Today, the Brass Monkey Rally is having its final fling. Bruce Munro talks to those who, for four decades, have made it the biggest annual winter motorcycle pilgrimage in New Zealand.
The bonfire has been Ken Gillespie's domain since motorcyclists first turned up en masse for a midwinter rally four decades ago.
Back in the early days of the rally in Oturehua, in Central Otago's remote Ida Valley, Gillespie, the farmer on whose land Otago Motorcycle Club (OMCC) members had asked to stage their rally, would help cut firewood for the bonfire. Next he would help build it; a wooden pyre that grew to be 10m long and several metres high. Then, on the Saturday night, he would light the bonfire to cheers and hoots from the many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bikers who had made the annual pilgrimage to the Brass Monkey Rally.
"It's not what you do, it's how you do it," Gillespie says of his special fire-lighting technique.
"But I'm not going to elaborate on that."
The huge log fire has always been central to the warmth, camaraderie and antics of the 24-hour rally, more than half of which is spent in darkness.
"There were days that we'd arrive back first thing in the morning, before anyone was really wandering around," Gillespie recalls, "and there would still be people standing around the bonfire.
"And the odd one sleeping pretty much in the embers."
This morning, thousands of motorcyclists from throughout New Zealand were due to rumble into Oturehua for the 40th, and final, Brass Monkey Rally.
For decades it has been winter's biggest thing on two wheels — ever since six members of the OMCC went to a Cold Kiwi motorcycle rally, near Waiouru, in the frozen heart of the North Island, and then decided to organise their own.
The exact year that Leo Fisher, Peter and Alister Stevenson, John Willems, Bill Veitch and John Weir attended that northern rally seems lost in the mists of time. John Ashton, writing 20 years ago, gave both 1979 and 1980 as the date. Willems and Veitch, speaking to The Weekend Mix, offered both 1980 and 1981, before settling on the earlier date.
What is recorded is that, travelling south again across Cook Strait, with the ferry bar closed, Veitch wagered Fisher $10 he could not get a bottle of rum. Fisher won the bet and as the night wore on the decision was taken, "We could run a winter rally like that in the South Island".
The first goal was to find the coldest workable location. Oturehua fitted the bill. It was in the same valley as Ophir, which held the New Zealand record for the lowest recorded temperature, -21.6degC.
Closing the deal, the local community was willing to help make the rally happen, Gillespie offering the use of a piece of his farmland next to the Ida Burn dam.
"The local people of Oturehua had a kitchen at the dam, at the skating rink, so we said, you do the food and we'll run the rally," Veitch says.
"And that's been a 40-year partnership. We really couldn't run the rally without them," Willems adds.
Logistics sorted, firewood cut and stockpiled, the inaugural Brass Monkey Rally, to be held at Queen's Birthday Weekend, 1981, was announced in the Otago Daily Times (ODT). Posters printed on a hand-operated duplicator were sent to motorcycle dealers throughout New Zealand. Hinting at how popular the Brass Monkey would be, one of the first requests for a registration came from a Ray Clarke, in Drury, South Auckland.
More than 300 bikers turned up to that first rally. Each received a round metal badge bearing the rally's monkey-on-a-bike logo, designed by legendary ODT cartoonist Sid Scales. There would be a new badge every year.
As Oturehua resident Kay Dundass remembered it in 2001, "Weather on the inaugural day was cold with a skiff of snow. But 300 riders arrived, pitched tents, froze and voted it a great weekend, promising to return".
Rally numbers doubled the next year and, by 1984, doubled again to 1200.
In the early days, the majority of riders arrived on trail bikes, many having taken the cross-country Dunstan Trail. But as word of the rally drew people from further afield, road bikes gained the upper-hand.
Free soup and apples became a fixture. As did the innovation that turned the rubbish drums dotted across the site into heat-giving fire drums.
Three years later, attendance hit 2800. Members of the Oturehua Winter Sports Club, local volunteers and businesses all progressively ramped up efforts and supplies to meet the cash-register-ringing demand for hot food and drink.
Attendance at the 10th anniversary has been put at between 4000 and 5000, including biking enthusiasts from overseas.
On the Saturday, during its heyday, rally personnel were processing hundreds of attendees each hour as riders poured in from all directions.
"You arrive on your motorcycle, get your entry and badge and then go up to the top to where the bonfire sits," Alan Dodds, rally committee chairman, says.
"People will park their bike, have a wander around, catch up with their mates that they rode with, get their bearings and work out where they want to put their tent for the night.
"A lot of these people only see each other once a year. You can bump into people and carry on a conversation like it was yesterday."
Through the afternoon, people wander around the site looking at motorbikes of all shapes and specs that have driven through the gate.
"Everyone's an enthusiast, so they like to view each other's bikes."
Competitions and prizes have always been a part of the fun: furthest travelled, rideable art, oldest bike and rider combo, smallest bike, Miss Brass Monkey, unluckiest rider ...
