A Travellerspoint blog

January 2008

Rotorua and Waitomo

Geothermal and Underground Wonders… and the Zorb


We left the Coromandel peninsula and headed south for the town Rotorua which sits between the east and west coasts on the southerly part on the north island. Rotorua is known for two things. First, the town sits within an old caldera which is still an intensely active geothermal area and is affectionately called “fartopolis” because of the stench of all the rising sulfur gas. There is a large lake, with a lava dome island in the center, that is largely fed by geothermal hot springs. Hot springs of boiling water and mud can easily be found throughout the town and there is a rich and recent history of volcanic eruptions from the active volcanic peaks that sit on the edge of this caldera. We were told by locals that it isn’t at all uncommon for a homeowner to wake up to a new “pool” in their yard that has opened up and sports bubbling and stinky mud or water. Some homes we walked by on the way to town actually had harnessed the water or steam to heat their houses or pools. The second thing Rotorua is known for is adventure “sports” venues. Zorbing, Bungy, Giant Swings, Skydiving, Luges, Jet Boats, and other activities are plentiful in town, not unlike Queenstown on the south island. The main business in Rotorua is tourism and we heard languages from all over the planet.

Our Holiday Park in Rotorua was quite nice and featured (surprise) hot springs right on site. We don’t know if that was accidental or not. There were three pools that were fed by geothermal springs, all cooled to different temperatures, and there was a geothermal creek bordering the park. There was also a natural “steam cooker” where you could cook vegetables, right from a steam vent. We didn’t do this, but in retrospect wish we had. The park was pretty fragrant, but we didn’t notice it after a while.

We took some time to walk to the Rotorua museum which was only a few kilometers from our holiday park. The museum was long ago used as a healing spa where natural sulfur and mud baths would nurse virtually every skin or orthopedic ailment back to health. The museum sat within a gorgeous park with beautiful rose gardens along the banks of Lake Rotorua, next to a giant thermal pool that fed the lake. It was stinky – but cool, highlighting the geography of the area, the history of the building, and featured a special exhibit dedicated to the New Zealanders who fought in World War II. Being a tourist town, there were awesome restaurants and many hotels within walking distance.

We actually came to Rotorua to experience something Parker had read about called “Zorbing”. Zorbing is a pretty cool experience that I must say isn’t like anything you’ve likely done before and apparently is only done in Rotorua. A Zorb is a giant air-filled ball about 10 feet tall, that suspends another giant ball within it. Through the wonder of air tight zippers, and 1,000 rubber bands, the inner ball stays in the center of the outer ball. There is a hatch that allows you to climb into the inner ball, and you can choose to either be strapped onto the wall of the inner ball, or float freely within it along with about 20 gallons of water. Why in god’s name would you climb inside a Zorb? The Zorbmeisters push you down a giant hill and you roll all the way to the bottom. Zorb Rotorua has straight line and zig zag tracks and when the ball rolls down the hill, you are bounced and spun about like a pair of tennis shoes in a dryer. It’s fun to do and it’s pretty fun to watch as well. We did it alone, with each other and no one got as much as a scratch.

We had intended to pull up our poll tents, and move to Waitomo, only 120km to the west, but we decided to take a bus and return that same day. Waitomo is famous for its beautiful caves and a phenomena known as glow worms. I won’t go into in detail, but suffice it to say that these little critters actually “glow” a phosphorescent green, hang on to the ceiling of the cave, and attract food with the little light. In a pitch black cave they look like stars on a moonless night. Did I mention that the caves are filled with water? I didn’t think so. They are, and we had a few choices to make about how we would view these caves. You could abseil, (rope slide), into the caves, climb and swim the caves (with an inner tube), float the cave in a boat, or walk on an elevated path. Because Griffin was under age, Carol and Griffin took the boat, and Parker and I chose to climb-swim. Both the experiences were very cool. We all wished that Griffin and Carol would have done the climb-swim experience because Grif was easily a strong enough swimmer. We had to squeeze through water filled tunnels, jump off little waterfalls and float in our inner tubes through the caves. We had on 5 mil wetsuits and even with those on, it was very cold – and extremely dark. The only illumination came from the glow worms and the lights on our helmets, (which got pretty banged up on the sides of the caves. It was a blast and a real wonder. The caves were carved from under water rivers, not from volcanic activity. In some places, there were water holes that reached to the surface from 180 feet below, and it is not unusual for these holes to simply “open up”. Carol and Grif’s tour guide told them that they had to remove a cow from the caves a few days earlier because the cow fell into a new “sink hole” falling to it’s death. That same tour guide told of a good friend of hers that had a pretty little pond on their property, and one morning they awoke to find their pond replaced by a giant sink hole. It is even said that farmers (the entire cave area is covered by grazing lands) can’t stand sink holes because they lose cows. They just lose em…

