September 15, 2012

Burp, Snow, Glow!

From the Coromandel Peninsula, we headed south to one of the most concentrated and accessible geothermal areas in the world, Rotorua. Everywhere you turn, there are geysers, mineral pools, bubbling mud pits, and hot springs.


No matter where you drive both in and outside of town, it’s impossible not to see plumes of steam rising all around.

Rotorua is a place for all the senses. Gases are “belched from the depths of the earth”. We swam in hot rivers with natural waterfalls (Kerosene Creek and Spa Park).

We were warned of ubiquitous sulfur smells within the city itself, but we must have gotten lucky with a windy day. The smells weren’t too bad in the town, but once we got to Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park, it was rotten egg city.

Because Rotorua is the North Island’s tourist hub, locals refer to it as “Roto-Vegas”. We had heard bad things, but we were not bothered by this city whatsoever. If you want to see tourism at its most obnoxious, go to Queensland, Australia!

From Rotorua our plan was to keep heading south to the city of Taupo. We needed to check out the possibility of hiking the Mount Tongariro or Mount Ngauruhoe volcanoes. This was where our complete lack of New Zealand experience got the better of us. First off, Mount Tongariro erupted 6 weeks ago, so only half of the trail is open through 2013. Oopsie. Secondly, this time of year the volcanoes are COMPLETELY covered in snow. We have nothing more than a pair of trail running shoes and a light jacket. I think the ladies at the information office were trying to hold back their laughter.

Onto Plan B…Taupo is considered the skydiving capital of New Zealand. We had both made up our minds that we wanted to take the jump, but we decided to sleep on it just to make sure. When we woke up the next morning, the entire area was completely clouded over. Our lesson learned was that when the weather is good, you’ve got to pull the trigger! We moved onto Plan C…

Waitomo is a tiny town of 50 inhabitants who just so happen to live above 45 kilometers of underground limestone caves. The farmers lease their caves to tour companies, and there are so many caves that every company has access to something unique. On our tour, we started off by abseiling (repelling) 27 meters or 100 feet into the underground river. The cave system is so vast that you feel like you’re in another world.

Waitomo caves are known as the birthplace of black-water rafting, which is basically rafting down mild rapids on an inner-tube inside of a cave. It took us back to our inner-tubing days on the Boulder Creek, except this time we were floating along in pitch darkness with only glowworms to light our way.

Glowworms are very special little creatures that only exist in New Zealand, Southern Australia and Papa New Guinea. They live in wet places and eat insects that get trapped in sticky strings that they hang down from the cave walls.

When the glowworms get hungry, they light up their tails to attract food. Insets get caught and humans get to enjoy constellations of green glowworm lights.

One night just outside of Waitomo, we hiked the Ruakuri Bushwalk to see more of the glowworms in action. It was amazing…we were standing on a bridge suspended over a river and could turn around 360 degrees without ever losing sight of little lights. The glowworms and the stars were almost indistinguishable.

Continuing on the cave theme, the drive west from Waitomo is just littered with great natural attractions that are accessible by sort hikes. That’s one of the cool things we’ve noticed about New Zealand…we’ve seen so much and haven’t had to do a long hike yet.

At Piripiri Cave, we jumped the barrier and scrambled down a super muddy cave to get to this massive stalagmite which must have been 10 feet tall. We’ve used our headlamps more during the first week in New Zealand than we have on our entire RTW trip!

The vegetation we've been stomping around in has been surprising. I’m no horticulturalist, but it looks like some sort of mix between rainforest and jungle. Mosses drape everything like carpet and ferns come in all shapes and sizes. 

There are lots of waterfalls, too.  The Waikato River funnels into a chasm of raging blue water before spilling over Huka Falls in a powerfully scary fashion.

Marokopa Falls are said to be some of the most beautiful in all of New Zealand.

Just like up in the Coromandel Peninsula, as we made our way from one attraction to another, we had the most amazing drive through farm country. It is so pretty here in a rustic sort of way. Maybe it’s the Ohio girl in me, but I was so content driving along and snapping photos of the countryside full of yellow gorse, wild calla lilies, and bee hive boxes colored like Easter eggs.

New Zealand, you are charming us!

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