From Taupo, we set off along the road to Rotorua, and I started reading the guide book to work out which of the many geothermal ‘displays’ we should visit! The whole area around Taupo and Rotorua is full of geothermal activity – Lake Taupo is a giant underwater volcano, and there are mud pools and hot springs and all sorts of weird and wonderful landscapes all around the area. Driving along the road, we could see jets of steam rising from lots of different places – amazing to be driving along through it! There are lots of different places you can go to look at geothermal features, and we decided on a place that was a bit off the main road, called Orakei Koroko. We drove down the 15km side road to get there, and as we drove, the misty morning cleared and the sun came out – perfect! When we got there, we realised there were only 3 or 4 other cars in the car park, and when we went into the office we were the only people there – we bought tickets and got ferried across the river on a little boat, and went off along the walkway. It was absolutely amazing – we only saw a couple of other people the whole 2 hours we were there, so we really felt like we were exploring on our own. The walkway was incredibly well done, and there were good signs everywhere with information about the things we were seeing. And the things we were seeing were just incredible! Silica terraces that looked like a lava flow, with hot water bubbling across them and down into the lake – geysers that went off every hour and spurted water metres into the air – bubbling mud pools, deep blue and green pools of hot water, deep caves carved by the geothermal activity – it was incredible, we both said we felt like we were in some Jurassic landscape, expecting a dinosaur to appear any minute!
We stopped for a coffee as we were leaving, and bumped into the Australian couple we’d been chatting to in Taupo, who said they were on their way to Auckland to catch their flight home, and would we like all their leftover food? So we went back to their van and inherited a big bag of fruit and cooking ingredients and Cup-a-Soups, which we’re working on using up!
We then headed towards Rotorua, and arrived just before dark after a lovely drive that followed the shore of the lake for most of the way – we had a drive around to see the town, drove down to the lakeside and looked at the view (and some black swans who came over to say hello), stopped at the supermarket for supplies, and stopped at a place we drove past to find out about it – a Maori ‘Thermal Village’ which did guided tours, so we decided to go back in the morning. We also stopped for a walk in the redwood forest, which was wonderful – such huge trees! We were planning to go to the wildlife park for their nocturnal display (I really wanted to see a kiwi!) but actually were both really tired, so we headed straight to the campsite. We drove 15 minutes out of town to a DOC campsite on the shore of a little lake, which was rather crowded (8 other camper vans!) – I suppose it was to be expected, being the closest DOC site to an expensive tourist centre! Beautiful view in the morning, though. And we saw a possum bouncing along on the side of the road as we drove in – our first live one (you see lots of roadkill!) and I know we shouldn’t be admiring them, as they’re pests that endanger a lot of native birds, but this one was very cute!
The next morning we got going quite early, and were back at the Thermal Village in time for their 10 a.m. tour. The village is called Whakarewarewa, and it’s one of two tourist operations on Rotorua’s main geothermal site. The other operation is apparently very slick and commercial, and when we drove past it the day before, there were at least 20 tour buses outside, which put us off a bit! The Thermal Village felt very home-grown – it’s a difficult thing to pull off, because it’s the kind of tourism that feels the most uncomfortable, when you’re basically gawping at someone else’s culture and history and the way they live! I’ve always found that kind of thing to be quite awkward, even though it’s important to get a bit of the local culture. Anyway, they did a very good job at Whaka – our marvellously camp tour guide was part of the ‘family’ that live in the village (about 25 families, 80 people, from a small Maori sub-tribe) and he was very down-to-earth and got a lot of interesting information across in a very nice way. He told us about the long history the tribe has of guiding visitors to Rotorua – women from the tribe have been guiding visitors to the geothermal area since the 1800s, including various royals and dignitaries, and a number of them have been given OBEs for their services to guiding. He showed us around the village, with the various hot pools that are used for different purposes – one of them runs into the communal baths, one is used for cooking vegetables that you wrap in a linen bag and dunk in the water – other cooking, of meat etc., is done in a wooden box over a steam vent, where everyone just wraps their food in tin foil and drops it into the box to steam. We walked out to a viewing platform for Rotorua’s largest geyser, which was spewing water 30m into the air – even from a good hundred metres away we could feel the spray.
