Travelling during the low season has many advantages, but only if you’re willing to adapt your plans according to weather forecasts. My original plan was to head straight to Tongariro National Park from Wanganui. This turned out being a terrible idea, the weather in the mountains was dreadful, with snowfall, strong wind and ridiculously cold temperatures. It did seem like it would clear up over the weekend though. So I had five days until then. I decided to travel up to Rotorua, which is in fact two hours north of the National Park. The town is famous for its geothermal activity and Maori culture (35% of the town’s population is Maori, compared to 15% nationwide). At least I would probably find stuff to do there, even in bad weather.
But Rotorua is quite far away from Wanganui, it took three buses and more than five hours to get there. There was no way I could’ve hitchhike that far in one day. Just like on most roads in this country, the drive was very scenic, passing through the “Desert Road” as people call it: empty, arid land on each side of the highway, and a pile of clouds in the distance hiding Tongariro’s volcanoes on the left hand side. Seeing those comforted me in my decision to head north first.
A strong smell of sulphur greeted us about twenty minutes before entering Rotorua, reminding me of Iceland. The hostel I chose has a climbing gym in the basement, hell yeah! But other than that, the place was quite empty and not particularly nice. In my dorm I had the surprise to bump into a German guy I’d met in Taranaki.
It had rained all day and the next day, Thursday, was no better. I was feeling tired and lazy and I only managed to get a move on mid afternoon when the weather cleared up: I took a local bus to the impressive Redwoods (easier to remember than “Whakarewarewa”, the Maori name), a popular for biking and horse riding. The forest was first planted as an experiment on the suitability of local and exotic trees for commercial planting, which made sense since there were more and more tree species being brought into the country at the time for wood trade. I found the Californian Redwoods especially photogenic.
I soon got back to the town centre and treated myself to a spa session in Rotorua’s famous mineral hot pools. I thought it could only be good for my knees, ankles and back after so much walking with a big pack. There’s also a public park nearby where steam randomly pops out of the pavement in some areas!
Later in the evening the weekly night market was on, but I missed a flashmob haka, I would have loved to see one in real life, but who knows I might still get a chance. I refuse to go on one of these expensive Maori culture package tours, it just feels fake, I much prefer to chat with perfectly normal, modern-day kiwis of Maori descent. After the market I settled down with a few other people at the hostel to watch the four-hour long extended version of Lord of the Ring’s third film, the Return of the King. I hadn’t watched it in years, it’s still as good.
These few lazy days were perfect, for some reason I was feeling a bit worn out, and my last day in Rotorua was not much busier. I first had a bit of an adventure with Singapore Airlines trying to find the references of my return flight: they hadn’t sent me any confirmation e-mail because of some technical problem and they couldn’t find any reservation under my name. But the transaction had been done and the 600€ had disappeared from my account… In the end I managed to recover a deleted screenshot of my flight details and it was all good. By the time I got that sorted out, the morning had gone on me so I changed my plans… I walked to Te Puia, a sort of visitor centre which concentrates Maori stuff, geothermal stuff and a kiwi house. I have to say I wasn’t a big fan: it was stupid expensive to get in. The part on Maori history and culture was far less extensive than Te Papa museum, but there were some nice wood sculptures and carvings.
The mud pools and geyser were cool but you can see the same (if not better) things in Iceland for free. The whole atmosphere of the place was totally worth coming for though, with the smell, bubbling sounds, fumes and nice views.
After that slight disappointment (but at least I know better not to go to these places now) I went back to my hostel to finally check the climbing gym out.
I had been watching the weather forecast for Tongariro National Park very closely and it finally seemed to be easing up from Sunday on. I took a bus on Saturday to National Park village, still with the hope of going out walking there despite the winter conditions.