East Cape Escape – Part 2: Hot water hunting

October 2021

From the Waimangu Volcanic Area, I had about 30 minutes to race back towards town to Te Puia, just on the outskirts of the city to visit some more hot water!  In my rush, I parked in the wrong car park (it seems that they have two and I had parked in the overflow one for when they are busy … they were not busy🤦🏻‍♀️), thankfully it was only a few minutes’ walk to the entrance.  In fact, they were so quiet, I was greeted ‘Kia Ora Elaine’ as I walked in the door ❤️.

Straight off their website “Te Puia is home to the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, Pōhutu, as well as the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute – training the next generation of young artists for over 54 years.”   I chose to join one of their guided experiences which took me through the park including the New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute and the Kiwi Conservation Centre.

I was joined by 3 others from Wellington, and we started in the Marae (Māori meeting house & courtyard) where Kahu, our local guide explained the intricacies and of the meanings of parts of the marae and the beautiful carvings inside it.  Kahu also told us of the hardships Covid has caused on tourist attractions such as this – pre-covid, Te Puia was averaging 7,000 visitors a day (their record was 100,000 visitors in one day)!  Today, they had around 30!  As much as I am enjoying the New Zealand tourist attractions in peace and quiet, it’s hard to imagine the impact the lack of tourists has had on tourism operators and their staff.

Light rain started just as we got inside the meeting house (it had been threatening most of the morning) which was perfect timing and Kahu took the time to tell us stories of the local’s iwi or tribes.  He also explained how the building represents the body of an ancestor e.g., the rafters are the rib cage.  This particular marae was built in 1970 and student carvers from around the country carved an ancestor from their area so each part of the building has a different design.  The building took 10 years to complete as the carvers had to keep going out to get additional work to pay for it!

From here we walked up towards the Arts & Crafts Institute, through a pathway flanked by 8 carved figures.  All important in the Māori legends of creation.  The most famous, or perhaps now world ‘infamous’ thanks to the movie Moana, is Maui- the trickster who is credited with the creation of New Zealand (the South Island being his canoe and the North Island the fish he caught with his infamous hook taken from his grandmother’s jawbone)!

The New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute is the home of the national school of carving (bone, pounamu (green stone) and wood) and weaving and is tasked with preserving, promoting and perpetuating Māori.  Young Māori from all around the country apply (or are normally nominated by their Iwi) to train at the Institute and can spend 2-3 years training. 

We started in the carving area and the tutors explained to us the process of the training and the carving itself.  There was a lot of information but some particular notes that stuck with me were:

  • Bone carvers start training on stone before moving on to whale bone (gifted by local Iwi or tribes from stranded whales) and green stone.  7.5 out of 10 on the ‘most hardness scale’ 😂 is greenstone.
  • The Hei Tiki, which is a common site on Maraes and in tourist shops represent the first man 
  • The wood they were carving was a 1,700 year old Totara log found in a swamp!! 
  • The Carving school follows the old traditions and admits men only … other carving schools accept women but not this one
  • The students in the weaving school spend their first months learning about the patterns and the stories they tell as well as the products they use to weave e.g., flax before starting to weave.   They also learn how to harvest the flax and collect feathers.
  • As with the carving school, the weaving school try to do things as traditionally as possible, even down to scrapping the flax with muscle shells.

The final stop on this part of the tour was the Āhua Gallery – where some of the works made in the schools are on display and for sale.  Many beautiful and very, very, very expensive items.

From here we headed down to the Kiwi Conservation Centre nocturnal house where they have 3 resident kiwis.  The conservation centre is part of the national breeding for release programme but unfortunately the Kiwi ‘keeper’ was not availability to tell us about them, and Kahu, who I had told previously I had worked at another Kiwi conservation centre in a previous life, asked me to tell the others a bit about the kiwi and the conservation programme – sadly he did not offer me a discount for the work I did lol

And finally, we reached the main attraction – the geothermal area.   Te Puia has 60 hectares of native bush, geyser and mud pools and is home to the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere – the Pōhutu geyser.  Apparently when they are not many people in the grounds, the children from the local village swim in the warm streams (not the 140C parts of course) but they can not do it when people are around as there are signs everywhere saying don’t go near the water lol. Kahu had to call ahead to say we were coming!

The landscape here was crazy, just how I would imagine the moon looks like but with steam everywhere.  Bubbling mud and water exploding from the ground.  To round off the tour, we got to enjoy delicious steam pudding which had been cooked in an ‘oven’ in the steam. 

Unfortunately, my free time exploring the area was cut short as the rain that had been threatening all day finally arrived and it arrived hard just as the tour ended!  Despite the abrupt ending, the tour was so worth it and Kahu our guide was awesome.  Highly recommended.

