NZ10+ : Day 07 : WHITIANGA to ROTORUA

Venturing into Rotorua for my first Maori experience, and some amazing food.

Sunday 23/03/08 - (Writing Mon 24th)

It may start getting tricky doing the diary thing each day, as we cram so much into each one, hard to find the time! Will try and go through what’s happened so far in order.

After leaving Turtle Cove hostel, we had a brief break and toilet stop in Peorea. This is the home of a super-famous NZ drink, Peorea & Lemon. Took a picture next to the big bottle and then bought some of the stuff itself in the corner shop - as everyone must do I reckon.



Then we went onto Karangahake Canyon for a quick walk. It was very cool, a canyon with beautiful plants and the remains of an authentic rail track that was once used to fetch the gold in and out of the gorge. Lots of little tunnels and cubby-holes and what-not. Very “Lego Treasure Island” or even Indiana Jones now that I think about it.



Then we hit Rotorua itself and booked onto the Tanaki Maori Experience. A rather eccentric chap called Nata talked us through what would be happening later that evening at the experience itself. We had a trip to the ‘Luge theme park’ booked in the afternoon first though, and so we got dropped off at our hostels to quickly check-in first. Turned out to be good that I had my own place to kip and re-arrange my bag (again) but everyone else went out that night at the Lava Bar at the Hot Rock/X-Base hostel, so I missed out a little on a night-out.

To make things easier when I had to meet up with the coach on the way to the Luge trip, I said I would run across the park from the YHA where I was, to the X-Base, and just meet the bus there. With my luck though, I walked through a wet, sulphuric, mud patch on the way there. So now my Adidas trainers reek of sulphur. Moved into my bigger hiking trainers until I can find a washing machine. Must try and do that in Taupo on the free day we have there.

The Luge itself was great fun, a bit like the Toboggan-tracks I had been on as a kid in Devon, but on a concrete track rather than a metal tube. The heat and lengthy queues made it tedious though. I walked back up the hill (rather than hitching a ride) after the last go and ended up exhausting myself.



Still, got back to the hostel and showered, then we were picked up for the Tanaki experience by “Cheerer” (unsure of spelling), a totally nuts Maori lady who inducted us onto our “canoe” (not a bus) and who chose one of us at random to be a Chief for our tribe. We then had to “row” the boat, prompting one of the Irish guys, LW, to tell the mad woman to “keep your eyes on the fecking road ye mad cow!”

The Tamaki Experience itself was quite powerful. A lot of it already made some sense as I’d read the basics, and saw some stuff on a documentary on the plane from Singapore, about greetings and the ceremony that goes with entering traditional Maori villages. A night of song and food followed. All of the food was cooked beneath the Earth in a hole; very Ray Mears, and it tasted excellent. “Hangi” is the term I think. Helped myself to far too much, but hey, I’m a growing boy.

More mad sing-along antics occurred on the way home (“I don’t care, I don’t have a license!”) and because I didn’t ask for a lift back to YHA (stupid) I walked around the park to my hostel on my own. Probably not the smartest move in the dark. Still, a fun filled evening that was exhausting. Got talking to a few more folk. Slowly adjusting…

SOUNDTRACK: “The Sulphur Man” by The Doves Because Rotorua and Trainers stink.


COMMENTARY:

The famous Peora bottle. I believe this is an obligatory photo that every tourist must take. The drink itself? I wasn’t that keen, and funnily enough I never saw it again for the entire trip! Not that famous? Or did I just filter it out?

The Karangahake Canyon was the first of many ‘walks’ that would be offered to us as part of being on the Kiwi Express bus tour. When you sign up for the various Kiwi Express packages, a number of ‘attractions’ are sold as part of the ticket, and these excursions made up a number of them. I personally enjoyed all of them (even in the latter parts of the trip where we had raging hangovers) as it allowed me to get out into the wilds of New Zealand, as well as to gain a bit of knowledge from the drivers such as Koru, who was my main Kiw Express driver – more on him later!



Later in the trip, as I got to know Koru a bit more and was able to quiz him on all things nature and Lord of The Rings, he acknowledged that I came across as “wanting something a bit different from your trip to the rest of the guys.” I assured him I like a drink and party as much as the next person, but he was probably right. I was here to see the New Zealand countryside, and to soak up some of its culture. Looking back now, he was probably thinking that a backpacker coach such as the Kiwi Express, which is normally for a younger crowd who prioritise the parties over the culture, may not have been the best way for me to get such an experience.

