Rotorua, if I forget you….
I have officially found the promised land, y’all, and it goes by the name Rotorua. It was a busy week- from a day spent in bubbling in hot mud to a trip to The Shire to a rainy hike in the Redwood forest, a mini roadtrip to go caving and a 23 foot drop down the world’s largest commercially rafted waterfall, the adventures were abundant, and each gave the others a run for their money. New Zealand is, simply put, a glorious country full of beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and adventures so amazing, you never thought you’d experience them in your lifetime. And the best part is, you experience them one after another- they just keep coming!
We arrived in Rotorua a bit later than expected, about midnight on the eve of Kate’s 25th birthday. After a long bus ride we were weary and got lost on our way to our hostel, which ended up being just a few blocks from the bus station. We searched for what felt like hours, and finally ended up at the Crash Palace, where we, quite literally, crashed. The next day was Kate’s birthday and after a bit of a sleep in we took a shuttle to the Hell’s Gate mud pools, a short drive away. The mud pools are naturally occurring thermal mud alongside sulphur baths that are great for softening skin! What we didn’t know at the time was that Kate is allergic to sulphur- oops! Her eyes started to burn and her head began to ache, and after a hot shower, she still didn’t feel up to doing much for her 25th. We had planned on a doing a Maori cultural experience, but I was happy to save the money and instead we had a glorious steak dinner at the Kurious Kiwi on the main drag. Duck fat potatoes, onion rings, garlic bread, we went a little overboard but it was so worth it after eating mostly ramen noodles and cheap Thai food! I chalk it up to saying we needed the protein.
The next day was probably one of the best days of my life. A bus picked us up and took us…to…HOBBITON!!!! Though or names aren’t in the final credits of the extended cuts of the movies (where fans could pay $39.95 to have their names appear), Kate and I are still pretty big LOTR fans. So when we walked though the gates of The Shire into a land of colorful hobbit holes, beautiful flowers, and frolicking lambs, we were pretty much holding back tears of joy the entire time. Hobbiton is not the original set built for the first three Lord of the Rings movies, instead, it’s an exact replica of the set used. The initial set was made of cheap building materials that could be taken down, since Peter Jackson had borrowed someone’s farm for the prime, hilly location. But after filming wrapped, the farm owners said they’d be happy for him to rebuild when it came time to film The Hobbit, as long as it was a permanent settlement where they could give tours to the curious New Zealand natives and rabid fans that flock to Bag End from around the world (like us :D). The set has been used to film The Hobbit trilogy most recently, and is absolutely beautiful. They keep the grass trimmed just as Hobbits did, by letting sheep graze upon it. All the flowers and vegetables are real, tended to meticulously to keep it in tip top Hobbiton shape. It is truly the most magical place on earth. After the tour of the hobbit holes you even go to the Green Dragon, walking over the bridge near the mill, where you are given a free drink! There are four options, two traditional ales, one Old English style and one more modern, a hard apple cider, or a non alcoholic ginger beer. They “shout” you (buy you) your first round, so Kate and I sampled the Old English ale and the cider, and tucked into some delicious beef and ale pies. They also have cold pork pies and other Tolkeiny treats! It was honestly a beautiful day.
Kate and I knew we’d be dropping some major dough in Rotorua and decided to do a free activity on our third day. The Redwood Forest seemed just the place since we both love hiking and I had never seen a redwood tree. We trekked out the the forest, taking the outer link bus and then walking down a long, dusty road. It was beautiful out- cool, clear, a light mist falling. Conditions seemed perfect as we head up the path- a loop of a two hour hike through the redwoods, uphill to a lookout point, and back down. About halfway up the uphill climb the light mist turned into a drizzle, and then, into a downpour. It was POURING rain and we were climbing up a muddy path. We were about halfway, so there was no sense in turning around. Instead, to protect our canvas packs that wouldn’t wick away water, we tied our rain jackets around them, and let the rain soak our clothes. I, of course, had chosen to wear jeans. Brilliant! By the time we made it to the bottom it, of course, had stopped raining. And as we caught the bus back to town we shivered, but laughed, excited for food and hot showers. All in all, the rain made the hike more adventurous, and if I were with anyone but Kate I don’t think I would have laughed as hard or enjoyed being soaking wet quite as much.
