In the first Machine and Pilot team outing, Patrick Williams and Sam Ryan were sent to Rarotonga – one of the world’s premier scooting desinations.
As the capital of the sprawling Cook Islands group, Rarotonga was a top pick for a variety of reasons. The youngest island in the group, it’s been less exposed to the forces which have eroded it’s neighboring islands to low-lying atolls; its peaks jut some 500m out of the ocean, and the land is draped in rich, dense jungle. An outer ring road allows riders to circumnavigate the whole thing in approximately 45mins, most of this ride close to the sea. An ancient inner road gives access to the interior, often via dirt paths, gravel and stream crossings – impressive and picturesque riding terrain.
The island’s bike licensing system is somewhat infamous for New Zealand riders; in the past you were able to sit the Cook Island motorcycle license test, and then convert this to a full class 6 bike licence back home in NZ. Although this loophole was closed in 2009, we were still interested in the process.
Depending on which country you are from then your relevant license can be used in Rarotonga, provided it is for the correct vehicle type.
The team were told that the process would be extremely easy, but when “it’s easy” is your only instruction things can actually turn into a bit of an ordeal.
The basic process is this: Rent a scooter from a hire company, they will give you a temporary license so you can drive to the police station and sit a written and practical test. Once you pass, take these documents back to the scooter hire place and you’re on your way. In reality this process can be a little more convoluted.
First up there were availability problems: No scooters were available at any of the six vendors tried between the main town of Avarua and Muri Beach. Try to book bikes in advance if the vendor allows you to do so. Scoots were eventually found at Muri Beach Avis, however this company requires you to already have the full Cook Island’s license – they won’t issue a temporary one for the purpose of passing the practical.
So it was back into town to the police station to book the test. Once inside you head to a little room on the right; this might seem obvious, but again, there are no instructions anywhere telling you what to do. You’ll need your existing car licence and passport. To apply and book the test costs $20. Our practical test (an extra $5 for some reason) ended up getting booked for the next day – see, this isn’t quite as easy as they were told.
The following day they sat the theory test (another extra $5 for some other reason) and as it turns out you were meant to have purchased a Cook Island’s road code ($15) if you want to actually pass. Of course, our pilots are some of the best in the business and did just fine, but not without more hassles. In reference to a question about stop signs Ryan wrote “it requires that you are stationary before proceeding.” The answer needed to be something along the lines of “you need to come to a complete stop.” However, stationary means just that – you’re either stopped or not. A short discussion and the failed test was deemed a pass. It was a nervous walk down the road to Avis to grab a bike for the practical – remember, you can’t book the scoots in advance, and there was only about ten minutes to find some. By chance they had just one, and both riders sat the practice on the same bike. Neat plastic cards printed on the spot were received like trophies.
“It was actually a very stressful situation, there was a little roadblock every step of the way and we were wasting so much time trying to get scoots,” says Ryan. “When I initially failed my test we were both distraught, this was a team operation and having only one bike wasn’t going to cut it. I definitely wouldn’t say it was easy, I would say the process was as finicky as anywhere else, perhaps more so given the complete lack of instruction.”
The second bike was picked up from Muri Beach Avis, a 10-15 minute drive from the town centre. This seemed to be the place to go if you needed a scoot and they always had a big line of them. You can drop the bikes back to either branch once you’re done with them.
The bikes themselves were Yamaha Xeons in ‘Victorious Red’, manufactured in Indonesia and popular throughout the competitive South East Asian market. They feature a water-cooled 125cc engine with Yamaha’s innovative YMJET-FI fuel injection system which employs a small secondary intake runner at low engine speeds to increase cylinder swirl and fuel atomisation, resulting in greater efficiency and engine response.
With the largest capacity engine you can rent on the licence these are surely the best bikes on the island, especially if you plan to ride with a pillion; their larger diameter rims mean they are fairly stable and easy to ride. With a practical top speed of 80km/h you don’t really need anything else, even if they are lacking in the looks department with their edgy, sporty styling.
Winter in the Southern Hemisphere is a popular time to visit the island, it’s the dry season and temperatures still sit in the mid-20s. Despite this the island had just been lashed by a tropical cyclone and while warm and relatively free from showers, previous rainfall had left inner roads and paths swamped.
“The bikes handled the conditions impressively,” says Williams. “In general we are pretty sensible people, but when we’re together there is definitely an unspoken competition to try and ‘out-crazy’ one another. Roads were fairly rocky and many were extremely muddy and slippery. We had a blast riding with the bike slewing around underneath you, picking its own path while you hang around for the ride. In many situations it was easier to have the rear spinning up like crazy than actually have it grip up and push the front. We were hard on them, but not reckless. They’re water cooled and we didn’t once trip the temperature light, despite sustained revs at low speeds. The inner roads are a blast, you get to see how the majority of the island live. You do need to be respectful, in many cases its impossible to tell whether the road your on is an open public track, or a private track through someones land. Either way, a smile and a wave goes along way in diffusing the latter. Everyones friendly here, they’re probably well used to bumbling tourists.”
Quality of life is high, thanks to the fact that land can only be purchased via hereditary and although it can still be leased for up to 60 years, the arrangement stops big money coming in and setting up a system of wealth inequality and worker exploitation.
The condition of land ownership means that you must build on the land to secure it and this has led to a lot of unfinished buildings – just the concrete slab and walls with no roof or any internals. These are frequently overgrown with beautiful gardens and have a lost world vibe.
If Bali seethes with the buzz of its thousands of scooters, Rarotonga burbles to a gentle beat.
Rarotonga has a very relaxed pace of life and this can probably be a bit deceiving, you need to be vigilant on the roads just like anywhere else. In general people are pretty good drivers, even on the seldom used inner roads they’re used to checking properly for a scooter or bike. The things to look out for are dogs and chickens running in front of you, or random patches of gravel on corners – Ryan hit one of these going about 30kph and had the rear step out in dramatic fashion, and he was lucky he wasn’t high-sided into a taro plantation.
There’s an interesting selection of vehicles on the island: a lot of tiny Kei-style trucks, and quite a few of these are chinese. There’s also a pleasing amount of cars well on their way to rusting out; the best one was surely a faded blue/green Supra with cracked and peeling paint, and huge rust holes in all the roof pillars.
One interesting phenomena is the way you can reach the same landmarks on the island but traveling in different directions. Go one way and a beach might be after a small hut on your left, but from the other direction the beach is on your right and before the hut. Just remember, people baulked at Christopher Columbus’s suggestion that he could reach the far east by traveling west.