From the tour, we were taken to the performance space for a ‘cultural performance’, which again was much more fun and less cringe-worthy than you would expect! I think it was that the group performing all genuinely felt like family to each other, and were having fun with it, catching each others’ eye and giggling occasionally, or messing around with each other a bit. It wasn’t the most polished performance you could imagine, but it did feel very genuine and was a lot of fun. The men did the haka, and the women did poi dancing, and they all sang various songs, including an audience-participation number which was basically ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Maori… We really appreciated our front-row seats! We had photos taken with the performers outside in full costume, and then enjoyed seeing them all wandering out five minutes after the show in jeans and t-shirts. It felt like a very local operation, which was nice. We went down to the cafe and had a piece of sweetcorn cooked in the hot pool, and a ‘hangi pie’ made of various meats and veggies cooked in the steam box, both of which were thoroughly yummy!
After we left Whaka, we headed out of town to the Ogo track – which is basically the same as Zorb, except that it’s a new company apparently started by disgruntled Zorb employees! For those who don’t know Zorbing either, it’s basically when you get stuck in a giant inflatable ball with a bucket of water and rolled down a hill. I did it 10 years ago when I was here with Jess and Sheps, and have always remembering it as being, without a doubt, the most hilarious thing I’ve ever done. Chris and I were the only customers and so we went straight up the hill and did the Ogo together, and I can tell you that it’s still the most hilarious thing I’ve ever done – we rolled down the zig-zag route, bouncing around, tangled up together, soaking wet, screaming with laughter the whole way (ok, I was screaming with laughter, but Chris was giggling!) and had an absolutely brilliant time!
From there, we drove towards the Waitomo Caves – we’d booked a caving and black-water rafting trip for the next day, one of the only things we’ve actually booked in advance, but we found a leaflet giving you a 20% discount for booking at least 24 hours in advance! At the last town before Waitomo, we drove past the Kiwi House – finally, my chance to see a kiwi! It was 4.30 p.m. by the time we got there, and they closed at 5, but the lady took pity on us and let us pay half price and just slip straight in to the kiwi enclosure! We watched two kiwis run around in a nocturnally-lit enclosure until we both felt we had well and truly seen a kiwi (they’re brilliant – the sign described them as ‘a most unlikely bird’!) and then wandered out through their walk-through aviary, and felt as though we’d definitely got our 10 dollars’ worth! We drove on to Waitomo and the holiday park we’d been aiming for – it was a Top 10, so we looked through their members’ discount list and found that we could get a set of free photos from the company we’d booked the caving with, so that was good! It was still light when we arrived, so we parked up and immediately got changed into swimming costumes and had a half-hour soak in their sunken hot tub – fabulous!
The next day, we had to be at the Waitomo Adventures office for 9.30 for our trip. It really was one of the best things we’ve done while we’ve been here – an absolutely brilliant day. There were six of us – us and two other couples – with one guide, a Scottish chap called Allan, with an excellent dry sense of humour. He drove us up to their base in a field near the caves, where we were all fitted out with wetsuits, white wellies, and helmets with head torches. Once we were all feeling totally exhausted and undignified from wrestling ourselves into the wetsuits, he took a group photo of us all, and he took photos for the rest of the trip on a waterproof camera – excellent idea, as you obviously can’t take your own cameras, and we both agreed it would have been well worth paying for the photos even if we hadn’t got them free with our Top 10 card.
All kitted up, we had a 10-minute walk across the fields to the cave entrance, which was a VERY narrow gap with a ladder running down it! Narrow gaps were rather the theme of the day, in fact, and we did a lot of squeezing through spaces I wouldn’t have expected to be brave enough to squeeze through, so I was very proud of myself. Once in the cave, we switched on our head torches and made our way down narrow tunnels, sometimes ankle deep in water, sometimes chest deep, clambering over rocks, through narrow passages and holes you had to crawl through – I went in front for a while, and that was really exciting, picking my own path through the darkness! We saw amazing stalagmites and stalactites and flowstone formations, really beautiful. We came to a wider cavern and all switched our torches off, and could suddenly see the hundreds of glowworms in the cavern, with their light reflecting off the water – amazing. We walked through that bit in the dark, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and the guide at the front. We went through one absolutely heart-thumping bit – a narrow tunnel, full of mud, and just wide enough to crawl along with your legs more or less straight, pushing along on your elbows. The guide said to us, ‘This is much more fun if you switch your torches off’ – so we did it in the dark – so scary! Chris was the first person in the group, and was incredibly brave, I definitely wouldn’t have done it if I couldn’t feel his boot in front of me, so he definitely had the hardest job going first and not knowing what was in front of him!