However, being a traveller was all new to me. Other options such as hiring a car, making my own maps and routes etc. never occurred to me, and actually would have had none of the convenience of being on a bus. Plus, being driven on a tightly designed schedule and a curated timetable of events, meant I could maximise my relatively short time over there.

So yes, I did my best to take part in all the walks, hangovers included, and they made nice breaks between the more hectic activities, or the even more hectic drinking.

It looks like we crammed a lot into this day as well. I managed to completely skip a mention of an entire town in the diary! We briefly stopped off for a rest break in the town of Matamata, which is the town nearest to the farm location that was used for the filming of The Shire scenes in The Lord of The Rings films. There were a few (off film-brand) Tolkien mentions, such as a Gandalf statue and a Gollum, but to do anything more bespoke that was LOTR based meant staying in Matamata and taking your chances on whatever the tour guides could show you. It was explained briefly that most of the LOTR film sets in New Zealand were long dismantled, particularly where there were outdoor sets – but more on this later in the trip…

The day also featured a trip to something I called ‘The Luge Theme Park’ which only lasted a few hours. If I haven’t described it well enough in the diary entry, the attraction was essentially a series of wide concrete roads, built into the side of a really big hill, down which you would ride your Luge at speed. The Luges themselves were not the lay-flat on your back type that you see on YouTube, with people frequently injuring themselves. These luges were a lot safer in that they were essentially plastic trays with a handbrake – you don’t steer so much as lean. A nice easy start in what would be the first of many more adrenaline-based activities later in the trip.



The Maori Village… Experience is right! The coach trip there and back was truly hilarious, crazy, and genuinely quite possibly dangerous. I’ve no idea if the drivers were in character, mad, drunk, or a combination of the above.

The tour around the village itself was really insightful. I had managed to watch a documentary on the flight over, about the basics of Maori culture, and I was glad to see that most of it matched what the Villagers showed us. Although it was a packaged experience, and at times felt a bit manufactured, it was still genuine enough to see Maori culture being kept alive, and how proactive and happy the Maoris seem to be in wanting to share their culture, and have you take part in it. The Warrior challenge/greeting as you enter the Village, the traditional dances (including the Haka) and of course the totally amazing food!

I didn’t normally go in for lamb, but the food there smelled so amazing, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. We were told that the food had gone into the cooking mounds in the ground at around 10am that morning, slow-cooking all day and throughout the afternoon – the smells were out of this word. The meat itself was so soft and it just melted in your mouth. Again, I’m infamous for not being big on veggies, but whatever their technique or secret sauces, I couldn’t get enough, and I did my best to get several portions! These days, I still don’t go in for Lamb, but actually perhaps because this experience made me snobby! If it hasn’t been slow cooked in the ground for at least eight hours, then I’m not interested!



Of course, I had booked into a private room at a different hostel, as I was still getting used to my neuroses and paranoia about dorms. I was in a lovely YHA log-cabin resort, across the road from a big park, which featured many of Rotorua’s sulphuric mud puddles. On the other side of the park lay the bigger party-hostel where everyone (I mean everyone!) except me were staying. That’s why I volunteered to just walk across the park, rather than have the bus drive all the way around it, just to get me.

And so that is why in every photograph in the trip since that day, you can see me wearing hiking boots. Night clubs, supermarket shopping, sky-diving… I’m in hiking boots, because on what should have been a literal walk in the park, I managed to immerse my brand new Addidas trainers in sulphuric mud.

I didn’t mind or notice the stench whilst we were at the Maori Village (and I hope nobody else minded either) but once I got back to my room, it was apparent that washing them in the sink wasn’t going to be enough. So, I bagged them up, and resolved to find a washing machine in a quieter hostel at some point to try and clean them. Apparently, putting trainers in a washer/dryer isn’t recommended, and so I spent a fair few evenings in New Zealand trying to sneak into quiet washrooms, to put my trainers on a wash cycle. None of them worked, and I believe it was only on my last day, when back in Auckland, I realised they had actually gone mouldy after sitting in the bottom of my rucksack for four weeks, and I finally put them in the bin. Why didn’t I just do that to begin with? So yes – hiking boots. At all times. I didn’t even treat myself to any sandals!

Final note – seven years and 11 months after this day, our beautiful baby daughter, Robyn-Hope, would be born. I would never have envisaged that nearly eight years after walking through my muddy park, belly full of lamb and crazy Maori ‘rowing’ songs, that I would have the Wife of my dreams, an amazing home, and a Daughter to hold in my arms.