Rotorua is the north island’s most popular tourist destination and home to New Zealand’s most intense thermal activity. It has mud pots, sulfur streams, steam vents, and a rotten smell wafting through the entire region, and, I would discover to my chagrin, a vast void of decent restaurants.
The further south we drove the more rain we hit. It might have been beautiful country out there, but from inside the car it just looked like a gray, wet lump of earth. We were tired of being stuck in our metal cage, hurtling 100 kph on the wrong side of the road, so when we finally arrived in Rotorua, let’s just say, we were far from unbiased. Speaking for myself, unbiased was a galaxy away from where my opinions were currently housed.
Under these conditions our arrival in Rotorua didn’t inspire any oohing and awing. It isn’t the quaint lake front town I was expecting. Rotorua has an American suburb feel to it: busy traffic signals, a large Woolworth’s, Dick Smith’s electronics, a KFC, even kids hanging out in the mall looking bored.
And the smell…
If you have ever been to Yellowstone you know the smell.
Like Fatty Arbuckle’s sweatsocks boiling in a pot of monkey piss.
Like the smell of Richard Simmons’s ejaculate. That bad!
Christians say sulfur is the smell of the devil, so everything was named Devil Something. Devil’s Home. Devil’s Playground. Devil’s Bath. Devil’s Concession Stand and Toilets.
Rotorua isn’t like Yellowstone, where you pay $20 to get into the park and then everything is free. No, each attraction in Rotorua is a different entity, requiring $25 or more for the pleasure of walking around, holding your nose, nodding at the comments of strangers and trying to think of something witty to say back, and, of course, taking pictures that won’t come out right anyway.
Confession: I wasn’t feeling it.
We did one of the hikes, Wai-O-Taupo, and that was enough.
There’s only so many steaming vats of emptiness you can stare into without becoming bored. (is that some kind of metaphor for reality TV?)
Only so many rust-colored lakes you can squint at.
We finished the loop in record time, probably, speeding through like we were being chased by hungry dogs.
Here’s another picture anyway…
After the hike we went back, drank some beers at the backpackers, studied our options, and figured out the best place to be that afternoon was the Polynesian Spa overlooking Lake Rotorua.
Ah, yes, the spa. A wise choice.
They pipe hot spring water into heated baths that overlook the lake. The baths were set at various temperatures from 38 degrees to 41 degrees. Ever so often a woman would come out with a thermometer attached to a long pole and test the water, to assure us that they were on top of it. The baths were filled with mostly older folks that sat relaxed in the milky water, soaking up the heat and steam and view, smiles on their rubbery faces.
We eagerly plopped in and leaned our head backs too. The weather was still disagreeable, but in that position I could care less, even when it started to rain.
I was already wet, so what? The contrast felt good. Even the noisy flock of gulls that were mating incessantly in front of us couldn’t have diminished the experience. You’d think that with the entire lake open they would take their private stuff elsewhere, but the birds carried on like we weren’t there, god bless them. It was fun to watch new bathers take a seat in the bath and then slowly notice what the birds were up to that was causing all the squawking and all the fuss, no matter the nationality, a tickled grin would appear on their face.
Perhaps it was placebo effect, but the water was making my body feel good – it even cleaned out the dirt in the crevices of my wedding ring.
We went from bath to bath to bath, testing out the temperatures, picky as Goldilocks, and probably stayed there for over two hours, as the tightness in our muscles gave up and our bones turned to jelly. Eventually we lugged our bodies out of the water, pruned-out and exhausted.
A busload of Japanese tourists pulled up and a group of about 40 stood in the doorway surveying the terrain, preparing to invade. It was a good time to get out, or maybe an awful time, because when I entered the locker room to shower and change I was confronted with the shocking sight of a dozen older, naked Japanese dudes standing around chatting nonchalantly.
The puritan-in-me cringed.
After the spa we took an expedition through the local supermarket and were thrilled to discover exotic cans of spaghetti and a shelf of foreign yogurt drinks for the missus. Looking back, the trip through the supermarket was more enjoyable than the morning hike. More fascinating. Especially the cans of yeast for home-brewers. We spent a good hour picking foodstuff off the shelf and turning it around in our hands like an archeologist unearthing a skull, finally selecting items that we could bring with us the next day to save some cash on the road, then returned to the backpackers for pasta and wine.
The next day was saved for Zorbing.
The deal with Zorbing is you give them a pile of cash, say your mortgage payment, and they throw you inside a giant rubber ball filled with a few gallons of warm water and roll you off the top of a hill. Before any of this happens, though, you waive off all your rights in case of death, and they take a picture of you to assist the morgue later on.
The ride only lasted about half a minute, which comes out to $2 dollars a second, but it was worth every cent. You toss back and forth like you’re in a dishwasher, shouting like a kid in a moon bounce. You’re unable to tell the ground from the sky, up from down, your breakfast from last night’s dinner. It’s an exhilarating experience. One that makes you feel like a kid again.
When you get to the bottom and they let you out, you sort of squeeze out with a flush of water, the ladies in line compared it to a birth. Whoosh! Out you pop with a stupid grin on your face, they tell you to put your hands in the air and you comply; they take your picture, looking wet and confused, and then it’s all over.
That’s Zorbing. I hear it’s coming to America. There’s hope for us yet.
After that we were on the road north again because we had to get close to the Airport for an early morning flight. The good news is we had all day to kill.
At one point we ventured off the main roadway to track down a park. The road led pass palatial horse farms, the area being known for equestrian sports, and eventually climbed into the hills till it ran pass a narrow strip of grass, I suppose, that constituted the park. A small stone edifice marked the spot where a sanatorium used to operate around the turn of the century.
The view was quite fetching, I wondered what the crazy kiwis 100 years ago used to think of it?
After the park we didn’t stop again till Hamilton, a large college town and New Zealand’s most populated inland city. The dude who came up with Rocky Horror Picture Show dreamed it up while working in a B-movie theater here… they tore down the theater but erected a statue to mark the spot.
That’s kinda cool. And unlike Rotorua, where finding a decent watering hole beguiled us terribly, finding a proper establishment to consume some suds came quite easily in Hamilton, the main road through the CBD containing bar after bar, restaurant after restaurant for our needs.
We drank a few pints, trying new local beers every chance, at a half empty sports bar in the lobby of the Sky City Hamilton, (our attachment to the hotel was very strong after Auckland), and ate some Mongolian BBQ; but really, it was nothing to write home about… so I won’t.
And I won’t even begin to tell you about the Budget Motel by the airport, with the bolted down remote control, and the alarm clock we had to borrow from the proprietor so it wouldn’t get stolen, and the shrieks we heard at 2 in the morning.
But at least we got some sleep…
Because the next day we were at the airport at sunrise. We didn’t yet know it but we were to share the plane with Australian Boy’s National Choir, a tired bunch who fell asleep in their blazers. They were on their final leg of their flight from Los Angeles, after touring the States.
When the plane landed, the pilot pointed out the Airbus sitting on the runway to the left side of the plane. Marina asked me, “what’s the airbus?” The little red-headed kid next to us who had slept the entire time from Auckland, even missing out on breakfast, finally showed some sign of life when he piped up, “it’s a very nice plane,” in a polite and adorably perky Aussie accent that the missus would imitate throughout the remainder of the trip. Australian school kids all wear tidy uniforms, it’s very easy to make fun of them.
But he was right, the Airbus is a very nice plane.
But this isn’t about him, or the Airbus, it’s about me, dammit.
We made it. We were in Australia.
Even though it was the pilot who did all the work, I feel like just getting here is some sort of achievement.
Now… where are those dang kangaroos?