State Highway 6 (SH6)
Motorcycle the length of New Zealand’s Southern Alps
New Zealand’s roading network State Highway Six (SH 6) runs the length of the South Island’s Southern Alps mountain range for around 1200kms and is arguably one of the great motorcycle rides of the world. Covering a variety of terrain this majestic highway encompasses everything that is synomis with motorcycle touring in New Zealand. With a population of 4.4million in NZ, only 1 million of that is located in the South Island, so the southern roading network is relatively uncluttered. For the vast majority of motorcyclists who fly into NZ to tour for a few weeks, invariably nearly all will ride a part, if not most of SH 6 at some point of their journey. To savour all of SH 6 allow for a four or five day journey, where it can be comfortably completed in a series of well appointed stages.
Starting at the provincial town of Blenhiem, (about 20km from the Picton Cook Strait car-ferry terminal for the North Island) SH 6 winds it way for 110km via the Rai Valley over to the regional city of Nelson. From Nelson there is a 300km stretch through to near Westport (largest town in the Buller region) where the wineries and farmlands are slowly replaced by scenic dense bush and where SH 6 follows the alongside the busy Buller Gorge River. Leaving the Nelson area one ascends the Hope Saddle before descending into the Buller Region and around half way through this leg is a welcome tea-break stop in the settlement of Murchison or ‘Murch’ as it’s known to the locals. A stop at the now defunct settlement of Lyall just south of Murchison is also worthwhile, to see how boom and bust played out when gold was discovered on the West Coast in the late nineteeth century. The latter part of this stage of SH 6 finally reaches the Tasman Sea near Westport where the dairy farms and light industry re-emerge. From Westport down to Greymouth (largest town in Westland) is another 100km leg with magnificant sweeping coastal vistas, and for the motorcyclist tight corners and sweeping switch-backs here and there. The coffee stop on this stage would have to be at the Punakaiki blow-holes with the aptly named Pancake Rocks alongside, where an array of cafes cater for the throngs of visitors. It is this 100km leg from Westport to Greymouth where it is easy to over-cook a corner as a motorcyclist, as the sweeping coastal views can prove to be very distracting. It’s also here in Westland that riders come across NZ’s road-rail bridges where trains and vehicles use the same bridge - these are normally single lane and can easily catch out an unsuspecting motorcyclist if their front wheel wedges between rail tracks. Each of these road-rail bridges has their own give-way (yield) protocol, and virtually all the trains are freighting coal from the nearby mines.
From Greymouth through to Haast is a 320km leg of SH 6, where the true beauty of the South Island is on full display. South Island tar-seal roads are of a higher quality than the North Island due to a ready supply of river shingle for tar-seal chip so the road surface is excellent. For many parts of this 320km leg there is virgin native forest right beside the road’s edge as well as many glistening fresh water lakes. The first major settlement 40km after the start of this leg is Hokitika – the home of NZ’s greenstone industry, followed by two essential stopovers 150 – 170km later on this stage - Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers located in the foothills of the Southern Alps. Both glaciers have a small nearby township, are 20km apart and are well equipped to service passing tourists. These two glaciers are now in heavy retreat after being only a handful of glaciers globally that were advancing in the early 1990’s. This tract of SH 6 also has a memorial to Guy Menzies’ epic flying feat from the early 1920’s, marking the spot nearby where he crashed landed his plane to become the first person to fly across the Tasman Sea. From the Glaciers through to Haast, unspoilt New Zealand plays its best card, and makes one realise that travelling to NZ and asking their boss for a few extra weeks leave was well worth it. Haast is one of the South Island’s most remote settlements and it is here that one experiences the true wilderness of the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. Fuel consumption during this 320km stage is of paramount importance as petrol stations are few and far between. Of equal importance, the Haast area also has some of NZ’s highest annual rainfall in excess of 2metres/per annum. Therefore in periods of heavy rain even in summer, it is not uncommon to ride in this part of the world having to wear Michelin Man style rainwear to stay dry.
From Haast its then a 150km stage of SH 6 south-east to the town of Wanaka. This stage traverses Haast Pass which is actually about 75km from the settlement of Haast. The road follows the Haast River into the Southern Alps, crosses the Gates of Haast bridge, and then the climb of the pass itself, to eventually come out after the descent at the upper reaches of Lake Wanaka. Makarora settlement offers the sole petrol and coffee stop on this stage. Approaching Wanaka, SH 6 passes by two large hydro lakes and eventually crosses over the Clutha River (NZ’s second longest river) where the Albert Town Tavern is also located and which can provide a welcome late afternoon ale after a day’s riding, before the 5km ride into Wanaka.
From Wanaka is the final 300km leg of SH 6 to its terminus in the southern most city of Invercargill. This stage sees riders ride SH 6 parallel to Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range, then through a corridor of high country sheep stations, before traversing lush Southland farmlands (mainly dairy farms) as one approaches Invercargill city. This final 300km section is a fast and scenic stretch of highway without the tight corners and sweeping bends, so it is not difficult to find one’s speed getting the better of themselves, as well as a temporary date with the local constabulary. Bluff (South Island’s southern most settlement) is only a short 40km hop further south of Invercargill should one wish to view the famous Bluff signposts.
The city of Christchurch (the South Island’s largest city) has motorcycle rental companies that would allow one to fly into NZ to complete this SH 6 1200km multi-day journey. Most mid-range motorcycle models can be rented for around $NZ200/per day and upwards to $NZ300/per day for a large Harley or Goldwing tourer. If one was to consider riding SH 6 with a rental motorcycle in the kiwi motorcycling season of January to March, it would be wise to pre-book your motorcycle a few months beforehand, due to the influx of northern hemisphere motorcyclists into New Zealand.
State Highway Six is one of motorcycling’s great four or five day journeys. If you want to sample postcard New Zealand motorcycle touring at its best then SH 6 offers everything - and more, for you. All the talk may be concerning Route 66 in the Land of Uncle Sam, but State Highway Six is just as compelling in the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s time to pencil in the South Island’s SH 6 on your motorcycle touring lifetime wishlist.