We eventually came to the deeper water, and a pile of inner tubes waiting next to it, which was the ‘black water rafting’ part of the trip! We each had to pick an inner tube and jump backwards off a ledge into the water, so we landed up floating in the tube. Then we all formed a chain and switched off our torches, and floated down the river through a cavern filled with glowworms. The guide told us this cave had amazing acoustics, so we should be singing to get the full effect – everyone else was shy, so we ended up floating along to the accompaniment of Chris singing songs from Winnie The Pooh!
We stopped for a break at one point and had a very welcome chocolate and a hot drink, produced from the guide’s little backpack. We went through two sections that were too deep to walk, and had to swim/float through those sections – with strict instructions not to kick our feet in case our boots came off and sank! We did another section of tubing, this time through a bit with a low roof, where we floated tummy-down on top of our tubes. Eventually we came out 1.5km downstream, and climbed out of the exit to the cave, and walked back up to the shed for hot showers before we drove back down to the office – perfect! It really was a great day, we both really enjoyed it.
From there, we drove off toward the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping for lunch on the way. It was a longer drive than we’d thought, and we considered stopping somewhere on the way to spend the night, but Chris was happy driving, so we drove for an hour or so in the dark to get all the way to Hot Water Beach. It started raining towards the end of the drive, and it was a narrow, winding road, so not very pleasant driving really! But Chris handled it well, as ever, and we got safely to the Top 10 holiday park at Hot Water Beach, and got settled in.
Today was Sunday, so we drove to the nearest town, Whitianga, and went to church – a bigger one than the last couple we’ve been to, but also very excited to have visitors! We stayed for a cup of tea afterwards, and chatted to a very interesting lady who was a missionary in Vanuatu 40 years ago – we thought it was remote when we visited Mum and Dad there a few years ago, and they were on the main island, while she had been on one of the smaller ones, so I can’t imagine how remote it must have been then!
We went to the supermarket, and I realised it was only midnight or so in the UK, so I called Ed for a chat while Chris went in to do the shopping – lovely to catch up with him. I also called Barbara to make plans to go and stay with her in Auckland. For non-family members reading this, Barbara’s a friend from Bahrain, her daughter Jen was my best friend when I was 4! We’ll be in Auckland with her tomorrow evening, and we’re so looking forward to it!
Then we drove to Cathedral Cove, via a stop at the dive shop in the nearest town – they were closed, but had a note on the door with their phone number, so I called and chatted to the lady who runs it, and we agreed we’ll see what the weather’s like in the morning, and if it’s nice we’ll go diving! Very relaxed. We drove on to Cathedral Cove and parked in the car park, and had some lunch, then I decided I was too full to go for a long walk straight away, so we curled up in the van for an hour and watched an episode of ‘24’ on the laptop – I love being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want! Eventually, we walked down to the cove – it’s about a 40-minute walk with quite a lot of uphill bits, but totally worth the effort when we got there! Cathedral Cove was the film location they used for the beach the children arrive on in the Narnia film, Prince Caspian, and it’s absolutely stunning – there’s an archway from one beach to the other, and wonderful rock formations where the waves have worn away the stone. There were only a couple of other people down there, which was great – we wandered along the beach to the end and really enjoyed being there.
By the time we’d walked back to the van, and then driven back to Hot Water Beach, it was 4.30 p.m. and just half an hour before low tide. We came back to the holiday park to borrow shovels and pick up a bottle of wine and some glasses, and then went down to the beach. Hot Water Beach is an amazing oddity – there are two hot water springs that bubble up under the sand that can be reached an hour or two either side of low tide, and the famous thing to do is to go down there with a shovel, dig yourself a hole that fills with hot water, and sit there soaking in your natural ‘spa’! By the time we got there, there were already quite a few people either digging or sitting in holes – we started digging, and almost immediately got offered a ready-made pool by some people who were leaving, so we gladly jumped into that instead! It was right next to the really hot bit of the beach, and the water comes out at 64°, so you can’t really have just the hot water in your pool – so Chris set about constructing a complex system of dams and overflows to make sure the amount of hot water flowing in was just right! I mostly sat there having a glass of wine and telling him when it got too hot! We chatted to a few people in pools around us, including two Dutch guys who we’ve bumped into in four different places now – they’re obviously working to the same itinerary as us! As the sun set, most people started to leave, but we were really enjoying it and had got the temperature perfect by then, so we stayed in our pool chatting until it was completely dark and we were the last people on the beach! We eventually packed up and wandered back up, and now we’re both showered and sand-free, have had supper, and relaxing for a little while before bed. It’s been (another!) lovely day!