Mt. Aspiring, New Zealand. Day seven of the 2020 BMW Motorrad International GS Trophy saw the GS riders head further south, exchanging the high country of the Mackenzie Basin for the first reaches of the Upper Otago, not an easy transition as mountains are constant barriers to movement here in the South Island. The smallest lines of weakness – passes and gorges – are typically the only way to reach new territory and so it was the GS Trophy route negotiated four mountain passes and plenty of water crossings before the riders were allowed to reach the camp at Lake Wanaka, which in the early evening sat in the shadow of the imposing Mount Aspiring (a world heritage site).
Such is the scenic drama of these high country regions they have been made world famous by the filming here of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies; but the land here has a long and real history of its own and men have mined these areas for years, whether it was the Maori searching for green stone (jade) or the European pioneers drawn by the gold rush of the late 19th century.
The GS riders had enjoyed gold of different nature in the truly magnificent sunrise over Lake Wanaka before setting off for their first test of the day, the Akrapovic Challenge, found just 30km along the track to the Hakataramea Pass. This test required all three team riders to ride a parcour that was part gravel floor part inclined bank with tricky cambered turns that overturned a few. Against the clock, the riders balanced attack with technique, and for the leading teams of South Africa and France it was evident both were taking a measured tactic of being fast but not erratic – a mistake at this point in the competition could prove difficult to reverse.
After the test the riders continued up the pass on a flowing trail that allowed long glances westward toward the Southern Alps where the snowy peak of Mt. Cook (Aoraki by its Maori name) – at 3724m New Zealand’s highest mountain – was lit by the orange and gold rays from the morning sun.
Once over this pass the route veered westward into Danseys Pass, an altogether more technical trail where the steep valley sides closed in tight – as did flocks of the Merino sheep, which repeated blocked the trail! At the head of the pass the riders could at last take their break for lunch at the Danseys Pass Hotel – as remote an establishment as you’ll ever find. Upon leaving the pass again the mountains were thrilling the riders with their beauty as clouds tumbled like waterfalls from the peaks.
When away from the mountains the route passed along the high country where smaller hills slipped between the pastures and occasional crop fields. Small towns drifted by, like Naseby and Wedderburn with their history embedded in gold mining – you can still see the odd abandoned miner’s hut rusting away – but today these communities rely mostly on agriculture to sustain them.
In the afternoon the route took in one last high pass, up through Thomson Gorge, and at the highest point the riders found their second test of the day, ‘Gate clutch start’. Here the teams, starting from the gate at the head of the pass, had to bump start a BMW F 850 GS in the shortest possible distance. That’s start and stop, with the engine still running after the crash braking. Here again some played safe allowing themselves a good few metres to gain momentum before bump starting the GS and hitting the brakes. Braver teams, like Russia, successfully gambled on just two turns of a wheel before dropping the clutch catching the engine and braking – all done in less than five metres.
Test complete it was a last run downhill to Lake Wanaka, although this trail was peppered with water crossings and gates, so something of a stop-start affair. Wanaka is set in a huge glacier-formed valley, with fields dotted with giant rocks. The Pisa Hills stood to stop the riders from heading too far south while ahead the Southern Alps were again an imposing dark wall of rock that stood as barrier to the west coast.
The ride from Rotorua, across two islands, has been magnificent, at times challenging but always inspiring. Now the GS Trophy riders have just one more day to savour this most dramatic and beautiful of countries. And for the few that are in contention for the GS Trophy itself there’s still the nerve-wracking final grand-parcours which will determine the new champions. One more day, but memories that will last a lifetime.