We left Rotorua and headed south for our next destination. On the way there, we stopped at a national park called Wai-O-Tapu only 50 km outside of Rotorua which stands for ”sacred waters” in Maori. It is a pretty big park, but the geothermal touring area is only 18sq km. We had heard that a geyser spouts at 10:15 each day so we arrived right around then to see this. We toured the park and watched the geyser unload in front of an appreciative amphitheatre. The 18 sq km were very desolate and it looked like a moonscape, but only steps away was lush forest. The colors of the waters were pretty incredible, and some of the thermal pools were huge. The touring path needs to be moved relatively often because craters open up and swallow it. The geyser actually had to be prompted by one of the park rangers to shoot into the sky. He did this by throwing a few soap bars into the geyser mouth to release the surface tension in the water below, which is something that Old Faithful does all by itself. We asked the park ranger later in the day what the differences were between the two. He told us that besides being about the same size, and having the same amount of water, there are some technical differences that allow old faithful to erupt predictably, while this geyser requires prompting. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that we appreciate old faithful much more than we did in the past.

Posted by Blakei 12:08 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Whangamata & Opoutere:

Good friends, not so good surf, and views to die for

sunny 70 °F

We hooked up with the Sweaseys again down in Whangamata (pronounced Fangamata). They were staying at a friend’s house and we were staying at a nearby holiday park. We spent all the days there together looking for surf, surfing, walking, skating, playing games, eating or just doing laundry. Whangamata is on the Coromandel Peninsula, a beautiful area just a few hours southeast of Auckland. The town itself has a permanent population of only 4,000, but during the holidays it swells to 40,000 of mostly vacationing Aucklanders. It’s a very pretty place and feels as if it’s been carved out of a rain forest. It has. Commercial forests with quick growing pine trees now cover many of the hills. We were told by some locals that they grow three times faster here than they do in the US due to the near-perfect growing weather, and they stand proudly and geometrically, like giant rows of corn on the hillsides. It is a hilly area. Strike that. It is an extremely hilly area. It even seems mountainous, though the peaks don’t carry much altitude. A 50 km drive will take you well over an hour just wrapping your way around all the hills. Of course the logging trucks can do it in 10 minutes. The hilliness gave the peninsula a feeling of real remoteness. What am I talking about? This place IS remote.

The waves were nice, but small, and the beaches were great. The water was colder than the north of the island, and it gave you a sense that you were part of a larger food chain, more so than in Australia or the US, especially when you were out in the water a 100 meters or so. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but seeing schools of fish in the 100s or 1,000s, racing underneath and around you and your board makes you feel like something larger is chasing them, and you’re just in the way. Hal actually had a penguin swim by him while he was in the waves. I wonder what finds that little guy tasty? A local that I was talking to in a laundry mat described encountering orcas while surfing and told me about the look of terror on the face of all the surfers as the 5 foot high sail approached. He said it was really cool to be out in the water with the pod every other surfer swam to shore he said. I would have too me thinks.

Truth be told, we actually stayed in Opoutere, which is 15km north of Whangamata, and boasts maybe 100 permanent residents, and you have to pass a one lane bridge to get there. The one lane bridge actually isn’t that incredible. We’ve encountered many of those on the main highway – no kidding. Anyway, Opoutere was unbelievably quaint and picturesque. Opoutere is nestled on a lush hillside running along a tidal estuary that fills and empties with the tide. We shot a few pictures from the balcony of a the nice little house our friends were staying in so you can get a sense for the lushness and the tidal fluctuation. The sand spit off in the distance and the estuary are great for grabbing green lip muscles and while we didn’t go hunting, you could see people walking with buckets, nabbing their limit of 50 per day. This was the last time we will see the Sweaseys on the trip most probably, and we all said our goodbyes along side the van. The boys were very sad.

Posted by Blakei 22:17 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Baylys Beach and the Aha moment

