Our round the world trip (19): around Rotorua

Another day – Day 20 (Sunday) – and another tour and another hotel. Again it was an early start: alarm at 6 am and departure at 7.45 am. Leaving behind Auckland, we drove south through the rolling green countryside and we had our first break at the “River Haven Cafe” in the town of Huntly. This was supposed to be simply a coffee and comfort stop, but Vee was delighted to find a lilac-coloured fleece which she could buy for the cooler South Island.

Our tour guide Mark used our journey to give a potted history of relations between the Maori and British & Irish settlers, highlighting the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, the Land Wars (there were five conflicts) from 1844-1872, and the Waitangi Tribunal which has been sitting from 1975 to date in order to settle conflicts of land ownership. In fact, some 90% of Maoris live in the North Island.

Our first destination of the day was the glow worm caves of Waitomo which means “water entering a hole in the ground”. Here we had as our local guide a great-, great-, grandson of Chief Tane Tinorau who in 1887 was persuaded by the English surveyor Fred Mace to reveal the secrets of the caves.

He took us into the limestone caverns inhabited by stalactites and stalagmites, descending from the ceiling and rising from the floor of the caves respectively, and explained the life cycle of the glow worms which live in the caves. The larval stage of the insect gives off light to attract food in the form of other flying insects. Then he pulled us in a boat along the underground river. In the silence of the brief ride, we had a magical experience observing the strange little glow worms – on the ceiling looking like a version of the Milky Way in the desert sky and close up on the adjacent walls appearing as pin points of white light.

Shortly after this illuminating visit, we stopped for lunch in a town called Otorohanga ( which, appropriately enough, means “food for a journey”) at an establishment called “Ronnie’s Cafe”. Then we drove eastwards, eventually arriving just south of the town of Rotorua, to reach our second destination.

This was a thermal reserve named Te Puia in an area originally called Te whakarewarewatangaopetauaawahiao which translates as “the gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao” [the name of the local chief]). Our Maori guide at the reserve – a good-looking young man, as Vee observed – explained that the Maori language only has 14 letters in its alphabet but this place name features 13 of them.

First we were taken to the Kiwi House. Now the kiwi may be the national bird of New Zealand but it is a hard creature to spot. Partly this is because there are now so few of them – from a population of 12 million, there are now only around 70,000. Partly it is because they are both nocturnal and notoriously shy – so the inside of the House is in virtual darkness. If you really squinted, you could just see the small black shape of a North Island brown kiwi moving around the glass enclosure – but we could say that we saw a kiwi. Roger decided that the entrance to the House should have a sign posing the question: “Kiwi or not kiwi? That is the question.”

The main reason for visiting this location, of course, was the thermal features. One cannot miss the rotten egg smell of the sulphur or the bubbling of the gas escaping the mud pools, but there are only six active geysers now from an original number of about 50. The big one is called Pohutu which means “big splash”. It has a rough cycle of about 40-45 minutes maximum activity followed by around a similar period of much quieter activity. Obstinately it refused to blow until we were about to leave, but fortunately we then had a dramatic view of its impressive eruption high in the air which created plumes of boiling water and billowing gas plus a bright rainbow. Apparently it can erupt to a height of 30 metres (about 100 feet).

At this point, we checked into the Millennium Hotel in Rotorua, but only for an hour or so before we were off to the third and last destination of a long and action-packed day. Indeed we spent so little waking time in our hotel room that we never unpacked.


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