Steamy New Zealand

We are in the simmering center of the North Island. We spend two nights cavorting among the volcanoes in Tongariro National Park and another two nights steeping in the thermal wonderlands of Rotorua.

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Up on the ridge overlooking the Chateau Tongariro

On our first evening at the Chateau Tongariro, we do a quick climb to a ridge overlooking the valley. The big volcanoes are shrouded in cloud, but we still get a good idea of the vastness of the park.

The big attraction in Tongariro National Park is the Tongariro Crossing—one of New Zealand’s most popular tracks. It’s a nineteen kilometer one-way track that takes hikers up and over an alpine pass between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro. Back in Vancouver we thought long and hard about the crossing. Julia studied maps and I worried about having the right boots and clothes. Hiking nineteen kilometers in a day might be a bit of a stretch for me. The hike lasts for about eight hours. I can’t remember the last time I walked for eight hours in a single day.

We were booked to take a guided crossing with Adrift Adventures. A few weeks before flying to New Zealand, we decided to cancel the crossing and opt instead for one of the half-day tours also offered by Adrift. The tour is advertised as an alternative for people who have decided not to attempt the entire crossing. The itinerary is vague—dependent, apparently, on the will of the group on any particular day. Well, how hard can it be?

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Soda Springs

We are picked up at 8:30 by a young man in a white van and driven along with four people from Barcelona to the trail head for the Tongariro Crossing. We join the throngs for the first hour of the hike. Just before the hike gets serious and the trail veers upwards to the Devil’s Staircase, we hang a left and scramble up to Soda Springs—a waterfall across the valley from Mount Ngauruhoe .

We are blessed with perfect conditions for the first hour of the hike. The sky is achingly blue and the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe —Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—is postcard perfect.

After we hike back to the car park, the guide drives about ten minutes back toward the chateau for the start of our second hike. This one takes us up an extinct volcano and is considerably more challenging than the well-groomed track of the Tongariro Crossing. We start off walking through waist-high bracken and heather along a very rough track full of holes waiting to swallow ankles. The guide presses cheerfully on and we follow, pushing aside branches, watching anxiously for holes. We emerge from the thick bushes that in most places obscures the track to find ourselves on the flank of an extinct volcano–a rather small one. We are to climb to the top along a barely defined track. The slope is very steep—too much really for me but the guide insists I can make it and so I start up. He suggests short steps and a steady pace. After about fifty meters, he asks if I’d like a pole. I grasp at it like a drowning woman. It feel precarious and exposed on the steep slope, although compared to the giants surrounding us, the volcano we are on is pretty tame. But it feels steep enough for me. I don’t dare look down and hate to look up to see how far there is to go. The Spaniards pass me and I show my ego to the door. I’ll be glad if I can make it to the top without tumbling backwards and if it take half the day, well, they can wait. Maybe they can have a siesta at the summit.

I plod slowly, painfully up, up, up, the slope rising steeply, the guide several paces above exhorting me forward with cheerful optimism. Julia stays at my side, willing me forward, assuring me that I’ll feel great when I make it to the top. I count the steps one to ten, pause, breathe, count another ten steps, pause, breathe. I’m Edmund Hillary making the final ascent on Everest (he was a Kiwi after all). Up ahead, the Spaniards and the guide are already at the top. The guide tells me the steepest part is over. Yeah, right. Ten more steps, pause, breathe, look. Indeed, the top is within reach. I gather my resources (such a great phrase) and push my legs to the top, striding with some confidence and less pain now that I am sure of victory.

In comparison to the monster volcanoes spread out before me, little 500,000 year old Pukakaikiore looks like a forgotten pimple on the volcanic plain. But for the rest of the afternoon following our descent, I gaze across the valley at it with great satisfaction. Dwarfed by Mt. Ngauruhoe’s tall and perfect cone—the star quarterback looming over the washed up old guy spitting memories in the corner–little Pukakaikiore remains my personal Everest.

We are dropped off at the Chateau where after a bit of lunch and a rest, we set out again—this time for the ski area on Mt. Rupahoe, the third of the three large volcanoes populating the park. Just above the ski area is, according to Julia’s handy Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, the location where many of the scenes with Frodo and Sam climbing Mount Doom were filmed. The area is apparently rife with cool black rocks. Well, indeed it is. The drive up to the ski area is as spectacular as so many of our drives in New Zealand. We park and follow signs to the Mead Wall. A short hike brings us to a ridge strewn with rocks that look like they’ve been tossed by giants. Filming up here must have been a challenge!

