Monday, June 05, 2006

Making our way through the mist

According to many of the travel guides, Rotorua is by far the most popular (and unfortunately therefore the most commercialized) tourist destination on the North Island. And that was before the Lord of the Rings tie-ins. Our usual 'ugh' reaction to touristy places would normally cause us to give the place a wide berth, but we also realized that tourist destinations are usually popular for a reason. So on our first full day on the North Island we piled in to the cars and caravanned down to Rotorua with Warren, Cyrel and Aaron, good friends of ours from Corvallis who are spending six months in Tauranga (in the Bay of Plenty).

Rotorua today is famous primarily for three things: adventure sports/activities (it's the North Island's answer to Queenstown), Maori culture, and geothermal activity. We dipped our toe into the adventure pools with Brian's and Aaron's Zorbing exploits, which was covered in an earlier entry. We also had the opportunity to participate in and attend a number of Maori cultural experiences, but that will also be covered in a separate entry.

New Zealand straddles two tectonic plates: the Pacific and Indian/Australian plate, with the latter slowly being submerged under the former. This has led to much of the scenery we've been admiring throughout the trips, from the jagged southern Alps on the south island to the volcano cones and geothermic activity in the North Island. In fact the 250 km Taupo Volcanic Zone (which includes the Rotorua Lake District) is actually part of the famous Pacific Ring of Fire.

It was easy to tell when we were approaching the area as we drove in: clouds of steam rising from fields and streams and gullies and the distinctive odor of sulfur everywhere. We stopped at the very worthwhile Te Puia park, which encompasses the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Maori cultural performances, a kiwi bird house, and the impressive Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. (Think that word is hard to pronounce? Hint, "Wh" is pronounced like "F"....and actually, that's short of the full name: Te Whakarewarewatana o te Ope Taua a Wahiao. We're still working on getting our tongues around that.....)

The Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley contains around 500 pools (we LOVE mud pools!) and more than 65 geyser vents. The most prominent is the powerful Pohutu geyser and its harbinger, the Prince of Wales' Feathers geyser, which always goes off before Pohutu erupts. We had a great time wandering this active landscape, watching the boiling mud bubble and the steam drifting up through the rocks. Our favorite moments though were probably being engulfed in the hot steam of the geysers and easing our muscles lying on the hot rocks. I wish we had spent more time in this area (we were hurrying off to another appointment); it makes me itch for a return visit to Yellowstone when we get home.

Te Puia's admission is expensive, but we found that the package of geothermic activity, Maori cultural events, fauna and flora, and interpretive services offered by the guides made it a worthwhile expenditure. We recommend it to any of you looking for substance in the tourist glitz of Rotorua.


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