June 9 - Well, time to say goodbye to Taupo and start the trek back north. Goodbye Taupo!
For today I was headed as far north as Hamilton (again), which is about halfway between Taupo and Auckland (good stopping point!). Today I went via Rotorua, which is home to several “thermal attractions.” Actually I never ended up making it to Rotorua proper, just two of the parks outside the city (sort of between Taupo and Rotorua).
First up was Waiotapu (“sacred ground”). Going here actually took me right past the next park (Orakei Korako), but I had read in the guidebook that there was a geysey in Waiotapu that “performs” each day at 10:15AM. Now, being familiar with Old Faithful, this seemed entirely plausible to me. But it turns out they cheat! The Lady Knox Geyser (allegedly) erupts on its own every 24-72 hours, but not with any extensive regularity. So instead, some dude comes out and drops something into the geyser to set it off. This did allow me to learn how geysers work, but since I’ve been (probably) boring you with lots of science already, I’ll spare you the details on this one (I wrote it in my personal journal :P )
Anyway, the park had some really neat stuff, including a sulfur lake that was the weirdest neon green color you’ve ever seen - do not adjust your monitor, that color is correct! There was also a massive area called the Champagne Pool which had all sorts of different colors depending on the particular chemicals being emitted (and various algae as well). Lots of massive craters as well. Overall very neat place.
But, it got totally trumped by Orakei Korako! This thermal park is set off in isolation - you have to take a boat to get to it. The colors were just amazing, and the whole area is active enough that mini geysers would just spurt up in random places as you’re looking around (geysers is probably the wrong word…something between a full on geyser and a rolling boil…). There was also an enormous cave at one point with a very blue lake (Mauri Sacred pool) at the bottom. Sorry for another video game analogy, but isn’t there a part in Ocarina of Time where you have to swim into some sort of underwater cave in order to get into the Zora Domain? It reminded me of that…I think, if I’m remember correctly! If I’m not, then I have no idea what I’m even talking about.
OK, ignore the last few sentences there :P One thing the pictures really don’t capture is the horrible smell in all of these places. Maybe I blocked it out, but I don’t remember anything in Yellowstone smelling that terrible! I actually made the mistake of trying to eat my breakfast while walking around Waiotapu. For those unfamiliar with multisensory integration, let me assure you that eating an otherwise delicious caramel nut bar while smelling rotten eggs and who knows what else really kind of makes you nauseous.
The thermal areas also aren’t always what I would call “pretty” (although parts of Orakei Korako were), but it is really an interesting landscape to walk through (each of these parks had about 2.5km/1.5mi of walks). I kept thinking of two movie quotes over and over again. First, “What a desolate place this is.” -C3P0. Second, “Festering, stinking swampland as far as the eye can see.” -Gimli. Yeah, those about sum it up. But despite those rather unflattering quotes, it really is a neat experience.
I finished up Orakei Korako around 2:30PM and was thinking of swinging by Rotorua. But since it was about 2 hour’s drive to Hamilton and it starts getting dark before 5, I decided to just head for the hotel. Really nice drive in and out of some light rain. There was a nice walk along the river in Hamilton which I wandered on for about an hour - that’s where I saw rainbow road :) Then I headed into a pub for dinner, really good food! I left before the NZ rugby match started cause the place was starting to get super crowded. I turned it on in my room later on…I think I sort of understand how it works (although I have no idea why sometimes there were penalties?), and NZ killed Ireland. I get the impression NZ is just really much much better at rugby than anyone else.
June 6 - I managed to sleep until 6AM – moving in the right direction! Seemingly everything in Hamilton was closed, but I finally managed to get some coffee at a café that turned out to be affiliated with the Casino (which appeared to be a serious operation!). I got on the road to the Waitomo Caves (about an hour’s drive), stopping at one point to get the photo of the rainbow you see above!
Being mildly afraid of caves, I obviously decided that the best option was to buy tickets to all three. This was enough of a tourist operation that I wasn’t too worried (it turned out the ‘bushwalk’ had much scarier caves than the caves!). My first tour was the Raukuri Cave. Raukuri means “two dogs” in Mauri, because the cave was originally discovered by a Mauri hunter who tracked a pack of dogs to the cave entrance (I think the dogs also may have attacked him, but I can’t remember exactly). This is also apparently the only handicap accessible cave in the southern hemisphere. They’ve built a rather elaborate ramp which descends 50 meters at the entrance – if you’ve ever played Goldeneye for N64, think of that part in the caverns multiplayer level, except a tighter spiral (probably 8-10 full loops around to get down the whole way).
In retrospect Raukuri was the least interesting of the three, though it was still a nice tour. After lunch I did a tour of Aranui, which had much more spectacular features. There were also these super creepy insects that live in the cave entrance – I can’t remember the name, but it translates to something like “spiny thing,” which pretty succinctly sums it up. Apparently the ones we saw were about 1/3 the size of the biggest ones, which makes me never want to go back!
