Wheel alignment

Friday 3 November 2023

A lifetime of bikes

Although we haven't actually met up for 20 years, my UK-domiciled best mate Rick and I stay in regular touch.  There's little in the way of topics that don't get dissected but motorcycles and classic cars are a regular topic because of our shared interest.  Of late, I've been sending him some photos of bikes that I've owned since moving to NZ in 1975, together with some ramblings about ownership.

I started this blog in a moment of boredom in 2009 and over that time, have produced a few reviews of bikes I've owned, normally at a level of technical detail which would bore the pants off most people, apart from fellow tragics and engineers.  The correspondence with Rick got me thinking about putting something together which condensed total bike ownership into one place, leaving out most technical detail but including something far more important - the memories associated with them.

The reasons for buying a bike changes over time - "fitness for purpose".  We spend a lot of time looking at technical specifications, performance and so on but we ignore emotional appeal at our peril and to make a good, lasting decision, it has to be a combination of both factors. In fact, the last but one bike I owned before retirement was purchased without much thought to emotional appeal, an error of judgement on my part.  Despite the bike's high performance, it simply didn't light my fire. In the 3-odd years of ownership, it didn't get patted in the shed, whereas the others did.  That's probably the best example of a lack of emotional appeal!

Anyway, I hope that the following memories and anecdotes strike a chord but if you're a fellow tragic, use the search bar below the header photos (desktop, laptop or tablet) to search for a few individual bike and tyre reviews etc in detail.

1964 -1966 (I think) - Suzuki 50 M15.

Freedom to roam the highways and byways at last! (file photo)

The Suzuki 50 was a gift from my maternal grandparents for passing my national school exams.  They knew I loved bikes and both Granddad and Dad used to ride in their youth but from memory, I had no input into the choice of bike.  A capacity of 50cc was probably their means of mitigating risk to a hormone-laden teen after them taking advice from the local motorcycle shop.  Nonetheless, it represented freedom so it was a wonderful gift.  They also had it fitted with leg shields and a large windscreen with the aerodynamics of a house to protect me from the elements, bless them.  The downside was that with a meagre 4 or 5 horsepower, the wind resistance from the screen severely crippled its already modest performance.

My closest mates had a Triumph Tiger Cub, a Lambretta scooter and an Ariel Arrow, so I was always wringing the throttle in an attempt to keep up.  It wasn't long before the screen and leg shields were removed, which did appreciably improve things.  Nonetheless, performance was hardly electric and after passing my test, it was time to look for something else.

1966-67 (I think) - Triumph 3TA 350

1961 Triumph 350 twin (file photo)

Like virtually all of us at that stage of our motorcycling careers, buying a bike was more of an act of faith than a well-researched one.  Rick owned a 350 Triumph by this stage which seemed like a decent recommendation.  I traded the 1964 Suzuki in for the Triumph which was around 5 years old.  The dealer was at a nearby town and went by the name of Sharp and Glover.  I didn't know at the time that they were also colloquially known as Shark and Grabber, which might have provided some degree of restraint in parting with my money.

However, it turned out to be pretty reliable, the only issue being that it would never rust due to the copious amounts of oil which it leaked.  As most British bikes of that era leaked to some extent, I suppose it was just a case of largely putting up with it.  I vaguely remember that trying to seal the pushrod tubes and tappet covers was an exercise in futility, particularly when using Red Hermetite sealant - terrible stuff.

Ownership only lasted a year or thereabouts.  Whilst its performance was admittedly better than the Suzuki 50, its power output was only 17 bhp or thereabouts and it was quite a heavy bike.  The final straw was when I tried to blow away someone riding a Yamaha 100cc 2-stroke twin.  Less power but a superior power to weight ratio, not to mention infinitely better handling.  The rider wiped the floor with me, a major humiliation.  The 3TA had to go!

1968-1971 - Triumph Tiger 100, 350 Triumph drag bike and Tricati

1955 pre-unit construction Triumph Tiger 100.  (Photo taken 1968)

The more I got into motorcycling, the more I seemed to be buying older bikes!  I got wind of  someone in the next town wanting to sell his 1955 500cc Tiger 100.  It had been superbly restored in royal blue and white paint, with lots of additional chrome plating and the engine had been tuned.  I had to have it!

It was capable of a little over 100 mph, at least in theory.  When I bought it, it was equipped with American-spec hi-rise bars and mirrors on long stalks - shades of Marlon Brando in the Wild One.  Exceeding 70mph would see the wind pressure gradually swing the mirrors rearwards, trapping me between them.  The riding position wasn't comfortable at speed either and dropped "Ace" bars were subsequently fitted to give a forward lean.  The bike was a lot of fun to ride and lots of miles were racked up on it. 

The outstanding memory on this bike was attending the Isle of Man TT in 1969, along with Rick on his Triumph Trophy.  Apart from everyday riding round the Island , Rick and I got up before dawn on a non-race day, lined up on the starting grid and went hell for leather round the entire 38 mile/60 km circuit, with a complete absence of traffic which was handy. Rick pulled out of sight fairly quickly although I knew he wasn't far away as part way round, there was a guy leaning on his gate, looking down the road.  Climbing the mountain, there was further proof of his passage with seagulls having been disturbed from kipping on the road, wheeling about in disarray.  We finished less than a minute apart with smoke pouring off my back brake drum.  It had got so hot dropping off the mountain that some of the wheel bearing grease had melted onto the drum.  The Tiger has the honour of another photo below.   It was taken on the TT course with me in my civvies, along with a delightful Scottish lass I met there.  I hasten to add that this was 2 years before I met my wife!  Rick's Trophy is on the right.