In the evening, we check out the strange blue hot pool in the belly of the Chateau. It’s too large for a Jacuzzi but too shallow, strangely shaped, and hot for a regular pool. For some reason, the pool is lit with blue light that glows upward to a metal riveted ceiling. We bob about in creepy, solitary splendour.

Tongariro Farewell

We wake up to greet a perfect day. The volcanoes are 3-D cut-outs against the stark blue skies. We decide to cap our Tongariro visit with a flightseeing tour. Julia calls promptly at 8 am when the Mountain Air company just down the road opens and books us for a 9:30 flight of 25 minutes that will take us over the Tongariro Crossing and around Mt. Ngauruhoe. Just Julia and I board the four-seater plane along with Oliver, our pilot. Julia rides shot gun at the front while I squeeze into the back seat. For the next 25 minutes, we are treated to close up views of the volcanoes and 360-degree views of the entire Tongariro National Park and beyond. I snap picture after picture, pausing every so often to just watch awestruck at the landscape spiraling into eternity below me. We fly over and around Mt. Ngauruhoe and see clearly the lava flows from the various eruptions over the past decades. People apparently climb the shifting scree slope but I can’t find what route they could use. No climbers are on the mountain this early in the day. The perfectly circular cone looks equally unclimbable from every viewpoint. Here’s just a selection of the dozens of photos snapped during the flight.

After 25 minutes that feels like 5 minutes, we land on the grass field with barely a bump, happy and a bit sad to be back again on earth. We agree that at $195 (each), the flight is worth every penny.

Back in the car, we head north for our next adventure—two nights in the middle of a giant caldera otherwise known as Rotorua.

Rotorua

Julia’s boss at Discover Holidays advised her that the best place to view the geothermal activity that bubbles constantly under Rotorua is Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. Well, he’s right about that. About half an hour before we reach Rotorua, we pull off the road and pay $30 each to enter what has to be one of the coolest (well, hottest) geothermal areas I’ve seen—and I’ve been to Yellowstone. Bubbling mud, hissing fissures, boiling lakes with day-glo colored edges, a pool the color of toxic waste—all of it spread over an area laced by walkways. At the Champagne Pool, I ask the ranger guy if anyone has ever been injured at the site. Signs everywhere exhort visitors to keep to the path, the implication being that one false step leads to death. Well, apparently, it does. The ranger guy tells me that back in the 1960’s a local teacher visited the site with his dog. In those days, a fence did not separate the walkway from the Champagne Pool. The man’s dog ran into the pool and the man ran after the dog to save it. Both died—quickly. On that sobering note, we keep snapping pictures, awed by the display of nature’s true colors.

From Wai-o-tapu, we drive to the lovely Millennium Hotel in Rotorua where, thanks to Southern World, we are given VIP treatment with a lovely room on the Club floor and access to the swanky Club Lounge where we get free canapes and wine in the evening and breakfast in the morning.

We take a quick walk to the grounds of the Rotorua Museum—a fabulous, Tudor-style concoction that once housed the hot spring baths that attracted visitors from all over the world. The grounds also include a rose garden. I take copious pictures while Julia amuses herself by throwing her shadow over the roses just as I snap them. She can’t stop laughing. Minutes later we walk to the lake edge—a steaming expanse of geothermal activity dotted with signs warning against leaving the track. One of the many interpretative plaques tells us that a small natural pool just off the track is called the Laughing Pool. Apparently, the gasses emitted made everyone who took a dip in it giddy with laughter. Hmm.

We get back to the hotel in time to enjoy a quick nibble of the canapes and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the Club Lounge before we are picked up by a red bus for our first of two Maori evenings.

Maori Experience #1: Tamaki Village

The bus fills with a tour group also staying at the hotel, a couple from Calgary, and us. During the fifteen-minute drive, the voluble Maori guide entertains us with a commentary about the village and what we are about to experience. One of the men from the tour group is appointed our Chief. The driver explains that when we arrive at the Village, we will experience the traditional Maori welcome challenge. Warriors will come out of the village and challenge the visitors. We are cautioned to not, on any account, laugh or even smile at the actions of the warriors. We are, however, allowed to take pictures.

