New Zealand Rally 1996
By Alan Teeder
At lunchtime on Saturday 10 February a small group, members of both the English Riley Register and the Dutch Riley Club Holland met together, at Heathrow Airport. Connie and Mart Bigot had just escaped from the snow fields of North Holland, Alan Teeder was struggling with a suitcase two sizes too big. After checking in and a last English beer we left the normal world and entered a jumbo jet. When we woke up 24 hours later it was early Monday morning on a summer's day at Auckland airport, where we were met by the local Riley folk. The Bigots got into Tom and Hillary King's car, and looked amazed as Alan disappeared in a Rolls Royce. After breakfast with the Kings, Glyn Williams, Adephi owner, and also the owner of the Rolls, gave Alan the keys, and asked for a lift to work. It's easy to drive, he said, it only has two pedals. Having dropped off Glyn we set off to discover Auckland. Soon we were feeling the effects of jet-lag and stopped at a quiet beach to sit down and look at the blue Pacific. No sooner had we sat down than a bicycle stopped behind us. "Kommen jullie uit Petten?" (do you come from Petten?) said the man. It seems that he was on a world tour and thought that he recognized one of the brothers who used to run the main bar/restaurant in the small North sea village. We thought that we were dreaming.
Three short days later it was time to return the keys of the Rolls Royce and get head south to Christchurch. We were in New Zealand for a big car rally and were to drive cars borrowed from another Register/RCH member, Ramon Farmer. Many years ago, Ramon started his collection of Rileys as a young man in New Zealand. Connie and Mart were to drive his 1937 12/4 Continental, and Alan was to be let loose in a RMB. Ramon himself had entered his pre-war 2 ½ litre racing special. The Continental was being run-in with a fully rebuilt engine, but the RM had not been used since 1976. The special had never been used on the road before, but we knew that Ramon had been busy fitting lamps and wings. There was still a week and a half to go before the rally started, and we would need a little time to get used to the cars, and for the cars to get used to driving again. To get to Christchurch, we decided it would be a good idea to hire a car and do a bit of sightseeing on the way. Unfortunately half an hour on the telephone told us that all the hire cars had already gone south, so we got onto another airplane - this time to Wellington where we would take the ferry to the South Island and then try again to hire a car. The ferry, a modern hydrofoil, took us across Wellington's magnificent harbour, over the Cook Strait and finally treated us to a high speed run through spectacular fiords to Picton.
When we got off the ferry at Picton, the hire cars had all been hired (by other people) so we took a bus-ride to Blenheim where we stayed the night with Garry and Dinah Turner. The Turners are used to guests, as they are probably the nearest Riley familly to the ferry. We all had rides in Garry's Redwing side-valve, and inspected his other cars, which range from a 1907 V-twin to a 6 cylinder Kestrel. In the morning there was just time to pick some grapefruit in the garden and make a quick visit to the local tractor museum (eat your heart out Herman) before taking the bus to Christchurch. The bus was very pleasant, and gave us our first taste of the mountains of the South Island. The drivers give a commentary on the way, and ours made an unscheduled stop at a grey seal colony. We arrived in Christchurch late that afternoon.
At the bus station were Ramon, with John, his brother in law. John was to be Alan's co-driver on the rally. We first of all went around the corner to see the Rileys, which were at the local engineering works. Clifton Whall, the works owner, was to loan us his batch (New Zealand for weekend cottage) whilst we were in Christchurch. Clifton is a long time RMB owner, but had entered his 1929 Nash coupe for the rally. The batch was built by Clifton when he was an apprentice builder and overlooks the volcanic crater that is used as Christchurch's harbour. The trip from the city is less than 30 km, but takes about 40 minutes on some rather mountainous roads which go over (350m.) and then around the rim of the former volcano.
