Sliding, Climbing, Fording, And Downright Adventuring In The New Zealand Classic
Photography by Will Broadhead
It is fair to say life has become repetitive as of late. Sitting around at home is better than laying down at the hospital, but the cabin fever is no less real. Peering out across the same view from between the slats of the home office blinds is bound to lose its appeal after a few weeks, no matter how much more productive you feel while working in your pajamas.
Thankfully we have the memories of a better time to help us not lose sight of what it is we’re looking forward to. Case in point, shortly before this descent into life on lockdown—and in stark contrast to it—I was fortunate enough to find myself on an adventure. A 23-day, 7000-kilometer exploration of a far-off land that most people simply associate with sheep and fantasy films.
I am talking about New Zealand, which is about as far away as I can get from my front door in England before I start coming back around, and despite only arriving home on the 10th of March, with the current state of the world, it feels like a very long time ago indeed.
This isn’t a remorseful sonnet though, nor an overt pining, but more so a celebration of an incredible place to go driving, a contented glance back at a wonderful three weeks of classic car rallying, to draw some inspiration and hope for the future. I found myself in middle earth for the first time this year, photographing the Endurance Rally Associations New Zealand Classic, an event that would take us into almost every pocket of the country, along roads less travelled, with a band of likeminded crews piloting everything from pre-war Bentleys to modded Porsche 911s, with one or two oddities in between.
The ERA is well known for its automotive adventures and pioneering routes that define them, particularly the massive Peking 2 Paris, which occupies many a bucket list for good reason. New Zealand wasn’t an escapade on that scale, but it would offer up some of the most breathtaking scenery and driving that I have ever experienced.
Beginning on the North Island, we departed the bustling metropolis of Auckland that had become our home while we acclimatized ourselves to the time difference ahead of the start. Once on our way, the rally would take us around the northern perimeter of the land of the long white cloud, before heading south and exploring everything else that the north had to offer, and finally beginning a two-week traversal of the South Island, finishing, eventually, in Christchurch.
Everywhere we went, we were both blown away by and fascinated with altering the route—I very quickly lost count of the times I was told we were going “the wrong way,” or its common precedent, “This is the quickest way to get there.” We certainly made a few detours—intended and otherwise—but to take the direct route would be somewhat missing the point, to say nothing of missing out on the splendor of this amazing country.
New Zealand is a land of contrasts. On any given day, we might set off in the morning at sea level, spend some hours careening along coastal roads with a view out to the Tasman Sea, sometimes under pristine skies and sometimes with the full force of a weather front beating down upon the ancient coastline. A turn inland however, and it seemed that it didn’t take too many kilometers of travel to find oneself immersed in subtropical rainforests, or through mountain passes flanked by glaciers and towering Mordor-esque peaks. The snaking and rushing rivers seemed were a near-constant companion as well, especially on the South Island, while in the north, the abandoned rural railroads of a more industrial time stood sentry along the routes between long-deserted townships.
Many of the active roads share this forgotten feeling, which goes without saying once you learn that nearly 40% of New Zealand’s road network is unsealed—the name of the game is gravel. If you enjoy driving on a loose surface and are handy with a roadside jack, then this country will be a playground. And with our trip across it coinciding with the longest dry spell New Zealand had seen for decades, our band of travelers navigated through the fine silt and plumes of dry dirt like we were in the Oklahoma dust bowl, as the largely undisturbed tracks that were chosen for our route had their parched and scorched surfaces tossed into the air in a cloud of thick powder that coated everything in its fallout area. That included us photographers, and while the risk of developing some awful pulmonary disease was higher than normal, that jeopardy was more than made up for by the spectacle of the cars sliding through the bush before ghosting into a hazy fog of light and sound.
It was less ghost of Tom Joad and more spirit of Colin McRae that was embodied in this particular trip though, as our route often took us along stages of the World Rally Championship events that have taken place in New Zealand over the years, as well as the infamous Silver Fern. No stage is perhaps more revered than the enthralling Motu Road however, a stretch of some 48 kilometers of gravel, which the aforementioned McRae made his own, setting a stage record in 1994 of 37 minutes and 21 seconds.
The road itself takes you from sea level, high up into rainforest, and back down again through river valleys on a constant snake of twisting scree. For anyone who likes to turn with the throttle in addition to the steering wheel, this would be an incredible stage to attack when the road is closed. For us of course, the speeds were much more reserved compared to a legend and a works Subarau, but it was a challenge nonetheless, and I can’t begin to comprehend how the likes of McRae and his contemporaries set about the speeds that they did here, particularly as the road is perched upon such a knife-edge at times, with sheer drops waiting for those unfortunate enough to overdraw on their luck or talent.
It is almost impossible to condense three weeks’ worth of travel into such a short piece, but I think the above is an apt summary of what we experienced during this odyssey in New Zealand. Adventure is a vital part of who we are as humans, and exploration even more so. As one islander put it to me, “You’ll probably see more of New Zealand than most of the Kiwi’s ever will in a lifetime.” I dare say there is some truth in his statement, but for all of the roads traveled, there are countless more waiting for you, and as soon as the world claws back toward something like equilibrium, I know I’ll be champing at the bit to discover them.