To make up for getting soaked running back to the far away carpark to my car, I drove a short distance out of town to the “Secret Spot” (a woman I had chatted with on the morning boat tour, told me about it).  It turned out it was no secret lol but was a lovely Spa with private hot tubs for hire.  They also have small tubs to soak your feet for free – well, the price of a drink, and after the almost 20,000 steps 😂 I had walked during the day it was lovely place to enjoy a drink.  The rain has eased up, but the thunder was still rolling in the distance.

My final stop on my whistle stop tour of Rotorua was the Redwood Treetop walk in the Whakarewarewa Forest, just outside of the city.  You can do this during the day, but I choose to go at night (I believe you can get a combined ticket if you have the time to do both).   Given the very few people I had seen at the sites during the day, I was surprised by how busy it was, but I managed to weave my way around some of the slower people on the narrow swing bridges.  I was not wowed by it, but it was nice, and the lights/lanterns were cool (designed by world-renowned designer and sustainability champion David Trubridge).  Perhaps it would be better to go during the day when you can read the signs and learn more about the area. 

Next stop …. the coast.

East Cape Escape – Part 1: Volcanic Valleys (Rotorua)

October 2021

As my last trip ended up with a hospital stay – this one started with one. After a late night dash to take my father in – he was admitted around 3am and so I managed to get home for a few hours’ sleep before I had to get up for a morning of work before I headed off.  FYI he is now recovering well and insisted I still go on my trip, as my brother also lives in Christchurch and would be around for him.

So, I was completely exhausted when I got to the airport!  With the resurgence of covid in New Zealand and 2 trips north and a trip to Australia already cancelled I had been on tender hooks whether this trip would ever happen, but I was finally on my way. I had spent a fair amount of time planning this trip, and I had an action packed itinerary written up (matched against a costing spreadsheet 😂🥴) so I hoped I would get it all done. 

The Air New Zealand Koru lounge is a bit different in our covid world, no more helping yourself to food or drinks (someone has to serve you) – first world problems I know. Thankfully Air New Zealand have yet again extended status tiers for another year, so I get another year of the luxury of the lounge before travelling so definitely need to make the most of it 👍🏻🥴

After beautiful views taking off, there was cloud cover most of the way so I could catch a few minutes sleep on the 90 minute flight (small plane = longer flight time) without feeling like I was missing out on the views 🥴, and we arrived in Rotorua to low cloud and a little rain.

It was quick and easy to pick up my rental car from Rad cars and soon I was on my way to the city. After about 10 minutes, I started to smell an odd smell and thought it might be something to do with the car (it was my first time driving a hybrid so wasn’t sure what was normal) … but then I remembered where I was … Rotorua – the hub of geothermal activity and a city that permanently smells of sulphur i.e., rotten eggs!  The city is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone that extends from Whakaari/White Island off the east coast of the Bay of Plenty, to Mt Ruapehu in the south (both active volcanos).  The steaming vents, bubbling mud pools and spouting geysers are all around the city and have been drawing visitors from around the world since the early 1800s.

I made my way into the city (only a 15 minutes’ drive) and checked in to my accommodation -Rock Solid Backpackers.  Back in backpackers again, but at least this time I had my own ensuite room so it actually was not that cheap but after the sleepless night of the day before I was struggling to stay away so I would have slept anyway!

I took a quick walk to a nearby supermarket and a nostalgic dinner at Cobb & Co I was soon back in my room and ready to sleep.  (Cobb & Co is named after the Cobb & Co stagecoaches of the 1860s. The restaurants opened in the 1970s and where definitely a treat during my childhood.  Most seemed to have closed but I am pleased to see they are having a revival and I have just discovered that one has just opened in Christchurch – you know where I will be lol)

On the first morning of my holiday I woke to rain – It was forecast so I was ready for it.  As always, I was awake early so decided to take a morning stroll down to lake front and the rain stopped just as I stepped outside so that was a win. 

I had a route worked out but was stumped at every turn due to track and road closures. So, I kept wandering towards the lake, taking any road/track I could through the Government Gardens and passed the beautiful Tudor style museum building (which was closed for earthquake damage repairs).   My wandering was helped by a beautiful rainbow over the city.

My wandering paid off and I found a way to the lake but had missed the lookout point at sulphur point noted on google maps, so I back tracked a little and I found the track I wanted (I actually think it was linked to where I saw the track closed sign – whoops).  Finally, I got the views I had been looking for.   The sulphur smell was strong first thing after the rain.  The sound of boiling water/mud and seagulls, the steam, the smell and the sun rising across the lake hit all the senses. 