The next week was busy. Sightseeing, playing with Rileys and visiting friends kept us fully occupied. Many of Trish Farmer's family live in Christchurch, and we knew them well as they had been to England last summer for Michelle Farmer's wedding. One night we went out for a meal in the city. It was Alan's turn to drink lemonade that night and about midnight he was driving the Continental over the mountain and back to the batch. Halfway, the lights went dim, and Connie shone a pocket lamp through the window to show us the way. The only lights we could see were at an isolated pub, so we stopped there and telephoned. No one else was at home yet. Ramon had set off before us, but his batch has no telephone. Just then a police car arrived. "Can we help ?" "Could you take us to our friend's batch, where we can borrow a car battery please ?" "OK, jump in.". Alan gets in the police car and is driven off. Unfortunately Ramon was not home either. He was delivering Victoria, his youngest daughter, to the in-laws house in the city. So, back to the pub. Just before reaching the pub a pair of Riley headlamps is seen coming the other way. "There's my mate.". "Are you sure" . "Yes". The police car makes a U-turn, chases and catches the RM. "Are you sure it's your mate". " Yes". "Really sure?". "Yes". All the blue flashing lights are turned on and Ramon stops instantly. "Shall I go or do you want to. ?". "You can if you like". So Alan gets out of the police car and knocks on the window of the RM. "Good evening sir. Have you been drinking?". Ramon and Trish look worried, and Ramon gets out of the car. He still looks worried. "Its OK Ramon, its only me , Alan". At this point it might be worth noting that the RM was wearing out of date number plates and had no Warrant of Fitness ( MOT or APK) or license. The police did not seem to notice this however and after thanking them were on their way. Back at the pub the landlord made coffee for the ladies whilst we changed the batteries from one car to the other. Next day we found that the dynamo had a small wiring fault which was quickly mended. By now Ramon could see the joke and was telling everyone about it.
At the end of the week both cars were running well and it was time to start on the rally. Sadly Ramon had been called back to work in Angola (warning - don't work for Exxon) so we were without him, Trish. or the special. Hopefully they will be able to join us in Vierhouten and in Coventry. So, on Monday morning and without the Farmers we drove to our start point.
The rally was in two parts. The first week was driving, and you could chose one of 28 routes, all of which arrived in Christchurch on Friday. Our route started in Christchurch, making something of a circular tour of the South Island. It was just over 1000 km. The accommodation had been selected for us by Jennie Whall and included two nights in a place described as "where is that?" by the locals.
The trip started in typical New Zealand style with 100km sections of loose-stone road. Mid afternoon our party gathered together for petrol and ice creams in Geraldine, an isolated small town. It is rather superfluous to say small town, because, apart from Christchurch, all the towns that we visited were small. You could say the same for the word isolated. At the petrol station, the owner became quite exited, and took us into his office to see photos. He had been the local Riley agent. "Do you know a Riley collector who has houses in Christchurch and in England?". "Yes, these are his cars that we are driving. Do you know where we can find his sister, she lives somewhere near here?". "She is at work right now, you have missed her.". So we went off for the ice-cream. Half an hour later... "I am Maureen Booth, are you the Englishman looking for me ?". It does not take very long for word to get around in Geraldine!. We were all invited for afternoon tea at her bungalow, before setting off for our first hotel.
This was on the shores of Lake Tekapo and was in the luxury class. After dinner we escaped the Japanese coach party who were making a loud noise called Karaoke, and went for a lakeside walk under the stars. In the morning we all washed dust from the cars and set off for Wanaka, another 200km. The scenery continued to amaze us. In the distance were the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook (3745m. ). We had time to spare so Tom King, who had joined us in his Bentley along with Glyn Williams, suggested that we visit this mountain. This involved a 100km detour along the shores of lake Pukaki and lunch on a hotel lawn overlooked by the rugged mountains. It was well worth it. Back on the official route we stopped for ice cream again at Omarama, an even more isolated and smaller town. John told us that his sister in-law Jenifer, who had entertained us for dinner a few nights before in Christchurch, came from a sheep station 20 km into the hills behind us. The trip then continued up a long, but gentle pass and across some rather forbidding barren land until we descended into the leafy valleys and lakes at Wanaka.
