Rotorua and Taupo, North Island, NZ

Rotorua is in the middle of New Zealand’s north island and is also a centre of Maori culture. Many Maori settled here hundreds of years ago, attracted by the geothermal activity which ensures the ground stays warm during the harshest of winters and there is always plenty of pure, hot water for cooking and bathing.

Today, the town attracts visitors keen to soak in the therapeutic waters, gasp at geysers and swim in bubbling rivers. Many other parts of New Zealand are obsessed with extreme adrenalin rushes; Rotorua is also about relaxing and rejuvenating. Despite the distinct smell of rotten eggs from the volcanic sulphur wafting around town!

It is also still possible to see traditional Maori culture at the many shows in the area.

Mark and I chose Te Puia which includes boiling mud pools and a natural geyser. The geyser (pronounced “guy-zer” down under) blows several times a day and we were lucky enough to snap photos at full force.

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The Te Puia village is also home to a nationally renowned carving school, which teaches the skill to young men of Maori heritage to keep this aspect of their culture alive.

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Although I’m sure the performances and costumes are more showy crowd-pleasers than strictly authentic, the dance performance was in a completely different league to the one at the Auckland museum.

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The Haka especially was riveting and powerful, and the performers were suitably terrifying. The Haka was traditionally performed to prepare the warriors physically and mentally before battle – but its impact often frightened away the enemy before any fighting began.

I can see why – I wouldn’t want to mess with this gal!

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Mark’s version didn’t have quite the same effect…

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Te Puia also had a kiwi house, but we were forbidden to take photos in case flashes interfered with the bird’s nocturnal lifestyle. In lieu of images, I can share some good kiwi facts which may come in handy for a pub quiz one day:

• Kiwis lay the biggest egg of any other bird for their size: a fifth of their body weight. The eggs are not far off an ostrich egg in size!
• Although they look long, technically kiwis have shortest beak of any bird because scientists measure from the nostrils to the tip. Most birds’ nostrils are at the base of the beak near the eyes but the kiwi has nostrils right near the tip.
• They use their beak as a lance to poke around soft ground for food and have an excellent sense of smell.
• They mate for life and sleep 20 hours a day
• Population numbers have dwindled to fewer than 70,000

Enough geekery, on to the food! Part of the evening at Te Puia was a Hangi feast. Hangi is a method of cooking a mixture of meats and vegetables by using geothermal heat to steam it underground.

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Yummy!

We had a couple of days of more strenuous activity too. Waitomo is famous for its deep limestone caves full of glittering glowworms. These clever beasties give off a bright bluey green light to attract small insects carried in by water flowing through the caves. The insects mistake the light for a way out and fly towards it, only to become trapped on the sticky threads dangling underneath and eventually gobbled as glowworm lunch.

We signed up for a day of blackwater rafting, or floating through caves on rubber rings, which sounded like a lovely and relaxing way to appreciate the eerie, otherworldly surroundings. However when we arrived we were told that the blackwater rafting cave had flooded after heavy rainfall (heavy rain was a bit of a theme of our time in New Zealand), so we were going to be “upgraded” to a different experience.

This turned out to be a bit like when we were “upgraded” to a difficult-to-manage 6 berth campervan: all of a sudden our tranquil drift turned into a physical, high octane challenge worthy of Rambo. We had to scramble over slippery rocks, abseil down sheer cliff drops, squeeze between tight gaps and swim through freezing water. Exhausting but exhilarating – sadly no photos, cameras were not allowed down there!

The next day we did some white water rafting, which ended up being unexpectedly hilarious thanks to the other person who joined us on our dinghy. She was a rather “ample” lady to put it mildly (i.e. she was a massive great big fat bird). Mark and I still seize up with laughter at the memory of her trying to step off the bank into the boat, wetsuit bursting at the seams – it was like a French & Saunders sketch. Thankfully we managed to keep straight faces at the time and to her credit she kept up with the pace of paddling. Our guide helped us navigate level 3 and 4 rapids (which are fairly big) and pointed out native flora and fauna such as the silver fern (a symbol of New Zealand) on the calmer bits. Mark was the only one in our boat to fall out; amusingly on a stretch of river with barely a bubble breaking its surface (note from Mark: no bubbles maybe, but still a bloody great rock that we crashed into!).

After all this exertion, my body was screaming for a rest and I had to put my foot down to silence Mark’s talk of a long hike! Consequently we had a blissful day of soaking in natural thermal pools of various temperatures.

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Mark enjoyed the first 15 minutes before getting restless and asking “what now?”

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He got his hike the next morning, however. Waimangu Volcanic Valley near Rotorua is the youngest geothermal area in the world. It was created in 1886 following a series of eruptions and is home to Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring.

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The volcanic pools have the most amazing iridescent colours from the minerals in the hydrothermal waters.

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Mark being naughty and ignoring the barriers. He ended up slipping and getting a bit wet as punishment!

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Near Taupo, we stopped to see Huka falls which is NZ’s largest waterfall and the country’s most visited natural site. All waterfalls are pretty but I’m afraid after the ones in Chapada Diamantina in Brazil and of course Iguassu, these jaded travellers were a little underwhelmed.

One thing that never fails to disappoint in NZ however is the quality of food and wine. Originally our plan was to go to Tongariro National Park but the same storms which flooded our blackwater rafting caves meant that the treks and ice climbs here were not possible. So we decided to reroute towards Napier and Hawkes Bay instead, aka New Zealand’s fruit bowl and mecca of food and wine. Don’t mind if we do!

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