We left Coromondel for Rotorua, where the smell greeted us before much else. There is a huge amount of geothermal activity in the area surrounding Rotorua and Taupo, which are situated in Central North Island in New Zealand. So much so that places in the centre of town are steaming pools of sulfur. In places, sections of brick or cobblestone pathways will be blocked off, due to the bubbling water surfacing through the infrastructure. Despite the rotten-egg smell, Rotorua is the host of many pleasures to keep a tourist entertained for at least a couple of days. There are a limited number of places that the public can access warm sulfur pools for free, but they tend to be a bit tricky to get to. We visited Hell’s Gate, one of the commercial offerings, and after a walk around the grounds, which were full of pools of varying heats (some reaching far above the boiling point of water, possible due to the high mineral content of the water,) we indulged in a mud bath and sulfur soak. Frankie says relax.
Rotorua is also well known for it’s Māori cultural performances. With, I’ll admit, rather low expectations of the event, we attended a show at Te Puia in the evening. A tour of the area, including Pohutu Geyser, was followed with a cultural show and hāngi – a traditional Maori meal prepared in, essentially, an oven dug into the ground. We learnt a good amount about the culture of the Māori people from the area, marveled at the geyser spewing 20-odd metres into the air, and settled down to watch the show. The talent of the performers was undeniable, but the authenticity for something like this is always a bit lost on me when the set-up is so commercial. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable evening, and the food was far beyond expectations. This sort of evening won’t be a steal, with the guided tour, performance, and meal combo running $150 a head. We had wanted to visit the park to see the geyser anyway (which is also not free), and part of the crew was very keen on the performance, so we decided it was worth it to combine it all and splurge on a big evening.
Continuing the highlights of North Island New Zealand the following day, part of the crew went up to Matamata to visit Hobbiton, where they were thoroughly impressed with the exceptionally cute miniature hobbit houses set into the hill. Dad and I opted for a day around Rotorua, which most notably included a couple of hours at The Wall, where I got Dad up on his first indoor rock climb.
The next overnight was New Plymouth, where some slightly removed cousins of ours live, and had generously offered to put us up for a couple of nights. En route to New Plymouth is Waitomo Caves, a series of underground caves that have been developed for tourism and adventure tourism. With different levels of intensity to choose from, the family and I were all happy. Everyone else went for a couple of walking tours through two different caves (Ruakuri and the Glowworm Cave), while I opted for a five-hour adventure called Black Abyss with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
Black Abyss took the team down a narrow abseil, through a section of Ruakuri cave and included rafting in the darkness, below a canopy of glowworms; jumps into and swims through the water; and a free climb out of the cave over two waterfalls. The day was awesome, and satisfied some of the craving for adventure I’d been feeling.
The next couple of days were spent in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island, at our cousins’. My personal highlight for the area was Mount Taranaki, a rather imposing volcano a little ways from town. I spent a few hours hiking up and down the mountain, and got picked up around five p.m., just as the wind was really picking up and the rain started. A couple of days later, we heard the tragic news that two experienced hikers had gotten stuck on Mount Taranaki the same day I had been there, and had both passed away. Mount Taranaki claims the lives of more people each year than any other in New Zealand, due in a large part, I’m sure, to its easily accessibly location. Furthermore, the volcano sits essentially alone, close to the coast, as in the line for fast and variable weather. After seeing how quickly the weather can change firsthand, as well as the steep, icy ascent to the summit, I can believe the stats.
A big day of driving was ahead of us the day we left New Plymouth, as we headed past Auckland to the town of Whangerei in Northland. En route to Whangerei is Kawakawa, whose main tourist attraction is the public toilets. This sounds a bit odd, but the Gaudi-esque toilets, designed by Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser are actually well worth stopping for. With that pit stop behind us, we continued to our destination. Whangerei itself was a bit average, but our days surrounding it were quite superb. In the morning, we headed up to the Bay of Islands, and ended up jumping on a last-minute cruise through the islands. This trip far exceeded our expectations, mainly due to the outstanding dolphin spotting we were privileged to. The islands and surrounds are beautiful, but the pod of dolphins we saw – playing, jumping, and splashing through the water – was the pile of cherries on top of a very tasty cake. That adventure turned into a full-day affair, so we saved the rest of our Northland to-do list for the following day. This involved driving over to the west coast to visit a large Kauri tree stand, which includes some of the oldest Kauri trees in the world. The incredible size and age of the trees before us was outstanding. Google Kauri trees. (Because I still have no photos. Fail. Fail. Fail.)
With that, we headed back to Auckland to explore the city for a couple of day. This was an opportunity for my family and Kiwi’s family to meet, which they did, over brunch. Things on that front all went very well, which is obviously a huge bonus.
And then it was time to go. Well, for them to go. After spending a month with my family, and picking up essentially where we had left off over a year ago, it was definitely a tough goodbye. I’m incredibly lucky that they were able to come down to the other side of the world for as long as they did. We had an amazing trip, and made some amazing memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks guys!