The first day in Rotorua was spent mostly walking around. It was Christmas Day and everything was closed, so there was little else to do. Fortunately there's an interesting attraction right in Rotorua, called Kuirau Park, which has some volcanic activity and little bubbling mud pools in a city park. (At first I thought "It's Christmas Day and New Zealanders are having barbecues in the park", since all the smoke coming up from the park looked a lot like lots of barbecue grills from the distance, but the smell convinced me quickly that this was a volcanic area...)
But while Rotorua has a nice scenery, its main attraction are the many activities you can do in and around the place.
The first thing I did next morning was to go zorbing. Basically this means you climb into a big plastic ball that is suspended on ropes within a bigger plastic ball and roll down a hill. I had read about that before I went to New Zealand and I had seen Peter Gabriel roll over the stage in a Zorb during a concert, but I wasn't quite sure whether I would actually do it. It sounded intriguing, but also a bit weird. So the original plan was to go to the site, watch someone else doing it and then decide whether to do it myself.
Didn't work out that way.
When I arrived at the site, I was the only customer, so I had to do it without knowing what to expect. There were basically two choices: Dry zorbing or wet zorbing. Beside the obvious difference, there is something else involved in the choice. If you zorb dry, you're strapped into the sphere and revolve with it as it rolls down the hill, while in wet zorbing you mostly sit at the bottom of the sphere while it rolls around you. Dry zorbing seemed the more interesting thing to do, so I went for that. The zorbs for dry and wet zorbing are different. There also seem to be different dry zorbing constructions. Most pictures show a picture with someone attached to the inner sphere itself, while mine had more some kind of harness hanging in the middle of the sphere. I had to climb in, lie down on some sort of hammock and got my body and my legs strapped in, put my arms through a shoulder harness, which also had grips to hold on to. Then a short push and downhill I went. It starts rolling pretty slow (actually it rolls quite slow all the way, even though it doesn't seem like that at when you're in there) and for some construction reason I was going backwards. At first it was like doing forward rolls on a soft mattress (only backwards), but then disorientation started to set in and it was more like feeling pushed into and pulled from the harness, with something moving around. When it got faster, it also got a bit of a sideward spin, so I lost any idea when I was upside, downside or sideways, where I was going and how fast. I just moved around in rather odd motions. Then the sphere stopped, someone turned it right side up and I needed to untie myself and get out. [This was quite weird. I was slightly dizzy, but otherwise I wasn't scared or feeling sick or anything like that. But when I tried to untie my feet, my hands were shaking violently. Completely unexpected. I was feeling fairly calm, so I was quite surprised that my hand reacted like that and it took some conscious effort to keep my hand from shaking. Very peculiar situation to have a calm mind in a panicking body. Never happened to me before. Fortunately it just lasted a couple of seconds.]
And that almost was it. I had zorbed and it had been interesting and weird and while I wouldn't have been scared of doing it again, there wasn't any added benefit of doing so, especially since it was basically a one dollar per second kind of entertainment. I just hung around and hoped someone else would show up and zorb, just to be able to shoot some short video clips of Zorbs in motion. Then some people showed up and went zorbing and someone went for the wet option. I did see the orb with two people (some guy and his kid) come down the hill and that looked like fun. So I decided to go wet zorbing as well. For that one you get a different Zorb that's all smooth inside and some warm water thrown in, just to make it more slippery. Then it was downhill again. I tried to stand and walk inside the Zorb, but that worked only for two steps before I slipped and slithered around. That was fun. It's difficult to compare, but basically it's like a worm, soft bathtub. You can roll around, rotate sideways or just bump up and down and just behave silly in your own little world. I usually don't go for loud exclamations while traveling, but that got me going downhill with lots of Yahoos! and Yippee! shouts. The moment I got out of the sphere, I knew I wanted to do it again, so I did. This time I went down the zig-zag track, which was even better. (You got two choices of tracks, either straight downhill or along a zig-zag path on the side of it.)
Dry zorbing is something you do once, just for the experience, wet zorbing is what you do for fun. I would have liked to do that all day, but that would have killed my budget about two hours later. While additional rolls down the hill are cheaper than the first one, it still is an expensive experience. Usually I don't worry too much about costs during vacations, but this stuff empties the bank account at an alarming rate. Use only in small doses.