Isle of Man TT circuit - 1969

I finally sold the Tiger to one of my good friends in 1971. It was getting little use as I joined the staff at Cranfield University in 1970 and there was little time for social riding or commuting on the bike.

Supercharged 350cc Triumph drag bike - Icarus

Santa Pod drag strip UK, 1969.  Mk2 Icarus (courtesy: Pete Miller)

I was already familiar with the Triumph 350 twin motor and as there was a dragstrip close to where I lived, I thought it would be fun to build a drag bike, especially as engineering studies gave me access to machine shops and technical resources.  The Mk 1 bike was a lightly tuned motor with a Shorrock supercharger, running on methanol. Whilst it performed moderately well, the piston crowns had an occasional annoying habit of departing the rest of the piston at the oil control rings due to the high revs (mean piston speed load) enabled by the supercharger.

To cut a lengthy story short, did some calculations and it was feasible to make a short stroke version to reduce the mean piston speed and loads. I machined a solid billet short stroke crankshaft in the engineering labs and used a modified 500cc barrel and cylinder head to turn it into a very oversquare 350. Sounds easy but it was anything but, with a lot of engineering development work required.  Eventually, it was one of the top 2 or 3 fastest UK 350's over the quarter mile, with a lot more performance to come.  Over the standing start mile, which I only did twice at one event in 1970, it was world class.  A terminal speed of 147 mph on an RAF runway with rudimentary suspension and minimal wind protection is something never forgotten!

Icarus was capable of being developed much further but a new career and the high costs and time associated with drag racing drew a curtain on further racing.  I sold the rolling chassis but kept the engine and that leads on to the next bike.


Early Triumphs had a poor reputation for handling.  It was relatively common to put a 650 Triumph engine into a Norton featherbed frame which handled well and was called a Triton.  Less well known was shoehorning a smaller capacity Triumph twin into a Ducati frame to attain great handling.  This was the Tricati.  I'd seen an article in a motorcycle magazine on building a Tricati and thought that sticking the drag bike engine (minus supercharger) into a Ducati frame would be a fun project.  A  Ducati 200cc Elite rolling chassis was obtained and the build commenced.  Progress was a lot slower than planned due to work commitments, getting married and buying a house.  Then came the offer of a great job in New Zealand so the whole project was shelved.  I'm not one for regrets but in hindsight, I should have chucked it into the shipping container rather than getting rid of it.  Didn't think at the time that I'd ever return to motorcycling though.

I don't have any photos of the Tricati construction but the photo below is one of the Tricatis built by Mick Snaith, the chap whose bikes were featured in the original magazine article.  Amazingly, Mick saw a more detailed article I'd written about the Tricati build and sent a whole heap of information which is HERE.  Small world!

Mick Snaith's 1967 Tricati with a 500cc Triumph engine and Ducati Elite frame

1975-1987 - Yamaha 50 bucket racer

The move to NZ in 1975 put motorcycling on the back burner what with raising a family, a challenging career and taking up competitive sailing.  There was a short return to motorcycling in the 80's though (sort of)!

One of the company departments which reported to me was the large apprentice training school.  It was run by an unconventional ex-UK SAS sergeant called Len who had a deserved reputation for innovation and getting difficult things done quickly.  It didn't pay to ask how on most occasions.  His exploits would fill a book but we'll stick to the motorcycle narrative.  At some time in the past, he'd acquired a 50cc Yamaha racing motor, complete with spares including a wicked expansion chamber.  He was always vague about its provenance but clearly, possession was 9/10 of the law in this case.  The engine was put into a frame made by Len and the apprentices.  The original intent was to use it as a "bucket racer", an entry level race class in NZ.  It sat unused in the training centre for a number of years until Len asked whether I'd like it.  I entertained the thought of our sons riding it on the local go kart track but they showed little interest.   This is it....

Yamaha 50 bucket racer

It sat in our garage for a while until I decided to try it out.  It was only road legal in the sense that it had two wheels and functional brakes but the chances of getting caught on a local country road by the law was pretty slim.  Starting the bike for the first time in the garden was horrific.  The racing expansion chamber was unbelievably loud and had a frequency that made your teeth ache.  To maintain harmony with our neighbours, Len made a small silencer to fit on the tailpipe.  It bore a close resemblance to a covert weapon suppressor, which Len would presumably have had more than a passing acquaintance with in his past life.  

I only had one highly illegal ride on the road which was quite enough of an experience.  We lived on the edge of town but riding the few hundred metres to the open countryside still turned heads, thanks to the noise from the expansion chamber; which was mercifully less than it had been.  The power band was exceedingly narrow but once coaxed up the rev range, the bike got along at a decent lick and handled tolerably well too.  Wonderful fun but not wanting to get a bad name, it was returned to the shed and that was the end of it until given away to a deserving recipient many months later.

