Sometimes, it’s good to see exactly what a country has to offer.
One year ago, my Dad and I packed our bags and set off to Birmingham airport. Twenty-six hours later, through stops in two countries and flying over twelve time zones, our plane touched down in New Zealand.
The holiday which followed took me into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and gave me a love of travelling which promised to change my life forever.
In remembering one year since the journey, over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favourite stories and sights, and I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour around the sights of North Island, including Auckland, Rotorua, Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park, and showing you why New Zealand really is the most breathtaking country in the world.
This time, it’s the turn of Rotorua and some of the nearby sights: Hell’s Gate, The Hobbiton Movie Set and Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.
If you haven’t seen the first part in my New Zealand Travel Guides series, talking about Auckland and the surrounding area, read it here
Set to the north of New Zealand’s North Island, on the shores of the lake which shares its name, the city of Rotorua truly is the tourist highlight of New Zealand, and the congregating place for travellers from all over the world.
A bustling and picturesque city centre opens up to some of the most stunning and varied landscapes in all of the country: thermal springs give way to rolling fields, leading to dense forests, all of it cloaked in a thick layer of sulphur and steam. This beautiful and truly unique place was the second stop on our tour of North Island, and perhaps one of my favourite places we visited.
To cover everything we did and saw in Rotorua would take a long time: longer than I can afford if I wanted to every location justice. Rotorua is full of beauty spots, both natural and man-made, and in truth we couldn’t see everything.
An absolute must-see is the Maori village of Whakarewarewa, set just outside Rotorua itself. The village is surrounded by active thermal sites, which covers the buildings in thick steam and acts as the villager’s way of cooking and bathing. For anyone looking to experience the culture of New Zealand’s native inhabitants (who still have their own code of conduct and will greet visitors with a traditional ceremony) spending a few hours walking through the village won’t disappoint you.
For some of the most stunning natural beauty spots that I won’t be covering on this list, take yourself to the Blue and Green Lakes, or down into the Waitomo Glowworm Caves which is perhaps the most peaceful and awe-inspiring place I have ever seen (but that, unfortunately, cannot be properly expressed without experiencing it yourself). If you’re more interested in the urban surroundings, the city of Hamilton is worth a visit for its bustling streets. Cambridge is another worthwhile point of call; a beautiful town surrounded by rivers and rolling hills.
If you do travel to Rotorua, prepare yourself: the smell is awful. The thermal springs spit sulphur out into the air, masking the whole place in the lingering odour. Arriving to Rotorua by car, the stench slowly filled the car, and I wondered aloud whether I would be able to stand three days of it. My Uncle Steve, our tour guide for the journey, assured me that you stop noticing the smell within the hour. And he wasn’t wrong: by the time we’d pulled into our cabin on the shores of Lake Rotorua, dumped our bags and taken a walk down the lakeside, I realised that I’d stopped noticing the smell a while ago.
Now, when I open the case containing some of my souvenirs from New Zealand and catch the slight smell of sulphur, I’m instantly transported back to the shores of Lake Rotorua, or back walking among the thermal pools, or unwinding in the Polynesian Spa as the warm rain of a tropical storm poured down around us.
Rotorua city centre is quite compact, and you’ll find most things on the central high street. We stopped at a curry house during our final night there. Sat out under the night sky, where we got our first proper glimpse at the Southern Cross, Steve challenged me to eat one of the hottest curries on the menu.
Not wanting to look weak (and since I wasn’t paying), I accepted. Safe to say that I regretted my decision.
Travelling to a new location for the first time, only to be told that it was called Hell’s Gate, did not fill me with confidence. I’m not a religious man, but somehow going to somewhere that was named after the Gates of Hell made me apprehensive.
When I got there, I saw why it had earned its name. I was genuinely amazed.
I had never been to a real thermal park before. My trip to the village of Whakarewarera had given me a small insight into how incredible these places were, and I’d seen spots on our drive where steam poured out of holes in the ground, but to be surrounded by lakes of molten-hot minerals was an experience unlike anything I had seen or felt before. You very much feel like the world is alive beneath you.
What is particularly striking about Hell’s Gate is that, if you follow where the path leads you, you travel from steaming pools into a dense tropical jungle, which seems to have sprung up out of nowhere. The temperature drops almost instantly, and there’s a slight haze in the air as the steam curls around the trees. It’s almost mythical in looks, and transports you into another world for a brief moment. A waterfall then greets you, where Maori warriors would bathe after victorious battles. Their names are still scribbled into the rock, and the water of the stream disappears into the tress behind you. Then, the forest ends as abruptly as it began, and you’re back facing the bubbling mineral pools. It’s absolutely surreal.
Thermal parks are undoubtedly dangerous places: the paths are built on secure ground, but around you are holes in the ground which can go down hundreds of feet into caverns which have been carved out of the living rock. All around you are signs saying the dangers of straying off the path, with pools heated to many hundreds of degrees and places where the ground is only millimetres thick. So it was with some surprise on my part when Steve vaulted over the fence, sped across the ground next to a thermal pool, picked up a lump of sulphur crystal, and then ran back.
I still have the crystal, and now it just reminds me of my Uncle’s bravery (or, death-wish).
