Swagman #22: – Rotorua, New Zealand

It’s amazing, but Rotorua is absolutely gorgeous, but at the same time
stinks. I mean literally, the smell takes some getting used to. The cause is
the sulfur and steam that pours out of the numerous craters and hot springs
around this popular vacation spot. Since I had pushed my Australia visit as
far as I reasonably could, I only have three weeks in New Zealand and
therefore only had two days in Rotorua. So I decided to make the most of it.

A trip to Rotorua offers the naturally beautiful, the cultural, and the
adventurous. I arrived in town around 1pm and was picked up at the bus stop
by the Kiwi Paka YHA. Once checked in I set up my tent on one of their
numerous plots and immediately set out to see the town. The main city center
is a grid and therefore easy to navigate, although the names (Pukuatua St.,
Tutanekai St.) take some getting used to. I walked through town and into the
Government Gardens to see the Rotorua Museum of Art and History. The
building was once a spa which attracted visitors from all over to soak in
private baths of the ‘healing water’. The building also houses impressive
displays on the courageous Maori battalion during WWII, as well as the
amazing story of the eruption of 1886.

I was back at my hostel early to catch the ride to Tamaki to learn about the
Maori culture and enjoy the Hangi, or feast. We were taken by bus out to the
land and given strict instructions on how to behave during the ceremony. A
chief is chosen from each bus (tribe), and they stand facing the gate
waiting for the Maoris. Then, from somewhere in the village, comes the sound
that signifies the start of the evening. Maori men come running out along
above the gate with weapons and one man comes out to greet the chiefs. In
the tradition of the early tribe the man dances about and yells, while the
others do the same. The effect, which is achieved through the movements,
yells, and especially the facial tattoos, is to intimidate the visitors. The
man then sets down a plant, and the chosen chief must step forward and pick
it up, keeping it in hand to show peace. Everyone is then led into the
village for a two hour presentation on the beliefs, music, and ways of the
Maori. This includes the haka, the intimidating pre-war dance once used to
summon the gods of war, now most famously used by the New Zealand rugby team
to intimidate their opponents.

After all of this we were taken into a large hall for the hangi, a delicious
meal that consisted of lamb, chicken, fish, and an array of vegetables.
Throughout the dinner the Maori people kept us entertained with songs and
encouraged us to sing along. The evening was terrific, and I was fast asleep
soon after returning to the hostel.

The next morning I was up early to catch the 7:50 bus out to Wai-O-Tapu, the
“Thermal Wonderland”. I waited outside patiently, and after about 15 minutes
I asked the girls at the desk, who informed me that the bus had already
departed. Not to point fingers, but the girls had neglected to clarify which
bus I was waiting for, so I had basically watched it pull in and pull away.
I now had to wait until 9:15, so I wandered into the cafe to get a coffee
and read. I was informed that it was $2.50 for a bottomless cup of filtered
coffee, so I took my revenge by drinking as much of it as possible. About 6
cups later I was tapping out impressive drum solos with my feet and probably
could have easily run to Wai-O-Tapu, but the bus came and carted me off.

The park lives up to its wonderland moniker with a dazzling display of
bubbling, burping mud pools, deep steaming craters, a wide silica terrace
and the fizzy Champagne Pool. The colors are unbelievable, although so are
the crowds. It is difficult to get to the park without a tour group, as it
is far from town, but well worth it. Nearby is the Lady Knox Geyser, which
erupts every morning at 10:15 when a guide tosses in a bar of soap to break
the surface tension.

I had also paid for admission to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, so the bus
driver delivered me there next. Although it is not as popular as Wai-O-Tapu, it is more spread out, in many ways just as stunning, and easily more peaceful. The area is the only hydrothermal system in the world where the
exact day that surface activity started is known – June 10, 1886. On that
date the Tarawera Volcano erupted – the famous pink and white terraces were
destroyed and all plant and bird life is killed. It was the largest volcanic
eruption in 500 years, and the sound of the explosion was heard from as far
away as Auckland and Christchurch. The valley is the after effect. The one
way walk takes about two hours and you are given a brilliant map and guide to
the many sights along the way. The land is still very much alive, as you can
hear the hissing all around you as the steam pours from the earth. There has
been activity as recently as 1917, when there were blasts in Frying Pan Lake
that destroyed a nearby house and killed two people.

After a long day of seeing how earth can sometimes be torn open with
devastating (yet beautiful) effects it was time to move on. So I gathered up
my tent, shouldered my pack, and was off to Taupo.

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