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Central North Island Roadtrip: Turangi, Taupo, Rotorua, Whanganui

Central North Island Roadtrip: Turangi, Taupo, Rotorua, Whanganui

Before we were to enter the soul-crushing drudgery of office life once more, we spotted a four night opportunity to go explore New Zealand. So we made some hasty plans, threw the tent in the car and hit the road.

19.11.2015 - 23.11.2015

19.11.2015 – 23.11.2015

Before we left home, Kate got busy in the kitchen. The goal was to make as much of the food we needed on the trip before we left, so we didn’t have to worry about it. The last thing you want to do after driving five hours and putting a tent up at dusk is preparing a meal! She made a mean quiche for the first drive, bacon and egg scones for breakfasts, a lamb tagine and a chilli sausage casserole. I’m a lucky man! We used campsite microwaves for everything – so easy and yum.

Our wee city car loaded, yet surprisingly empty, we left Wellington in the afternoon. Leaving the city behind and driving through the New Zealand countryside was lovely. I was chuffed to re-visit my own country and Kate was enjoying it for the first time.

After three hours’ driving, the endless parade of paddocks began to be infested with tussock grasses, and we shortly found ourselves on the volcanic plateau. The volcanic plateau is a huge area of semi-arid highland just south of Lake Taupo, in the centre of the North Island. Lake Taupo is the reason for it – it’s a super volcano, and 17,000 odd years ago it blew the whole area to pieces, forming itself. It blew again 2,000 years ago, still enormously but thankfully less so. There are written remarks from the Roman empire, and from China, of seeing the effect of the ash floating around the world! So here’s hoping it doesn’t happen again in any hurry. In the meantime, it is pretty picturesque – here’s Mt Ruapehu:

Mt Ruapehu

Mt Ruapehu on the road north. Here it is erupting in 1996.

As we neared our first stop, the small town of Turangi, we had to pull to the side of the road to allow two houses to pass. Thank goodness we didn’t encounter them on the desert road!

House-trucks

A camper more cumbersome than Dotty!

Turangi is on the southern tip of Lake Taupo. If you’re not big on trout there’s not much going, but five minutes east are the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. For $10 you get a private mineral pool for 20 minutes, which at 41ºC is more than enough time to boil the aches out of your joints! The plan was to take a soak after the four hour drive up, but after getting the tent up we were out of time – so we settled in for our evening in the tent.

Yes you read that correctly – we used the tent. Inside we were using a big queen air mattress, glamping it up. Unfortunately they work better in theory than in practice – with both of us thrashing about, it was like trying to sleep on a bouncy castle. Neither of us got a lot of sleep, so we were happy to get in the pools in the morning.

One of the private pools at Tokaanu

One of the private pools at Tokaanu

I like these pools – they’ve been $10 forever, the staff are rude bastards and the pools are just slabs of concrete. Any other outfit would have tidied that place up, kicked it upmarket and less unique for it – I wonder why they haven’t? Whatever the reason, it’s a basic gem. After our soak, we took a quick look at the adjoining thermal walk. Walking through the mossy forest was lovely – spotting bubbling mud was more so. The smell of rotten eggs floated through the forest, and pools of crystal clear boiling water surrounded the path. It’s worth a look if you’re driving by – some thermal interest without the crowds.

Kate and I enjoying our walk

Kate and I enjoying our walk

One of the boiling pools

One of the boiling pools

We then drove on to Taupo, on the north shore of the lake. As we pulled out of Turangi, some idiot pulled out onto our side of the 70km highway to drive south – the first in a number of terrible bits of driving we witnessed by (one can only assume) tourists – no wonder people throw their keys away!

Pumice still on the shores of Lake Taupo

Pumice still on the shores of Lake Taupo

At Taupo we popped in to the Taupo Museum and Art Gallery. A five dollar entry fee is enough to keep tourists away and we had a lot of space to ourselves as we wandered throughout. Front and centre is a Maori meeting house, inside displaying a bunch of traditional tukutuku and other amazing Maori craft.