Not all of Hell’s Gate were the grey bubbling pools that I would have thought, and we stopped by a stunningly green pool which was known to the Maori’s as a healing pool. Dad and I waded in up to our ankles, with the pool being a lovely temperature. I thought about possibly taking a swim, or trying to walk around the outside, but Steve beat me to it.
It was at this point that he suddenly disappeared up to his waist, holding his cigarette above his head for safety.
At the time, and for a very long whilst afterwards, we (minus Steve) all thought that it was hilarious. Thankfully there was no lasting harm, though I’ve been reliably informed that he still has some of the scars.
THE HOBBITON MOVIE SET
Anyone who knows anything about me knows that J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (both the book and Peter Jackson’s film adaption) has a massive place in my heart. Of course, I knew that the films had been filmed in New Zealand, and one of my conditions for the holiday had been a visit to the Hobbiton Movie Set.
Finally, after years of wanting to go, we set off in the morning under cloudy skies and intermittent rain. I was devastated. The weather seemed to have turned against us. We spent the morning in Rainbow Springs Nature Park, (which is a fantastic day out by itself) but I only had one destination in mind. So, having taken absolutely no pictures in Rainbow Springs to save on battery, we set off for Matamata, just to the east of Hamilton.
As we drove, the sun burned through the clouds, and the afternoon proved to be one of the warmest days of our time in New Zealand. Feeling more confident about our trip, our first stop (after a very quick lunch in Matamata itself) was Shire’s Rest, the starting point for any long-expected journey to the Hobbiton set. I was already enamoured by the scenery: rolling fields leading to a forest far off in the distance, with small farmhouses dotting the landscape. It was no mystery why it had been chosen as the home of the Shire.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, our bus shuttle arrived. When we set off, we were in Matamata, New Zealand. When we arrived, we were in Hobbiton, The Shire, Middle-earth.
The attention to detail in Hobbiton is something which really lingers with me. Yes, seeing a place which seems so alive and to have been brought straight out of the pages of the novel was amazing. I was like a kid again. But when I look back, I remember most the little details. The fact that, before filming, locals would come up in the day to hand washing on the lines in the set: the effect being that there were natural tracks through the grass where the locals had walked, which made the village look like it was lived in. Another detail was that, in some cases, the doors were bigger so that human actors would look like hobbits, whilst in other cases the doors were small so that human actors would look tall in the hobbits’ world.
Even though I’m over 6ft, I felt at times both like a hobbit and a giant.
Make no mistake, the tour is on the expensive side. But if you’re a fan of the films, you won’t be disappointed. Through walking down Bagshot Row, to the Party Field, and then finally for a drink of your choice (sadly it doesn’t come in pints) at The Green Dragon. I may have only spent a short afternoon in Middle-earth, but it’s a journey which didn’t fail to amaze me, and I still remember it fondly as the best day of my New Zealand adventure.
In the words of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.
WAI-O-TAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND
From one thermal spring to another, our journey through the sights of Rotorua took us to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Set among the dense tropical jungle and towering hills, the site is perhaps the most colourful and diverse thermal spot in the country, and without doubt the most beautiful.
Our first attraction at Wai-O-Tapu was the Lady Knox Geyser, a rather inconspicuous tower of white rock around which was arranged a massive seating area. Named in honour of Lady Constance Knox, Steve had assured us that this was a must-see for any tourist coming to Rotorua. Trusting our guide’s judgement , we took our seats.
I’d never seen a geyser before, so I was at a loss when thinking about what to expect. Our host emerged from the wooded area behind the geyser, a bag of soap under her arm. Without a word, in front of a mostly bewildered crowd, she threw the soap into the top of the geyser. She then explained that the geyser had been discovered by convicts, who washed their clothes in the mineral bath. When the soap disturbed the surface tension, the geyser erupted. Since then, all anyone had to do was drop soap into the geyser and it would erupt, with varying degrees of success. All we had to do was wait.
As if on cue, the geyser began to foam and steam madly, and the host made a hasty retreat as water shot suddenly out of the funnel. At its peak, the geyser fired nearly fifty feet into the air, and showed no signs of stopping in the half an hour we sat watching it spray. It really is a sight to behold.
Wai-O-Tapu is truly magnificent to look around, and deserves a few hours if you really want to experience it all. It was just my luck that I forgot my camera that day, but the memory of those brilliantly-coloured mineral pools and the long track up through the hills and underneath the towering trees is enough for me.
This is a place where the pictures simply don’t do justice. The experience of walking along those steaming paths, surrounding by lakes of dull orange and shimmering green, is one to have for yourself, and one which still brings a smile to my face.
The tourist highlight of New Zealand is truly a place like no other. The variety of sights is amazing, whether your tastes are more towards natural beauty or urban paradise. If your travels do take you to New Zealand, do yourself a favour and take some time to explore Rotorua. From thermal parks to Maori villages and film sets, this is perhaps the most diverse experience that North Island has to offer.
For once, following the well-travelled path of the tourist gives its own rewards that exploring the local sights just doesn’t give you. After all, there’s a reason that people travel from all over the world to come to New Zealand, and find themselves in Rotorua. It’s a place unlike any other.
Until next time,
~ Ross M. F. Firth
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You can read my previous blog post (TRAVEL GUIDE: Auckland, New Zealand (And Why It’s Worth The 26 Hour Flight)) here.
You can find an archive of all of my early work at the Rambling Man Blog.
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