January 29-31, 2013
(Posted by Kristin)

You can tell you are coming up to Rotorua (pronounced Roto-RUA) by the smell. Whoowhee, rotten eggs! Rotorua is located in one of the most active geothermal areas in New Zealand, so there is stuff steaming up all over the place — and that is pretty much what we were there to see, along with a little Maori culture.

After a short bus ride from Turangi, we settled into our next hostel right on the main street, next to the bus station. As has become our practice, we went off the the supermarket to top up our provisions, then zipped back to the hostel to get ready for an evening of Maori food and culture at the Mitai Maori Village.

We hopped on the bus and off we went, knowing that this activity was 100% geared towards tourists, yet still looking forward to learning something about Maori culture — and we heard there would be lamb on the menu! We arrived at the village and were shuttled into a tent along with other tourists, all of us a bit confused about the protocols for the evening, and not sure if the old Maori man in a fedora singing along to a prerecorded track was the entertainment for the evening (turns out he was the elder of the village). Eventually our emcee appeared and proceeded to welcome people of all nations. This guy was pretty impressive: people would shout out where they were from and he would welcome them in their language, saying a few phrases (usually including something about chocolate cake). I kept thinking someone would stump him, but nope — even the Thais, Slovenians, and Israelis had a proper welcome. And so our evening began (I hope the pictures will help tell the story).

The first main event was watching Maori warriors paddle down the river in their waka (canoe). This was followed by an explanation of the “hangi”, which is how the Maori traditionally cooked their food in a pit with hot rocks or steam. They revealed the feast ahead of us — chicken, lamb, kumara (sweet potatoes), potatoes, and stuffing — and just as we started to drool a little they whisked us off to the show.

The show was intended to entertain and educate — check and check! The Chief welcomed us and explained different aspects of warrior culture throughout the evening. The one thing that stuck with us was that the Maori people have a good sense of humor, and the Chief was a worthy ambassador. The “haka”, aka “angry face dance,” was fantastic, and the fellows were very fit. Even the ladies had an angry face with the big eyes, and did they ever. I couldn’t help but think that it must be tough being a Maori kid if you do something wrong and you get mom’s angry face! (I am not sure they use it like that…just saying). I am just glad they are not cannibals anymore.

Once the show was over, it was finally hangi time. Mmmm…that was some tasty food. Everything was super delicious and tender and had a light smoky flavor. As much as we hate to admit it, though, one of our favorite dishes was the scalloped potatoes — yum! (Can you say butter? or cream?)

We were all ready to roll off our chairs — and all of a sudden it was time to go for a walk into Rainbow Springs to check out the kiwi. We were guided through the darkness (haere mai!) to see glow worms and kiwis. As you know, we love kiwis, so it was exciting to see a few more, rustling about in the darkness looking for some grub. As much as we love kiwis though, the highlight of this little walk was the spring water. At the end of our walk, they had a few spigots tapped into the wall with fresh spring water gushing out, filtered through the mountain over fifty years, free for the taking. Agh! Why didn’t we know about this? We would have brought all our bottles! As it was, we had to be content with filling up the two measly bottles we had, and headed home satisfied and sleepy after a wonderful evening.

We woke up to the usual smell of sulphur, ready for the adventure of the day. Our plan was to head to Wai-O-Tapu…but the only catch was that we no longer had a car. Ian, however, had convinced us that New Zealand was one of the last places on earth where hitchhiking was still a viable option, and we had decided to give it a go. We were further encouraged by Jake, our hostel front desk guy — who even offered to make us a sign and gave us some tips on how to more successfully get a ride. And then he told us how he probably wasn’t going to hitch anymore after a few bad experiences. Hmm. So with a most excellent sign in hand (two-sided so we could get home!), we headed out. We walked down the main street, Xavier holding the sign, me holding my thumb out and trying to look friendly. After 15 minutes, we started talking about how much longer we were going to give it before giving up. Only a few minutes later, a car pulled over and we were in like Flynn! We couldn’t have been picked up by a nicer couple, Steve and Jean from Yorkshire. We spent the 20 minutes chatting with them, and they dropped us off right at the entrance, letting us know that they would be heading back later that day and would pick us up if they saw us.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect at Wai-O-Tapu, thermal wonderland, so in we went. The ticket lady (Sue) was very kind and quietly advised us that the Lady Knox geyser, which they set off with detergent every day at 10:15, wasn’t really worth it since there was a drought and we didn’t have a car to drive there–so she advised us to skip it and just go have the rest of the park to ourselves while everyone was staring at the geyser. We hemmed and hawed, but bouyed by our recent hitchhiking success, decided to walk to Lady Knox and try to get a ride along the way. Bad move: the geyser was really quite underwhelming — and we had to walk there and back. Although shout out to the French family in the station wagon that offered us a ride even though there were already two parents in the front and three kids in the back!

We entered the main area of the park, little tufts of steam rising up everywhere, and every pit seemingly named after something devilish — devil’s throat, satan’s bath, etc. There was some interesting coloration of the dirt due to the different minerals. So we puttered along. Then we arrived at the Artists Palette. Whoa! This was a flat area with all kinds of colors going on. Little did we know when we got a little closer to the champagne pool section just how spectacular those colors were, brought to life by the constant movement of the steam across the water. That made it all worthwhile.

Next stop: the hot and cold pools. Our friendly hostel desk guy had told us about these pools where you could go for a dip (free!), from the hot pool to a cold pool. Sue gave us directions, and we were off, just down the street from the park entrance. We arrived at the pools to find four other people already soaking in the soothing waters (one of them an older naked dude — oh my!) Xavier was all suited up and jumped in. I dipped my toes in the water, contemplating whether or not to jump in. About 10 minutes later we see a coach pull up and it was game over — invasion of the 20-something backpackers! At that point I opted to just sit it out. Xavier’s toes were starting to turn into prunes so we decided to roll out, and try our luck at getting home on the power of our thumbs.

We headed to the highway, and realized we had come out in a really awkward place for people to stop — on a curve on a hill — and all the cars were speeding. Not having many options, we trucked up the hill in the heat, hoping for a better spot. No sooner had we come across a good spot for someone to stop, then young dairy famer Robbie pulled up in his dusty Honda, on his way home from a squash expo. Yeah! We are getting good at this! We had a nice chat with him about the state of affairs in NZ, and how the Chinese are buying up all the good dairy cows. He gave us some good advice on how to spend our last few days in NZ and wished us well as he dropped us off at the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village for our last stop of the day.

We had a little trouble finding the entrance, but once we did, we slid in and got on one of the last tours of the day — and one of the last thermal-steamed ears of corn. One of the first things we learned was that Whakarewarewa is the short name for this village! The full name is Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao. Take that, my Welsh and German friends. This village is a very interesting place, inhabited by Maori people, still living with some of the old traditions, such as using thermal steam to cook, and thermal waters to bathe. It was pretty cool walking around town seeing puffs of (sometimes smelly) steam, pools of boiling water, and mud pools bubbling away. Oh,and there is a pretty cool geyser right next door that goes off every hour or so — without any detergent additives! We waited about an hour for it to go off, and it delivered spectacularly, giving Old Faithful a run for the money. (While waiting, we also met a couple from Annapolis — small world.)

We were pretty much spent after a full day and walked about 2km back to our hostel, too tired to even lift our thumbs.