‘What’s 300 kilometres?’ is the classic understatement uttered by many a novice as they make their way out of Ōpōtiki on State Highway 35, heading to Gisborne ‘the long way round’.
Also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, this winding, narrow slice of bitumen is a revelation. It’s one that you’ll want to take time to explore: more than a highway, this is a gateway. Here’s where you can get on with getting away from it.
Curving around the East Cape, it (mostly) hugs the coast and embraces an array of experiences and environments along the way.
Driftwood-strewn beaches abound on the exterior reaches of the highway, while the hidden interior is a completely different prospect, a place of dense bush, rushing, clear rivers and sheer gorges.
This is a part of New Zealand where a true, strong and hard-kept Māori presence can be experienced: it’s distinctive, rural and worthy of respect. If you’ve seen the internationally acclaimed Whale Rider, which was filmed largely at Whangarā, one of the eastern bays here, well, it’ll give you an idea of the texture of the place. But you’ve got to come here to get how it is here, you hear?
The road is a story in itself. Carved by sheer determination out of this rugged landscape it is often steep, narrow and unashamedly challenging, whether you’re taking it on by car, bike or campervan. And watch out for horses – while they are part of the exotic landscape, they are also a genuine mode of transport in this rugged, rural haven. If you’re around over Christmas/New Year the Tolaga Bay Beach Races are legendary and will give you a real taste of why this region is so different and delightful. And if you don’t stop for a fish off Tolaga Bay Wharf, New Zealand’s second-longest, you’ve really missed the point.
The point is to be unhurried. Yep, moving at a good pace, you’ll knock off those 300km in six to eight hours. But why would you want to? There is so much here that’s so different to anywhere else in the country, you’re going to want to slow down and soak it up.