Hot springs and falling down a mountain...

Trip Start Mar 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And so, it was goodbye Australia, hello New Zealand as we boarded the flying kangaroo for another great harbour city, Auckland. We were setting off on our last leg of the world tour and one that would be defined by roadtripping – the only acceptable way to traverse that gorgeous green land as typified by the array of wacky campers and cheap car rental greeting you at Auckland International Airport.

Since we were due to fly back out of Auckland in 10 days' time, our plan was to save our exploration of the city until the end of our NZ leg and instead head straight out of the city confines and wander south down the country. That’s about all we managed to plan – we figured we’d make it up as we went along.

So our first stop was at the Jucy rental pick-up, a rather flourishing NZ company offering cheap and fun vehicles for young and restless travellers. We took collection of our bargain-priced somewhat clapped out 10 year-old Corolla and loaded up our ridiculously heavy, wine-packed suitcases in the back, planning to not touch them until we were boarding for the US.

Having stacked up on maps and accommodation guides, we thought we’d head straight for the hot springs town of Rotorua, about 230km south of Auckland. It was already mid-afternoon and this seemed an appropriate stop for the evening. About 90mins into the journey, we decided to re-evaluate the map and take a much shorter route than the main road. An excellent idea at the time, it turned into the most bizarre stretch of road we’d encountered.  For the next hour our movement went something along these lines: drive for 5km, reach a T-intersection, follow the sign for Rotorua, drive for 5km, reach a T-intersection, follow the sign for Rotorua.  It was somewhat amusing!  At the very least, we caught sight of a lot of lovely farmland and managed to discover that in our 'El Cheapo Jucy’ our radio reception would last about 5 minutes before crackling out.

You know you’re about to enter Rotorua when you catch that delightful smell.  It’s one of the best places to hit in NZ but owing to it’s amazing geothermal activity, it does carry that scent of slightly rotten eggs. We were smacked with that just after sundown and rapidly found ourselves in the centre of town.  On the upside, you only really notice it for a few minutes – then, you’re acclimatised!  Consulting our guides, we made a beeline for the closest clump of motels to the centre of town. We quickly discovered one of the great bonuses of Rotorua – almost every tiny roadside motel has private geothermal hot tubs attached to every room. We were to find out along our journey that almost all NZ motels offer little kitchenettes and are bloody good value.

Before too long we were settled at the Golden Glow Motel and were deftly dealing with the rather friendly owner who was doing his best to convince us to stay almost our entire NZ holiday in Rotorua. Next we were looking to track down some excitement on a Tuesday night.  It was pretty quiet!  Some of the more amusing looking bars seemed to be closed up – a sure sign we had not picked peak season for our travels.  Something or other was going down at the convention centre and it seemed as though the entire town population was there.  And so we careered through the sleepy main street to locate dinner, opting for some Indian.  We turned out to be the only people in the restaurant – not always a good sign for the quality of the food.  However, that turned out to be simply wonderful and we stuffed ourselves on a variety of deliciously fresh curries and naan before rolling ourselves back down the street to our cute 1980s style motel!

Wanting to make the most of our sunlight roving hours, we attempted to rise early the next morning.  However, it is a little known fact that some small individuals can get jetlag when thrust two hours into the future! The somewhat taller, more awake member of the venturing team popped over the road to stock up on some tasty supplies for our day’s drive. With so many picturesque places to stop, we planned to picnic as much as possible throughout our journey.

It may be said that our forager struck gold that morning. He found what is arguably one of the best products of New Zealand – man style yoghurt! Advertising a chunky form of blueberry or banana yoghurt with pictures of how to eat it like a man, it’s hilarious. And damn tasty.  So we set off for Lake Rotorua at the top of the town and enjoyed our breakfasty snack while looking out over the gorgeous blue and watching some rather assertive swans tear up the surrounding ground.

