But the words are lost within the thunderous noise of the wind. Even taking just one hand off the handlebar to wave and attract their attention is almost too much of an effort and risks the bike falling over. A few cars overtake, look back at my desperation but simply drive on. I’m at stalemate. Maybe I should just leave the bike to fall over. My inner palpitations have increased and I can now almost feel my heart jumping through my jacket. It’s only now I find some lost inner strength and step by step heave the bike up alongside the first camper van.
But this unimaginable horror scene becomes further amplified as I hear the engines start up to leave. For one last time, I shout: “Help!” Losing control, I burst into tears. Not for the dramatic effect but just because I feel so totally helpless. A Chinese guy cautiously opens his door and steps out. Somehow I manage to explain, mostly in sign language, that I need a couple of people to help steady the bike. And the only solution I see is for them to walk down the hillside with me on it. In that way, if nothing else, I’ll be better sheltered lower down and if I still can’t continue it will be easier to abandon!
He sees the desperation in my eyes. “Please Sir, help me. I just need two of you to help me. I’ll even pay you!”
Yes, you heard correctly. I’m so desperate, and my situation so dire, I’m happy to pay them some reward. He smiles but vehemently shakes his head to my monetary offer: “No, no, no. But yes, yes, yes we will try to help you. Wait I need to tell my family what I will do. They speak no English.”
At this stage, I think it’s only appropriate we exchange names. And with that, Chang turns around and screams to another man curiously peering out from the other van: “Hey brother, help me! This crazy lady needs help with her motorcycle!”
And almost like a Laurel and Hardy scene these two naïve guys, who know nothing about motorcycles, theatrically grab the bike pushing it almost over, then desperately pull it back to rebalance it while I’m trying with all my strength just to keep on. When the wind dies down for a millisecond all three of us somehow get the Bonneville safely down the hill to the flat lower shoreline road. It’s then I almost feel like hugging Chang, but time is of the essence and in this sheltered area I decide to immediately head off.