2 weeks in NZ: Rotovegas or bust

“You need more time” was the resounding comment when friends found out that I was going to New Zealand for 2 weeks. Even before arriving, I’d decided that, whilst this was undoubtedly true, I had to trust my online research on the prices of everything in NZ which led to the inescapable conclusion that spending any longer would drain my savings very rapidly. Particularly after having left the economy of SE Asia where I could live for months off what I was likely to spend in NZ in a fortnight.

So, my flight arrived into Auckland International the following afternoon bang on time. What to do? I had the eternal good luck to meet someone in Cambodia who advised me my initial plan of spending 4 days in Auckland was, quite simply, wrong, and that I’d be bored. So, a quick hunt online for car hire got me a cracking deal- £45 for three days in a Mitsubishi Lancer. Auto, petrol, but went well enough when given a shove.

The beast. A stone-chipped, leggy beast

I’d forgotten that NZ drives on the left, but it helped to add to the utter elation I felt behind the wheel, in the blazing sunshine, heading down the motorway from Auckland towards destinations unknown. And then Crowded House came on the radio… Perfect.

My destination for today was Rotorua, a major centre for volcanic things, outdoor activities and beautiful scenery, which seemed to fit with what I wanted from my holiday. En route I passed so much interesting stuff signposted off the highway I could have made the journey last a week.

Pulling into Rotorua I was concerned that I’d dented the car’s catalytic converter on the last kerb I carelessly bumped down, however soon realised that the sulphurous smell was just what Rotorua smelt like in places! 

Hot spring near the centre of Rotorua

Booked into the YHA I headed out to the Pig and Whistle historic pub to use my $5 voucher on a long awaited proper pint of beer. Walking in was one of the most surreal experiences of my trip. Filled with people (obviously) talking English to one another and with its very typical English pub furnishings, it felt like I was home. Well, a warmer more scenic home. Very odd.

The next day I took it easy, jetlag hadn’t been terribly kind to me overnight, and the prospect of a soak in a thermal pool was inviting. There are a number of spas in and around Rotorua- If you’re lucky your motel will have one, if not you can spend megabucks going to somewhere like the Polynesian Spa… or you can take advantage of a local tip and visit the historic Blue Baths near the Government Gardens whereby a dip will cost you NZ$11, including 36 and 40 degree hot pools. That’ll do, pig.

The Blue Pools

The Government Gardens

I then decided to take a drive around some of the nearby lakes. NZ is incredibly well catered for in terms of outdoor activities, so everywhere that you’d encounter nice scenery near to a road or carpark comes complete with a detailed system of waypointed walks, including distances and times for the round trip.

I was just enjoying being out of the city, in nature and completely alone. Passing the blue lake I saw a sign for kayak rental so knocked another enjoyable hour out of the day paddling around it. All in all a very relaxing, fulfilling day seeing some of the area, chatting with some locals and unwinding after the chaos of Bangkok.

On the beach…of the lake… in the sun. Perfect

I’d not managed to book the YHA for a second night, I was at Solid Rock Backpackers instead. Also bang in the middle of town, and very comfortable. My only room-mate was a Latvian guy over here on a 1 year working holiday visa, just starting out. Oh how I wished I’d have used that opportunity before I turned 30!

I placed a notice on the board saying that I planned to visit a local volcanic complex the next day, and inviting passengers- It’s nice to be nice, and a good way to meet other travellers. As it happened, two lots of people replied- One who lacked the initiative to find me in the kitchen of the backpackers and also a Chinese couple. We agreed to meet at 9 the next morning.

Wai-o-Tapu thermal complex is 30km or so south of Rotorua on the Thermal Highway. It costs $20 or so per adult to get in, and includes the daily eruption of the Lady Knox geyser at 10.15. 

This is a popular show, since many of the geysers in the region have stopped erupting as much as they once did. Some of the thermal spa complexes have been capped, since the sheer volume of spas and geothermal heating pumps in the area was causing the place to actually cool down!

The Lady Knox geyser apparently naturally erupts on a 36-48hr schedule so is ‘induced’ on a daily basis. This geyser was discovered by workmen who used to wash their clothes in its pool, and the soap they used triggered an eruption, leading to its development as a tourist attraction: Surfactant is still used to induce the chemical reaction responsible for causing the geyser to spout forth.

Lady Knox geyser

We then went into the main geothermal park to look around some of the amazing sights. The rules about sticking to the path and not crossing fences are strictly enforced as tourists fairly regularly die falling into boiling mud/sulphur pools around this area!

My new Chinese friends had a good time… those familiar with Chinese tourism will not be surprised at the frequent appearance of a selfie stick!

After Wai-o-Tapu we went on to the Kerosene River nearby, despite not being developed for tourism this does nonetheless attract a good many visitors. A river that is hotter than bathwater is indeed a bizarre but pleasant phenomenon, and the waterfalls were good fun too.

I’d decided yesterday that I was going to get some mountain biking in, the Whakarekewa giant redwood forest is renowned for its multiple routes and runs. I asked my new friends a few times if they wanted me to drop them in town but no, they were coming… OK!

After a fairly tame route together they decided to let me off on my own, and we arranged to meet back at the carpark. I think for their first time on mountain bikes this was probably fair enough. I for one was glad that we only had 2hrs until the bike hire place closed as that was about the sum total of my stamina. Utterly pumped though, it was brilliant to be back on a mountain bike in such a great location and with such pristine, well-built and in places pretty hardcore trails.

In the Redwoods

Giant ferns

Single track heaven

In the evening we went to a local Chinese restaurant (Hey, I’m in no position to judge after my Burger King-gasm leaving Bangkok) and they continued the embarrassing Chinese custom of not letting me pay for anything (I’d agreed that they could pay for the thermal park entry as I was driving,  but then coffee, cake, mountain biking drinks and Chinese meal all came out of the huge wad of $100 bills in Rocky’s hand). I did try, but I’ve encountered Chinese hospitality before and you’ll almost end up fist fighting before they accept!

Back to the hostel, packed and ready for an early departure to Auckland and the airport…

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