I can't believe how good this road is. I can't believe I appear to have it completely to myself. I can't believe how stunning the scenery is. I can't believe I'm actually here, riding a hired Honda Crossrunner, in the sunshine, on this utterly mind-melting piece of tarmac. That's it – New Zealand is officially unbelievable. Or unbelievably good, anyway...
After Dave and his team at New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals and Tours pulled out all the stops to get me on a bike when I was, effectively, just walking in off the street (I hadn't really organised anything... going with the flow), I set off to ride to Rotorua. My initial plan had been to go round to Coromandel – maybe not all the way round the peninsula, but at least to have a look at it. I gave that plan a reality check and had to reluctantly admit that, if I'd set off at 9am, it might have been a stupidly long day. Waiting while the bike was taken for its Wof (Warrant of Fitness – like an MoT) and got its new rego (like our road tax – sorry, road-fund licence) and the guys fitted new tyres for me... well, it would be impossible...
So I settled in, took a slightly more direct route. Besides, it was a bit damp so better just to get to my destination. I'd already decided to use a phone-app to do the navigation on this trip: Scenic (sorry Androids... it's an iPhone-only one at the moment). I linked the phone to my Interphone Tour headset so I'd have the voice instructions, but had decided to leave the phone in my pocket so I couldn't even see the map. Even so, it got me more-or-less precisely to Ben's address - though I rode past it to the off-licence, until he came out and emitted a piercing whistle to get my attention...
It was great catching up with Ben and picking his brain about where to ride. We had a great evening drinking with his friend Doug, involving giant burgers and me doing a turn with a borrowed acoustic guitar at the bar's open-mic night. I don't really see much of Rotorua, beyond Eat Streat (yes, that's how it's spelt) where the bars and restaurants are, though next day I rode past the steaming hot springs on my way out of town.
I had a great ride. The sun was out, the roads were dry and the corners came thick and fast. I headed up to the north coast at Opotiki, then turned inland on Highway 2. When it hit the east coast at Gisborne and turned south, I did a double-take, like unexpectedly spotting an old friend: this became the Pacific Coast Highway. Very different to the Californian version (not least because the beaches here are black sand, dotted here and there with huge bits of bleached-white driftwood, giant trunks like otherworldly amputated arms).
My overnight stop was in Napier - the Art Deco capital of New Zealand. It was devastated by a huge earthquake in 1931, then extensively rebuilt according to the fashion of the day. At the time it was no doubt just smart and modern; now it's a fabulous time capsule of a town – though also with some dramatic street art.
The best thing about Napier, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's the jumping off point for this one road. This amazing road. The unbelievable one I was bubbling about at the start of all this. Ben told me to ride it – adding that he was lucky enough to ride it when stretches were still gravel. This tells me several things: it's going to be quiet, because not enough people used it to make tarmac-ing it a priority; it's going to be twisty, because the road-builders put off doing it as long as they could; and the surface should be good because Ben's only been here six years – it must be a lovely new road.
And it is, running from just outside Napier to the town of Taihape. It's nicknamed "the Gentle Annie". I turn onto it behind a pickup truck, but he turns off after a few miles. I wasn't rushing to pass as I know the road's about 150km long. But after that, I don't see another vehicle for nearly half an hour. Then one car passes in the other direction. At one point I over take a single tractor, then have to overtake/pick my way through a small herd of cattle being marched down the road by a farmer in an ATV, then overtake one more tractor. But that's it - for 150 glorious, twisting, swooping kilometers. It's a feast of corners that makes the Black Forest's B500 look like a Happy Meal.
It's not the end of the riding, by any means. I pick up Highway One to Palmerstone North, then take the brilliantly bendy back road to Pahiatua to pick up Highway Two again. It's a bit uninspiring at first, but I trust Ben recommended it for a reason... and all becomes clear at Featherstone. The climb up Rimutaka Hill is insanely twisty, but in the best way. It's made more difficult by the setting sun shining blindingly into my eyes for half the climb, while the other half is buried deep in shadows. After the steep climb, there's a sharp descent… and then the descent through the suburbs and into Wellington for my overnight. And in the morning, I'll take the ferry to the South Island.