From Waitomo we headed east. One of the nice things about NZ is it is much smaller than Australia or the US. Drive times here are much smaller, so we can see more places in a much shorter time. It was only about a three hour drive from Otorohanga to our next destination, Rotorua.
Rotorua is an interesting town. Surrounded by lovely lakes and rivers, it is a good size town, and one of many vacation destinations for Kiwis and travelers alike. It is largely a resort town, and the place is full of hotels, motels, holiday parks, and other things like restaurants that cater to travelers.
It is continually amazing to me how busy everything has been. In theory I know it is high season, being summer break for the schoolies and all that, but I am still continually amazed by the fact that even a town as full of lodgings as Rotorua was so full. A large majority of the places to stay had their no vacancy signs lit, and the ones that didn’t were expensive. As a result, we didn’t stay in town.
I can tell you this from our brief visit though. Like most everywhere in NZ, if you have some money to spend and an adventurous spirit, it would be a fun place to stay. There are adventure sports galore to participate in; White water rafting, rope courses, zorbing, and numerous other such things abound near Rotorua. None of the activities are cheap though, so be prepared to spend some dollars.
After our hasty exit from town we headed a bit south to a small farming town called Wai-o-tapu. The town is really just a tavern, where we got lodgings for the night and had dinner and beer, and a gas station. It cost us about $90 NZ for the three of us for a night. The lodgings were simple, two sets of bunk beds with a shared bathroom and shower room, but the staff was nice and the food wasn’t bad. They also had free coffee, toast, and oatmeal available for guests, which was a nice start to the day.
What the town does have, well the whole region really including Rotorua, is a wide variety of geothermal related attractions. Most of them you have to pay for of course, but there are a couple of free, natural pools around Wai-o-tapu that are easily reachable. We visited the hot/cold pool three times in the less then 24 hours we were there. It is a wonderful little stream where the natural spring brings deliciously hot water into a colder creek. Where the two meet the water is just divine. One could easily spend hours relaxing in the wonderfully warm water. Don’t put your head under though as the sand houses an amoeba that can cause meningitis.
There is also a lovely little walk up a mountain a few kms outside of town. Rainbow Mountain, without a phone handy I have been really bad about noting down details so I may have the name wrong, is a 3.5k track that winds through fern heavy forests. The trail is well maintained and yet still tough enough to feel like an accomplishment at the end. We had intermittent rain through out the walk, so the track was a bit muddy and slippery in places, but it was still a wonderful walk. The view from the top is spectacular, and I can imagine that on a clear day one could see for quite far in any direction. Even with the low lying clouds blocking some of our view, it was a pretty sight. The track is also a popular mountain biking trail, but the down hill part is on a separate road, so you don’t have to worry about dodging fast moving bikes.
From Wai-o-tapu we headed south to the Lake Taupo region. We stopped briefly in town so Courtney could get her ear checked out again and so we could do some food shopping. We stayed in Turangi, and a funny little caravan park called Club Habitat. We stayed in a little cabin with a pair of bunk beds, a table, and a sink. The bathroom was a few doors down. The park had a decent kitchen as well. For the price, it was a good place to stay.
The reason we came down this way was to see a trio of mountains, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu. These mountains are the centerpieces of a beautiful national park named after Tongariro, the largest of the three mountains. We started our visit in the ski town of Whakapappa, where we chose to do a lovely little walk. The Taranaki Falls Loop is a 6km trek through beautiful alpine terrain to, surprise surprise, Taranaki Falls. The hike was beautiful, frequently following a lovely river with the mountains looming in the cloud shrouded distance. The falls were cool as well. The track goes by both the bottom and the top of the falls, so you get to see it from both angles. The whole trip took about two hours.
Beyond being a beautiful park and wonderful walk, there was another reason we, and many others, visit the park. Mount Ngauruhoe is the one and only Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Though shorter then Tongariro, it is the only mountain of the three in the park that has a conical top, being the only single tube volcano of the three. I tried to get a good picture of them all, but the clouds were not helping me out. We couldn’t see much more then half of Tongariro. The tip of Ngauruhoe did partly come out for me though.
We headed north after our time around the mountains. I am writing in retrospect, so my timeline isn’t perfect here, but I know there are a few things we did on our way up to Coromandel. We stopped at and did a cool walk at a place with one of the best names I have come across in a while. The park is called Craters of the Moon, and it consists of a wooden boardwalk that winds through an area of small geothermal craters that are all releasing clouds of steam. The walk was nice, even if the whole place smelled of sulphur.
We also stopped in Matamata, which is known as the home of the hobbits. The movie set where Mr. Jackson created the shire is just out side of town, and you can take a full on tour starting at the information center in town. You can’t miss the building as it is painted up like a hobbit house. For an adult, the tour cost $80 NZ, and we felt it wasn’t worth it, so we skipped it. We did get a picture of the info center though.
This whole area has been by far my favorite part of the trip (and I can say that because its now been a few weeks since we were there). The hot pools were fantastic and the mountains were amazing. We had a wonderful time with all of it and I would go back in a heartbeat.