Rotorua, aka: the smelliest town in all the land. The drive from Wellington takes us about 6 hours. We stop along Lake Taupo to have lunch in the car because it is raining, as it will continue to do for another forty-eight hours. Upon arriving in Rotorua, we find our hostel, some dinner, and a hot shower. We had decided to base our North Island adventures from here, so we look over the map to see what and how to get to our activities for the rest of the week (or weekend? We have lost track of the days).
Rotorua is the gateway town for a lot of action in the north. And by action I mean volcanic action. Thermal, volcanic action. Sulfuric, thermal, volcanic action. Can you see where I'm going with this?
The town is quite literally steaming with hot springs, boiling mud pools, and sulfur. Oh the sulfur. The smells are poignant and stuffy from twenty kilometers out, and only rise with the steam. Slou and I met a couple of au pairs from Auckland in the hostel who told us about the foot pool in the park across the street. So that evening, we don our rain jackets and go find it. The park has a playground, a fountain, and several fenced off hot boiling springs of doom. I stick my hand into a small gurgle and verify that yes, the "Danger: 100C temps" sign is accurate.
But you have to admit, having these hot springs and boiling mud pools in your backyard is pretty cool. If you can forget about the smell. Which you can't. So there's that.
So we find the foot pool and gingerly emerge our legs. The pool is filled with alternating hot spring water and cold tap water to keep the pool at around 40 degrees Celcius (about 103F). Luckily, this pool is covered, so for a few minutes at least, we can remove our rain hoods. After getting our fill of hot water, we returned to the hostel.
The next morning, we visited Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland! The geyser goes off around 10:15 everyday, so we arrived in time for it.
Here's a pic of me and this nice tourist man in a GoT hat who wouldn't move.
After seeing the geyser do it's thing, we drive up to the mud pools because we hate ourselves. Although seeing the boiling mud is cool and all, our noses are being murdered. The stink accosts us more strongly than before and we peace out after a hot second. Slou ends up with battle wounds.
So then we start the official tour of the thermal wonderland. Wonderland is a small section of the thermal hotbed open to the public. The self-guided path leads you through the most interesting areas, letting you view craters, lakes, and wildlife.
Oh, and smell it all too. Don't forget about the smells. You see all the yellow in these pics? Sulfer. Mounds and mounds of sulfer.
Also, it was still raining. The rain didn't much bother me as I had come prepared with a nice rain jacket and quick-drying pants. Slou on the other hand was forced to buy a kiwi patterned garbage bag/poncho and was thoroughly miserable the whole time. See photo evidence below.
So we begin the walk. First we pass some cool craters that had collapsed in recent years due to the unstable nature of the grounds, and I think that this is what a post-apoctolyptic world will look like. Holes in the ground that are steaming and smoking and everything smelling like death. And with that comforting thought in mind, we continue around to Champagne Lake. This lake is, like, a billion degrees Celcius and steaming and full of gold, copper, sulfer, and other minerals that all collect around the rim, giving the circumfrance a red trim and the water a greenish, clearish tint, depending on the sunlight. The steam coming off the lake was strong enough to fog up my camera lense multiple times, and I began to sweat inside my rainjacket, despite the cool air temp.
We continue along the path, but the smell is really getting to us. Half way through, I'm feeling nauseated, and Slou isn't much better. By now, we're thoroughly soaked and Slou's ripped the poncho in multiple places. She's miserable, but even through my unstable stomach I find it hilarious. Misery sure does love its company.
We finish our hike at the green lake, which looks like something between a pool filled with flem and Nickolodeon Slime.
Either way, it's pretty narly. In a mere two hours, I've seen more water colors, bubbling streams, and strange land formations than I've ever seen before. My stomach settles a bit as we peruse the gift shop, but we're both pretty happy to leave.
We drive back to Rotorua, grab some lunch, and wander town. Slou then heads back to the hostel, while I wander around the rest of the gardens and lakefront. That evening, I head to the Polynesian Spa to enjoy some hot springs. I spring (no pun intended) for the "Adults only" section beacuse kids ruin everything, and have a lovely evening of soaking in soft mineral water and chatting with a few locals.
The next morning, Slou and I get up early to drive to nerd land--I mean Hobbiton! This is the section of the Lord of the Rings set that includes Bilbo's hobbit hole, the party tree, and the Green Dragon Inn. The drive out to the location is beautiful, with soft, rolling, green hills dotted with trees, sheep, and flowers. It's obvious why Peter Jackson chose this spot. Although filming took place throughout both islands (with multiple books to lead you to each spot), this particular set is located on the Alexander's farm, tucked way away from the road so it stays nice and hidden. They drive each tour group into the grounds on a bus and then a tour guide walks you around the shire. We took a billion pics, and Slou freaked out the whole time. She put up with me oogling over Harry Potter World three years ago, so I was happy to indulge her enthusiasm. It's cute when adults act like small children. It's a little disturbing to see the amount of hard-core fan boys all piled onto one square acre of land. #nerds
After Hobbiton, we returned to Rotorua and hung out around town for a couple hours before being picked up for our Maori evening!