The main thing that I wanted to do on the North Island was the famous caving and black water rafting in Waitomo. About two hours away, Kate and I were having trouble finding a ride that wouldn’t set us back almost more than it cost to go caving. We went downstairs to talk to our hostel manager about the cheapest way to get there and the most serendipitous moment ever happened- there was a guy with a car downstairs trying to book the same trip…for the same day! It was as if the universe were telling us to go caving! We all three booked together and met up the morning of the trip, driving to Waitomo together. Our lovely driver and new friend was Lars from Holland, a lively, lanky, house music enthusiast who wanted to talk about American DJs and music festivals. By the time we got to Waitomo it was the afternoon, and we met our guide and geared up for the caves. We had to wear wetsuits, jackets, cotton pants, rubber boots, and helmets with attached lights to see in the cave. After a short refresher on abseiling, we strapped on our harnesses and got ready to repel into the cave. I, of course, volunteered to go first in a moment of sheer ballsiness, and after looking down into the cave, the 25 meter (82 foot) drop looked quite far down. But I strapped on my harness and jumped off the platform, abseiling down into the darkness of the cave. It was beautiful, wet moss covered the walls and light streamed into the opening. I landed in a river and waited at the bottom for the rest of my fellow cavers. Kate came down after me, then Maggie from France, Mark from the Netherlands, our old friend Lars, and finally, our guide. We then grabbed some innertubes to and hiked upstream to the glow worm cave. After a few tight squeezes through massive limestone caverns we made it. We turned off our lights and were sitting in total darkness in the cave. Then, we heard a large BAM, then another, and another. It only took one hit for me to realize it was Amy, our guide, slapping the innertube into the river. As she did, more and more glowworms started to appear in the cave, their blue lights lighting up the ceiling and walls like tiny constellations and clusters of beautiful stars. “Did I wake them up?” she asked. We all agreed she most certainly had. But in fact, she was using adrenaline via our fear of the bang to dilate our pupils. When you get a surge of adrenaline in the dark your eyes become more focused and your senses heighten, making you more able to see what’s in the cave around you. Pretty cool, right? So there we sat, gazing at glowworms. After a short hike back upstream, we plopped our innertubes down into the water and continued down the underwater river. We stopped deep in the cave, turned on our lights, and started caving into tiny holes and tight squeezes. I thought I was claustrophobic but apparently I’m not because those holes were TINY. There were moments where I thought I was stuck, but somehow always managed to clamber back out into the darkness. After squeezing and floating some more, we harnessed back up and rock climbed back up the wall, this time about 90 feet, into the twilight. I was nervous, because it was hard to stick my little limbs into makeshift footholds to hoist myself up, but somehow, I climbed my way out. Caving was awesome, and after some hot soup and a long drive back I slept like a baby.
The next morning we woke up early for yet another day of adventure- rafting the Kaituna river, famous for it’s 23 foot waterfall, the largest commercially rafter waterfall in the world. It. was. WET. We suited up and Kate and I jumped in the front of the boat, since our fellow rafters were a bit more nervous than us. We were purely excited, and as we rafted the two “practice” waterfalls (still pretty large!) we got even more amped for the big falls, even though by the time it came Kate and I were already soaking wet. When it came time, we were told to jump into the bottom of the raft and hold onto the sides, clutching our paddles in one hand. We came pretty close to capsizing, but somehow came out without tipping, and continued down the class five rapids. It was exhilarating. The water was freezing, but again, the adrenaline kept us warm in our soaking wet fleeces and wetsuits. Wee were SO excited to raft the Wairo the next day- there are no waterfalls but it’s much more technical and narrow. But when the morning came after a long night of rain, the river had flooded and we were unable to raft. It was SO sad, especially after our great day at Kaituna. And we couldn’t reschedule, because the mighty wairo is only open 26 days a year, closing in April. I took that as a sign that I need to come back to New Zealand one day, and put the Wairo on the top of my to do list.
Rotorua is amazing. It’s a geothermal wonderland (which is why it smells so strongly of sulphur everywhere), with a great Maori culture and so much to do. The people are so friendly, and everyone gives suggestions on what to do for the rest of your time in New Zealand. Shop owners were pleased that we had devoted an entire week to their lovely town, because most only stay a day. We had given it a week and I had more fun than I could have imagined. I had high expectation for Rotorua, but this town exceeded all of them. I love New Zealand, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!