New Zealand roadtrippin p2: going rough!
Updated: May 20, 2020
As we drover further south with the campervan, we got back to the area of Rotorua. While we were here before, for the tattoo convention, we already noticed this was an interesting area so we were very happy to be here again. Our first stop was the visitor centre where we could charge our devices and battery packs a little bit. It was also the perfect place to look up different things we could do in this area. Haythim had already looked up a lot, and found some interesting things! There were a lot of Maori villages offering tours and insights in their culture, which sounded fantastic. But, the prices! These were really expensive so we could not do them all and would have to pick one out carefully. We decided on two things. To visit the sacred Maori grounds Te Puia and the redwood boardwalk tour which lets you walk high up in the trees at night! We had hoped to visit the local museum but it was still closed after a heavy earthquake...
After a good, refreshing (and free) shower at the mountainbike park, we did our laundry, bought provisions, and headed over to the redwood forest first. When reading about this forest we were a bit confused. It described giant sequoia trees which, we were told, could only be found in a specific area around California because they need very particular conditions to grow! These are not natural in New Zealand, and so we learned that about 100 years ago, early settlers tried to grow a variety of trees and these grew successfully! We arrived a little early so we had to wait in queue before we could do the night-walk. It was already getting quite late, yet there were a lot of people so it seems this is a popular attraction. We waited about an hour before we could climb the staircase up into the trees.
The redwood boardwalk was amazing. After you go up a spiral staircase between the trees, you walk up a platform that hangs 5 and 12 m high from the ground, after which you walk from platform to platform over long hanging bridges. The whole boardwalk is dimly lit by different lights between the trees which create a magical atmosphere. The lights were subtle and natural: sometimes like fireflies and sometimes in special wooden structures, as if they had a symbiotic relationship with the setting. Haythim said that he felt like was walking on the forest moon of Endor, where you could see the different villages between the trees. I rather felt like I was in a computergame ‘Myst’ (known for its mystical landscapes). Our camera (tg-5) had problems with pictures in the dark but hopefully you can imagine how it was. It really is a worthwhile experience in our opinion.
The next morning we woke up to a clouded day and prayed there wouldn’t be any rain while we went to visit the sacred Maori grounds 'Te Puia'. We decided to visit this site instead of the others for several reasons, but the main one for me was: they had a Kiwi sanctuary! To actually be able to see some of these cute creatures! Other things at Te Puia were: geysers, different viewing spots and an active work-studio of Maori carvings in stone (Pounamu), whalebone and wood. There was also a traditional weaving studio. All this made the fee to enter definitely worth it.
We were at the gates a little after opening hour and already could see the tourbusses coming in and the parking lot steadily filling up. We quickly entered and headed straight towards the Kiwi sanctuary, hoping that it would not yet be overrun by other tourists. It wasn’t! there were only 2 other people there! Our eyes needed a little time to get accustomed to the dark inside, and the infra red light. We could make out a little enclosure (behind glass) filled with a dirt floor, shrubberies, roots and tree-stumps. And between it all, we could make out and 2 kiwi birds scurrying around. OMG they are so unbelievable cute! They buried their long beaks into the ground, digging for worms, and occasionally used their strong feet to dig deeper. One of them practically dived into the ground, coming out the other end with a bug! Absolutely fascinating and adorable! Their whiskers around their nose and eyes allow them to navigate fluently through the dark, and their keen sense of smell and hearing alerts them of any possible food or danger. We spend a solid 20 minutes just looking at them, hoping to unravel a little bit of the mysterious workings of this bird. It was obviously forbidden to take pictures so sorry about that.
