Arsenic and Old… Traditions

I spent a wonderful, sulfur-smelling, jam packed day in Rotorua on Tuesday.

It started with me visiting two different geo-thermal areas, Wai-O-Tapu before lunch and Waimangu after. The area is located within a “super volcano” or caldera, which explains all the geo-thermal activity.

On our way to the “parks”, we stopped at a boiling mud hole:

Before entering Wai-O-Tapu, we watched their geyser be induced by one of the guides throwing some ecologically friendly surfactant. The geyser is fairly regular without the surfactant, but that means it will go every 24-72 hours, disappointing for visitors.

Wai-O-Tapu has pools of various colors caused by different mineral and metal deposits (such as arsenic, antimony, and sulfur). You actually wouldn’t want to spend too much time next to some of the fumeroles(?) at the bottom of the path, due to the heavy metals or other elements in the vapor. But in the short term, it’s well worth a visit, as you see these pools of water with different colors you’d never expect. Here’s the most striking:


Because it was a cold day, the steam was intense, and the water levels were also fairly low, which meant it was a bit hard to see all the colors you might see on another day. Apparently each day the colors can be different. A German girl on my shuttle and I joined a guided walk, though I left it part way to go further on the path before my transfer to Waimangu.

Waimangu is totally different. Unlike Wai-O-Tapu, where much of the track goes through rock, the trail in Waimangu descends somewhat steeply through bush. It’s like a walk in the woods where giant ferns grow and the lakes steam and bubble, and you expect to come across a dinosaur around the corner.

I met a nice couple while walking through Waimangu and we ended up walking together for much of it. That made this city girl more comfortable – I like knowing there is at least one other human being around, especially when walking through bush where it would be relatively easy to twist an ankle and not have anyone around to help. Apparently the guy is in a band called the Thomas Brothers. (There, I’ve now put in a plug for the band! Always interesting to see someone’s performance when you’ve randomly met them.)

Waimangu is a long enough trail that they suggest walking out and taking a bus back. There are three bus stops and I’d originally thought I would have time to go to the end, but it seemed like we were cutting it close by the time we got to the second stop, and I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to the shuttle on time. Luckily the bus passed us at that stop and the driver said he’d wait for us at the third stop so we could see the lake, we just needed to hurry a bit. He was so nice!


After that, I got back on the shuttle and made a flying visit to a tasting room for a boutique winery called Volcanic Hills, that a friend had recommended. It is located at the top of a hill at the edge of Rotorua, and you take a gondola up there. On the way up, I remembered how much I hate heights, but on the way down, after tasting five different fantastic wines, I did a lot better! I wish I could have brought back several bottles but I was running short on time before my Maori cultural performance and dinner and I didn’t want to carry bottles for the next two weeks. However, I am now regretting that decision. Oh well, the view, the wine, and the person leading the tasting all contributed to a lovely if short experience.

I headed back down the hill, rejoined the German girl I’d met on the shuttle to Wai-O-Tapu, and we headed a little down the road to Mitai, a Maori cultural performance and dinner (a hangi, where meat and kumara – sweet potatoes – are steamed in the ground).

It was a great experience, very polished and aimed at tourists but still well worth seeing. The dances were similar to what I had seen in Auckland. They had us delegate a “chief”, who was designated since he called himself out as the only vegetarian there! (Both Australia and New Zealand are such meat-loving countries!) He was such a good sport! Part of the tradition (incorporated into the show) was that the Mitai tribe would offer a song, and then our “tribe” would as well. There was a college group there who was ready and apparently prepped to sing, but our “chief” actually had a Native American flute and decided to play it! At the end of the performance, before dinner, they also had us practice part of a haka (war dance).  It was a lovely performance and a lot of fun, and the dinner after was tasty.

I had sprung for the additional night walk through a zoo/sanctuary to see the kiwis, who are nocturnal. I figured it might be the only chance I had to see live kiwi birds, and I’m glad I went. I also saw some glowworms at the beginning of the walk, tiny blue pinpricks of light over a pond. If (hopefully when) I return to New Zealand, I want to see the glowworms in Waitomo Caves. These whetted my appetite to see more!

Eggs Gone Bad

Monday morning I took a three and a half hour bus ride from Auckland to Rotorua. The countryside as we approached Rotorua was filled with green hills of a shape I haven’t seen elsewhere. I can only figure they are a product of the area’s geothermal/volcanic activity. They are smallish in terms of the circumference of the base, but very steep with a very rounded top. Many looked like they should have to entrance to a hobbit house peering out, not surprising since the Hobbiton set wasn’t that far away from part of the bus’s itinerary.

The host of my B&B picked me up and suggested some activities for the afternoon. I took a great hour walk to get back to downtown, starting out through anyone forest and then passing through several (smelly) areas of geothermal activity called Sulfur Bay. It’s called that for a reason – parts of Rotorua where you can see steam escaping from the earth smell like rotten eggs due to the sulfur content in the escaping vapor. I was really excited to walk through these area but also terrified, as it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the gravel of the path with the gravel of the unstable dangerous ground. Not surprisingly however, I made it through in one piece and without accidentally putting my foot through unstable ground into an acidic and scalding basin of water.

I then took a little bus tour to orient must to the city. I wrapped up the evening pretty early – it’s been a lot of early mornings.

Kia Ora! Hello from Auckland!

Despite my best intentions to get out early to see all I could see in my one day in Auckland, I had quite a leisurely morning at the B&B I was staying at. This B&B was a self-indulgent splurge, and was well worth it after the physical challenges of the prior few days.

To start, I walked over to the museum. (Technically called the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the war-related exhibits only take up the top floor.)


I started out walking through some of the first floor galleries, but the real gem in my opinion is the Maori Court area, full of various Maori artifacts.


This carving is from the prow of a Waka, or war boat.


The protruding tongue visible in many of the carvings is reminiscent of the bulging eyes and stuck out tongue displayed by men during the haka (or war dance). It denotes ferocity and aggression in a haka, or more simply passion, if I understood correctly, in other contexts. If you want to see a haka, the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks performs one prior to each match.

I learned this because I attended the half hour cultural performance at the museum, which was well worth the additional fee. They demonstrated a number of songs and dances, including the haka and the poi dance. Poi are balls attached to a cord, which dancers use to make rhythms and as an extension of their bodies while dancing.

It hadn’t quite clicked until the cultural performance that Maori are related to other Pacific Islanders, including Hawaiians. The songs and dances sparked that realization, however.

I did check out the second floor of the museum quite briefly. There are natural history exhibits on that floor but I was ready to go out and explore the downtown or CBD.

I walked through a park called the Domain on my way down the hill from the museum to the CBD. There were some amazing huge old trees on the way.


Once downtown, I checked where my bus would leave the following morning, then headed up to the i-site (tourist information center) in the basement of the Skytower. The crazies were out, making the latter part of the walk rather unpleasant.

I didn’t love the CBD, but Auckland is a city of suburbs that I think contain more charm and character. The host at my B&B had suggested that I go out to one of the islands in the Auckland harbor, and since I didn’t have much time, he suggested Devonport. It’s got historical seaside homes and two volcanoes, one of which I climbed (North Head). North Head used to have a military post on it, so there are some lookouts and such you can explore from the top. There’s also a splendid view of the CBD.


The paths up are through lush green grass that is delightfully springy, like a manicured lawn. The benefit of growing on an old volcano, I expect, plus obvious city maintenance.

It started raining so I took the ferry back to the CBD and a bus back to Parnell, where I was staying. It seemed fitting to conclude my first full day in New Zealand with some New Zealand lamb and wine (pinot noir), so I did!