The Wanaka hotel was really de-luxe, and once again was on the lake shore. The whole place was buzzing with old cars. Perhaps buzzing is not quite the word to describe the purring of the Rolls, Bentley and Stutz limousines at this hotel. We went into the town for a meal that evening, and met up with English members Jean and Gerry Dick, and George and Silvia Middleton, who were driving a borrowed Riley Kestrel.
Next morning we were to try the first of the big mountain passes. The Haast Pass (560m. ) was only opened in 1965, and until 3 years ago was not surfaced. Traveling east to west the climb is not too steep, but the descent was much more interesting. The west coast is mountainous rain forest and the road runs between steep mountains and down which run many high waterfalls. Once we had reached the coast the road turned north. This part of New Zealand is the least populated that we had yet seen. Small settlements, sometimes just one house, were spaced at 20 to 50 km intervals on the winding road. No side roads or tracks were shown on our map, which proved to be quite accurate. On our left we could see the deep blue Tasman sea, with miles of deserted beaches and rocky islands.
Some 50 km before our destination we passed through the resorts of Fox and Franz Josef. These are situated at the base of large glaciers which sweep down from the snowfields of the Southern Alps. We just had time to drive to Fox Glacier. The route took us along a road which is very broken. At the end of the access road is a large sign which says "No pedestrians, No Stopping, No Camping - Danger". Just after this we passed a large rock fall where hundreds of meters of mountain are crashing down into the valley. After this is a large stony area which is the bed of the river that flows out of the glacier. We finally parked some 500m short of the glacier. Time was short and we wanted to be sure of our meal that evening so we had to leave.
The next two nights were in the place described as "where?" earlier on. Whateroa is a settlement of some 300 people about 30 km north of Franz Josef. Our party had completely booked the single small hotel. Here we were made immediately at home. The locals spoke very slowly and told us of an engineering works where we could find an unused Ford T engine, and a straight 8 Buick crankcase. The works was the site of New Zealand's only car manufacturer and we were invited to visit them the next day. That night the evening meal was like grandmother's cooking and came on plates piled high.
So in the morning we went off for a close look at Franz Josef Glacier, with a trip around the car factory to start with. The car factory was a farm barn. Inside there was plenty of black grease and old tractors. The car was called the DUZGO and was designed to go up hills that Land Rovers could not manage. Two gear boxes, one behind the other, gave 25 forward speeds. The engine was a single or twin motorcycle unit, probably depending upon local availability. The wheels were also from the motorcycle, with a new hub welded to spokes home made from steel plate. Knobbly motorcycle tyres provided the traction required. A tiny two seat body was fitted. Apparently 15 of the vehicles were built and sold, before the government made the enterprise uneconomic by adding 40% purchase tax. The builder argued against this, as they were made from secondhand parts. By the time that this was resolved production had stopped. The market has now been taken by the Japanese Quad bikes so it is probably too late now. One of the cars has been fully restored, and the owner got it out and started it for us.
Leaving the car factory we continued to Franz Josef. Here we able to walk, along the glacial river bed, right up to the crumbling face of the glacier, which is apparently advancing at the rate of 1 meter per year. Is this sign of a new ice age ? The glacier itself is fed by the snow from the mountains behind, and flows at a rate of 1.5 metres per day. It is amazing to be at sea level in a country with the climate of Spain, and still be able to stand next to a mountain of ice. Tom King was unable to walk with us as he was under the belief that the area was infested with the Kea, a native parrot. This bird apparently likes eating rubber (tyres, Bentley windscreen surrounds, and RM roofs). We left him guarding the cars and were relieved to find him in one piece on our return.
Back at Franz Josef village we had coffee with a couple from Tasmania who were driving a Ford A pick-up. We had made friends with them a few days earlier on the road, and exchanged stories of our experiences en-route. They called themselves the Tasmaniacs. That evening they came to our hotel for a meal. The rest of the day was spent looking for herons.