Also, there's lots of other stuff to do in Rotorua, which I didn't want to miss. Right next to the zorbing place is the Agrojet, a small jet boat that runs on a small water course. You can't drive yourself, it's an expert driver who takes two passengers around the course, but you learn more about the abilities of jet boats than anywhere else. The course is surprisingly small and has lots of tight corners. If the same layout would have been a concrete course, I would have been worried about taking a car around the course on any kind of non-trivial speed (more about that a bit later) and here you are driven around a water course at high speed in a boat. Oddly enough, it's almost boring. It's exciting down the first straight until the first corner and then you realize that jet boats are incredibly maneuverable and can do very tight turns at easy. After that, no jet boat ride in New Zealand had me worried, since I was always aware how easily the boat could move and turn. The whole trip only lasted a couple of minutes, but they were great. (Not as good as zorbing, though.)
After that, I headed for the hills. Well, one hill.
Close to Rotorua is a hill and there's a sky gondola that goes up the hill. So far so dull. But on the top there are a number of luge tracks. And you can drive down these tracks on, well, basically a plastic board with three wheels and a handlebar for steering and breaking. Looks a bit silly, but it's fun to drive down the tracks with these things. And since you are sitting quite close to the ground it feels quite fast. (Actually it is surprisingly fast. I haven't checked in Rotorua, but there's a similar thing in Queenstown and I checked the speed with an handheld GPS and it was 45 km/h. It's not an extreme speed, but for something that has wheels that are about as smooth running as those of a shopping trolley, it's unexpected.) The tracks are between one and two kilometers long, so you got a bit of time to enjoy the ride, especially on the scenic track. And you don't have to walk uphill afterwards, since there is a chairlift taking you back to the start. (Since I'm not overly fond of chairlifts, it was fun ride down, unpleasant ride up, but the luge was enough fun to make up for the discomfort of the chairlift.) The whole luge thing is a bit childish, but if that doesn't stop you (and why should it?) it's great,
Back down with the sky gondola, into the car to drive to another car.
This one turned out to be one of the more frustrating experiences that day. Not really bad, but frustrating. There's a company near Rotorua that offers sprint car racing. Sprint cars are mostly a steel frame, some wheels and a motor. They're not really fast cars, but they are good at accelerating quickly and at sliding around corners. A bit like an overgrown go-kart. Supposedly. I wanted to give it a try, but I was the only customer at that time, so I couldn't watch somebody else drive first. So I got into the sprint car and drove the twelve laps I was allowed to do. And, not knowing what these cars can (or can't) do, I drove it around the track like a normal car. Which was ok, but that's about it. But these things look like they can do real neat things around corners, but since I didn't know, I didn't dare. I guess that it would have been a great experience either driving it first with someone else who knew what he was doing (like on the jet boat earlier that day) or at least watch someone else drive that car. (Even badly, just to have something to compare with.) But as it was, I probably could have driven similar lap times with my rental car. And there also wasn't much of a chance to try out things and find out what a sprint car can do, since while 'twelve laps' sound impressive, the track is a bit like a deformed roundabout, so a lap takes about 15 seconds. So with twelve rounds to go, it's just a three minute ride.
Having just a three minute ride is not a problem per se (zorbing took less than 30 seconds down the hill, the jet boat ride was about three minutes and one luge ride was about two minutes), but driving something that should be fun to drive and an unique experience and then having just a 'normal' drive is dissatisfying. This should have been great, but it was just 'ordinary'. Did I mention that it was frustrating?