1987-1993  - Honda GB400TT, Suzuki TS 100 and Yamaha IT 175

Competitive sailing occupied most of what free time I had but the entry back into motorcycling happened in 1987 when I'd travelled to Auckland to pick up a new sail. A few doors from the sailmaker was a Honda dealer and a look in one window revealed a Honda GB 400 TT on a display stand.  The bike was superficially reminiscent of the Tiger 100 I owned in the UK and I was hooked again!  Jennie gave grudging permission for the purchase and she bought a piano as a means of squaring the account.  Ummm... at almost exactly twice the cost of the bike!

The 400cc 4 valve head single was a delight to ride but after a year, I decided to add a colour-matched aftermarket fairing, partly to make it resemble a British race bike of the 50's and 60's, but also for wind and weather protection.  It looked pretty good, as the photo shows.

1987 Honda GB 400 TT with aftermarket fairing

It was a lot of fun to ride and attracted a fair amount of attention  with its Midnight Blue metallic paint. It stayed in the family for around 8 years before being sold.  Always fondly remembered as the bike which got me back into motorcycling.

Suzuki TS100 and Yamaha IT 175

In the early 90's, our eldest son was interested in learning how to ride.  The safest way of  getting some basic handling skills was off-road in the forest fire breaks bordering our company forests.  I bought a TS100 for him from a local motorcycle shop owner for next to nothing.  It had been ridden Evel Knievel - style by the shop owner off Ohiwa Harbour wharf into the tide for a dare but after inspection, didn't seem any the worse for its excursion.  To keep our son company, I bought an IT175 from one of our apprentices because the price was right.

This was where my knowledge of off-road bikes was shown to be severely lacking.  The IT 175 was a competition enduro bike with a narrow power band and a tendency to lift the front wheel with the application of an incautious throttle hand.  I spent quite a bit of time spitting dirt out of my mouth having either gone over the bars or being flicked off from a high side or wheelie.  To use a technical term, it was a bastard.  Coming home covered in scrapes and walking like a 90 year old didn't impress Jennie one bit.  Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun for a couple of years and both our son and I learned a lot about bike handling.  

Suzuki TS 100 and Yamaha IT 175 - early 90's

1993-2003 - Suzuki X7, BMW K100 RS

Our eldest son was keen to get his full motorcycle licence so we purchased a 1980 Suzuki X7 250cc for him to ride.  This was the era of the genuine 100 mph 250cc superbikes.  The X7 was up there in terms of performance but the motor was very flexible across the rev range compared with some of its rivals. There even used to be an X7 racing series in the UK. With fantastic handling due to its light weight, it was a joy to ride, whether pottering along or thrashing it down country roads.  Besides, the howl of a 2 stroke and their smell was pure Viagra! 

I was looking for a bike with a bit more performance than the GB400 but hadn't considered a BMW.  It so happened that the dealer I bought the GB400 from was selling a 1985 K100RS on behalf of a client who had moved overseas.  It was in beautiful condition and I was offered it at a very reasonable price so the deal was done.  It was a fast bike but hard work on twisty roads because of its conservative steering geometry, weight and narrow bars.  Overall, it was a reliable bike but even small maintenance jobs revealed how outrageous BMW's parts prices were!

The enduring memory of ownership was doing my first ever Rusty Nuts 1000 miles/1600 km in under 24 hours organised endurance ride on it, along with some mates who were equally insane.  Terrible weather, particularly through the night part of the ride and a route consisting of heaps of twisty back roads.  We made it inside the allocated time but I was in a heck of a state, particularly the arms and wrists. Etched on the memory forever!

For what I wanted at that time, the BMW ticked most of the boxes and it was kept for 10 years.  Liked it a lot but didn't love it.

Suzuki X7 and BMW K100RS, circa 1993/4

2003-2009 - Honda Super Blackbird

Jennie and I were in Auckland for a dirty ummm... anniversary weekend and naturally did some window-gazing in bike shops as part of the total window-gazing package.  There was a blue Blackbird in the window of the Honda shop lit with spotlights and it looked stunning.  I'd worshiped Blackbirds from afar for some time, especially because of the outrageous performance but the looks really appealed, especially in metallic Phoenix Blue paint.  As I'd had the BMW for 10 years, Executive Permission was readily given to buy it after a test ride.  Emotional appeal was well and truly part of the equation.

The first few weeks of ownership were cautious ones for several reasons.  The performance was far in excess of the BMW and to make matters worse, it delivered that performance quietly with a minimum of fuss.  Far too easy to exceed speed limits by some margin. Whilst the weight of the 'bird was similar to that of the BMW, the centre of gravity was higher and being somewhat vertically challenged, care had to be taken when manoeuvring at low speed.  

There were 3 occasions which spring to mind when thinking back to Blackbird ownership.  The first was going for a ride with friends, including one who had borrowed his daughter's Suzuki 175cc 2 stroke.  After a stop, we'd send him off a few minutes before us and chase him down.  We saw him down a long straight and decided to go past at warp speed.  Unfortunately, we neglected to see some significant ripples in the road until it was too late and three of us became significantly airborne just as we passed hm.  Fortunately, there were no adverse consequences to our moment of stupidity but it was a sobering incident.  It wasn't long after this that I enrolled on a 1 day advanced riding course which was an eye-opener as well as an ego-denter. It was the start of the shape of things to come a few years down the track with my formal police roadcraft training!

