[Warning: Bit of a long one this, sorry... lots to write about! You might want to stick the kettle on.]
The centre of New Zealand's North Island is a land which, quite literally, smoulders.
We stayed in Rotorua before heading a bit further south to stay in Taupo (pronounced Toe-paw).
The first thing to hit you is the sulphur eggy smell! Urgh. After four days of breathing it in, we were very happy to leave it behind. But before we did, there was plenty to do in this region... almost too much. There was a mind-boggling array of things to see/do, and a bewildering leaflet display in the information site.
First of all there are a number of geothermal parks to visit, then an array of Maori culture shows, a museum, hot spa baths, plus a few adrenlin activities for good measure.
We decided to start in Rotorua's museum which was a helpful introduction to the town's history and heritage. The impressive building started life as a bath house where the wealthy (and later, returning servicemen) would come and 'take the cure'. It involved a series of treatments, including harmless mud baths to positively alarming baths with electric currents, to alleviate a number of ailments and aches and pains.
A nearby lake
Although we were keen to see and learn more of Maori culture, and we had heard the cultural shows were very good, we decided that the various offerings were just too pricey and too touristy for us. Ant also had a severe allergic reaction whilst we were here, which I'll come onto, but it meant he wasn't in a fit state to go to one either.
We checked out the small village of Ohinemutu, which is the original Maori settlement of Rotorua, complete with marae (meeting place). We were amazed by the number of hot steaming pools which were located around the village - even in people's back gardens!
Paving over it doesn't contain it!
We'd found an ultra cheap homestay with a young couple in their mid-20s. It was a Saturday night so they were having a bbq with a couple of friends which they invited us to.
Our hosts, Michelle & Dan, were great, as was the guy of the other couple (Mike - from Fleet in the UK). His girlfriend (Deeta - a Czech who moved to NZ when she was little) was, however, quite possibly the most self-absorbed, vacuous person I have ever met! I had to spend most of the evening biting my tongue and we were continually staggered by the stuff she was spouting. I think it was just ignorance as much as anything.
A good ice-breaker was the fact that Dan was getting his hair shaved off for charity. Michelle and Deeta did the honours - it was pretty funny watching them make patterns in the poor guy's head before it all came off...
They suggested a bar in town for the rest of the evening - the familiar sounding Pig & Whistle (it used to be a police station), so all of us headed out bar Michelle who was working the next day. The pub had a live band which were ok, but it was a bit like being at a evening wedding reception. A really mixed crowd, a fair bit of 'mum and dad' dancing and more groping than I've seen in public since 1988. It wasn't any of our group's scene - least of all freshly shawn Dan's, who repeatedly apologised saying it wasn't normally like this. Ah well, an entertaining evening nonetheless!
The next morning it was immediately obvious that Ant had a severe allergic reaction to their pets. They had a dog and two cats, and after spotting lots of car hair on the bed Ant had already used a roller on the bed covers. We are both allergic to cats and some dogs but are generally ok if we're not in the same room as the cats. Unfortunately because these moggies clearly liked our bed as a nap spot, Ant was badly affected. His face was puffy and swollen, his breathing difficult and he was very congested.
He felt pretty rubbish and spent the next few days extremely bunged up as if he had a bad head cold - and that was with antihistamines.
From the previous evening, Mike had kindly offered to get us in for free at the attraction where he worked - Rainbow Springs. It was a wildlife park aimed more at families and it wasn't that great, but seeing as it was a freebie we couldn't really knock it. The highlight was seeing a kiwi in a 'nocturnal' enclosure, so it was worth it just for that.
We couldn't stay another night with the guys else Ant would have required medical attention, so we checked ourselves into a faceless motel.
Self-catering in a motel meant breakfast out of the previous night's takeaway containers... the realities of travelling
Top of the list for us was seeing the natural wonders, and Wai-O-Tapu was one of the highly recommended geothermal areas. The park is a self-guided 75 minute walk through a truly amazing landscape... gorgeous almost surreal colours, bubbling pools, steam everywhere - it was a really fascinating place.
Peckham Spring water... found!
Then we heard a deep rumbling... wtf?! In this dynamic and unpredictable environment we both had a genuine panicked look at each other, accompanied by a release of adrenalin. Turned out to be a thunderstorm... phewy!
A geyser in the park errupts at 10.15am each morning but as we'd missed it, we decided to go back the following morning. Whilst getting ready we had the morning news on in the background, when we heard the reporter say the time - which was an hour earlier than we thought. Bugger... the clocks had gone back for daylight saving and we'd not realised!
So we dawdled a bit before heading out. Then it dawned on us the geyser wouldn't know the clocks had gone back... so we probably missed it again. Pah! We got to the location at 9.50am and were surprised to find the geyser blowing. After talking to another couple we discovered the clocks hadn't gone back and it was in fact 10.50am. The geyser had been going for about half an hour and we continued to watch it for at least another 30 minutes.
Turns out we were lucky - the day before it only lasted 3 minutes. And it also turned out we had been watching an Aussie news channel... hence the time confusion. Muppets!
Ant had found us some brilliant spanking-new accommodation just outside of Taupo. We'd booked a studio but when we arrived they upgraded us to a suite - effectively our own little self-contained home. It was great to enjoy a bit of normality with some TV and home-cooking.
Our little house on the prairie for £37 a night! There be a storm brewing though...
One stop off on the way to our accommodation, Ant was bitten by a mouse! We couldn't believe it... it came scampering out of the bushes, over the gravel and straight up to his foot before taking a bite! Thankfully no blood drawn.
The rodenty offender about to go in for the kill
Orakei Korako was another thermal 'wonderland' which is only accessible by a boat ride across a lake. It offered some different formations to Wai-O-Tapu and was worth the trip.
Taupo is a ‘supervolcano’ and its huge caldera has been partly filled by Lake Taupo. The lake is the size of Singapore, so it's little surprise it's NZ's largest lake.
Although Taupo Volcano has much more violent eruptions than cone volcanoes, thankfully they are less frequent. It's been erupting for the last 300,000 years but when it blew around 1,800 years ago, it was the most violent eruption known in the world in the last 5000 years. The eruption plume reached 50km into the air and all of New Zealand received at least 1cm of ash. It erupted with a force 10 times greater than Krakatoa and Mount St Helens combined! This had global effects with both the Romans and Chinese recording red skies after the eruption.
Today, the town is the adrenlin capital of the North Island, as Queenstown is to the South Island. Ant was going to do a skydive here but a recent tradegy in Australia, where a skydive plane had crashed killing all 6 passengers, understandably had taken the shine off for him. That and the cost to do it.
Rather more sedately, we visited Huka Falls where NZ's longest river - the Waikoto - passes through a narrow gap from Lake Taupo and drops at a rate of 200,000 litres per second.
We also caught the opening of Aratiatia Dam which forms part of the Waikoto Power Station. The dam 'gates' are opened three times a day - and along with the other seven power stations along the river - help to create the energy to generate 15% of NZ's power.
So, as you can see (if you're still with me!), there's an awful lot to do in this region - but the cream of the crop has to be the dynamic geothermal parks... captivating, incredible and very special. It's certainly humbling to come so close to the unfathomable amount of energy, heat and power just bubbling away beneath the surface. Tick tock, tick tock...