There’ll be a brief detour from museums this week, as I bring you two (yes, two!) posts on what most normal people go to New Zealand to see: natural wonders. However, me being me, I have compressed everything nature-related into these two posts (one per island) so I can get back to museums and other things that don’t involve going outside as soon as possible. As you might expect, we saw a lot that was scenic up on the North Island. Not all just sheep, as this picture may have you believe (to be honest, we probably saw more cows than sheep because of how big the dairy industry is on the North Island, but there were still sheep. Lots of them), but lots of other things as well, which I’ll talk a little about here (and show you photos, of course!).
I already mentioned the kauri forests in my post about the Kauri Museum, but here’s a couple more photos. Although all the walks we saw listed were fairly short (from 5-20 minutes), and you have to wash off your shoes before entering and leaving the trails, which made my jandals so unfortunately squeaky that everyone else in the forest was staring as me as I literally squeaked past them, I think they’re very worth visiting, especially to see Tane Mahuta and the other large trees. Just be aware that if you’re prone to motion sickness, the road through the forests will not be your friend.
I also briefly mentioned Opo the Friendly Dolphin in another post, but here is the actual statue paying tribute to her, in tiny little Opononi (really we only stopped so I could use the toilet, so discovering this was a nice bonus. And speaking of public toilets, New Zealand has some surprisingly famous ones, like the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, where we also availed ourselves of the facilities. They are genuinely worth stopping for, (though perhaps not detouring for) even if you don’t need the loo).
We spent a day in Russell; formerly known as the “hellhole of the South Pacific,” it is now very touristy and apparently full of wealthy British expats. I did not visit their museum, because this was early on in the trip when I still balked at paying $10 for a tiny museum, but isn’t the bay gorgeous?
We also saw a few waterfalls. We visited the very pretty Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri (picture on the left) on a rainy day when there wasn’t much else to do, and they were still lovely. Much more aggressive, and slightly less picturesque, were the Huka Falls outside Taupo. When I say aggressive, I mean it, and these were also somewhat spoiled by the high concentration of tourists here. Whereas Rainbow Falls was more or less deserted, as was the case at most of the attractions we visited in Northland (not that I’m complaining!).
One of the things I was genuinely really excited about seeing (as isn’t always the case with nature-related stuff) was the glow worm caves in Waitomo. I mean, I love caves, and I enjoy glowing lights, so what wasn’t to like? At the recommendation both of a guidebook, and someone who had actually been on the tour (and indirectly, David Attenborough, who filmed there twice), we booked our “cave experience” in advance with Spellbound. They have a smaller operation than many of the other tour companies, and only take a max of twelve people per tour, which was a selling point for me with my hatred of crowds (they are admittedly pricy, at $75 per head, but so are all the other tours, and it is a good three and a half hours long). Basically, the ceilings (and walls) of these caves glow because of these fly larvae who live inside and feed on juices (I think) from the insects who fly in. They let down these little threads to catch the insects, and glow to attract them in the first place. I didn’t include any pictures of the glowing, because it is very hard to photograph, but I’m pretty sure there’s some on the Spellbound website I linked to. Trust me, it is pretty amazing. They take you through on a small boat in complete darkness for a good half an hour so you have plenty of time to see and appreciate them. I sense it would be quite romantic if you weren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers.
They then give you a hot beverage of your choice (including hot chocolate, which will always be my hot beverage of choice if there’s no chai about) with biscuits, and take you inside the Weta Cave, which was the bit I was apprehensive about. I mentioned cave wetas in my post on the Auckland Museum; essentially, they are ugly giant grasshoppery things with super long, skinny legs, kind of like a daddy-long-legs, only with a big fat gross grasshopper body. From the name “Weta Cave,” I imagined they’d be crawling over everything in the place, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style, but nope, they keep to themselves in one small corner, so even the bug-averse like me can deal. Really, the Weta Cave was just a normal kind of cave, but with some moa bones and a few more glow worms hidden inside. The whole experience was a really awesome time, and I highly recommend the Waitomo Caves to anyone who visits New Zealand. I thought Spellbound were great, though I can’t attest to the quality of the other tour operators. Oh, and make sure you stop for a “big azz” real fruit ice cream at the farm shop on the way into Waitomo. Very tasty, and indeed big-ass (though I suspect they were going for “big as” rather than big-ass, that’s not going to stop me from calling them big-ass ice creams).