Having done several 24 hour long distance events, I decided in 2005 to enter the 'bird in an event called the Southern Cross.  It started at the southern tip of the south island and we had 3 days to check in at Cape Reinga at the top of the north island.  From there, we had a day to check in at a lighthouse at East Cape, followed by a further day to check in at a lighthouse on the west coast.  A total of around 4000 km in 5 days, right on the edge of winter.  The Blackbird was built for events like this but the rider was pretty worn out at the end of it.  I checked in mid-afternoon at a nearby camping ground cabin after the finish of the ride. Sat down on the edge of the bed, fell asleep on top of it still in my riding gear and woke up next morning with the cabin door still wide open and absolutely freezing!

The third memory was touring the South Island for 2 weeks in 2007 with 3 friends who also had blue Blackbirds.  Jennie and a friend's partner came with us in a people-mover with our luggage and we had an absolute ball riding all the mountain passes.  Four near-identical Blackbirds in convoy attracted quite a bit of attention.  There's nowhere better in the world for riding bikes than NZ's south island, especially with great mates.

Four Blackbirds on Arthur's Pass

I retired from work at 60 in early 2008 and we moved from Tokoroa to our holiday place at Coromandel on a permanent basis.  A combination of peninsula twisty roads, the height and weight of the bike, plus my age pointed to the fact that the Blackbird wasn't really fit for purpose any more.  The search for something to safely extend my riding career was about to start.

2009-2015 - Triumph Street Triple 675

The search for a lower, lighter bike but with excellent performance led to an unexpected purchase.  The Street Triple wasn't near the top of the shortlist but less than half an hour into a test ride, I just had to buy one - a perfect example of both technical and emotional appeal.  Ergonomics were perfect, handling was sublime and the power to weight ratio meant that a drop in capacity from the Blackbird wasn't a disadvantage for everyday use.  The howl from the airbox at large throttle openings was pure aural (no, not oral) sex!

The Street Triple in its perfect playground - the Coromandel Peninsula

It was a number of years since I'd taken part in one of the Rusty Nuts 1000 miles/1600 km in under 24 hour rides.  In 2010, I got to wondering how a 63 year old body on a naked bike would cope so an entry was duly sent in.  In mixed weather conditions, the Triple proved to be the most comfortable bike on any of the 5 events completed, getting no more than sore hands from hanging on in gale force winds for the last few hours of the event.  However, I must admit that fitting an Airhawk seat pad before the event paid massive dividends in terms of butt comfort!

Every ride put a smile on my face and apart from a world-wide recall to change the rectifier, it was faultless for the 70,000-odd km I clocked up on it.  Much of that distance was the regular 2+ hour commute to Auckland in all weathers to get my Institute of Advanced Motorists police roadcraft qualifications. Becoming a better rider in combination with the capabilities of the Triple added up to it being 6 years of the most enjoyable motorcycle ownership experience of my whole riding career.

2015-2019 - Suzuki GSX-S 1000

With the 675cc Street Triple having reliably clocked up 70,000 km, thoughts turned to replacing it before it got too long in the tooth.  The benefits of a light performance bike with a moderate seat height were perfect for my needs and a logical progression was to the 765 Street Triple.  Frustratingly, its release into the NZ market had been delayed so it was time to look at other options.  I happened to be in Auckland one day and was offered a demo ride on on the GSX-S 1000.  Seat height was fine, performance great, weight was acceptable and the price was right so a deal was done.

Unfortunately, I failed to follow my own advice about emotional appeal.  A relatively short test ride inside the confines of Auckland city and the motorway wasn't adequate to get a real feel for it and in hindsight, the  ride didn't excite me in the way that the demo ride on the Triple did.  Should have listened to my heart.

As the bike progressed through the break-in period, the throttle response became increasingly snatchy, bordering on dangerous in wet conditions despite traction control.  In defence of Suzuki NZ, they came to the party and fitted a different ECU which solved the issue (mostly).  Here's the funny thing though.... although the bike had plenty of performance, it had no "character".  Bland isn't quite the right word to describe it but it simply didn't touch my soul.  I'm sure that other riders will have had similar experiences at some time or other.  As mentioned at the start of the post, it could be summed up by saying that it didn't get patted when walking past it in the shed, whereas the Blackbird and Street Triple certainly did!

The one exception to the negative comments was attendance at a couple of trackdays, organised by IAM. The Gixxer was in its element at the track with the throttle pinned.  A whole different world compared with riding on the road.

The Gixxer at a Hampton Downs trackday - 2016 (courtesy Barry Holland)

2019-2022 - KTM 790 Duke

In 2019, I turned 72.  I'd safely extended my riding career through a wonderful few years with IAM, not to mention the fantastic friendships made along the way.  Nonetheless, I'd done pretty much everything I wanted to do on a motorcycle so the next bike was likely to be the last one.  The obvious choice was the 765 Street Triple but reading about the new KTM 790 piqued my interest.  Nicknamed "The Scalpel" because of its razor sharp handling, it went onto the shortlist despite the KTM brand not having a reputation for reliability to the extent of Japanese manufacturers.