Leaving Whateroa we set off on the final leg back to Christchurch. The Continental, with its new motor, was running well. The RM was suffering from a bad head gasket and a blocked radiator. John was happy since this kept Alan's speed down to something more sensible! We continued northwards along the West coast, turning inland about 100km later. To reach our destination we now had to cross over Arthur's Pass (965m.), which had a reputation for being rather difficult. Alan and John set off directly with the sick RM, but Connie and Mart, with the Whalls went to a place called "Shanty Town" where Connie successfully panned some gold! Tom and Glyn took the Bentley on to Greymouth to visit old friends. Arthur's pass is the only way through the mountains between the Haast Pass (300 Km south) and the Lewis pass (70 km north). On the access road are signs advising no lorries, coaches or trailers. As well as being very steep and winding, one long section of the pass is single track, and cars climbing have absolute right of way. Immediately after this section the RM boiled and required 5 litres of water and a cooling off period. We watched even big cars like pre-war Bentleys struggling past in a cloud of steam. The next section was very, very steep, and the 2 had to be quickly thrown into bottom gear. This was after 20 minutes in 2nd gear! The road is regularly washed away by huge waterfalls in winter, or buried under massive rock slips which come from the overlooking mountainsides. As a result large sections have to be completely rebuilt from scratch. John said that the top section was steep because it had to be built on top of the most recent of the rock slips. At the summit we stopped to view the other cars ascending. A convoy of Vauxhall 30/98's made an impressive sight!
After Arthur's pass it was a relatively straightforward 150 km or so to Christchurch. Alan and John stopped to help a motorcycle which had died, and took the rider on to the rally finish, arriving early evening. The others got in about 10 pm, and we retired to our lodgings.
The second week of the rally was based at a horse race track in the city. Over 1500 old cars had arrived on Friday. Saturday was spent washing and adjusting cars, followed by shopping and sightseeing. Various sub-events were organized each day. These included a Hill Climb competition, a Car Race day, A member's only day with all the cars gathered at one large venue, social runs into the countryside and special "one make" events for individual marques of car. Each evening entertainment was laid on at the race track, with a choice of 3 to 5 different parties or dances to attend. Accordingly, on Monday, we moved house and stayed with John in the city to be nearer the action. John is the local Roman Catholic priest, so we stayed in the presbytery. As you can image this was a busy week. The sight of so many old cars together was something spectacular. Even on Friday we were still seeing cars for the first time, and running across old friends who we had not seen during the week. The final dinner, for all 4000 entrants came much too soon on Friday evening. This was quite a logistics feat, and involved using 6 restaurants and 4 sittings, all in the grandstand of the race track.
On Saturday we put the cars back in Ramon's barn and said good-bye to Clifton's batch. There was time for shopping for souvenirs and presents, including some for Victoria Farmer, whose birthday it was. In the evening we took our hosts to dinner. The restaurant was situated in a wildlife park, and in between courses we had a tour of the park. It had just turned dark, and we were lucky to see four Kiwis. This is the national bird, and is shy, nocturnal, flightless and turkey sized. They were not however on the menu that evening, We also saw the elusive Kea, but instead of feeding it bits of Bentley, we gave it some Pavlova. Pavlova is the national dish and we too had developed a liking for it.
Sunday was our last day. Clifton and Jennie Whall, diligent hosts to the last, took us to a winery for lunch. Then it was off with the shorts and on to the the airport and the flight home. Here we joined Jim and Jan Clarke of the Riley Register who were on the same airplane. At Auckland we changed flights and said a brief farewell to the Kings and to Glyn, who had already driven back in the Bentley. After an hour of flying we crossed the date line, and for a short time it was Saturday, Victoria's birthday again.
On the flight home we dreamed of a month on the other side of the world, of summer in February, of 2000km of Riley driving on empty roads, of spectacular, ever-changing scenery, of deep blue seas and lakes, of a car rally with over 1500 cars, of a borrowed Rolls Royce and a holiday cottage, of a Police chase, of the hospitality and friendliness of everybody that we met, and of all the old friends that we had met and new friends that we had made.
Clifton has already booked a hotel for the next Rally, which will be in the year 2000 at Hamilton. The dreams continue.
London on Monday morning was cold and miserable.