After a little wander along the lake, we went down to the huge thermal park at the other end of town, which is just brilliant.  It’s a huge space with fenced off areas of bubbling mud and steam and the odd foot bath, where you can sit on the side and dangle your feet into a knee-high warm pool. Our next stop was one of the nearby adventure attractions – zorbing.  Rotorua is a mecca for adventure sports – there’s bungy jumping everywhere you look, jetboating, throwing yourself off and into pretty much everything. We opted for this as it’s something Justyn hadn’t done before and was keen to do, and Erin, well, loves throwing herself down a hill in a giant plastic ball. 

It’s one of those things that only really lasts for a minute or less, but that’s enough really…any longer and we’d be seeing that manly yoghurt again. So we pull in and the super friendly guys-in-gumboots take you up to the top of the hill, get you inside one of the giant balls and then you strap your legs and arms into a couple of belts, then they push you off to bounce down the hill.  Loads of fun.

A little while later we walked in a zig-zag fashion back to the car and set off south.  Our plan was to try to reach Wellington at the bottom of the North Island by the end of the day.  It was a good distance, so we tried to spend as much of the day driving as possible.  The area immediately south of Rotorua is fascinating – there are hot springs and huge plumes of steam shooting up into the air everywhere.  We passed what looked like a terrific golf course that had steam puffing all over the green.  We guessed that was somewhat safer than the courses in North Queensland where crocodiles hide in the water traps!

Our first stop came at beautiful Lake Taupo for lunch.  This is the largest lake in New Zealand and is bordered by snow capped mountains and pretty waterside towns.  Taupo itself is rather cute, and we pulled up at a great picnic spot to devour some cheese, cold meats and fruit.  Delicious!  Before departing once more we made an emergency stop in the centre of the town to grab a cable so we could play music off Justyn’s phone in the car.  Losing radio reception every five minutes was driving us bonkers!

Back on track, we cruised through a military training ground, loads and loads of farmland and picturesque countryside.  En route to Wellington – a rather easy if somewhat lengthy trip – we stopped at possibly the funniest town in New Zealand: Bulls.  It’s a tiny speck off the highway, but ridiculously cute. It’s absolutely made the most of it’s curious name by renaming almost everything in the town to incorporate the word ‘bull’.  The sign to direct people to the police station says ‘Consta-bulls’. Antique stores are ‘Collecta-bulls’. Bins look like milk tins. Everything is cow-themed and ultra cute!  We stopped for a hot chocolate and vanilla slice, as well as stocking up on stamps and looking in a bizarre bric-a-brac store before taking to the road again.

We arrived in Wellington just after sundown and managed to get a good hotel room in the centre of the city.  Wellington is preceded by its reputation for terrific food and being a rather funky, if not small, capital city. After settling into the hotel, we dusted off the drive with a wander down the famed Cuba Street to look for a tasty dinner. The street is brimming with great looking, cosy restaurants and it was a matter of tossing up several very attractive options!  While walking down the street we passed a great looking comedy theatre, but alas had just missed the start of the usual Wednesday night performance of an ongoing improvised soap opera.  Devastated!  Given that Flight of the Conchords hail from ‘Wellies’, we would have been keen to see any comedy here!

We opted then for a ridiculously good dinner at a French bistro before following another street sign we spotted on the way – this one was for free live music.  It’s something you should never turn down…right? We shuffled through with the interesting looking uni-style crowd up the stairs to the dimly lit room and took our place for people watching and more.  As the clientele started to look increasingly goth in appearance, we wondered what we were in for.  We found out before too long that we were in for the kind of live music that comprises of two minute songs with crazy instrumentals building up to the crescendo of 30 seconds of frantic punky, thrashy yelling.  And then ending, abruptly.  It was pretty hilarious. It was a great showcase of horrific student music.  I don’t think we were the only people up the back of the room giggling.  In any case, we hung around for about 15 minutes, decided that was a good enough assault on the senses and turned in for an evening, ready to cross to the South Island the next day.
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