The test ride on a demo bike from Boyd's in Hamilton sealed the deal.  A sunny, hot day and Greg Boyd had fitted supersport tyres in readiness for a trackday the following weekend.  I'd known Greg for years and he simply told me to bugger off and enjoy myself for a couple of hours.  It's rare to laugh out loud inside one's helmet but I did multiple times on that ride.  Apart from filling the bill in terms of ergonomics, handling and performance, it was an absolute hooligan of a machine, loaded with character.  A deal was done as soon as I got back to the dealer and a week later, one graced the shed. A purchase clearly made with both technical and emotional appeal.

The various electronic power delivery and traction control options meant that it was capable of being ridden in whatever manner was appropriate to the occasion.  A few accessories were added, including a carbon fibre exhaust can to shed a bit of weight and get rid of the ugly standard muffler.  The only significant negative experience was a low speed judder when applying the brakes which got progressively worse.  This was due to warping front brake rotors but they were replaced under warranty and there were no further issues.

The KTM 790 Duke, aka "The Scalpel"

What a great bike to finish my riding career on, bringing out the "inner hooligan" on the odd occasion!  The best memory that comes to mind was in 2020, riding to the IAM annual conference near Wellington with treasured friends, then continuing up the east coast of the north island to make it a 6 day tour via roads made in motorcycling heaven.  The KTM was perfect for touring with a small tailpack, a yachting dry bag and a small backpack.  Genuinely good for the soul.

I've long advocated having a fall-back interest or two to replace a life-long passion when it's time to give up for whatever reason.  Prior to the KTM being sold in early 2022, I bought an e-mountain bike for use on the Coromandel cycle trails to maintain fitness and have fun.  Jennie and I also have a fishing runabout to do stuff together but bless her heart, it was her suggestion that we get a classic car to keep an interest in things automotive.  After a few false starts and pouty lips, we ended up with an immaculate 1972 MGB GT.  This also has special significance as it was the year we got married!  The MG continues to be a lot of fun and there's no need for speed to enjoy it.

The MGB GT at Coromandel historic gold stamper

I hope this potted history of bike ownership over a span of 58 years has been of interest from the viewpoints of variety, fitness for purpose and the anecdotes which go with them.  Some anecdotes have been left out of print to protect the guilty!  I feel privileged to have enjoyed some wonderful experiences that have had a lasting impact but above all, it's the special people I've met along the way.  That truly is a privilege.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Preserving local history

This post isn't about motorcycles or cars, but a bit of local history in New Zealand which I've only had minor involvement with, but has consumed massive amounts of my wife's time.  I'm enormously proud of her and her team of volunteers in achieving a wonderful conservation outcome.

Firstly, a bit of background.  European settlement of the Coromandel Peninsula really started in the early to mid-1800's although sporadic visits by sailor/explorers like Capt James Cook were even earlier.  Native Kauri trees were a sought-after resource for ship spars and general high quality timber.  Gold was subsequently discovered which brought about a significant increase in settlers.  Typically, settlers had to be resourceful and many had cattle to provide meat and dairy products.  One such family owned Fir Lawn House and in the late 1870's/early 1880's, had a creamery to convert milk into dairy products.  The house itself is no longer habitable but the creamery was in generally good order and had been repurposed at some stage as a spa room for a local motel.  Best not delve too deeply that it had a long-standing heritage preservation order placed on it!

The motel owners no longer needed it and approached the Coromandel School of Mines and Historical Museum to see if they would like to take ownership.  It so happens that Jennie was, and is the current President of the museum.  The committee thought that it was an excellent way of preserving a piece of local history and accepted the offer.  Like many of these excellent institutions throughout the world, they are run entirely by volunteers, mainly of a "certain age".  Income comes from modest museum entry fees and occasional grants from various sources.  Funds are invariably tight.

Coromandel School of Mines and Historical Museum

The transaction was quite complex for Jennie and her team.  As well as transporting it from one site to another, substantial civil works would be required at the museum and there was the minefield of official paperwork required by the district council and national historic places administration.  Fundraising/resourcing was another hurdle and direct approaches to local businesses and various authorities were made.  The responses were really enthusiastic overall, which allowed the project to proceed.  It's worth mentioning at this stage that despite years of professional project management, I want to live to a ripe old age so only gave advice when it was asked for (which wasn't very often)!  Harmony reigns in the James household.

The first job was to remove it from the motel and deliver it to a temporary location on the museum site.

A tricky lift from the motel

Ready for delivery to the museum

Although the structure was in good order considering that it is over 150 years old, some minor restoration was required.  Several of the motifs on the windows were broken and that was something I could address with my woodworking tools and bits of timber carefully stored for such eventualities.

One of several broken window motifs requiring replacement

Getting the creamery into its final location required substantial amounts of civil work.  Not only new paths but the old town jail which is part of the museum display had to be rotated at right angles and re-piled. 

Preparatory civil work

Boxing for concrete paths

Coromandel township (pop ~1600) is relatively isolated and to some extent, tradespeople have a captive market and are always busy.  Their standard of workmanship is generally high but the one thing they fall woefully short on is their communication skills.  Typical examples would be not turning up as promised or not completing work on time as agreed.  Most likely not restricted to just Coromandel!  However, the builder (Regan) who did all the civil work was outstanding in this respect and updates were both regular and detailed.  Likewise local electrician Zephan who installed lighting in the creamery as his contribution to the museum.  Both Regan and Zephan have been absolute stars and great communication skills are their competitive advantage.