Kauri trees and an unforgettable coast line

sunny 68 °F

After leaving the bay of Islands, and not really falling in love with either Auckland or Pakiri beach, we were starting to wonder “Why all the fuss about New Zealand, and it’s beauty?” We had heard it was just about the prettiest place on earth, and even the Aussies who have quite the rivalry with the Kiwis told us this. We didn’t get it. We drove from the bay of Islands and ventured out on the typical roads we were becoming accustomed to; winding and tight. We stopped in a little town that was obviously not doing too well from an employment and commerce perspective to hit the grocery store and we found a nice but abused skate park, where it seemed most of the Maori (the town was nearly 100% Maori) kids hung out. This was a pretty sketchy place and contributed to our “why all the fuss” thinking. After saying goodbye to the local boys in the skatepark. We drove just about 15km further and GULP… it happened. It was like having your first “real Guinness” in Ireland after hearing about it forever and maybe even tasting it from afar, which is never quite the same. Here was the New Zealand we had been hearing all about, and it was gorgeous. We rounded a bend and saw a lake that was the most uncommon aqua blue you could imagine. It was almost surreal as a surfer carved turns behind a little outboard as he was towed. Another bend and we saw a huge sand mountain behind the lake and then one more bend, and we saw the mouth of the lake as it entered the sea… Nope this wasn’t a lake at all, it was Hokianga Harbor and it ran right to the Tasman Sea. It was spectacular and we stopped at a scenic look out and hiked a bit just to drink it all in, watching the tide overtake the Harbor as it rose.

We were treated with views like this all the way down to the Kauri forest which was equally stunning and featured some of the largest trees on earth, dating back a thousand or so years. Very few remain, having fallen victim to man’s appetite for all things wood. The forest was unbelievable, considering it was right next to the road, and we hiked in just a few minutes to find one of the largest remaining Kauri trees in the world. It’s size was stunning and it is the “best tree-house tree ever conceived” according to Carol, and it’s impossible to argue with that, with the exception of that fake Swiss Family Robinson Tree House at Disneyland. Check this thing out. Parker took a picture of another as it towered over the forest.
From here we drove about an hour to our next camp site on Baylys beach which was simply beautiful, and sat atop one of the longest and flattest beaches we’ve ever seen. We checked the surf out from near our camp site and had to take a closer look. You could actually see cars on the beach checking out the surf, (it is completely legal to drive on the beach). In spite of Carol’s pleading with me (really telling more than pleading) to NOT take the motor home onto the beach, and commit an environmental sin, I did anyway, just so I could take this picture. But it was so cool driving on a beach, even just for a minute. I am a bad environmentalist.

Posted by Blakei 16:43 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Bay of Islands

Pennies from Heaven?


On our way north to the beautiful Bay of Islands, the scenery was familiar from the day before. The grassy hillsides, the jungles, the sheep, the cows, the windy roads, the little bisected towns, they were all familiar. The rain wasn’t. It was raining off and on as we traveled up the coast to the Bay of Islands, it started to clear just a bit as we got nearer. We arrived at the Bay of Islands Holiday Park and it was gorgeous. It was on a beautiful river, had huge mature trees of all sorts throughout the park and large grassy campsites. It had a pool, a trampoline, a playground, kayaks, a zip line, and even had cute little cabins. This is the kind of holiday park we’d been reading about. It was top notch all the way through. It was pretty empty as well. We picked a lovely site under the branches of a giant and very old eucalyptus tree. It seemed perfect. That fresh eucalyptus smell and a bit of breezy shade flowing through the camper made the entire scene seem idyllic. A steady drizzle began later in the evening as we ate dinner, and it slowly turned to light rain as the evening progressed.

As we laid down to sleep, we realized that this tall and gorgeous Eucalyptus tree that seemed heaven sent only hours ago was actually born of demon seed or seed pod. A steady rain on a roof top can lull you to sleep. It’s benignly pleasant to hear the consistent patter of tiny drizzle droplet’s on a roof top, and it can even send you off to slumber. But oh, what an Evil Eucalyptus can do… When those tiny, consistent, pleasant, drizzly-drops build-up on Eucalyptus leaves, it seems that some bizarre alchemic process takes place that converts tiny water droplets into coins. Yes, coins. Pocket change. Pocket Shrapnel. Throughout the night, it sounded like someone was dropping dimes and pennies, then nickels, then quarters on top of our camper van – from the height of the empire state building. The sound was deafening, especially when you consider that Carol and I were sleeping in the cab-over area, with our heads a scant eighteen inches from the fiberglass ceiling, which, as it turns out, is a fantastic amplifier of coin size. There was a pattern to the sounds… it just wasn’t pleasant nor consistent. First the pleasant hum of drizzle. Hummmmmmmmmmmm, then… pop, POP, bang, bangBANG… bang…. BANGboink, pop, KROING, pop….. POP, pop, … KACHING… and so on…. Needless to say when we both “woke up” the next morning, neither of us had slept longer than 5 minutes in a straight shot and we both looked like it. The kids of course slept straight through and wondered why were moving the van to a “tree free” site just 50 feet away first thing in the morning. Being so relaxed from the previous night’s sleep, we decided to bite their heads off. They were tasty. It rained all morning while we did homework in the van – but it was a soothing rain at this point. Our friends the Sweaseys called from further north at Ahipara Beach, which was also to be our next destination for some good west coast surf. They reported that it was pouring down rain and the surf was totally flat. They’ll come down to meet us on their way to the Coromandel Peninsula for some better waves and weather. This shot is of the van after we moved it a "tree free" site.
They arrived at about noon, and after a quick lunch, we headed out to Paihia and Russell which are the two “big towns” in the bay of islands. New Zealand’s Bay of Islands area feels much like the San Juan Islands, especially on this day because it was drizzling and you couldn’t see 400 meters. I’ve seen pictures of the Bay of Islands on sunny days and it is gorgeous. Not today. After taking the ferry to Russell, and having dinner in Paihia, we decided to head out a day early and head out to Baylys Beach on the west side of the Island as the Sweasey’s headed for the Coromandel.

