Travel Tales #10: Thermal baths and wonderlands

 I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

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Rotorua Government Gardens

The following day, after a walk to the peaceful Lake Rotorua, I made my way to Rotorua Government Gardens, which felt like stepping into another world.  Away from bubbling mud pools, geysers and the stench of rotten eggs (sulphur), was a little oasis of perfect green bowling and croquet greens.  The old bath house in the grounds used to be visited by soldiers returning from war to benefit from the healing power of the thermal waters, and it now houses a museum. I joined a fascinating guided tour, which took me into the bowels of the building, and I was able to imagine what it was like when it was in use.

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Bubbling mud pool

Whilst I was there, a Maori woman told me about the viewing platform on top of the bath house that had been under construction and was open to the public for the first time for 75 years that day, so I took the opportunity to go up.  From the platform, I could see right across the town, and looking out to the mountains in the distance I slowly turned in a circle and appreciated that the mountain line didn’t stop, since Rotorua is built in the huge crater of a volcano.

There are trips from Rotorua to Matamata to visit Hobbiton, a large sheep farm that was converted into the hobbit village for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I am not a LOTR fanatic, so I didn’t do the trip, but one of my room mates at the hostel did, and she highly recommended it for lovers of the story.

I left Rotorua on a Sunday morning and boarded the Magic Bus bound to Taupo.  Our first stop on the way was at the Lady Knox Geyser that erupted at 10.15am every day.  The eruption was elicited by a guide who bunged a few bars of soap into it, which I figured was cheating!  However, it was very impressive seeing the huge plume of water and gas shoot up about 30 metres in the air.

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Lady Knox Geyser before and after

Our next stop was Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, which was quite a sight to behold…we walked around craters containing thermal pools in various beautiful colours; a vibrant ode to Mother Nature.  In places the ground felt ominously hollow, which served as a reminder that volcanic activity was happening just underneath the surface.  I found this slightly unnerving!  As I was walking past the huge Champagne Pool (so called due to the gas that creates millions of small bubbles breaking on the surface) the wind was blowing all the hot, smelly steam from it across the path way and it was like walking through very thick fog.  I couldn’t see a thing, which felt rather precarious as I was imagining it would be all too easy to walk off the track and into a crater or a boiling thermal or mud pool…luckily I survived to tell the tale! 

Our final stop was at Huka Falls, a point at which the Waikato River comes to a narrow ravine for a few hundred metres creating dangerous looking rapids.  The thundering water was so loud, it sounded like a plane taking off.  We stood and admired, and took a few photos, before returning to our seats for the remainder of our journey.  On arrival in Taupo, the weather was grey and miserable; Kiwi summer appeared to be coming to an end.  I stayed in the Action Down Under YHA, where all the rooms were well heated, there was a comfortable lounge, and a large shared kitchen with a terrace attached.  I decided to spend a few days relaxing there before heading off on an exciting trip of the East Cape (more about that in my next post).  By this point, I was starting to realise that I enjoyed my own company.  Some days it was nice to meet and spend time with people I met, but it was good to have the choice about whether to.  I was also getting used to having rather short-lived friendships.  Frequently, I would meet someone I got on with, but either they or you was moving on in the next day or two, usually in the opposite direction to each other.  There was always someone to connect with at the next stop, hostel, or trip, so I was never alone for long (unless I wanted to be!).

Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels
#6: Fun & feijoa flavoured vodka
#7: Bays, bravery & the meeting of oceans
#8: Dolphins & premieres
#9: Glow-worms & geysers

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Travel Tales #9: Glow-worms and geysers

 I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Waitomo and Rotoroua, New Zealand, March 2006

My first destination after leaving my lovely friends in Auckland was Waitomo, an area famous for its glow-worm caves. I stayed at the Kiwi Paka YHA, which was more like a lodge than a hostel, and as it was quiet I ended up with a four bed dorm to myself. Waitomo is a very small place with only 40 or so people living there full-time, and just a café and village store that make up the small centre.

I booked a place on a trip called ‘Spellbound’ that took a group of us by minibus to the Mangawhitiakau cave system just outside Waitomo.  Our first excursion was into a pitch black ‘wet’ cave.  Adorned with hard hats and head torches we climbed into a little boat and set off into the darkness, where we were told to turn our lights off.  Suddenly, it looked like someone had put millions of fairy lights on the ceiling of the cave, as the glow-worms appeared in the dark.  It was just beautiful seeing little lights stretching out as far as the eye could see.  Our guide told us that our night vision would improve slowly with the small amount of light emitted by the glow-worms, and sure enough after about five minutes I could make out everyone in the boat, where previously I could just see black.  The second part of the trip took us into a ‘dry’ cave where we got to see the majestic stalagmites, stalatmites and tomos, which are deep holes that lead up to ground level, and made me realise how far underground we were.

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Entering the glow-worm caves

It was just a quick stop in Waitomo, and the following day I hopped back on the Magic bus to Rotorua.  The first thing that struck me on arriving (as it does most people, I’m sure) was the very strong stench of rotten eggs due to sulphur from all the geothermal activity in the area. Rotorua lies on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’, and I felt very much aware that there was a lot of volcanic activity going on right under my feet.

I stayed in the Hot Rocks Hostel, which was a very nice place, and on looking out from the balcony attached to our room, I could see what appeared to be huge plumes of smoke coming from behind some trees. These impressive plumes turned out to be steam billowing up from the hot pools and boiling mud at Kuirau Park, a geothermal area literally over the road.  The first night I went along to the hostel’s ‘Lava Bar’ with my three roommates, who were from Germany and Ireland, where we had a few ‘bonding beers’ and discussed this strange and rather smelly place that we found ourselves in.

On my first day in Rotorua, I went to Rainbow Springs to visit the Kiwi Encounter, an organisation that is attempting to save the kiwi from extinction by collecting eggs from around New Zealand, incubating and hatching them, and when the chicks are strong enough to fend off predators (about 6-8 months old), releasing them back into the wild. It was a great tour, with an informative and amusing guide, and my highlight was getting to see three very cute kiwis in the nocturnal house.  We weren’t able to take photos in there, we weren’t even allowed to talk in case we scared them, but it may well be my only chance in life to see this rare and round little bird, so I was really pleased that I had been able to do so.

The next day I headed to Te Whakarewarewa which, believe it or not, is an abbreviated name – the full name is Te Whakarewarewawatangaoteoputauaawahiao!  This is the largest geothermal park in the area, and is therefore a very big draw for tourists.  We were carted around in an open bus to see all the bubbling mud pools and springs, and when we got to the geyser area the two geyers (called ‘Pohutu’ and ‘Prince of Wales Feathers’) decided to erupt and shot up in the air about 20m, which was a very impressive sight to behold.  My highlight of the day was the Maori concert which was performed there in the middle of the day.  People in traditional dress were singing and dancing, and they finished off with a haka…I had goosebumps from start to finish and found myself totally caught up in the story and emotion.

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Maori warrior at the concert

Te Whakarewarewa also houses the Te Puia wood carving institute and I visited their workshop to see people at work carving enormous and ornate wooden statues, which they have to train for three years to do.  I was so tired by the excitement of those couple of days, that I barely managed a couple of drinks in the pub with my fellow travellers that night, and had to retire early to the hostel where I fell gratefully into bed.  This travelling lark was certainly proving tiring…I was going to need to build up my tolerance!

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Te Puia wood carving institute

 

 

Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels
#6: Fun & feijoa flavoured vodka
#7: Bays, bravery & the meeting of oceans
#8: Dolphins & premieres