That was followed some hunting for something that didn't work out. There is an open cockpit biplane at the airport in Rotorua in which you can do sightseeing flights. That sounded interesting and I had never flown in an open plane before, so I wanted to do that. Since it was the day after Christmas, I wasn't sure whether they would be flying, so I mailed them a couple of months earlier. "No problem, we expect to fly on that day, but just to be sure, give us a call a couple of days before." So I did give them a call when I was in Auckland. "Well, we don't take reservations, just call us on the day." So in the morning of the 26th of December (even before zorbing, because the biplane flight was on the top of my list of things I wanted to do) and I got the answer phone: "Either you're calling outside of the opening hours or we're currently out flying. Leave a message or call later." I didn't want to spend the day in the hotel room, waiting for a return call, so I decided to do other things first and call again. So I went zorbing and jet boating and tried to call again. Same automatic message. I called again after the luge. Same message. Since it was possible that they were flying all day and I just called at inconvenient moments, I just drove directly to the airport. Where there was just a closed, empty office. Maybe it was too windy to fly on that day, but some sort of information on the answer phone (instead of something that basically says "we're just out for the moment so try again") would have been helpful. There were a couple of things that didn't quite work out as expected in New Zealand, but most of them were just 'bad luck'. But this one was the one thing (and I had been really looking forward to it for months) that went wrong in a really annoying way.
After that it was time for another jet boat ride, this time on Lake Rotorua. Not as good as the small and fast jet boat on the closed course (it was also a bit windy, so the lake was a bit bumpy and we could only go fast, but not really fast), but a fun thing to close the day with.
Early next morning I drove to Waitomo. Since I had some time before going black water rafting, I drove to Mangapohue natural bridge that's in that area. Somewhere else it would probably a big attraction, but in New Zealand it's just on some inconspicuous path near a small parking lot on a minor side road.
There was something odd along the way. The path to the bridge is along a narrow gorge and one of the trees had a single root running from the top of the cliff right down to the river at the bottom of it. (It doesn't quite line up on the picture, but in real life it is one long root.) It looks kind of desperate...
Back to Waitomo. Still some time to spare, so I drove over to a place where you can drive a jet boat yourself. It's the only place in New Zealand where you can do that and, since jet boats are predominantly found in New Zealand, probably the only place in the world. You drive along a small, closed course that's looks like a figure eight with an additional loop. While it is not really a fast ride (the jet boat engine is is tuned down), it doesn't really matter, since on a course like that, the main attraction isn't the speed, but the maneuverability of jet boats. And it's fun to drive something that can almost do right angle corners on water. I pushed down the accelerator pedal all the way from the start and didn't let go until I had to stop. (This is not as reckless as it sounds, the boat was only going about 30 km/h or so anyway.) But instead of driving in curves around the corners, I did more like three straight bits, since part of the fun of having such a highly controllable boat was to drive straight towards the edge of the course and then throw it around. Also, doing the crossing sections in the figure eight, instead of driving a diagonal, I tended to throw the boat left-right and it felt more like switching from on straight track to a parallel track than going around a corner. Probably not the most efficient and fastest way to drive, but the most fun and, more specifically, the way that made most use of the special capabilities of a jet boat.
I'm typing about this at some length, partly because I haven't got any pictures of me driving the jet boat, so I have to write about it and can't show it, but mostly to show the difference between driving the jet boat and the sprint car. With the jet boat I had a ride the previous day with a professional driver, so I had an idea of what a jet boat is capable of. While I wouldn't dare to attempt to drive like he did (and also couldn't have done with that particular jet boat), I knew that the limits of such a boat was way beyond of what I was doing with it, so it was fun to drive and to fool around with. With the sprint car I didn't know what it could do, so I just drove it within the limits of what I knew (small rental cars...) and I had no driving experience that was unique to sprint cars at all.
By now it was time to drive over to the main attraction of the day: Black water rafting. The name itself is a bit misleading. White water rafting takes its name from the foamy crests of waves in turbulent water, so black water rafting sounds like it's just rafting on calm rivers. But black water rafting actually means going on underground rivers, so it's not black as an opposite to white, but more an opposite to bright. Dark water rafting might be more fitting. Except that you don't use any rafts.
So what is it all about?
The Waitomo Caves are glow-worm caves and there's a river running through it. So the idea is that you don a wet suit, sit on the inflated inner tube of a tire and float downstream while looking at the glow-worm formation at the ceiling. At least that was my idea of it. While that was part of the experience, it wasn't all of it.