With all the work complete, last weekend saw the grand opening by the Coromandel District Mayor, Len Salt and Jennie representing the museum volunteers.  A big turn-out and some great feedback from dignitaries and the public alike.

Ready for the grand opening

The museum already held various artifacts from that era so it was straightforward to stock the creamery with butter churns, a cream separator, ice chest and other items to bring it back to life .  A sensationally good job of restoration. 

Inside the creamery

Jennie and Mayor Len Salt at the key-turning ceremony

Some of the guests sampling refreshments after the ceremony

Apart from pride in a project superbly executed, it's a great opportunity to celebrate the enormous amount of work which volunteers the world over put into their communities.  It simply wouldn't be possible to get the same results through official channels alone and in this particular case, a piece of local history would have been lost forever. A big thumbs-up to members of the the local community for their enthusiastic support too.

Finally, to add to the previous post about knee replacement surgery 7 weeks ago; things are coming along well.  I'm continuing to gain flexibility in the joint and can drive all our cars with no issues.  A breakthrough in the past few days has seen me able to pedal my old mountain bike properly which is mounted in a resistance frame.  Pushing the rehab hard is still painful but a few weeks more and I should be up in the hills again on my e-mountain bike - yippee!

A pretty tidy job!

Wednesday 6 September 2023

The 6 Dollar Man - we have the technology

The title of this post goes back to Lee Major's TV series in the 1970's, adapted to reflect repairs to just one limb rather than the whole body! In other words, it's about a personal journey towards having a replacement knee fitted.  The procedure seems to be increasingly common now that ummm.... "mature" people are active for longer, yet the information out there can be overly technical, impersonal and not a little alarming.  I thought that documenting my personal experience of the process may assist others in making balanced decisions should they be in a future similar position.


I'm 75 now and still physically active but suspect it all started when I was at senior school in the UK.  I threw the discus for my school and province. The problematic left knee was the one which I used as an anchor when rotating in the throwing circle and it would occasionally flare up after competition.   It was shortly after emigrating to NZ in 1975 that I took up sailing at national championship level.  Hanging over the side of the boat to counterbalance it put a lot of load on the knees and this is when the problems became really apparent. 

1963 school team for county championships.  I'm middle row, 3rd from right

1980 - hanging over the side by my feet - heavily stressed knees

In 1981, I had my first surgery to stabilise a dislocated knee and whilst the decline was relatively slow, it was becoming more painful and less stable.  Like a true guy, I soldiered on until recent years when Jennie really started putting the heat on me to get something done about the problem.  As mentioned in previous posts, buying an e-mountain bike and covering some 2500 km on off-road trails in the last 15 months had some real benefits, as did losing 10kg from all the cycling exercise.

However, the time came when exercise alone wasn't enough and x-rays prompted a pronouncement from a local surgeon that they were "stuffed".  The NZ public health service is pretty effective overall but some regions have long waiting lists for particular procedures, including ours.  The surgeon commented that I'd done a lot to help myself and although he couldn't promise anything, he would see if the procedure could be carried out at a private hospital in another region.


A few short weeks later, I received a preliminary approval from the regional health authority,  then an email from Ormiston Private Hospital in the Auckland Region asking me to have new x-rays taken and to attend a preliminary consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon.  This was when the nerves really started but she really put me at ease with a no-nonsense description of the procedure.  Melissa also sails competitively as I once did, so that was a nice ice-breaker too.

The amount of pre-op documentation to be completed was substantial but efficiently handled by the admin team.  This is where things got interesting and may be of benefit to future patients!  The broad options for anaesthesia were a general anaesthetic or a spinal block, with additional sedative as appropriate.  Initially, being awake during surgery with all the sawing and hammering filled me with horror but this alternative offered a much faster recovery rate and without some of the known risks of general anaesthetic.  It was implicit that there would be absolutely no pain with a spinal block so that's the way I decided to go.  With an absence of pain, I also thought that minimal sedation would also be good.  Instead, the intent would be to play some music via my phone and earbuds as a partial distraction from noises which might resemble an engineering machine shop!  Fingers metaphorically crossed, I signed the paperwork and waited for the day, not without some trepidation.


An early check-in on the morning of the procedure, followed by visits from various members of the surgical and rehab team with yet more papers to sign.  Jennie and I were both impressed with how clearly explained it all was and delivered with grace and good humour.

Waiting to walk to theatre - more apprehensive than I look!

Just a couple of minutes walk to theatre to meet the near all-female surgical team.  The ones prepping me with the spinal block did their business, again clearly explaining how it all worked.  As I was laid down on the operating table, I experienced the one and only surge of genuine anxiety.  I was effectively paralysed from the waist down but the anxiety vanished as quickly as it had started.  The anaesthetist, Natalie; helped to get my music started at low volume - a mixture of favorite pop songs and Mozart, since you ask!

