|March 2, 2010
This morning we left Waitomo and headed south to Rotorua. The drive was about two hours long cross country and continued the lovely scenery we’ve seen so far. Almost everyone we have spoken has said that the South Island is better than the North so it will be interesting to see how bloody amazing the South Island is to beat this!
On arrival in Rotorua we found the YHA easily enough and it was another large, impressive hostel. The kitchen area was massive and well stocked and our room, a minor upgrade to a double, was plenty spacious and clean. The YHAs in NZ have been great and we’ve been impressed by the great service and facilities on offer. We will stay in FIFTEEN different places in NZ and 14 of them are YHAs so hopefully they’ll all be as good and we’ll leave as experts!
We picked up a load of brochures from reception to give us an idea of what to do on top of our own ideas. We wanted to do a traditional Maori evening, knowing full well it would be a little cheesy, but this is the area best known for the Maoris and we found a cool “show” which included dinner and a short nature walk at the end to see kiwis and glowworms. With the YHA discount, this was to cost us $94 each which was a bit of a splurge but we both realize we are going to have to spend money at some point in NZ so we might as well pick the things we really want to do.
With an afternoon free, we decided to head to the Waikite thermal pool for a dip. The area around Rotorua is one of the most actively volcanic in the country and there are thermal springs, geysers and smells of sulphur all over the region. In fact, Rotorua is actually within the crater of a volcano, with the surrounding hills actually being the rim of the volcano. Anyway, we chose the Waikite pool for our visit as it was a little further from the city and we were told would be less touristy. When we arrived the price for a private pool was only a few dollars more than regular entry so we upgraded and headed to our own little, naturally-heated hot tub! It was really nice and warm but before our 40 minute private session was up we were both feeling a bit too hot. We still had use of the regular pools after our time was up so we tried out a few of the other tubs, some with great views down into the valley below. It was a nice way to relax and definitely something which is a “hot” topic for the region… sorry, bad joke. There were only a handful of people at the pools, too, which definitely made it a more pleasurable experience.
Back at the hostel and all cleaned up, via a grocery stop, we decided that we couldn’t be bothered to cook tonight and decided to carry on the stress-free day and let someone else do the dishes! We headed to a little pub in town called the Pig & Whistle which was supposedly a brewhouse and is based in an old police station. The building itself was quite cool and they had plenty of police memorabilia around. As for the brewhouse element, this extended to a single beer called Swine Lager! Elizabeth got a pint of that while I opted for some more cider, now becoming my regular tipple of choice as it is quite refreshing after a long day sightseeing. The Swine Lager was alright but nothing special and I could see Elizabeth was struggling a little to finish it. The food was also OK but at least it wasn’t us cooking and cleaning up!
March 3, 2010
This morning, after some lovely sausage sandwiches for breakfast, we headed towards the Rotorua Museum of Art and History. On the way though, Elizabeth and I had a bit of a falling out and decided it was maybe best if we spent the day apart. Elizabeth hadn’t wanted to go to the museum anyway so I carried on alone.
The museum was housed inside the old bath house which had originally been used as a large tourist draw in the late 19th century until the mid 20th century and became known as centre for curing any and all ailments. The first section went into the history of the bath house, the layout and the staff who worked there including their recollections of some of the famous people who visited. I had not heard of many of these, being NZ politicians, actors, etc but one name that jumped out was George Bernard Shaw who was a regular visitor.
The remaining exhibitions focused on the area itself with one talking about the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 and another talking about a local regiment who fought in WWII and had one of the worst fatality rates of any regiment – 1 in 6 men of the near 4,000 soldiers never returned home, many of them also of Maori descent.
The display on Tarawera was interesting and built on something similar we had seen in the Auckland Museum but told more of the stories of some of the local people. The museum had an introductory film showing every 20 minutes but I had just missed it starting when I entered so I ended up watching at the end of seeing this display. It gave a great account of the original Maoris who came to the region from the Polynesian islands and on to the tourist draw that it was to become, fuelled by the hot springs popping up in the area and the glamorous bathing on the pink and white terraces. After the eruption of Tarawera, the terraces were completely destroyed and the natural shapes that provided such ideal bathing conditions were lost forever to nature. Not only that, but the lakes around the area grew significantly as the land was eroded away and Lake Tarawera now extends way beyond the boundaries of pre-1886.
After a quick trip to the museum roof for some pictures of the city and Lake Rotorua, I headed back towards the hostel stopping to buy some jelly snakes for Elizabeth as a peace offering!
Elizabeth was back at the hostel too so we had lunch together and decided to spend the afternoon walking around some of the nearby sights. Just next to our hostel was the entrance to Kuirau Park. This park is home to some thermal springs and one of the few places where they are free to view! There were loads of plumes of smoke rising up all around the park and plenty of bubbling pools of water and mud, not to mention the stinky rotten egg smell of the sulphur. It was great to walk around and see these springs naturally occurring in a public park and proof of the volcanic activity which is still ongoing in the area. The bubbling mud definitely looked a little sinister.