Meeting house in Taupo museum

Meeting house in Taupo museum

My mum and sister have been working through qualifications in Maori weaving the last few years. Their interest and continued progress has created more awareness and appreciation for these Maori crafts for me, and with an eye of what they’d be appreciating, I am appreciating it far more myself! So, good on you guys – I am so glad the Maori weren’t pushovers and maintain their unique culture. I’m jealous really, what’ve us Pakeha got but ‘we came from Britain!’

The art gallery section had two exhibitions on. One was from an established artist depicting domestic abuse which wasn’t so cheery – but the other was a display by local disabled young people. The room was chock-full of great craft ideas, happy colours and nice themes – it was such a welcome contrast to the ‘normal-minded’ horror show in the other room. Kate got thinking and was inspired to try similar crafts at home.

The Taupo garden that won the 2004 Chelsea flower show in Swingin London.

The Taupo garden that won the 2004 Chelsea flower show in Swingin London. They’re very proud!

Just north of Taupo are the Huka falls, part of the Waikato river draining from Lake Taupo. It’s our biggest river, and it’s a small channel. 220,000 litres of water a second roar through, and we poked our noses in. It’s illegal to kayak it, but apparently people sneak in and do it in the evening. Here’s a video.

The Huka Falls

The Huka Falls

Next we visited the Huka Prawn Park. I thought Kate would get a kick out of it, and I was right – it was a real surprise gem for both of us!

This guy is everywhere at the Huka Prawn Park!

This guy is everywhere at the Huka Prawn Park!

The prawn park is next to a geothermal powerstation. They use the extra heat from the piped steam to heat water to grow weird Malaysian prawns. It’s been going since 1987 but it was the first I’ve heard of it!

They have a lovely restaurant there, and initially the whole park was there just to provide prawns to the restaurant. They still don’t sell their prawns, just cook them in the restaurant (which is pretty neat) – but after a marketting genius popped by a few years ago, for $28 they’ll give you a bamboo rod, cut ox heart and a bucket of ice water and let you loose on the pools to catch your own prawns. After a great wee tour of the breeding facility (which was worth the visit in itself) we leapt in to catching prawns with gusto.

Kate with one of her prawns

Kate with one of her prawns

Kate was a prawning machine, catching our first five prawns. More manly than me, she’d unhook the terrifying buggers too.

The hours rolled by. Kate wouldn’t leave. The restaurant closed, Kate wouldn’t leave. Eventually the wind caught our bait container and it tumbled in to the pool. I reached to pull it out, lifted my line and found a prawn hanging on it; this distraction lost us the bait, but we got one more prawn! So we put our seven prawns in the chiller and headed on to Rotorua.

Rotorua is the tourist Mecca of the North Island – Rotovegas we call it – and it smells like rotten eggs. The sulphur stink from countless thermal vents dot the landscape, and almost all accommodation has a natural thermal pool to soak in. It was a pleasant surprise to find our campsite was no exception and while Kate had a kip (she had a massive headache – but reeeally loved prawning) I enjoyed a nice soak, watching a tui sing from a nearby flax bush and just having a blissed out, New Zealand is alright moment.

Our setup

Our setup. At $40 a night, saved us a bit of dosh to spend on everything else, and fun too!

Happily we had retired the big air mattress, purchasing some self-inflating mats in Taupo. Through exhaustion we had a great sleep and headed to the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland in the morning.

Wai-o-tapu is a geothermal hotbed and pretty touristy. In the shop there was this neat magnet-cum-silver-fern-on-bikini-bottom-cum-bottle-opener, that sort of thing. I was on the cusp of purchasing it, but we were keen to beat the tourist hordes.

Bubbling mud at Wai-o-tapu

Bubbling mud at Wai-o-tapu

We saw some neat thermal formations and things. I’m not sure what to say. The jewel in the crown is the Champagne pool, a huge aqua coloured pool, bubbling CO2 and ringed by the strongest orange mineral deposits you’re likely to see in nature. When the wind changed and blew the steam away, it’s an amazing sight!