I wish photos or videos had smell so you could truly experience it with me 😂 According to the sign “the smells of Sulphur Bay and Lake Rotorua are from sulphurous gases belched from the depths of the earth.  The sounds are of gases and steam bubbling and roaring to the surface through narrow vents and pools.”

I was intrigued by a pool named “Cameron’s Laughing Gas Pool”.  Apparently, the mix of hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide rising from the pools have the same effect as laughing gas.  It was an early public bathing sight and apparently some bathers would end up laughing uncontrollably, others would pass out!!  It is probably not a bad thing that you cannot get that close anymore.

The site actually holds a lot of history – the site of a large battle between warring iwi (Ngati Tangaroamihi and Ngati Tama) and when gifted to the Crown by the Te Arawa Iwi in 1880, an area for sanatoriums, railways, hospitals, basically the establishment of a town.  They also used to mine the sulphur and in 1916, a ton of sulphur was worth GBP28 on the London market!

By this point I needed my sunglasses and not a raincoat and umbrella I had with me, but I decided to continue around the lake track as it was still not even 7.30 (and I had already taken so many photos and I had not even left the centre of town 🥴).  It was definitely the right decision as it was lovely track around the lake and back through wetlands with a boardwalk through beautiful flowering Kanuka and Manuka.

PSA – don’t forget insect repellent! I have thought about putting it on but when I left my room, but I was only going for a short walk in the rain!   Lesson learnt – always be prepared 😂. Oh, and I also forgot my mask and wallet – thank goodness for payWave and hoodies that you can zip up you’re your mouth and nose so I could get coffee on my way back to my room.

There is so much to do and see in and around Rotorua, but as I only had one day, I had chosen to visit a couple of geothermal regions just out of town.  First up was the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Just 20 minutes’ drive from the city through some beautiful rolling farmland and punga lined country roads

In 1886, Mt Tarawera erupted, ripping a 17km rift in the earth, creating what is now the Waimangu Volcanic Valley.  The eruption was heard as far south as Christchurch and as far north as Northland! The area was given its name when in the early 1900s a huge geyser erupted in valley, throwing black water, steam and rocks up to 450m in the air – Waimangu is translated from Māori to Black Water.  Further steam blasts in 1917 again reshaped the valley, re-excavating Echo Crater and destroying a nearby hotel. 

The first part of the visit a 4km walk down through the rift valley.  Today it is so beautiful and peaceful, filled with birdsong, I can only image the eruptions of the passes that created what we see today (though the steam vents help with fill in that picture lol).

I had 2 hours to walk through the area and I thought that would be way longer than needed for the 4km walk, but there was so much to see, and such great information provided via the leaflet they give and the great interactive app that provides more information and interactive images showing how the area looked pre eruptions.

The most recent eruption happened in Frying Pan Lake in the Echo Crater and was called the Trinity Terrace Eruption.  In February 1973, a small eruption sprayed mud over 100m in the air.  Thankfully it took place in the middle of the night, and only lasted 15 minutes.

I should probably note that before the 1917 Frying Pan Flat eruption, people could walk over the area that is now Frying Pan Lake!  I was very interested to learn that the bubbling water is not actually boiling – which I always thought was the case.  It is actually carbon dioxide and Hydrogen sulphide gas bubbling up through the acidic lake water that makes it look like it is boiling.

The second part of the experience was a boat trip across Lake Rotomahana – there was only 4 of us so plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the trip mask free.  Prior to the 1886 Tarawera eruption, the area that now forms Lake Rotomahana had been home to two smaller lakes – Lake Rotomahana and Lake Rotomakariri and was the birthplace of New Zealand tourism. 

Pre 1886 Lake Rotomahana was home to the world famous Pink and White Terraces, once considered the 8th wonder of the world.  Tourists from around the world made the long journey to enjoy the natural hot pools in the silica terraces.  Using the interactive app, you could see an image of the terraces as we sailed over their former site.  I imagine they were similar to the silica terraces I visited in Pamukkale in Turkey many years ago.

The lake is also now a bird wildlife sanctuary so there were lots of birds including ducklings and cygnets. 

If you notice the golden colour around some of the vents, it is a phenomenon where blue green algae turn gold to protect itself from the UV in the sunlight, oddly nothing to do with heat or gases in the geothermal steam or water!

Back on dry land, we were shuttled back to the beginning on a bus (which you could hop on at 3 places through the walk).  It was definitely worth the visit and their app was cool, but they should definitely advertise it more and warn people it uses lot of battery, especially if you are using your phone as camera too.

It was a great morning, but I had no time to sit still, I had to quickly be on the move to my next activity ….