I had booked us a night for some Maori culture because I was very interested to learn about native peoples (that's the Oklahoma in me coming through). Also, the island is full of Maori words, and as a linguist I couldn't help being intrigued!
So we hop a bus with some other tourists which takes us to a Maori village. We elect a chief on board who leads us through the rest of the evening. Upon arriving in the village, the Maori tribe makes their entrance. They arrive via canoe (aka "waka") and use their weapons, face paint, and rolling eyes/tongue-sticking-out-action to see if our "tribe" has come in peace. Once they decide we're all going to be friends, we're led inside.
I was very impressed with how the entire evening was run. The family who runs the event is well aware that tourists like taking pics, so they encourage it from the start. They also encourage us to laugh, imitate, and interact with the village all night. They break us into smaller groups and move us from station to station to learn fragments of their culture. We start at the War Training station, where we learn about the phyical exercises that the warriors practice.
Then it's off to the Haka station where the men all learn to do a traditional Haka.
Next, it's the ladies' turn to learn the females' musical roles, and Slou and I get to participate.
The next station showcases some fun and games they play. I again get to particpate, but Slou has those photos on her camera. (Ps, remind me to tell Kath about the game we played; it'll be great for council fire.) We also learn about how they tatooed their war paint, carved their huts, and cooked their food (in a traditional hangi).
Once the food is revealed, we go into a hall where we watch the tribe perform traditional dances, songs, and another haka.
By the time that is over, we head to the dining hall for dinner where a feast of salad, chicken, lamb, veggies, and bread has been laid out. There is also pudding and a traditional pavlova for dessert (also, it's important to note that pudding in New Zealand is NOT actually pudding, but cake. #NiceTry)
The whole evening is a hit, (although Slou didn't like the food), and I finally feel like I've gotten some real culture on this trip.
Okay, so, we've done a lot, yes? Well, we're not done yet! We spend one more night in our hostel (where an old Irish lady learns the importance of personal bubble space), before packing up our bags again and driving to waioko to see the glow worms caves! This was a must see on my list ever since KDew wrote about it last year. Rather than doing the walking or boat tour, Slou has us sign up for the black water rafting version of the tour based on her brother's recommendation. Which is all well and good until I get to Canada and kill him.
First, we have to put on wet, wetsuits. Complete with booties, boots, and helmets.
So cold. By now we have had to lock away all our stuff, so I don't have anymore photos. (Yes, of course I spent the $30 to buy the photos our guide took for us. But those are on a usb so I won't have access to them until I get home. Harrumph.) Then they bring us to a river and make us practice the manouver we'll be using in the caves (yes, CAVES) to jump over the waterfalls (WATERFALLS?!?). Basically, you lean backward over the edge with your innertube on your butt and jump backward into the icey water below. WHAT?!? This is not what I signed up for. Slou and I exchanges terrified looks, but thanks to peer pressure and a lot of swear words, we do it. Then, it's time to enter the cave. You see, that's where the glow worms live. Dark, scary, spider-filled, cold caves full of rushing water. And also, glow worms are really actually irredescent maggots waiting to turn into flies. So that's gross.
We enter the cave and make our way over jagged rocks, crouched like the Huncheback of Notre Dame and trying not to fall over. We get to the first waterfall and the mean tour lady gives us a one, two, three, shove and over we go. The waterfall is maaayybe only two feet high, BUT IT'S STILL TERRIFYING! Talk about a trust fall.
We alternate floating and walking through the cave until we get to a long hallway and turn out our lights. The glow worms are all around us! Little greenish, blue lights speckling the ceiling of the cave like stars. The nicer of the guides (the one who passes out chocolates and doesn't shove us off waterfalls) tells us about the life of the glow worms and answers our questions. We then move on to waterfall number two, (this one was MUCH higher) before again turning off our lights, grabbing a hold of each other, and floating along a stretch of glow worm homes to take in the spectacular sight. To be honest, in between my shivers from the ice waters and terror from being shoved off rocks, the experience was pretty cool. The cave walls were jagged and slipperly and you could really see how water had trasformed them over the years. Some areas were small and we barely squeezed through, while other areas opened into magnificent rooms with the ceiling reaching nearly two hundred feet high. Slou and I were in the back, and during the last bit of floating, I turned off my light to soak in exactly where I was at the moment: floating through a cave full of stalagmites, glow worms, and cool waters. Never will I be in such a situation again.
(This, I should add, was also the part of the trip where Slou had some, uh, trouble. Her tube was too big and she couldn't float properly, so she was left to flail around like a drunken penguin, yelling, gasping for air, laughing, and ruining what was probably supposed to have a been a quiet, peaceful moment to enjoy nature at it's finest. Instead we were all seranaded with "Oh God!" "No!" "Ahh!" *splash* *thump* "Oh no!" *kerplunk* for a good fifteen minutes.)
Needless to say, this activity was entirely beyond our intentions and Slou's brother better watch his back. We both kept muttering "we could have been on a boat!" and rolling our eyes. All in all, it ended up being totally fun, if, you know, you count "mortal terror" as fun.
Relieved to see daylight once again, we left the caves behind and drove to Auckland. It was a very busy three days, nothing like we had expected, and entirely wonderful!