We arrive at the village and join another four tour groups, each with its own chief (all men). The five chiefs are lined up in front of the 150 visitors (or thereabouts) and await the arrival of the warriors and the commencement of the welcome ceremony. Everyone takes the request to keep a straight face very seriously. No one dares even crack a smile. Three women appear above the entranceway and blow conch shells to announce the arrival of a canoe paddled by five warriors. They stamp and roll their eyes and stick out their tongues as we all watch with sober concentration. Finally, a branch is laid at the feet of each chief and noses pressed twice–the hongi. That is the signal that the welcoming ceremony is complete and the visitors can enter the village. We are also allowed to talk and smile again.

As darkness falls, we file into a recreation of a Maori village and are separated into five groups. Each group is taken around to five different learning huts where we are given demonstrations of various Maori crafts and practices. We learn how the Haka is performed, watch a demonstration of games played back in the day to train warriors, learn that the word “tattoo” is a Maori word, see a demonstration of the poi balls used by the women in dances, and learn about Maori weaving. The demonstrations are very well done by the men and women who participated in the welcome ceremony. The atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful—a family business that is really making a solid go of it.

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The Hangi feast we will enjoy

After the demonstrations, we watch the food that will be served for dinner lifted from the ground. The cooking process–on hot rocks under the earth–is called Hangi. After snapping pictures of our dinner, we file into another building to enjoy a performance of songs and dances. Hunger starts to grumble around 8:30 pm. Finally, we are directed into the dining hall and enjoy a buffet dinner of chicken, lamb, and vegetables cooked in the ground and several good desserts (not cooked in the ground). The evening is long and interesting, but a little bit tiring. On the way back to the hotel on the bus, our entertaining driver sings songs—some solo and some participatory.

The next night, we’ll do it all over again with another company. It will be interesting to see the differences.

A Day in Rotorua

After a lovely breakfast in the exclusive Club Lounge which we had virtually ourselves, we set off to tour the Rotorua Museum. On the way, we stop to admire a fantastic yarn-bombed tree outside the Rotorua Arts Centre. I think we should get all the knitters on Bowen Island together to do something similar in front of our Library! It’s Sunday morning and a small craft market is set up on the grounds of the arts centre. Julia stops to buy some crocheted measuring tapes and chat with the lady about crochet.

The Rotorua Museum has an excellent display about the Maori people from the time they arrived in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago to today. The exhibition is more coherently put together and easier to follow than the one at Te Papa. We have a hard time tearing ourselves away.

As it turns out, we should have hung out longer in Rotorua and visited the Polynesian Spa across from our hotel for our hot springs experience. Instead, we opt to drive north for about twenty minutes to visit the mud pools of Hell’s Gate.

Hell’s Gate

New Zealand is not known for under-charging for its many and varied attractions. Apart from national parks and scenic reserves, most attractions charge money—and quite a lot of it. Most of the major geothermal attractions (maybe all of them) are privately owned by local tribes. Considerable funds are needed to maintain the boardwalks and gift shops, and we’re told quite a bit goes to assist with education in traditional arts and crafts. I’m OK with shelling out money to see cool stuff, but in the case of Hell’s Gate, I have to say that the amount shelled out bordered on the excessive. That said, I can’t regret our trip to Hell’s Gate—a geothermal area of steaming, bubbling gray pools that also includes mud and sulphur baths open to the public. I’ve always wanted to roll around in a mud bath. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I was a hippopotamus in a former life.

We arrive at Hell’s Gate at 1 pm and pay the exorbitant entry fee that lets us stroll around the geothermal areas and then wallow first in a mud bath and then in a sulphur pool. I’m actually a bit embarrassed to say just how much we paid, so I won’t. We take our picnic lunch into the geothermal area and find a picnic table up in the trees, a little bit away from the pungent sulphur smells gushing out of the hissing steam holes and mud pots. Two large tour groups from a cruise ship stampede past. Instead of following them to see what else the area has to offer (a hot water waterfall and geyser apparently), we slip around them to start our mud/sulphur bath experience, secure in the knowledge that the bathing area is too small to accommodate the tour groups.