I was able to hear much of the conversations between the surgical team and the noises of surgery which were not off-putting because there were no accompanying sensations thanks to the block.  What impressed me the most was the relaxed, ego-free atmosphere and associated humour which is a hallmark of all genuinely high performance teams.  That culture is something I've been fortunate to be associated with for much of my working life and it's less common than you might think.  In what seemed like no time at all but was somewhere close to 1.5 hours, Natalie told me that they were suturing up and I'd be in the recovery ward shortly.  What a truly impressive team and being fully awake, there was the opportunity to thank them personally

With no side effects, the stay in the recovery ward was a very short one but the nurse looking after me asked if I'd like an iced lolly.  Wow, that lemon ice was the best ever and yet another example of the hospital team going the extra mile!

From there, it was to a private room with all mod cons including multi-channel TV, private bathroom and so on, with nursing staff making sure that I was completely looked after.  Within a very short time, I was sitting up in bed, eating a delicious sandwich whilst chatting with Jennie and some members of the surgical team. I guess the intent is to normalise the situation as soon as possible and having a spinal block certainly aids that.

Only an hour after surgery finished

Ice water circulating round my knee and pressure cuffs on my feet

All the meals were extraordinarily good, with an excellent range of options - something I wasn't expecting at all.

A beautiful fresh fish fillet and roast vegetable meal

After dinner, it was time to get out of bed for the first time, only a bit over 6 hours since surgery was completed.  A slightly worrying time but pain relief took care of that.  Just a short stroll up the corridor supported by a walking frame to build confidence.  The care by the nursing team at all hours of the day and night couldn't be faulted.

Not exactly elegant but pain-free!

After breakfast the following morning, I was disconnected from the pressure cuffs etc and allowed to visit the bathroom for a shave etc - another milestone.  Seeing the surgical dressing for the first time was quite a surprise. A very neat incision considering that it was a whole knee replacement.

A surprisingly small dressing

It was then time for a visit by the physiotherapist and walking the corridors with the aid of crutches.  Surprisingly tiring and walks were interspersed with naps and watching TV.  Helen, the physio; thought I'd acquitted myself well and we worked through the various rehab exercises that I'd need to do on discharge.  The photo below shows the use of a mini skateboard to improve knee flexibility - works a treat!

Skateboarding whilst sitting down!

Thursday was the day of surgery and it was now Saturday morning.  Before discharge, Helen needed proof that I could negotiate stairs, especially as we have a 2 storey house with both internal and external stairs.  She was a great teacher and going up and down the stairs between hospital floors was done safely, although I wouldn't be breaking any speed records.  With this last task accomplished, the paperwork was signed off and time to make the 2 1/2 hour journey home.  


This brings us up to date.  Rehab involves exercises that can be uncomfortable, painful even but that pain can be managed.  After 3 days, I'm able to do without the stronger pain relief but they're available if required.  Exercise is tiring but I'm not sleeping particularly well, mainly due to lying in a position which is not my normal one.  Not a big deal in the scheme of things but this recovery phase is going to be tough. My wife Jennie won't put up with any slacking on my part which ensures that I stick with the plan.  She also regards it as payback for when the roles were reversed a few years ago when she had a hip replacement!


The entire team at Ormiston Hospital are worth their weight in gold.  Consummately professional, conduct themselves with humility and no egos on display - easy to relate to.  Systems and processes are absolutely top notch.  It was the American productivity improvement guru W Edwards Deming who said, "If you have great people and poor systems, the poor systems will win every time".  The Ormiston Team have got it right and I owe them a big debt of gratitude.

For anyone facing surgery now or at a future date, I hope that my personal experience shows that it doesn't have to be a scary process and that options like a spinal block for some types of surgery offers substantial advantages.

On the road to recovery - stair runs

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Travels in the Tropics

After an uncharacteristically wet NZ summer which continued into winter, Jennie and I were looking for a midwinter break somewhere warm and sunny.  One of our favourite places is the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, approximately 3200 km NE of NZ.  It's only 70 sq km in area without the commercialisation of places like Hawaii or Tahiti.  A great place to just chill and eat fresh food.  The Cook Islanders themselves are wonderful - laid back, great humoured and really friendly.  They have a long association with NZ and are free to travel and work in NZ. Money is the NZ$, English and Cook Island Maori spoken so it's easy to fit right in.  Flying time is a bit either side of the 4 hour mark depending on conditions.

Rarotonga - Muri Lagoon in the foreground (file photo)

It's been 10 years since our last trip there and 5 years prior to that, we made friends with a couple from Wellington in Rarotonga.  Since then, we've stayed in touch annually and spent a long weekend doing stuff together somewhere in NZ.  Meeting up in Rarotonga seemed appropriate this time.  A nice, comfortable flight in an Air NZ 777-ER, pick up a Mitsubishi Colt rental car and head for our accommodation at Muri Lagoon, less than 30 minutes from the airport.  Most of the vehicles are second hand "grey imports" from Japan and the Colt was no exception.  The Colt is hardly a design classic but it is surprisingly roomy and absolutely miserly in its fuel consumption.  You'd swear it was actually making gas!  The national open road speed limit is only 50 km/hr which also contributes to good economy. The only downside was an in-built GPS with a map of Japan and a rather strident female voice in Japanese.  It took some time to figure out how to disable it without resorting to beating it to death!