After this the day couldn't really go wrong anymore. Not even the weather. We followed the path towards the different geysers and hot pools which offered more otherworldly views. We really felt as if we were on a different planet. Next to the river and some greenery the geyser area looked absolutely alien-like. White rock formations that looked like clouds or bubbles with parts brightly yellow and steam continuously escaping from the ground. Every couple of minutes scalding hot water would erupt out of the crater-like pits and the whole area filled with a distinctive smell of rotten eggs. We waited for the next eruption, luckily these geysers are very active and they are almost like clockwork. After about 30 minutes we were rewarded by a big explosion of steam…. and cold drizzle. The water comes out at 100 degrees but cools down immediately in the air and comes down like a cold drizzle. Worth it! Afterwards we continued our tour of the Te Puia grounds. The last part was the traditional work studio where you had stone carvers, wood carvers and a weaving studio. We were really happy on how the Maori people still keep their culture and history alive and how they still teach their ways to the newer generation. Seeing them work was really heartwarming for us. Not only is their traditional art beautiful, but most of it is still handwork. They do embrace machinery as an aid in some of their crafts, though it is never ruled by it. And their designs stick true to their Maori heritage.
We finished our tour around noon and still had time left. And why not fill up that rest of time taking a nice warm bath? So we decided to go to Kerosene Creek. I know, the name is dreadful. But it is one of the few places where you can bathe in natural warm water for free. It is a small river that is supplied with hot water by the different surrounding hot springs, and has an average temperature of about 40 degrees. Average, since it varies depending on the days, the weather, … It was a rather gloomy and rainy day so we weren’t sure if it was going to be worth it but … oh boy, was it! We donned our bathing suits and flip flops and walked down the stream to a nice sitting area where we quickly got in the water. It was so much fun and one of our top experiences on this world trip! We followed the stream to the second waterfall area and right below that is a large pool which was just made for chilling and relaxing. It helped that someone but a large log to sit on in the pool. We slowly and cautiously entered since it was really hot at this spot. We could just feel our bodies relax. We hung around for about an hour until we started to feel a little too cooked for comfort.
The next day we started our trip down towards the famous Taupo lake. Since we left early we still had plenty of time when we arrived. We asked at the local visitor centre to how we could visit the famous Maori stone carvings. And the same time inquired to any other must-sees. The Huka falls. We were told about a nice hike towards the falls that also had some nice views along the way. A perfect activity to fill the rest of our day with. The hike was very pleasant. It was not a particular strenuous hike as most of it was along the river. The river was a stunning blue, and had plenty of spots where you could enter the water. The water in general was pretty cold but there were a couple of areas where other hot water rivers flowed into the main river and made for some nice pools where you could bathe just like we did at Kerosene Creek. When we arrived at the falls we were a little confused. It didn’t really look like a waterfall. More like a narrow canyon full of treacherous waters and rapid. Only at the end did we see those rapids ended in a waterfall. You would think that after having seen the Niagara waterfalls,… we would have gotten used to seeing the raw power of water but no, it still amazes us every time.
But of course as this was a popular spot for tourists, it didn’t take long to encounter a couple of idiots who did not abide the rules and went completely off track to go sit near the waterfall on the other side. What ruined plenty of picture moments for all the other people (abiding by the rules) who wanted to take a picture... Even when everybody started waving and shouting in an attempt to make them move, it still didn’t occur to them to show a little courtesy... I guess there's idiots everywhere on this planet huh. Nevertheless we managed to snap some awesome pictures!
The following day we woke up nice and early because we had a boat to catch! Not yet the ferry to to the southern island but a sailboat to go and see the Maori stone carvings, which are only accessible by boat or kayak. These were not even ancient carvings but actually quite recent (made during the seventies). Not that the fact diminishes their value in any way. When we first saw the carvings we could already see that they were exquisite! We didn’t know where to look first! There was the main carving looking like a big face, full of patterns, shapes and Maori symbols. Surrounding it were smaller carvings in or made out of the rocks. We spent some time looking at the carvings before we making our way back but honestly, we could have spend a couple of hours more gazing at the intricacy of it. We enjoyed a quick lunch at the coast between the ducks and seagulls before driving to that would be one of our biggest adventures in New Zealand was: the Tongariro crossing!
