Rotorua, population 76,000, situated on the picturesque Lake Rotorua, is one of the most popular and commercialized tourist towns on the North Island. It is almost home to most of the thermal activity in NZ, which makes for occasional wafts of rotten egg smells and a close up view of all that the thermal activity has to offer.
We arrived in Rotorua in the pouring rain on a sleepy Sunday evening. Nothing was open exept the movie theater so we jumped at the opportunity to see Billy Bob Thorton drink his way through the holiday season in Bad Santa. Not the most uplifting film, but it had it's moments. The pouring rain escalated into a full blown thunder-lightening-wind storm that threaten to flood the small Holiday Park we were staying in just north of Rotorua. The owner of the park woke up about 4 RVs at 3am to have them move out of range of the dangerously swollen river running through the campground. Since the rain pounding on our roof kept us up well past midnight we were very glad we were not one of the threatened RVs and didn't hear about the nighttime activity until morning. The next day brought clear blue skies, several pouring rain storms, and couple impressive hail flurries. The constantly changes weather made for some interesting sightseeing that day.
Our first stop was Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland about 15km south of Rotorua. It boasts an spectacular gesyer that goes off like clockwork everyday at 10:15am. Unfortunately, we missed the 10:15 show, but enjoyed a couple hours wandering through the grounds marvelling at the amazing colors of the thermal pools and formations. We arrived at a couple of the more picturesque stops just as the weather was deteriorating but all we had to do was circle back around about 30 minutes later when the sun was out again.
Having had our fill of sulfur aromas and bubbling pools of mud we moved on to the gondola and luge just north of Rotorua. We had such a blast on the luge in Queenstown, but were only able to take one run before it close, so we went for the 5 run package in Rotorua. Just before jumping in the luge for our 3 run we noticed a black cloud inching over the mountain towards us. We thought we could get in one more run before the heavens opened up, but we were wrong. Not only did it rain hard on us, but it also started to hail, which makes keeping your eyes open enough to steer really difficult. But we both made it down soaking wet, but unscathed. 10 minutes later the sun came out and we were almost completely dry by the time the next rain/hail storm hit us on our last ride up the chairlift.
We had heard several people talk about how fun blackwater rafting is and how cool it was to see the glowworms in the caves. Blackwater rafting is simpling floating down a calm underground river. There are no rapids, but when we turned off our headlamps we were floating down in the pitch black. We were able to fit in a quick trip to Waitomo Caves before we had to head back up to Aukland to return our campervan. The Waitomo Cave area, about 2 1/2 hours south of Aukland, is a labrynth of underwater rivers and caves which are home to the famous New Zealand glowworm. There are several different companies that will take you into one of the caves to see the glowworms and often much more. The options range from mellow boat rides where the passengers stay totally dry to the more Rambo-like excursions including abseiling (rappeling), rock climbing, swimming, and rafting where the participants are equipped with wetsuits and get very, very wet.
I don't like small spaces. I'm not claustophobic, but I'm just not a fan of small, closed places. I find caves, while interesting, very creepy and uncomfortable. I was hoping after all the caves we saw in Borneo that I would not have to do any more caving. Having said that, I have to admit that it was my brilliant idea to do the 4 hour excursion called TumuTumu TOOBing which is described in the brochure as:
This ripper of a trip combines the best elements of blackwater rafting with walking, climbing, swimming and tubing through distinctive sections of the spectacular TumuTumu Cave. See awesome cave formations as well as some of New Zealnd's famous glowworms.
My decision came in a moment of weakness when I was feeling the end of our trip looming close by on the horizon. I realized that this may be our last opportunity for real adventure on this trip. If all goes as planned the last two weeks in the Cook Islands will be a low-budget version of our honeymoon, and trust me, there was no caving, no jungle trekking, and no quadbiking over sand dunes on our honeymoon. So, this blackwater toobing trip was our last hoorah. It was just a little bonus that it happened to be an activity that challenged very boundry of my comfort zone.
As we were filling out forms before the trip I asked the woman at the front desk if our trip included going through any small spaces. She gave me a mildly dismissive look and said, "oh, no, it's easy". Clearly, she and I have different definitions of small spaces. More than once we were all hunched over in a low ceiling'd cavern with a reasonably sized opening to a tunnel out one side when our guide would point to an opening on the floor of the cave that looked like it came up to about mid-shin on me and say, we're going through there. I thought he was messing with us until he bent over and wriggled himself through and yelled for the next poor soul to follow him. My personal favorite was the "birth canal", a 10m long tunnel that we had to worm our way through on our bellies. Needless to say, all of this was very uncomfortable for me, but it was also incredibly amazing inside this cave. The constellation of glowworms on the ceiling above us, providing the only light in the cave once we turned off our headlamps, was really cool. Snow could tell I was really out of my element as I was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the whole trip. I had to keep reminding myself that I had choosen to do this, it wasn't really dangerous, and I had gotten myself in so I had to get myself out. I was glad the woman didn't tell me there would be small spaces to get through as I probably would not have gone. I was very proud of myself at the end and was especially happy to realize I never have to do anything like that again. I was happy to shed my wetsuit, rubber boots, and headlamp equipped helmet and set out for the big city.
Aukland is, by far, the biggest city in New Zealand, boasting a population of 1.5 million. It was a bit of shock for us, especially arriving at rushhour in our huge manual shift campervan. But we made it to our hotel to unload the van and back down to the airport to drop off the van with no major incidents. As much as we really enjoyed the campervanning, we were very relieved to be done with it. We were giggling at the prospect of being able to go to bed at night without having to first dismantle our "diningroom" to set up our "bedroom".
By the time we arrived in Aukland we felt like we had been constantly on the move for more than 2 months. We were very happy to do what we usually do in cities and that is "not much". We slept a lot, relaxed in our palacial room, watched some bad TV and reflected on our month in the beautiful country of NZ. We also had the opportunity to see Dido in concert there. When we arrived in Christchurch a month ago we saw an advertisement for her tour in NZ and were happy to discover her Aukland date coincided with our Aukland dates, so we bought tickets. It was a fabulous show, far more bumpin' than we ever would have thought her show would have been. It was really fun to see some live music on the road.
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone! Enjoy some turkey and stuffing for us. We'll be enjoying Thanksgiving Cook Island's Style, whatever that means--though I'm guessing no cranberry sauce.
See you all soon.