February 14 – 15, 2012
The next stop on our north island road trip was Rotorua, a rotten-egg-smelling town in the heart of the north island known for its abundance of geothermal activity. It is a common sight to see plumes of steam rising out of the ground, and there are many places where natural hot springs, hot mud pools, and geysers can be found. We dragged our surf-weary bodies into town after stopping in Hamilton for some cheap Pizza Hut, and checked out a park in the center of town. The park had several walking trails and lots of ponds and other water features. We quickly discovered that a lot of these were geothermal hot pools meant for you to put your feet in, which we couldn’t resist. We headed across town to check out the museum of art & history and government gardens, an old Maori battle ground which is now a park containing several monuments. One of these monuments, a totem pole, looked like the ones I had seen in British Columbia, and sure enough it turned out to be a gift from the Canadian government.
After Brandy and I separated from Mark and Katie to see different areas of town, we discovered an early bird special at a fancy restaurant near the government gardens. After asking about it, we learned that it was four-course fine-dining meal for $20 per person. Brandy pushed for it, since it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to go for it. Never mind that it was a good three hours before our regular dinnertime and it was stiflingly hot outside, we were going to put on nice clothes and go sit in a stuffy dining room because it was Valentine’s Day. Since we couldn’t track down Mark and Katie until our pre-determined meet time, we left them a note on the car that we were in the restaurant, and sat down to eat. The four courses ended up being huge, and the dining room was uncomfortably hot. Though the food was excellent, we couldn’t get it all down, and sweated our way through what we did eat until we were uncomfortably full.
After meeting up with M & K again, we went to the local i-site (information centre) to get some information on the local geothermal attractions. We made plans to take Mark and Katie to check out a geyser the following morning, followed by a visit to Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a park filled with dramatic geothermal landscapes. In the meantime, we consulted our Department of Conservation campsite map to find a place to stay. Finding these campsites was often a crapshoot, as the distances were usually not clearly detailed in the pamphlet, or the directions were unclear. In a classic example of the adventure that is finding a DoC site, we searched up and down a dark middle-of-nowhere road looking for the Brett Road campground on Lake Rerewhakaaitu. We eventually found it after blowing by it a few times due to poor directions, and set up camp in the dark while a group of older people partied hard nearby in a corner of the campground.
The next morning Brandy and I balked at the price of $32.50 per person, and decided not to go into either attraction at Wai-o-Tapu. We were going to wait for Mark and Katie to go through the park, but Katie gave us her receipt so that we could try to get in for free. The plan was to go to the entrance and show Katie’s receipt for two paid admissions, instead of the two admission tickets which Brandy and I didn’t have. We waited until a line was forming and stepped in, as Katie and Mark went ahead with their tickets and got into the park. As we got to the ticket taker, Brandy handed him the receipt and smiled. The friendly, 50ish gentleman kindly told Brandy that this was the receipt, not the tickets, and asked if we had the latter. Brandy did her best to look incredibly distressed as she started to slowly rifle through her purse. The plan at this point was for me to get agitated with Brandy for ‘losing’ the tickets. She would then get upset as we held up the line and appealed to the ticket taker’s sense of compassion. It worked like a charm as the man diffused the situation by letting us go ahead rather than hold up the line any further.
Brandy and I even got to see the geyser, as the ticket-taking system there was even more flawed. Parking attendants checked that each car had a ticket for some number of paid admissions to the Lady Knox geyser but, once parked, no one checked tickets at the gate. Our car had four people and only two paid admissions, but no one seemed to notice this fact. We headed through the gate to see the geyser erupt. This particular geyser erupts naturally on a sporadic timetable, which isn’t very compatible with charging money, so the Wai-o-Tapu staff coax the geyser into erupting by dumping soap into it at 10:15am each day. The geyser erupts because the soap affects the surface tension causing a chamber of cold water and a chamber of hot water to mix. The eruption lasts up to an hour with a jet of water reaching heights of 20 metres. The geyser (and soap eruption method), as the story goes, was discovered in 1901 when a group of prisoners were doing their laundry in the spring water. They added their soap, and were more than a little surprised at the result.
After the geyser and a cold, drizzly walk through the thermal wonderland, the idea of sitting in a hot spring sounded pretty appealing. We just had to track down ‘Secret Spot,’ a.k.a. ‘Hot n’ Cold,’ a locals-know hot spring that converges with a cold stream. Our Stray bus brochures showed pictures of Secret Spot, but it didn’t occur to us that this was the actual name of the place until we were back in Rotorua. A quick internet search told us that it was just down the road from Wai-o-Tapu, and we found it pretty easily. We spent a few hours in the spring, which had a unique advantage over other hot springs—temperature control. Since Secret Spot is the convergence of a cold stream and a hot spring, moving around within the resulting pool can find you just about any temperature from 0 – 45 degrees celcius. This was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, and though we had lots of ground to cover, we were all happy to defer the decision to Mark, that particular day being his birthday. The decision was made. We would spend more time in the hot spring, one of the few activities that is actually most enjoyable on a cold and rainy day. We even managed to get a beer or two in while we were there, and picked up some of the bottles and cans that were unfortunately littered around the spring.
After drying off, we hit the road and headed toward Thames, the first town en route to the Coromandel Peninsula. We hit up the local Pak ‘n’ Save grocery store to pick up some necessary items. I randomly flipped through a magazine that had a scenic picture of NZ’s Stewart Island on the cover, and was surprised to find a photo of our friend Jeff’s mom in the middle of the magazine, leaning on her car. Mark and Katie had actually met her before we left the South Island, so we all were a bit surprised at the randomness of a story on Jeff’s tiny hometown of Methven, which for some reason involved Jeff’s mom. I know NZ is a small country, but come on.
Mark took us all out for dinner at an Italian restaurant for his birthday, just as Katie did in Wellington on her birthday. We had a decent meal, and were happy to have a night off from the usual camp stove curry and couscous that had become a staple of our road trip.
We arrived at our campground, Shag Stream, in the dark and had to set up by the light of the moon. Long, unfit roads to hidden campgrounds had become a theme of our trip, and while there was a lot of cursing about it at the time, these are some of the funnier moments that stand out in my memory now. We bounced up yet another pitted road as we approached the camping area, and Brandy got out of the car to unlatch a steel gate. We managed to set up our sleeping arrangements with the help of our headlamps (a Christmas present from Jeff), and had time to drink a few celebratory brews before bed. Somewhere amidst all of this we also visited a forest of giant redwoods. Geysers, fraud, bizarre geothermal landscapes, random coincidences, and a swim in a hot spring–not your average birthday.