From there we headed to a small village called Ohinemutu on the edge of the lake which is an original Maori village and is still maintained as such. The Anglican church here is supposed to be a good representation of the meeting of the Maori traditions and the Christian faith. Either way, the church was a really cool building and had a beautiful setting right on Lake Rotorua. There were also buildings here which were the dedicated meeting house and communal areas, as well as a small cemetery honouring the war dead. We were not allowed to enter the meeting house as it is the one area which is kept private for the local Maori tribe. The village was quite interesting but the gift shop there was a little off-putting. There were items here which we had seen being sold all over the northern part of NZ from Paihia to Auckland to here and are obviously mass produced to a certain extent. However, the very friendly and helpful lady at the shop of course claimed that all the goods at the shop were handmade by local villagers and craftsmen. I might be being cynical but given how we’d seen them everywhere, I found this hard to believe or maybe each area just happens to have craftsmen producing identical wooden boxes! Yeh, that sounds right!
This evening we went on our Maori extravaganza which was hosted by the Mitai Maori family. The evening started with us being split into two “tribes” and electing a chief. This wasn’t difficult as a daft old German bloke was almost wetting himself to be chosen. He was a complete weirdo and showed the traditional German sense of humour as he introduced himself. Of course, the other Germans thought he was hilarious but everyone else just cringed. We were next shepherded alongside the small river and watched the tribe arrive on a traditional “waka” (war canoe). It was all really cheesy as we expected but it was quite fun and you just had to take it at face value for what it was – a fun evening rather than something culturally intellectual. We were then taken into the arena where our chief and the chief for the other tribe were introduced to the actual chief in charge of our show for the evening. He was actually part of the Mitai tribe who were hosting the evening but many of the other Maori who performed during the evening were from other tribes around the area.
After the traditional Maori greeting of holding hands and touching noses, the fake chiefs sat down and the displays of Maori dancing, games and chants began. These included demonstrations of a number of instruments including the guitar which was claimed saved a number of Maori cultural songs – the guitar was used to “modernize” certain songs and dances making them more appealing to younger Maori and encouraging them to continue the traditions. We were also treated to a great haka which is the Maori war dance. The bulging eyes and tongue waving were almost too realistic for my liking but the chief promised us that none of us were on the dinner menu tonight.
For dinner, we had an original Maori “hangi”. This is a large hole in the ground which is filled with wood and set on fire. On top of the wood are placed a number of stones. When the wood burns it heats the stones and as the wood burns away, the hot stones fall into the hole. Once the stones have fallen the food is added into the hole and covered up and left to cook. For our meal, we had lamb, chicken, potatoes, kumara (sweet potato) and stuffing all cooked in this way. Both meats were pretty good and the stuffing was lovely. The potatoes were OK but I wasn’t a fan of the sweet potatoes, much preferring the cheesy potatoes they provided as another side dish! Mmm, cheesy potatoes!
After dinner and some fun chat with the other people on our table (an English lad just out of college and about to start Uni, an older English couple who now live in NZ and their friend and an American couple from DC), Elizabeth and I were shepherded away along with about 50 others for our nocturnal nature walk. I wasn’t too impressed with the group size but thankfully the guides realized this too and they split us into three groups. Our guide was the wonderfully camp and entertaining Dion, who kept telling us that he normally works during the day and was hoping we saw all the good stuff quickly so he could get back home to popcorn and a DVD! At the start of the walk we stopped by a small pond where we were supposed to see glowworms. I couldn’t see any but wasn’t too disappointed given how many we’d seen in Waitomo. We did get to see a huge freshwater eel in the small pond though which was really cool, especially as I was the first one to spot it and even when I pointed it out half the group couldn’t see it!
The nocturnal walk actually turned out to be a mini tour of the nearby Rainbow Springs Nature Park but nonetheless it was quite cool, getting to see the possums scuttling around in their cages as well as plenty of daytime birds who had stayed up to entertain the nighttime crowd! But the highlight of the evening was the kiwi enclosure. They had four individual kiwis here and we were told not to use the flashes on our cameras to take pictures. I have learnt by now that nighttime picture taking is pretty pointless anyway and had put my camera away. However, many people still tried to get shots and the infrared lights on the cameras which come on before the flash was scaring the birds away. Thankfully, at the final pen Elizabeth and I got to see one of the birds running around looking for food before anyone else noticed it was out of hiding and we got some amazing close up views. It was all too brief though as very soon a camera waving arsehole turned up and scared it away.
However, it was a great end to a fun evening and we were so pleased to have seen kiwis, albeit in a confined environment. The whole experience was certainly different and while I can be pretty sure it wasn’t wholly traditional, it was still interesting.
March 4, 2010
Today we headed out of the city to visit the site of a village which was buried by the 1886 eruption of Mt Takawera. On the way there we passed yet more amazing scenery (it’s almost repetitive!) and passed the gorgeous Blue and Green Lakes.