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My bathing suit will never be the same again

We strip to our bathing suits and are directed to one of three gray pools. Ours is quite large and unoccupied. I had envisioned a kind of mud pile that I roll around in, but the reality is a warm pool of gray water that a lot of other people have sat in. We inch in, feeling globs of mud under our feet. We soon realize that the drill is to scoop up handfuls of mud and smear them all over our arms, necks, and faces. Of course every time I dip my arm into the muddy water (it’s about two feet deep), I wash off the mud I’d just slathered on. Some skill and foresight is required to achieve and more importantly sustain sufficient coverage. We have twenty minutes in the mud pool which turns out is more than enough. We clamber out and take a good long shower then inch into the hot sulphur pool which is really just a big hot pool. I guess it has extra sulphur—it should have a boat load of it considering the cost. The sulphur pool is quite a bit hotter than the mud pool so we last about ten minutes before deciding to call it a day.

We shower and get dressed, stop into the gift shop, have a quick ice cream cone, and return to the parking lot. Our entire visit lasted an hour—and that included lunch. Oh well, it was a learning experience and as I said, I don’t regret it.

Several hours later, however, we do identify a downside that haunts us for the next several days. The sulphur smell impregnates our bathing suits with such ferocity that several washings, along with dips in pools and the ocean is not sufficient to remove the smell. But seriously, what’s not to like about the pong of rotten eggs?

We arrive back at the hotel with little time to spare before we must present ourselves for pick up by the second of our two Maori experiences. This one is at Te Puia, one of Rotorua’s major geothermal attractions that includes a kiwi habitat, a school for Maori carving, weaving, and stonework, and Rotorua’s biggest geyser. The bus picks us up first and then trundles all over Rotorua picking up more people until finally we arrive at Te Puia and get a sticker designating us as Combo Visitors. We get the guided tour of the grounds followed by a Maori welcome, a song and dance performance, and the feast. The experience is to last for about five hours.

A Maori guide takes us around the grounds with a group of about forty people. We are lucky to arrive at the main geyser just as it blows its top—an impressive site indeed. The craft areas are pretty much deserted since it’s a Sunday and few students are working. No problem—we get extra time in the rather fine gift store.

We are assembled in front of the Marae—the meeting house—at around six pm to witness the traditional Maori welcome. The ceremony is the same as the night before, although this time only one man is designated chief. We are again requested not to smile or laugh during the ceremony. Several warriors emerge from the Marae and challenge the group with gestures and stylized movements. When finally the branch is laid in front of the chief and accepted, we are welcomed into the Marae for the performance. The dancers are as energetic as the ones the night before. Julia goes up on stage to use the poi balls.

The buffet dinner of the hangi and other food served after the performance is a bit posher than the dinner we had the night before. There is a greater variety of food and the dining area is a bit more upscale. Just as we had at the Tamaki Village, we eat too much.

P1040624The Te Puia experience also includes a last look at the geyser in the moonlight. We board a jitney that takes us out to the geothermal area where our host talks about Maori legends and traditions while we wait for the geyser to blow. It usually performs hourly, but of course the exact timing cannot be predicted. We are very fortunate when just ten minutes before we are due to return to the front entrance, the geyser decides to put on a spectacular show. Plumes thirty meters high shoot straight up into the star-spattered sky, the heat steaming glasses and cameras. It’s a magical end to the evening.

So which Maori experience do I recommend? Julia and I discuss both options and cannot decide. Both are great. I think my recommendation would be to go see the geysers and geothermal activity at Te Puia (and they really do have a great gift store) and do the dinner evening (the Te Po) with Tamaki. The Tamaki experience is less posh than Te Puia but a bit more authentic-feeling. The performers talk with small groups of people while they demonstrate the various crafts. Both experiences feel like family affairs (which I believe they are). The main point is that a visitor to Rotorua should experience one Maori evening that includes, at a minimum, the welcome ceremony, the hangi, and a performance. Although both evenings cater to tourists (well, who else?), the cheerfulness and enthusiasm of the guides and performers feels genuine.

The next morning we see rain for the first time since arriving in New Zealand two weeks earlier as we set off for our visit to Hobbiton.

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Categories: Travel

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