We made the mistake of spending a night in Rotorua. If it doesn’t bill itself as the stinkiest place on Earth, it probably should. The whole town, and I mean the whole damn town, reeks of horrible sulphurous rotting eggs. And you don’t even get used to the smell. You might briefly stop noticing it, but then you breathe in especially deeply, and there it is again. Our motel was grim too, which didn’t help. But anyway, the reason Rotorua is so stinky is because it is in a major volcanic activity zone, and there are these steaming mud pools all over town that give off the stench. You can see some of them for free in the town park, which is probably worth doing if you can bear the odours, because staring down into the burping primordial ooze is really something. The other picture is of the Rotorua Museum, which I did not go in (too anxious to escape the reek), but it is in such a beautiful colonial style building (a former bathhouse) that I wanted to show it to you anyway.
Finally, there is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, just outside Rotorua, which is also pretty incredible (I kept jokingly referring to it as a geologist’s wet dream, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong). It bills itself as “the world’s youngest geothermal system” because the most recent volcanic eruption here was in the 1970s, and judging by all the steaming and burbling going on, I have to believe there’s going to be another one in the near future. There are a number of walks you can do around it (well, really it’s all on the same trail, but you have options of different lengths if you take the bus back, and there’s also a “hike” off the main walking path).
First, the good: I’m not really a rock person, but even I could appreciate the awesomeness of many of the geologic features (aka, hot geothermal action). You could actually see the water boiling in some of the pools, and other pools were fun colours on account of minerals, or so surrounded with ferns they looked like dinosaurs could have lived there (though they couldn’t have, most of the park was formed following an exceptionally large eruption in 1917). There were also points of interest what seemed like every ten metres or so throughout the park, so we didn’t have a chance to get bored, even though we did about two and a half hours of walking, which is about an hour and a half more than I find ideal.
Now, the bad: it costs 37 NZD per person to get in, which seems like a fortune to pay for a walk you’re taking yourself. Granted, the paths are very well maintained, especially relative to British trails I’ve walked on, but that’s still very expensive for a damn walk. Also, they seem to grossly overestimate the difficulty of the trails, perhaps to decrease any liability if someone gets injured. We rocked up wearing Converse, because I don’t even own special walking shoes. I mean, Chuckie T’s are the only kind of sneakers I’ve owned since I was 13 (I went through a brief Vans skatery phase in middle school, but it didn’t last), and my feet are used to them; generally speaking, if I can’t do something athletic whilst wearing Converse, I’m not going to do it at all. So, the girl selling tickets took one look at us, and advised us not to do the hike portion of the trail unless we had special hiking boots. Being stubborn, and seeing the excellent condition of the rest of the trail, we did it anyway, and there is no way you need any kind of special footwear. The whole path is well-packed dirt and gravel, and there’s steps up the steep parts. In fact, climbing the millions of steps up to the trail was the only difficult part of the hike; the rest was level and easy.
The reason this annoys me is because I feel their attitude might put some people off, as it did me initially, when in fact you don’t need any special equipment to do this walk or “hike;” any comfortable shoes with some kind of tread will be sufficient. Yes, even Converse high tops with no socks, as I proved (because I don’t mind having stinky feet). So if you can stomach paying a fortune to do a walk, I think this is a very cool thing to do, especially because we didn’t see any other people on the trail until we were walking back up it (most people only walk down and get the bus back, and I can see why; the way back is mostly uphill), perhaps because the admissions desk lady had scared them all away by telling them how challenging the walk is. If you have a reasonable level of fitness, you’ll do fine.
I suppose that’s it for the nature-y stuff we did on the North Island, but if you like mountains, stay tuned, as the South Island is coming up later this week!