Central North Island

Nov 2, 2015

We continued along Highway 1, passing through Auckland via a set of motorways. Luckily the traffic wasn’t too heavy, but we still had to watch which lane we were driving in. Outside the city the traffic thinned out, as did the number of lanes in the highway. After some more driving we arrived in Rotorua at 4:30 pm and checked into the YHA. This hostel had been purposely built as a hostel, so it was modern and clean. The kitchen was quite spacious, with four cook-tops and plenty of counter space.

There were a lot of tourist activities in and around Rotorua, so we spent some time trying to figure out which ones to do, and when. It seemed like a Maori cultural visit and hangi (feast) was a must, especially since we didn’t have much in the way of dinner fixings, so we talked to Brooke at the front desk and he recommended the Tamaki Maori Village show. This one had the advantage that visitors got to participate if they chose to. Luckily there was room for us tonight at the last show, and because we were YHA members we paid only $95 each instead of $120 each!

So we got ourselves organized and waited for the 7 pm bus to arrive. There was another couple waiting for the bus, and we chatted with them while we waited. The bus picked us up shortly after 7 pm and off we went to the village in the forest. Our bus driver was a great clown and made a big production of being able to greet you in 63 languages. (At least he said 63, we weren’t counting.) This carried on the whole way to the village.

Tamaki chief

Tamaki chief

Upon arrival one member of the bus group became our chief. He then participated in the welcoming ceremony with the Tamaki tribe, after which we were all invited into the village to witness different aspects of Maori life and culture. This included games, weaving, tattooing, and combat training. We did get to participate, too; some of the women did poi dancing and some of the men (Paul included) learned how to do the haka.

We then all watched the uncovering of the hangi before being called to the dining room to eat. On the buffet table was the food from the hangi pit, including lamb, veggies, chicken, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), and stuffing. This had been buried in the pit and cooked for two hours, so it tasted a bit smoky. For those not wanting meat there was fish which had been cooked in coconut milk and salad. They got everybody served very efficiently before bringing out the dessert, which was steamed pudding with custard sauce and pavlova with peaches. We ate plenty of food but still didn’t really feel stuffed afterwards.

Tamaki dancer

Tamaki dancer

When all was finished we had a short concert with singing and dancing before we returned to Rotorua. Our driver was in fine form on the way back, and that was putting it lightly because he decided to drive around and around the roundabouts while we all sang “The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round”. We couldn’t stop laughing!

Nov 3, 2015

Still more things to be done today—we decided to go on the Hobbiton movie set tour this morning. We asked Brooke to book us two spaces on the 11 am tour, which would give us plenty of time to get there. In fact it didn’t take as long as we expected, and we switched to the 10:30 am tour when we arrived.

Hobbit houses

Hobbit houses

The tour took a couple of hours and it was very interesting, even though we weren’t really fans of the movies. A bus took us from the office through the beautiful green hillsides of the Alexander farm to the parking area near the Shire. From here we had a walking tour through the hobbit houses. Our guide Marissa was very informative and provided a lot of insight into the making of the movies. For example she pointed out how some of the houses had small plants and some had large plants. This was to use perspective so that Gandalf would look large and hobbits would look small. The amount of detail was amazing, especially since only a tiny fraction of the movies’ action took place in the Shire. Now we’ll have to watch the movie again to see the shots of the Shire and the houses!

Hobbit house

Hobbit house

Rosemary outside hobbit house

Rosemary outside hobbit house

The drive back to Rotorua took about an hour and once back we had lunch at the hostel. Rotorua’s main feature is its thermal area, so we had to do that. So we got the hostel people to book us tickets for Te Puia (at a discount) and then headed over there. When we arrived the geyser, Pohutu, was erupting, so we watched that for a while. There were also bubbling mud pots, steam vents, and some smaller geysers, and we walked around the paths to look at them. But once you’ve been to Yellowstone then you get rather jaded about thermal features.

Pohutu erupting

Pohutu erupting

There was also a building where they were raising kiwi; inside it was dark to simulate night-time, so that we might see the bird in its natural environment. But unfortunately the bird was staying in its burrow and we could only see it via a TV monitor on the wall. That was a bit disappointing.

Te Puia mudpots

Te Puia mudpots

After we finished our walk around the area we went to have a look at the cultural sites. The wood carvers were finished for the day, but we did see two ladies weaving baskets from flax plants.

Ceremonial building, Te Puia

Ceremonial building, Te Puia

Before returning to the hostel we did some grocery shopping so that we would have food for dinner and for the next few days. After dinner we went for a walk down to the lake, where there were Black Swans and a variety of ducks. We weren’t out for too long because it got dark and we ran into huge clouds of gnats.

Nov 4, 2015

We awoke this morning to the sound of rain pouring down. Luckily today was a driving day, so the rain wouldn’t affect us too much. Our plan today was to visit the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves before moving on to our next destination. As it turned out, caves were a good choice for a rainy day!
As we left the rain had stopped and there was a bit of sun trying to break through the clouds, but before long the rain started to fall again, sometimes in a torrential downpour and other times in a drizzle. (This gave Paul plenty of practice with the left-handed windshield wiper control.) The lady at the front desk had printed out the Google Maps driving instructions for us because the route to Waitomo included some rural roads, so that made route-finding easier.

Waitomo Cave stalactite

Waitomo Cave stalactite

We arrived at the Waitomo Caves a bit after noon, and paid our money for the 12:30 pm tour, which took about 45 minutes. The first part was a walk through the limestone caves with our guide pointing out the usual formations, stalactites and stalagmites and so on, and explaining the history of the cave and how it was formed. The cave was discovered in the 1880’s and tours have been taking place there for 125 years now. Outside the cave there are pictures of Victorian ladies in fancy hats viewing the cave.

Limestone formation

Limestone formation

We walked down several sets of steps and came out in the largest part of the cave system, the Cathedral. The ceiling here was over 14 meters high. Then we descended more steps and came to the main attraction. We got into a boat and were pulled along an underground river. This is the main attraction, the dark ceilings where the glow-worms live. They are the larvae of a sort of fly and they dangle sticky threads from their home on the ceiling, catching other insects. They are also luminescent, which serves to attract those other insects. In the darkness of the cave the glow-worms looked like the stars of the Milky Way on a dark night. It was extremely impressive as we hadn’t known quite what to expect.

Glow-worms in cave

Glow-worms in cave

After the tour was over we looked into the gift shop. We found we could purchase a CD of photos of the cave for $20, so we opted to do that because photography in the caves was forbidden. Then we returned to the car park; we had hoped to eat lunch there but the rain was coming down quite hard, so we decided to carry on down the highway. At Te Kuiti it wasn’t raining and there was a roadside picnic table, so we stopped there for lunch. But it wasn’t long until the rain started again, so we finished our lunch sitting in the car.

The rest of the trip to Ohakune, our destination for today, was rainy and uneventful. When we arrived there we couldn’t find the YHA, so we stopped at the i-Site on the main street to get directions. We had hoped to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing tomorrow, but the lady there told us that the weather forecast was not promising and so the shuttle bus operators would not be running. However she was very helpful in finding other things for us to do instead.

The YHA turned out to be up by the railway line. It was called the Station Lodge and must have been some kind of hotel in the past. Beautifully painted with some stained glass in the doors, it had a large kitchen and dining room with a separate lounge. Our room had a double bed plus two bunks. Outside the hostel the weather was bleak and windy; inside it was cold as well, as the building is not well heated, but our room had a radiator so it was nice and warm. We had hot chocolate and cooked our dinner, then watched the train traffic across the street.

Next: Tongariro