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Published: March 13th 2010
Maori inspired fence posts in Rotorua near the gardens
Whakarewarewa Forest is often referred to as the "Disneyland of Mountain biking" and/or the spiritual center of mountain biking in New Zealand. There are almost 100 km of incredible purpose-built mountain bike trails in the forest which is located a few kilometers south of downtown Rotorua. Adrian couldn't wait to hit the trails and rented a full-suspension bike for two days soon after we arrived in town.
After a great breakfast in town, Adrian picked up a map and headed out to the trails. Conditions were perfect - 70F and partly cloudy. The ride began with a climb up a fire road (not too steep) but then it was down down down the "Katore Jumps" trail to the twisty-turny "The Tickler" and "Be Rude Not 2" trails. In a word "Wow". A quick ride down the "Mad if you Don't" trail - sweet. All was going great until Adrian decided to leave the forest on the aptly named "Exit" trail. The Exit trail is not particularly evil (if you avoid the wooden ramps/structures) but when Adrian decided to stop at the top of a root-infested section to walk his cleat got stuck in the pedal which lead to a wee
Adrian goofing around with maori carvings
tumble. Aside from a few scrapes and bruises, Adrian generally felt OK except for some pain around his ribcage. But the pain grew worse as the evening wore on and at 11pm we made our way through town and down a dark and silent road to the Rotorua Hospital.
Our first experience with the New Zealand medical system went as well as could be expected. The ER nurses were very nice. We checked in and filled out a few forms. We waited. More serious cases came through at regular intervals and so we waited some more. We made friends with an adorable little Maori girl who was there with her dad; she'd cut her hand and was waiting for stitches. We waited some more.
Around 1am we saw a doctor; he took an X-ray and it was decided that Adrian had bruised several ribs (and maybe even cracked a few ribs) but there was no danger of puncturing a lung and no ruptured spleen. Good news. Bad news - there is no treatment for bruised/broken ribs - they heal in their own sweet time (usually several weeks). With a prescription for painkillers in hand, we headed back to our hotel.
The charge for Adrian's hospital visit: $0.
In New Zealand, healthcare is public and so Kiwis (and permanent residents) pay nothing for most hospital procedures; others (like visits to your primary care physican) are heavily subsidized. It turns out that the magic word for foreigners is "accident". Apparently, a pool of money (called the Accident Compensation Corporation or "ACC") has been set aside by these thoughtful Kiwis and their government to cover the cost of medical care for both Kiwis and tourists who have had any kind of accident: working, biking, hiking, bungee, etc. It is quite clever actually. It ensures that most medical emergencies are dealt with quickly and without a U.S.-like maze of bureaucracy and insurance claims or - importantly - huge upfront costs to visitors who might unwisely decide not to pursue treatment, with dire consequences requiring lengthy interactions with embassies. There are many more complex issues surrounding this plan (e.g. a whole arena of workers comp issues) and there are certainly huge implications for the legal system - (there's a no-fault clause which seems to roughly indicate that your ability to sue is limited if you are treated under this program) but, in general, we think it is a fantastic benefit for travelers in this country.
Perhaps because of the promise of clear cut and easy paperwork, the nurses and then doctor seemed happy to hear that our visit was the result of an accident and they used the word frequently when talking to us. Other than the long wait, we were very happily surprised by our first (and hopefully last) encounter with the Kiwi medical system.
Fortified with prescription painkillers, Adrian was back on his bike the next day. (we did pay for the drugs - about $25 total for a 2 week supply of coedine and anti-inflammatory meds).
A few thoughts on our four days in Rotorua before we leave it and move further south.
Rotorua is best known as a city that sits on top of a giant geothermal wonderland. Steam vents up through the ground making for interesting public parks (big walled-off areas of steam billowing out of the ground with warning signs all around) and nice day spas which feature healing hot springs. There used to be a very famous resort/spa where people came from all over the world in the late 1800s to "take the waters". The treatments ran from those we'd recognize on a spa menu today (mud bath, massage, body scrubs) to the weird (drinking the sulphur water) to the bizarre (lay in a bathtub filled with water and have a low-voltage electrical current run through it - pretty much electric shock therapy). The building, however, is beautiful and, after the spa closed in the 1950s, morphed into a nightclub (!!) and today is a museum.
On the flip side of the thermal coin, the town does smell (reek) of sulphur - but we got used to it after about a day. Volcanoes and deep blue lakes surround the town, making for great hiking and biking. The nearby forest was planted with a number of different species of trees around 1900 to see which would grow best in the area for logging purposes. California Redwoods did particularly well and there are some stunning hikes and trail runs through redwood and beech forest.
The locals fear that Rotorua is becoming too touristy, hence the nickname "RotoVegas". We didn't see many casinos, showgirls or neon signs around but it does have more of a tourist infrastructure (hostels, shuttles, bars, etc) than other New Zealand towns of the same size.
Overall, it is a great place to stop for a day or two to see the stunning thermal pools, get a massge or a scrub with local manuka honey and sit in hot springs, eat in great cafes and perhaps learn a bit more about the Maori culture. There are several thermal complexes near town that feature rainbow-colored thermal pools (for viewing, not swimming - several contain toxic levels of arsenic which give them a lovely green color) and an opportunity to tour a marae (Maori meeting house) and perhaps see a "haka" (traditional Maori dance) performed. It is definitely worth checking out.
And one final nugget about New Zealand:
Tips are not expected here (restaurants, cafes, tours - even, dare we say it, Starbucks). Even in upscale restaurants, the bill arrives, you pay with your credit card and that's it. There's not even a place to write in a tip and thus you are happily excused from doing rough math in your wine-addled mind. It's so refreshing to be able to really only tip for truly exceptional service. Unfortunately, exceptional service is pretty rare in New Zealand. The people are lovely and so friendly but the standard of service in restaurants, even in the better ones, is pretty dismal. Perhaps if they worked on tips . . .
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