Hit the road, Jack!
Just over 40 years had passed since I was last on a motorcycle, and the memory left me a tad nervous about clamping my aging legs onto the sides of a Harley-Davidson.
But any feelings of trepidation -- or reminders of why I needed seven stitches after my last ride -- soon vanished after meeting Terry "Divot-James.
A civilian "booze bus" driver who collects drunk drivers at police checkpoints, Divot also leads part-time saddleback tours with Bularangi Motorbikes New Zealand.
We met beneath the landmark 328-metre-tall Sky Tower across from the luxurious Skycity Grand Hotel on Federal St., where I stayed for two nights.
"It doesn't sit at home," Divot, 57, said of his $45,000 Ultra Classic."
Active in moto-cross racing a while back, he regularly gets together with riders for excursions such as camping trips to New Zealand's the South Island.
After donning a comfortable leather jacket, gloves and a helmet, followed by a few easy rider instructions, we were off.
My first view of Auckland was from above during a comfortable Air New Zealand flight. The scene was highlighted by morning sunlight glistening off Waitemata Harbour, with islands and mountains surrounding the sprawling city of 1.4 million. Divot's destination was among the forested hills and valleys to the west.
From the waterfront, which I had explored after a lunch with a journalist friend the previous day, we cleared the suburbs and rode along Manukau Harbour towards a 16,000-hectare chain of hills.
Called Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa -- "The Great Forest of Tiriwa" -- by Maori people, the Waitakere Ranges have kauri snails, glowworms, long-tailed bats and a gannet breeding colony at the northern Otakamiro Point.
From a hillside observation deck on Scenic Dr. beside the Arataki Visitor Centre, which offers 165,000 yearly visitors tips about day-walks and the rainforest, the panoramic view was breathtaking.
After more hairpin turns and hills along routes lush with kauri and native nikau trees, Divot stopped on a roadside "lay-by" overlooking our final destination -- Piha Beach.
Suddenly, sunshine emerged from clouds over the Tasman Sea, silhouetting aptly named Lion Rock, an eroded 16-million-year-old volcanic outcropping.
Because of strong undertows and surf, "this is one of the most dangerous beaches in New Zealand,-Divot said.
Regardless, the 600-resident community is popular with Aucklanders, who make the 39-km trek year-round. During summers, two surf clubs have safety patrols, moving warning flags with fast-changing currents. People who aren't strong swimmers should stay out of the water altogether-- and no one should swim at night when there are no lifeguards on duty.
After another thrilling round of more hills and bends, we arrive back at my hotel.
"One of the things that means the most to me is a person getting off the bike with a smile on their face,-Divot said before we shook hands and parted.
"Riding like this introduces people to the freedom. You're isolated in a car."
The memory of than 2-and-a-half-hour run still makes me smile.
READY TO RIDE
-- Bularangi Motorbikes has guided and self-guided tours from Auckland, with 40 Harley-Davidsons equipped with maps and GPS (16 are available for rental to customers with motorcycle licences). The company also services Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. For details, visit motorbikesnz.co.nz.
-- One-day guided rides from"Auckland include the 2-million-year-old Waitomo Caves 12 km northwest of Te Kuiti; the hot springs town of Rotorua; Hobbiton, where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie set is maintained on a sheep farm; and the Coromandel Peninsula, a steep, hilly largely rainforest-covered area that stretches 85 km north from the Bay of Plenty's western end.
-- Longer North Island trips last two to four days, or nine to 21 days including the South Island.
-- Driving in New Zealand is on the left side of the road. There are many hilly, narrow or winding roads.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Air New Zealand flies direct, non-stop from Vancouver (five times per week during the winter), daily out of San Francisco and twice daily out of Los Angeles. Check aircanada.com for flights to Vancouver, San Francisco and L.A.
-- New Zealand Tourism has a wealth of travel information available at newzealand.com. Visitors can also ask travel-related questions through the website.