Posted by Blakei 16:38 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Our Camper Van

It’s Vantastic!

We picked up our van in Auckland. Well, that isn’t exactly right, the Van Company “Kea” came and picked us up at our hotel and moved us and our substantial belongings to the Van pick up – kind of like enterprise rent a car. We repacked all of our stuff and skinnied it down to the extreme to make room in the Van. We shipped everything else to Christchurch, where we’ll finally end up. We were surprisingly able to get all of our clothes, gear and food into the cupboards with the exception of our wetsuits and boards. There are three beds, a table for four, a couch, a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a microwave, a 4 burner cook top, a kitchen sink, a toilet, a shower, and a bathroom sink. Now, it doesn’t have all of those things at once mind you, else the Camper would be huge, but with pretty minimal effort, you can convert toilet to shower, dining table to bed, and couch to bed. You know the drill. In any event, the whole setup fits into a 27 foot camper van.

We had made reservations at “holiday parks”, their phrase for camp site, all over new Zealand, having been warned that this was summer vacation for Australia and New Zealand, and many of their families would be caravanning and tramping (their word for hiking) all over the islands. New Zealand is consists of two major islands, one to the north and another to the south. There are hundreds if not thousands of tiny islands that surround both, but for the purpose of our trip, we conceptualize only two major land masses.

From Auckland, our route will take us to the north end of the of the north island, then back down through Auckland again, hitting both the east and west coast beaches, then traveling to the highly geothermal central area, and ending in Wellington, New Zealand’s, capital city on the southern tip of the north island. We then take a car ferry to the south island and navigate from top to bottom on the west coast first, cross the bottom of the island, and then travel up the east coast, ending in Christ Church, all the while avoiding the mountain ridge in the center. I’ll try to highlight most of the places we stay, so you can get a feel for each.

Pakiri Beach - Barely on the map
We made reservations in a camp site that was only about 100km north of Auckland. I thought a short day of driving on major roads near Auckland would be the easiest way to acclimate to driving and setting up for camp. Driving the Camper out of Auckland was a quick education. We started on a 6 lane highway, which quickly became four land highway and even more quickly became an undivided two lane highway that started snaking their way around hillsides like some of the windiest roads you’ll drive in CA. The thought that was going through my mind as this transition occurred was “if this is THE major highway, what do the small roads look like?” Asked and answered. We followed the ever-so-intermittent signs to Pakiri Beach until we were on a one lane gravel road. This gravel road went on for about 15 km, went up and down some hairy hills, and we had to move over for folks coming the other way. One way bridges are the norm in New Zealand as well, and we had to pass over a couple of these, yielding to oncoming traffic just a couple of times. The surroundings on this short driv were pretty fantastic. The landscape looked like Hawaii. It was deliciously green, and huge fern trees that were easily mistaken for palm trees, co-mingled with pines. Grassy hillsides thick with sheep or cows were bordered by jungles of lush trees that would require a machete to navigate. Little towns with unpronounceable names popped up from time to time, while our “highway”, unapologetically split them down the middle. And there are beautiful flowers everywhere.

After negotiating all of that, we arrived at the holiday park. Generally holiday parks in New Zealand are extremely nice when compared to the states. They have many amenities, great locations, and they are clean. This holiday park had a few of those qualities, cleanliness wasn’t one of them. It was the kind of holiday park that gives you pause before you commit, because it appeared to have permanent residents, right next to our spot. The location however, as remote as it was, was super nice. It was right on the beach which had a pretty nice little beach break, and the beach seemed to roll on forever in both directions. Kids were playing in the little river that emptied onto the beach, playing with sand toys and riding boogie boarding as the tide pushed its way up the river mouth. After we all walked along the river and the beach for a bit, Griffin went skim boarding, Carol hunted for shells, and Parker and I opted to walk back to the van to ready ourselves for dinner. We all cooked our first meal in the van that night, which was quite fun, and we all bedded down for the night. I must say that it was the best night’s sleep we had all had in quite some time. The camper trip had started, and Auckland felt like it was years, not just miles away.

Posted by Blakei 14:07 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

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