On arrival at the appropriately and thoughtfully named “Buried Village”, we found the entry fee was pretty steep but, like last night’s festivities, it was something we both wanted to do. The little museum told more about the eruption and focused a lot on some of the people involved, including Guide Sophia and one of the hotel owners, a guy called McRae. Guide Sophia was half Maori, half Scottish and ran tours to the pink and white terraces for the tourists who came to the region. When the volcano erupted, many locals didn’t know what to do and around 50 of them took refuge in Sophia’s whare (house). She had seen signs in the days prior that something strange was happening in the area including natural ones (rivers increasing their flow and suddenly and also running dry) and spiritual ones (a ghost war canoe sailing on the lake). When the eruption occurred most people thought she would know what to do. The hotel owner, McRae, helped many people escape the volcano and later came back with search parties and helped others. Whilst awarded a gold cross as a hero, he was left penniless years later – the insurance on his hotel didn’t cover “volcano damage” and a later hotel venture caused him to go bankrupt.
The rest of the site was actually pretty lame. A long walkway linked various buildings together and detailed how they would’ve looked prior to the eruption. Many of them had been excavated to show their old positions but given the level of ash and lava rock didn’t seem to be that high (about 1.5m in some places), it didn’t strike me as being that impressive. I wasn’t expecting anything on the scale of the amazing site of Pompeii I had visited when I was 18 but I was expecting a little more than what was on offer, especially for the cost involved!
Also around the site were letters from a woman called Margaret. She had sent these home to her family detailing the things she was getting up to in NZ, including brief references to the actual disaster. These were really cheesy and I hope they weren’t real as I’d find it hard to believe any human being, even in the 1880s, could write such drivel. I hope the postcards we’re sending home are being better received than this rubbish!
Thankfully, the village was saved a little by an amazing waterfall at the back of the site. It was optional to walk down there, the path having split into two, but I’m glad we chose the longer path and visited the falls. It was so quiet and pretty away from everything and although the gushing water didn’t help the fact I needed to pee, we stopped just long enough to get some lovely photos of us both in front of the cascading water.
When we got to the gift shop at the end, we found out that the letters from Margaret had been put into a book as there had been such great interest from tourists reading them. If I hadn’t just relieved myself, I’d have probably wet myself laughing!
We had bought lunch out with us and to eat it we headed down to Lake Takawera and sat on the shore watching the world and a tour bus go by. I know last night was really touristy but I love having our own car and not having to rely on tour buses of any kind to cart us around!
After lunch we headed a bit further south and drove to Kerosene Creek which we eventually found well hidden along a rough, unpaved road just off the highway. The road name had changed since the Lonely Planet book was written but it didn’t fool us. Well, it did fool us actually as we drove right past the road first of all and had a detour of a few kilometers trying to find it, but we did find it in the end! About 2km down the gravel track the road came to an end and there were a few cars parked up and a few people walking back to their cars from amongst the thick bushes. We verified we were in the right place and quickly changed into our swimming gear and headed off to find the creek. We found a small cascade which dropped away a few feet into a pool and we tested the water there, sitting on the edge of the drop off for a while, enjoying the lovely warm water until it became almost too warm to sit around any longer! I nearly had an accident trying to get out of the flowing water – the strength of the current nearly whipped my swimming shorts off as I clambered to get out of the water! We then headed down to the pool beneath the cascade where we soaked in the warm water a little longer as other people arrived to enjoy the peaceful surroundings. After a while, and a few pictures, we were both too hot so decided to get out, dry off and head back to Rotorua.
Back in Rotorua we noticed there was a night market on which started at 5pm so we decided to head back to the hostel, chuck on some more suitable clothing than our swimming gear and have a walk around the shops. It was still early so we hit a few of the normal souvenir shops first. In one shop we managed to find a cool Rotorua shot glass and a silver charm for Elizabeth. The charm was of a Tiki symbol. This is a Maori symbol for good luck and we’ve seen it everywhere. The charm was really nice and a great little souvenir of NZ as a whole.
The night market itself was pretty rubbish. There were some stalls which looked OK but on closer inspection the stuff was just a bit crap! The stalls included a number of the local restaurants (Thai, Indian, Mexican) as well as tasty looking cookie sellers which was about the only thing I forced myself to resist. The funniest though was the fruit wine seller. There were loads of people around the stall so we guessed it was popular. Given how good normal NZ wines are we guessed his must be pretty good to get even the slightest look in. I tried the kiwi fruit wine, a sparkling version of the same, some boysenberry and something else. They were all awful and both Elizabeth and I were amazed to see people buying some of them!
Suitable unimpressed, we headed to the Irish bar opposite where I tried a Speight’s dark ale which was lovely and light and Elizabeth had a NZ lager. We’ve been really impressed with the beers here and are looking forward to reaching South Island so we can visit the breweries as well as lots of wineries.
For dinner I had planned to do a cottage pie but the hostel kitchen didn’t have an oven so we settled on savoury mince with a lot of boiled potatoes. I added loads of vegetables to the mince as well as tomatoes and chilli to make it spicy so we have plenty left for tomorrow. It can get to be a pain cooking so often to try and save money but if we were living somewhere permanently, I’d be cooking most nights then so I guess it isn’t much different. The only difference would be a properly stocked kitchen and knives which weren’t totally blunt. We’re probably eating healthier cooking for ourselves, too, although I’m not sure the portion sizes are quite spot on!