Mitsubishi Colt  - hardly a design classic but incredibly economical

Our friends were picked up from the airport and ferried to different accommodation about 20 minutes drive away from us so the first afternoon there was spent exploring our immediate surroundings and chilling in the loungers on our waterfront villa.

Evening view from our lawn - tough but someone has to do it!

The effects of Covid on Rarotonga's economy were still apparent.  Lockdown in NZ, Australia and other countries meant that virtually all their income dried up at a stroke. The sealed roads round the island were in quite poor condition in many places, almost certainly due to austerity measures .  However, crews were out patching the worst craters whilst we were there.  I guess that the heavy rains in the Southern Hemisphere thanks to the La Nina weather condition didn't help either.   Our villa was advertised as "de luxe" accommodation.  It was located in million dollar surroundings but could best be described as "tired".  Nothing seriously wrong but suspect that there had been a lot of deferred maintenance.  It was still acceptable, but certainly didn't meet our expectations of a de luxe experience.

Dawn from the lawn - watch out for falling coconuts!

The next morning didn't start well with me taking a tumble on uneven ground and twisting my knee which is already scheduled for a bionic replacement.  However, it wasn't as bad as it could have been although kayaking, swimming and longer walks were wisely removed from the plan.

We caught up daily with our friends to do some exploring, or simply to eat, drink and be merry.  Fresh fruit and fish on the island is absolutely delicious.  Imagine plain old fish and chips being made with Albacore tuna - absolute heaven!  The cocktails, both alcoholic and alcohol free were pretty special too.

Happy Hour in so many ways!  Mike, me, Georgina and Jennie

No trip to Rarotonga is complete without a visit to the Muri Night Market to eat locally prepared food of all types.  Great value for money in terms of quality, quantity and price.


Getting in early at the night market for a feed

Jennie enjoying chicken satay with rice and salad

My spiced prawns with mango rice and salad.  Almost too many prawns to eat (almost!)

During lunch at a cafe in the main town of Avarua, we spied a sign on the wall of the restrooms which was delightful.  Perhaps it was gently poking fun at all the oh too serious and politically correct nonsense about diverse gender recognition or whatever it's called.  For goodness sake, we're all human beings, whatever our persuasion!

Nailed it!

Driving round the island one afternoon, we saw a bunch of people gathered by a sea wall.  Wondered whether there was a pod of whales passing by so pulled over.  It turned out that they were waiting to see the afternoon inbound flight from NZ as the runway end was just metres away  It wasn't quite as low as the YouTube videos showing landings at St. Maarten but I did manage to get a couple of shots.


Not far off the deck at all!

A trip to the local museum was worthwhile and the displays were really informative.  I was really taken with a huge mural of a Polynesian voyaging canoe of the type used when the South Pacific, including NZ, was first being settled.  Those early settlers had supreme navigation skills, as well as big balls!  What is slightly concerning though is that the population is suffering a current annual net loss of 2.88%, presumably young people heading to NZ for better job prospects.

Early Polynesian voyaging canoe

There was also a smaller sailing canoe on display, presumably just for coastal waters.  I just loved the colour of the timber it was built from, its lines and the bird carving.  I wondered whether the carving might be a stylised Frigate Bird which is one of the indicators which the Polynesian sailors used for navigation and land over the horizon.

One of the ornate hulls of a small(ish) sailing canoe

Gorgeous bird carving

Sitting on a bench in Avarua's main street is great for people-watching.  The most common form of transport are step-through mopeds of Chinese or Japanese origin.  Until 2020, helmets weren't mandatory but that's now changed although we did see a few ladies with elaborate hair styles avoiding their use!

The most common transport mode on Rarotonga

We stopped off briefly at Avarua port to see what was going on but it was pretty quiet.  However, there was one inter-island workboat with a massive crane at the stern which seemed out of proportion to the rest of the vessel.  I guess versatility is the key word for work in the islands.

A seriously large crane on this workboat

As you might expect in a tropical environment, plants grow like crazy and the variety of attractive plants is bewildering.  Here are a couple of examples.

Cordyline variety (I think)

Mixed varieties

Despite Rarotonga being a tourist mecca for NZ and Australia, it's not over-run with people.  There are plenty of deserted beaches like the one below with safe swimming inside the reef.

Idyllic surroundings

Local store and laundry in one of the villages

All to soon, it was time to return to NZ.  With my injured knee, boarding the Boeing 777 in Rarotonga wasn't going to be a major issue as it was only a short walk to the plane but one of the Rarotongan Air NZ employees noticed that I was using a walking pole and arranged priority treatment.  This involved being pushed in a wheelchair across the tarmac and up a ramp.  Wonderful service although I felt a bit self-conscious!  They also arranged for us to be met at Auckland where it's quite a haul from the gate to baggage reclaim.  There was an electric buggy waiting for us which helped no end.

In a wheelchair waiting to be wheeled to the plane

Aere ra (goodbye) Rarotonga!

That's all our travels done for the time being as a long overdue knee replacement is scheduled for the end of the month.  With the warmer months coming, the focus will be on rehabilitating as soon as possible so that we can be out doing cool stuff asap.  Jennie is really looking forward to making me walk decent distances on crutches on a daily basis as payback for when I made her do the same after her hip replacement a few years back.  Sigh.... 

It's being done at a private hospital but you can still call me the Six Dollar Man 😄