Especially Haythim had been really looking forward to this. A hike not only long and strenuous, but also through various volcanic landscapes and over a volcano better known as Mt. Doom which we all know from ‘Lord of the Rings’. We had already hiked a lot in the meantime since the Grand Canyon, but this hike would be equally challenging! So we drove up to a free camping area in the surrounding area, enjoy a nice dinner and have a good night’s rest before tackling this 20km hike. What a lot of people don’t know is that you need to book a shuttle service that picks you up at the one end, and then drives you to the other end of the Tongariro, so you have to hike to get back to your car. Because the hike is long and tricky, it is strongly recommended not to do the hike up and back, as it would take too long to finish in one day. The weather can change quickly, which can make hiking dangerously and even deadly if not anticipated.
But today was just perfect. We woke up early (too early for me duh) and arrived at the shuttle service around 6.30 am. We were welcomed by the Maori driver and after a short introduction about the mountains, the weather and the environment we made it to the starting point of the Tongariro crossing.
The beginning of the hike was packed of people. You could walk on heads. Not quite what we expected. We hoped the crowd would spread out more during the hike because elseways this wasn’t going to be a lot of fun. The first part went partly over boardwalks or flat areas through shrubberies and marshes. Everyone was keeping a very high pace as if there was an unofficial race going on. Some people actually seemed frustrated even having to let others pass… Pretty soon we came upon the first parts that showed some steep stairs or rocks, that required a healthy physique and a steady pace. Here the “herd” was starting to thin out, and we found some opportunities to take a couple of magical pictures.
The mountain is called Mt Ngauruhoe, better known to most of us as Mt. Doom from the LOTR movies. This was were they shot the images of Sam and Frodo climbing the gravel slopes towards the entrance of the mountain where they had to destroy the one ring. We totally understood why they chose this location. This was an absolutely stunning area. The further we went up the path and through the mountain, the stranger the terrain became. At first there was grass and flowers with a little river running next to the path, yet later the terrain became more rugged. Nothing was growing at the higher altitude and some parts were desert-like, with just endless plains next to the rising mountain slopes. About 3 hours into the hike we made it to the highest part of the mountain-comb with an excellent view as a reward!
We really lucked out because today was a beautiful day with no clouds. We could see miles and miles in every direction and saw different types of landscape in either way. From lush green hills and lakes to black/red volcanic rock surfaces. The first part downhill was a blast. There is no real path. You have to descent a slope that is almost exclusively gravel. We saw a lot of people having difficulties with this because it is very difficult to find steady footing. The key here is to be a kid and to accept that you will not have steady footing and everything will move. The trick is to ‘ski’ or slide down. We picked a route and started going downhill rather quickly in a zigzagging movement. This way we were sure not to gain too much speed and keep the strain on our ankles and knees manageable while still having fun. About halfway down we noticed some glittering lakes below. There had azure blue water, with hints of yellow and green. The colours were so intense they almost looked fake. The colours that nature can produce! Of course the sulfer part came with it too...
After this fun part,… we came to the not-so-fun-part. The last 6 km down are winding boardwalk paths that are only slightly tilted as to make it your knees a living nightmare. They had put some kind of plastic tiles over the path that were very hard to walk on, and the path was so stretched out! If you wanted to descend only 10 meters, you’d have to walk 100 meters along the hillside. This could not end soon enough. And just when you think you’re at the end, you still have to cross a forrest for another 3km or so. Though this was more relaxing as you get a bit of shade. Six hours after we departed , we made it back to our campervan. We were tired but felt great for having done this gorgeous hike in such good weather. Here, Haythim suddenly noticed that one of his arms (which had been in the sun the entire time) had a nice little sunburn. I warned him but yah.
But let's not have the awesomeness end here. Because our next stop was Hobbiton!!!! (and yes, we're saving the geeky part for the next post muahaha!)