There was entertainment too. The rally began at the same time free-style motocross was starting to make waves.
"We were possibly the first big event in New Zealand to have free-style bikes doing their thing," Stuart Evans, rally site manager, says.
Veitch built Wobbles, a reconstructed bike with wheels out of alignment, that people tried to ride.
"People enjoyed that for many years. Though in the end someone stole it," he says.
People also made plenty of their own fun.
One particularly cold year, about 1991 or 1992, Veitch recalls bikers on three-wheelers "riding on the dam, skidding around on the ice".
Things would really start to crank up as the setting sun and plummeting temperature signalled time for the bonfire to blaze and the evening's live music to begin.
One rally, the motocross ramp was dragged over to the bonfire with the aim of launching a battered bike into the flames.
The motorbike was small enough for the rider to power it up the ramp, stand up at the last moment and let the bike speed from between their legs off the ramp. That was the theory.
On the first attempt, the bike did not have enough speed, Evans says. It simply toppled off the lip of the ramp into the edge of the fire.
But it was quickly rescued for another go.
"The second time he had a bit more oomph, and whoosh, into the fire," Evans says, gesturing the airborne bike flying to its doom.
With such large numbers of people gathered in the stone-cold middle of nowhere, club members formed night patrols to monitor bikers' welfare.
"Many rallyists 'write themselves off' and curl up in the oddest places to sleep it off,"Ashton wrote in his 20-year retrospective.
Back then, they would be helped to bed or, if found centrally, "put to bed in the shop and booth area, covered with cardboard from motorcycle cartons".
Sunday morning for many was a slow and quiet affair. One year, however, Bikers for Christ members who attended the rally held a dawn church service on the main stage, a converted shipping container.
"The sun was barely creeping over the hills ... when the sounds of glory started ringing out," Peter Sparrow wrote several years later.
"Unfortunately, a few of the less tolerant of the chronically hung-over had other ideas, and the hallelujah chorus was replaced with the resounding clang of a container door slamming shut."
Gillespie's full-time, Sunday morning job was lugging a car battery around the site to jump-start frozen motorbikes.
By late afternoon the place would be largely deserted, except for club and community volunteers contemplating a massive clean-up.
For almost two decades after the heady heights of the early 1990s, attendance hovered a few hundred either side of 2300. By 2015, it was down to 1300 and there were questions about the future of the rally.
One thousand attended in 2019. Last year was a Covid-19 washout. This year is the Brass Monkey Rally's final fling.
Compliance requirements and costs have bloomed like frost flowers, chilling organisers' enthusiasm.
Traffic management plans, fire and liquor licences, professional security ... It is not that they object to reasonable health and safety measures. It is just that it takes so much longer and requires so many more people.
"It's just becoming too difficult," Veitch sums up.
Rising as relentlessly as compliance costs has been the average age of attendees. This year it is 50.
"The younger generation aren't interested in supporting it," Dodds says.
"There are so many more choices that the longevity of a particular event is no-longer appealing to them.
"Sleeping in the snow and the frozen cold is probably not one of the choices they put high on their list."
Now, the same has to be said of even some die-hard bikers.
"A larger number will go there, have the soup, apples, get their badge ... and then go away for a warm bed," Veitch admits.
Despite that, looking back over 40 years of Brass Monkey Rallies, it seems that everyone involved can only see benefits.
It has been great for the OMCC and for charities, Dodds says.
"From proceeds over the years, we've sent multiple riders to compete nationally and internationally.
"And well in excess of $100,000 has gone to charity."
It has been a boon for Oturehua, Gillespie adds.
When he sold his farm in 2012, Gillespie held on to the 6ha rally site to ensure it had a home and a benefactor.
"The partnership has been very, very good to us as a community. We've very rarely had to go to outside organisations for funding for anything."
He reels off a long list of Brass Monkey-funded initiatives, including funding the local school "to quite a degree", rebuilding the tennis courts and doing up the kitchen at the Domain, and helping local young people pursue sporting opportunities.
He still hopes Oturehua's relationship with the OMCC will continue, resulting in the site's ongoing use "in some way, shape or form".
Whatever that will be, it will not be the Brass Monkey Rally.
The rally has "had its day", Willems says.
Gillespie agrees. It has certainly become tamer with time, he says.
"A lot of us are getting a little older. We tend to look after ourselves a little better nowadays."
Except, maybe, for this one last, 40th, bash.
The number of attendees is back to almost record numbers. Well over 3000 riders were expected to roll up this morning.
The bonfire will be as big as ever. And so too will the entertainment, with the Jordan Luck Band headlining tonight's festivities.
For one last weekend, the Brass Monkey Rally will be what it has always been, Dodds says.
"The concept of the rally has remained true to its core for 40 years, which is a bunch of mates getting together on their motorbikes and going to the coldest part of the country to have a few ales and tell a few yarns."