The Champagne pool

The Champagne pool

There’s a wee bridge next to the champagne pool as you cross the mineral-ladden shallows. I noticed some douchebag was bending over, with his finger in the water. As we got closer, I saw what he’d written in the minerals which take thousands of years to form: ‘I love you’. He took a photo of that and walked on – what a git. Not to mention I saw an older ‘I love you’ earlier along the bridge – at least be original, dick! I hope the object of his affection responded in kind, but sadly I suspect not.

Said vandalising douche.

Said vandalising douche.

All too soon we had to high-tail it off the thermal circuit, to get to the Lady Knox Geyser, where at 10:15 every morning man sticks his finger in one of mother nature’s orifices and makes her squirt. (Sorry.)

We drive up with 500 other people, park in a carpark bigger than most malls and sit in stadium seating the Romans would’ve been proud of. We look at this suspiciously fake looking pile of white stuff, steaming behind a fence. As the seating fills, dickheads sit in the stair rows.

At 10:15 precisely the parking attendant (in All Blacks gear of course) drops soap in the steaming hole, steps away, and minutes later the bowels of the earth produce a jet of water. 500 cameras get a happy snap and then their owners dash back to their cars.

This is Rotovegas, and this is ‘the thing’. But I hated it. It just felt so exploitative. Like lancing Gaea’s boil. And how quickly we tired of the spectacle.

Lady Knox Geyser

Lady Knox Geyser. I’ve decided to post the real experience, not the zoomed nature shot.

After the horde had bored of nature’s wonders they flooded back to the car park. We had more to see at Wai-o-tapu, but seeing everyone leave the arena to no doubt descend upon the complex, we decided we’d seen enough and headed in to Rotorua. We headed straight to the Rotorua Museum, nestled in the grand old spa buildings in the Government Gardens. After a quick bite we headed in.

Former Government Bath House now Rotorua Museum, Rotorua

Former Government Bath House now Rotorua Museum, Rotorua

Kate picking marshmellows off her rocky road

Kate picking marshmellows off her rocky road

This museum was fantastic. One of the best we’ve been to together certainly – and we’ve been to quite a few! The fairly hefty $20 price tag by-and-large keeps the disinterested out, leaving a museum of local history with an excellent flow.

Because of the thermal activity Maori were quite partial to the Rotorua area and there is a lot of general Maori history (for the foreign tourists) as well as precious artefacts of the Te Arawa tribe. You know that Maori carving on the 20cent piece? He’s there. The history moves from Maori origin stories through to the Maori battalion experiences in WW2 and beyond. Somehow I never learnt early Maori history, so I was fascinated learning about Hawaiki, the spiritual homeland of the Maori. It’s not known which pacific island Hawaiki specifically refers to (the pacific seafaring history is really interesting too) but it is fun to postulate.

Another little interesting titbit is that according to the tribal stories of old, when you die your spirit lives on and travels back to Hawaiki, the spiritual home. It made me wonder what place Aotearoa had in the heart of early-generation Maori, and I considered whether it’s similar to my relation to Britain now. I’ve been musing on these questions of self-identity recently, what is it to be a Pakeha, so I took some solace in the thought that early Maori might’ve struggled with similar considerations. But that’s all a bit heavy – the museum was choice, there’re some great Goldie paintings too – get in there if you’re interested in New Zealand history.

We thought we’d seen it all, spending hours in the Te Arawa tribe section, but there’s a whole other side to the place with general Rotorua stuff, volcanoes and that, and some of the various paraphernalia left from when the spas closed in the ’60s. Temuera Morrison does the videos too – I mean really, get in there.

One of the old mineral pools

One of the old mineral pools

The museum sucked many more hours than we expected from us, so we just headed back to camp – had a soak, drunk a bunch of beers, enjoyed the rain on the roof, cooked our prawns and went to sleep.

