(Click here for more pictures of Rotorua)
Thick clouds of smoke bellowed from the boiling lake as we crossed the wooden bridge. Technicolor pools of mud were bubbling on its shores sending noxious fumes at us from all directions. No forms of life existed anywhere outside of a handful of scorched roots and leafless trees that were either dead already or headed in that direction. What a bizarre landscape to find in middle of a city park!
We were in Rotorua, NZ where weird and odd comes second-nature. After having a stroll around the natural hot springs, mud pools, and steam-powered geysers found around the open city parks, we made our way down the city’s coastline which butts up to a lake and is home to a number of historical buildings built by the native Maori population. The northern island is home to a large percentage of the Maoris and Rotorua in particular was and still is beloved by the Maoris for what are believed to be mystical powers found in the geothermal terrain. For centuries they have grown a deep respect for the land and now are leaders in conservation efforts to protect it from modern development and pollution. It was a wonder to us that people could learn to adapt to the odors of this place, [rotten eggs and trash dump in the summer heat came to mind!] and we had no intention of staying more than 1 day.
The YHA hostel was very modern and comfortable and we were also UPGRADED to a private room with ensuite bathroom. We are realizing that the key to getting upgraded is to book last minute in person at the hostel. The risk is that they have no rooms left, but normally the front desk person knows what is free and will either give you a dorm with no one in it or sometimes upgrade you to an unused private room at no extra cost. Of course, on average, people in NZ and Australia are unbelievably helpful and nice, so we’ll see if this trend continues in Europe 🙂
While in Rotorua, most tourists see one of the Maori cultural shows at night, which aim to display a little of the customs, dance, and food of the native residents while also relieving travelers of some unneeded weight in their wallets. I’m sure these are great shows, but we got mixed reviews from other travelers that we met along the way, so we decided to pick up some tidbits on Maori history by watching the movie Whale Rider and put our money toward a Stand-up Paddle Boarding trip the following day. The boarding trip was new, but one of the hostel activities coordinators said she got rave reviews from a few people the day before. After our kayak experience, I was really hoping I wasn’t setting us up for another harrowing experience in the middle of a large body of water, or Shru would definitely have my head on a platter.
The tour is called Rotorua Paddle Tours, and is run by a local Maori woman and a German expat named Bernd. Bernd has been a Kiwi for over 15yrs and would be our guide for the adventure. He picked us up directly from the YHA and we were the only ones on the tour that day, which would hopefully allow us to eaaaase into things to allow us to get our bearings on the water. We drove a good 30 minutes outside the city into a pristine forest in private land owned by the Maoris. We’d be launching off into a lake that is not heavily trafficked by tourists and used primarily by locals. He said the waters are usually very calm and not to worry that we were rookies to the sport; he’d teach us everything. The air temperature was about 18C or 64F and the water was a little on the chilly side. Since we wouldn’t be wearing wetsuits, I could see my warm bloodied wife starting to get a little nervous. Her tolerance for water sports goes up exponentially with water temperature so today might challenge her threshold, but I was praying for the best because my well-being in the coming days was also at stake.
Shru working hard against the current
We waded out in to the cold water with our boards and he told us to climb up on the board on our knees. We’d start with learning to paddle from this position, before standing up. Much to our surprise, it didn’t take us 10-15minutes before we were standing and paddling. Not once the entire day did either of us topple off into the water which was a blessing because I don’t think the experience would have been as enjoyable wet and cold, especially when the wind starting kicking up midway through the outward leg. When the wind starting blowing, the instructor did have to tow Shru a little of the way because she was drifting off in the current. I was putting in everything I had to keep on course and steady forward progress.
After an hour or so of paddling we reached to a little cove where a local, that our guide knows, maintains a set of bathing pools supplied by natural hot water springs. We got a much needed recharge in the springs, ate our lunch, and took a few dives off the pier into the crystal clear but very cold lake. The entire day on the lake, we only saw two people, a pair of kayakers.
We couldn’t get the smell out of our swim suits even after 3 washes!
The trip back was very relaxing because we had the aid of the current. So we chitchatted with the instructor the entire way back about the landscape, people, and politics of Rotorua. It’s a strange feeling gliding along on top of the water standing on a paddle board while having a normal conversation….it is strangely very tranquil. After the trip, Bernd took us to his favorite coffee shop in Rotorua and gave us even more background on NZ and adventure sports. We highly recommend this trip to those that want to do something a little different in very serene natural environment far away from the crowds of the city. Shru and I have decided that we have to purchase these when we move out to Colorado, so if you visit us you’ll likely find yourself taking a morning stroll on a nearby lake or pond.
The last day, we took a leisurely 3-4mile stroll down the edge of the Lake Rotorua to take a shot at ZORBING, which is the act of hurling yourself down a steep hillside while trapped in a rubber ball filled with water. We’d seen this on TV in the US before, and it seemed odd and interesting. I think NZ is the only place where you can do this activity also. We walked along the road for a while a good ways from the center of town, all the while thinking that we’d run into some huge ZORBing supercenter.
NOPE. The place is basically a sheep farm with a few tracks cut into the hillside. I think we both had a few butterflies in our bellies as the trucked us to the top, not really knowing what to expect from the ride. They convinced us to both ride in the same water-filled hamster ball, saying that it would give us more weight thus more momentum for a faster ride to the bottom!
We jumped in to the ball which is really a smaller, spherical compartment inside of the larger rubber ball. We were now standing in knee deep water looking down the hill through the translucent ball waiting to be launched, and we had no idea if we’d immediately flip head-over-heals and/or collide into each other in the chaos.
Turns out the ride down was very wet, but not too dangerous. We slid and flipped and sloshed around all the way to the bottom. We got smashed into each other a few times, but no bruises or bloody noses to report. Great fun, but we both agreed that it wasn’t quite the thrill ride we were expecting at the top.
At night, the YHA was honoring the Earth Hour so at 8PM all the lights were turned off and we all had dinner by candlelight.
After spending 3 smelly days in Rotorua, we left for Auckland to fly to Melbourne to start our adventures in the Down Under.