Hobbits, Thermal Energy and very smelly air...

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March 18th 2016
Published: March 21st 2016
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R: After an epic 6 hour drive, we arrived in Rotorua at our motel. We were warned that the air here would carry a certain odour due to the volcanic field nearby but we couldn't smell it... That would soon change. There was a slight moment of panic when the motel was closed, but the owner was waiting in a darkened room for us...

Our first day we headed for the Whakarewarewa thermal village which is a Maori village built in a thermal area of town, where the Maori guide people around the maze of bubbling mud, thermal pools, geysers etc. and have done for hundreds of years. In fact, one of the previous guides was the first Maori to study at the University of Oxford and is buried in a cemetery in Oxfordshire. We sat through another Maori cultural show which was similar to the previous one, and then went out to explore. We waited for the Prince of Wales geyser to blow - but it wasn't playing ball. We went to the cemetery where the bodies are buried above ground - good thing as there was steam issuing from nearly all the tombs. In fact there was steam coming out of the ground everywhere. There was a good earth science museum there which explained a bit about the area, and the most recent volcanic eruption in the area, plus a very interesting poster on the elemental analysis of glass fibres...! Cate was so bored by this that she went to pick up a steamed sweet corn, which is made in the vent of steam nearest one of the big pools.

Rotorua town isn't so exciting. It's mainly typical two storey standard stuff, but there are some nice gardens and a huge Tudor style museum, and some old early 1900s Blue baths. It's on the shores of a lake where any water sport seems to be possible. Around the lake shore was Sulphur bay, and you can guess what that smelled like! It hammered down with rain that afternoon, so our explorations were short lived. Lucky our motel had its own spa tub!

C: The next day I went to Hobbiton. As a Lord of the Rings fan I was keen to see some of the stunning film locations whilst in NZ. This is the only one where the original set is still in place, the landowner
Bath houseBath houseBath house

Whakarewarewa Thermal Village
clearly saw the potential tourism gold mine and asked the filmmakers not to dismantle the set after filming The Hobbit. It was great! There are about 20 hobbit holes built into little hills surrounding a big green they used for Bilbo's party in the first film as well as a lake and the pub where Samwise Gamgee's girlfriend worked and where they all drink at the very beginning (I did rewatch the first film in anticipation of going there). The tour guide was good and gave us lots of extra information about the filming. This included showing us a tree whose leaves had to be painted three times because Peter Jackson didn't like the shade of green!! No wonder the films took so long to make. There are no interior sets inside the hobbit holes but I took the obligatory photos in front of Bilbo's house where the 'No admittance except on party business' sign is still in place. The tour concluded with a drink at the Green Dragon pub.

R: Meanwhile I went to Wairere falls which are the highest on the north island. I made the ascent to the summit in 1 hour and down in 30 minutes instead of the 90 minutes each way on the sign, so was pretty pleased with that. From the top you can see all over the local farmland which is remarkably flat. I raced back through the country lanes to pick Cate up from Hobbiton, and we were back to Rotoroa. In the afternoon, we took the plunge at the Blue Baths - a geothermal bathhouse built from Adobe and a distinct Victorian style to them. As the rain started to fall again we moved into the hot bath which was undercover, and 45c. We were the only people there. But then as they started setting up for the evenings Caberet, which appeals to bus loads of Japanese tourists, we saw why everyone else had gone... After this we dodged the rain by heading to the basement cinema - a small art house cinema which had screens with only 9 seats and 2 armchairs. And they didn't sell popcorn so Cate was mighty angry. This bridged the gap till the night market started. This takes over Tutanekai Street every Thursday evening with loads of delicious street food vans and live music with food choices ranging from Empanadas to brownies, and of course, lamb skewers.

Next day we headed for the Bay of Plenty, 60km north of Rotorua. On the way, we stopped for an epic brunch at a cafe, recommended to us by a Belgian couple we met. Eggs Benedict aplenty - with guacamole. I'm considering going back tomorrow. The bay of plenty is NZs busiest port and you can tell when you get there, though they have made a nice job of the town centre making a pleasant waterfront and of course, the Crown and Badger pub... Mount Maunganui was along a peninsular which leads to a sharp peak, Mauao, and has two beaches that are considered among NZs best for surfing. Being a bit cold for surfing (and given the fact we dont really surf!) we decided to do a cliff walk around Mauao.

On the way back, we went through Te Puke (rhymes with Cookie), which is the worlds largest producing area of Kiwifruit. Having seen a giant Kiwifruit in the middle of the road, we headed to Kiwi 360, a Kiwifruit experience. We decided to skip the tour in a road train in the shape of a Kiwifruit, but headed straight for the kiwi liqueur and juice tasting station. Given that I had been randomly breath tested just this morning by New Zealand's finest, I had very little, so we brought some home to try in our motel... Also on offer was kiwi chocolate, cuddly Kiwifruit, cuddly kiwi birds, kiwi tea towels, kiwi jewellery, kiwi jams... Basically anything you could make out of kiwis and more...

One of my colleagues had recommended Waitomo Caves on the east of the north island which is home to a population of glowworms. She recommended the black water rafting experience where you can float in the water system running through Ruakuri cave in pitch blackness on a tube in 12c water. Sadly this was fully booked as I wasnt organised enough and it was Saturday. But when I heard it was that temperature, I was somewhat relieved. The drive took us 2 hours west through farmland. We still did the tour of the main caves, which were pretty stunning, but a bit crowded. One of them is famous for its acoustics and has been used by opera singers in the past. Our tour guide offered any singers in the group to test out the acoustics but there were no volunteers... Even Cate! So the guide burst out into a Maori haka to show off the acoustics instead. The tour culminates in getting into a damp boat, and floating in pitch black through the caves. On the ceiling of the cave are thousands of green dots - the glowworms. Apparently the green colour is actually their excrement that glows, designed to catch insects on fine feeding lines that they hang down below them.

I did an additional cave called Ruakuri in the afternoon but it didnt appeal much to Cate. It was much narrower than the first one, and had very cool formations. It also had very dramatic lighting that made you feel like you were tresspassing in the underworld. Suddenly, we were on a metal gantry and the black water rafters were floating by under our feet.

Due to a miscommunication I was left at the cave for about an hour, hoping Cate was coming to get me, before we headed on, 2 hours back east to Taupo.

Additional photos below
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Kiwi 360Kiwi 360
Kiwi 360

We brake for Giant Kiwifruit

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