Cooking our precious prawns

Cooking our precious prawns

In the morning we packed up and headed east to Pirongia, a tiny wee town 1.5hrs east of Rotorua. You may have noticed my interest in history recently, and I wanted to see some New Zealand stuff – stuff from the New Zealand wars. Pirongia (originally named Alexandra) has an old redoubt there, the Alexandra redoubt.

Side of the Alexandra redoubt. Looks better from the air!

Side of the Alexandra redoubt. Looks better from the air.

No battles took place there, but this was an English fort during the war – and the earthworks are in really good knick. I liked being able to see the sloping earth, the turretted corners – like a miniature version of those earthen ramparts I’d seen in Britain. There wasn’t much to see – Kate and I sat in the now-peaceful grass and played a Heritage New Zealand podcast (I am a tragic dork), we grabbed a sandwich and headed on to the other reason we’d driven so far east – the Waitomo caves. They were in a shambles.

The Waitomo caves have a variety of caving adventures going on within the limestone hills – rafting and so on – but our draw was the glow worms. It’s a pretty slick operation, but several hundred other tourists thought it looked interesting too, and they’d just introduced a new booking system. I handed over my paid 2x adult tickets with reference numbers to the ticket lady, and we waited around 20 minutes to get our ‘passes’. It kept going like this, milling around in the sweltering heat, no communication – then eventually we got on a tour. Our guide immediately made up for the uselessness of everyone else, and explained why things were a mess.

So we wandered down into the mountain – the caves are quite a complex. Eventually we arrived in ‘the Cathedral’, an enormous cavern within the limestone. It has amazing acoustics, and our guide suggested anyone with singing talent might like to belt out a tune. Nobody budged, but our guide persevered.  Eventually Kate got up the gumption and shyly sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – it was quite something – I’m used to an ultra-confident rendition shouted into my ear!

We queued to get in to the boat to float below the glow worms. They survive on eating insects, so only live above the water – the boat is the way to see them. So in the dark and quiet we board and slowly we are guided across a cavern. Seconds later we’re looking in wonder at a spectacular starry night, deep in the bowels of a cave. It was stunning. Hundreds of tiny dots, each an iridescent butt of a grub. You know how noisy tourists usually are, but our boat was silent. You could hear a grub drop. Dead silent, no cameras – all of us just awed to a hush. It was lovely. Much recommended.

After that we punched it on down the east of Lake Taupo toward Whanganui. On the way we stopped to stretch, and saw the scenic Raukawa Falls.

Raukawa Falls

Raukawa Falls

When we got to Whanganui we found our accomodation wasn’t actually in Whanganui, but in the neighbouring Cliffside area by the sea. The wind was blowing its arse off – we tucked the tent in a corner, parked it in with the car, and then headed out to see the beach. As we neared the beach the sand was lifted, blasted into our eyes and stinging all over, so we decided against a romantic evening stroll.

Windy beach, Cliffside

Windy beach, Cliffside Whanganui

We decided to skip our final prepared dinner and get fish and chips, which cost the grand total of $6. You don’t see those prices much anymore – we had some in Wellington with friends recently and the bill came out at $90!

Thankfully it didn’t rain overnight, so we could pack the tent dry in the morning. We headed in to Whanganui and used a proper old-fashioned coin-operated parking meter outside a cafe for a great coffee and lunch. Kate’s still pretty amazed by the quality of coffee around here. After breakfast we popped in to the Whanganui museum, which is pretty great considering it’s free. They have their fair share of neat Maori artefacts, but we really enjoyed an enormous collection of moths and butterflies, and more Moa bones than you can shake a stick at.

After exploring the museum we decided to forgo other Whanganui attractions and head for home, tired – as I’m sure you are if you’ve read this far! But we had a blast, I can’t wait to go on more adventures in the near future. New Zealand’s alright.

 

Larry's a 30-something chap interested in travel, being a dork and changing the world via less boring training.

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