Before heading over to Waitomo (which, in that amazingly succinct Mauri way, translates to ‘water hole’), I decided to do the 30 minute ‘bushwalk’ (i.e. hike) around Aranui Cave. This was very cool, it felt like walking through a jungle (maybe it is a temperate rainforest?). However, at several points it involved walking through mini “caves” which was not cool – one I practically had to crawl through, though thankfully I could see the other side and it was not very far. Eventually the trail takes you to the entrance where the Waikato River (I think) rushes into the cave, which is a really neat sight – you can really appreciate how the cave got dug out, that water is really moving!
OK, finally onto the main attraction, the Glowworm Cave! After having just seen two other caves, there was nothing really spectacular about the cave formations themselves – basically it’s just a giant empty room. They apparently have concerts in there sometimes – actually, there was a school group right ahead of us, and they sang a song to test out the acoustics. But, after the brief cave tour, they put you on a boat in the pitch dark to go see the glowworms. Might as well be honest, this was a little nerve racking. Let me remind you that it is quite dark by this “dock” – I think there was one tiny light. Suddenly these boats would appear out of nowhere, not anchored or anything, just held to the dock by the operator while people loaded. Then the boat would push off and completely disappear into the darkness within a few feet. How the boat was propelled, or where it went, I could not figure out until the very end (pretty cool actually, the operator stands on the front of the boat and grabs a series of overhead ropes to pull the boat along). Anyway, there were hundreds of glowworms on the cave ceiling, which was a pretty neat sight.
By this point it was about 4 or so, and time to get on the road to Taupo (about 2 hour’s drive). Mom, you may want to stop reading at this point. This was quite possibly the most harrowing drive of my life. The first hour was great – beautiful scenery, fun windy roads. However, at about 5PM, it 1) got really dark, because it’s the damn winter (almost) over here, and 2) started raining like I don’t think I have ever seen before. Keep in mind at this point I am absolutely in the middle of nowhere (I doubt I saw more than 20 cars between 4:30 and 6PM), driving on the left side of the road, and, as mentioned before, on windy roads (though not as much fun as before the dark and rain!). Anyway, since I had promised many of you before I left, I did not die, and eventually made it to the Great Lake (they call it Great Lake Taupo). Best part was, my hotel is about a mile from town, and I was hungry…so I had to get back in the car! I got some dinner, also got a bottle of wine from town (the guy said New Zealand is becoming known for it’s Pinot Noir and recommended a bottle…I don’t know anything about wine but I like it!), and then called it a night!
Since photo embedding was a major fail last time, this time I’m just going to upload them with the post. They won’t be positioned neatly through out, but hey, I’ll take what I can get at this point.
When we last saw our hero, he was about to embark on a 2 hour drive to the movie set from Hobbiton! And he did so successfully! Some traffic coming out of Auckland (I left at 8:30AM, so I guess I caught rush hour?), but I did make it by 11 (5 minutes before the tour!). The last 30 minutes of the drive were incredible - winding through hilly farms covered in (mostly) cows (huh?) and a few sheep! According to the hobbiton tours people, their farm is the only sheep farm in the area. WTF New Zealand, where are all your sheep!?
The tour was super neat too. Our guide was a huge Lord of the Rings nerd (I guess this is to be expected), and she knew all of the random facts. For example, the scene where Bilbo and Gandalf are smoking their pipes and blowing the smoke in rings and ships and whatever. Supposed to be filmed at sunset, but was actually filmed at 4AM since the sun rises on that side of the set. Also apparently those movies were filmed in 1999! When did I get so old!? My timing was pretty lucky - they had actually taken down almost the whole set, but they put it back together (including a new section in one of the photos above) for The Hobbit (coming to a theater near you this December). Go me! Although, soon they are going to turn the Green Dragon into a real pub where you can go have a drink on the tour, which I did not get to do. Next time!
It started raining almost as soon as the tour ended, again, go me. I drove back towards Hamilton and was planning to head straight for the hotel. Luckily it stopped raining just as I got to the Hamilton Gardens, so I decided to pop in. It was gorgeous, even though it is clearly not the right season now! The Italian Renaissance Garden was especially incredible (2 pictures above), and it was really peaceful and quiet - I think there were about 15 people there total.
The rain came back on and off, and it finally started raining for good around 4:30 so I headed to the hotel (much better than night one, this place is REALLY nice). Hung out for a little bit and flipped through my photos, then wandered off to find dinner. Ended up getting some delicious pad thai down the street - it’s still raining and very cold, so I didn’t wander too far.
And now, just trying to stave off sleep for a bit longer in the continual jet lag battle. Hey, I’ve already made it 3 hours longer than last night, not too bad! And I do have to get up early tomorrow for the caves (eeeek!), so I’ll probably call it a night in the near future. Later all!