After we got all fitted out with stuff (wet suit with padded knees and elbows, boots, shorts and helmet) and got a souvenir picture taken, we drove out to a small river above ground. (Just a side remark, since I got a comment about me ruining everybody else's picture: The tour guide took all our cameras, arranged the group and then took a picture with each of the cameras. So this picture with me giving a thumbs up is just the one taken with my camera. I tried to look unobtrusive and part of the group in the other pictures.) There were a couple of inflated inner tires at the river, so everyone selected one that fitted. How do you fit a tire? You squat down and push the tire over your backside. If it fits over your posterior and doesn't fall off, it's the right side. After fitting the tires, it was time to jump into the river. From a two meter ledge. Backwards. With the tire around your backside. It turned out that there is a small waterfall about halfway down the way of the underground river and you have to jump down that waterfall. So they had that jump platform built to make sure that everyone could make such a jump before going underground. For some odd reason, I had to go first. (Well, I was the only on traveling alone, so everyone else told their friends/partners/companions "You go first." and while I had nobody to argue with...) It was a bit irritating, since I'm not a fan of 'tests of courage', which always strike me as something that you should stop doing at about the age of ten, and it also was against almost everything any swimming safety lesson tells you. Jumping backwards in an awkward posture into some water. On the other hand, it was pretty harmless. I just didn't expect anything like that, just some leisurely drifting down an underground river. After a short lesson and some commands (mostly concerned with linking all the group together as one large floating caterpillar by tucking the legs of the person floating behind you under your arms) we went back into the mini-bus and to some inconspicuous hole in the ground. (The river we jumped into was not the one going underground.)
Behind the small opening was a medium size cave, where the guides gave a short talk (including the information that glow-worms aren't really worms, they're actually maggots - "we just call them glow-worms for publicity reasons" [Given that worms aren't that high on the popularity scale either, I wonder whether that's really helpful.]) and then it was into the water. What followed was a fairly diverse mixture of floating in the river and scrambling over rocks. After some time we reached the waterfall. It is slightly irritating to jump backwards, in the dark, squatting with a rubber tire and also be told to jump at least half a meter far to avoid hitting some protruding rocks near the bottom of the waterfall, not to jump to the left to avoid hitting a rock at that side and splash into the water with your legs up high, so you don't hit some shallow protruding bits underwater. Which all sounds like a lot to worry about during a half-a-second fall. Fortunately it all sounds more worrying than it is. In the end you just stand on a rock, the guide turns you into the right direction, you push back (with the guide giving some extra push to clear the protruding rocks) and you land safely in the water below.
From there on, the trip was pretty much like I originally expected. For the big cave, we assembled in caterpillar form and turned off the headlights and the guides pulled the whole group through the cave, giving everyone a good chance to lie back, relax and watch the glow-worm formations at the ceiling. Which were really very impressive and the fame of the Waitomo Caves is utterly justified. The ceiling really looked a galaxy of stars on a moonless night under clear skies. Just more brighter, more intense and with a bluish tint. Not bad for a cave infested with maggots...
After the big cave, the river continued through smaller passages. We split up the 'caterpillar' and drifted on individually. Before that, we had always had our helmet lights on when drifting along, but now the guides told us to leave the lights off and try to find the exit, taking care to tell us (in complete darkness) that we should make sure while paddling around to hold our hands like 'this' and under no circumstances like 'this', to avoid hurting our hands on rocks - tour guide humor...
Of course, it's very simple to find the exit. Just do nothing and let yourself float down the river. There are a couple of rocks hanging low near the exit that you probably could bang your heads on, but when you reach them, you are close enough to the exit to see them outlined in the outside light. From the exit is was a short walk from the river we had been floating on to the river we originally jumped in and another ten minutes floating leisurely to the jump platform, where we dropped our tires, got into the bus and drove back to get out of the wetsuits, shower, get back into normal clothing and have a warm soup and bagels.
Caves are cool. Caves and rivers are just fantastic. I had been on an underwater river in Slovenia the previous year and had liked it a lot. (That trip was very different, since it was just the tour guide and me on a rubber raft on a long series of interconnected underground lakes and had more of an 'explorer' feeling than this tour. And no glow-worms.) And this tour was great as well and I really enjoyed the 'active' parts and the variety. (And it was nothing strenuous or difficult about it, it was just me being surprised by expecting a relaxing float and then being told that I'd have to jump down a waterfall. No problem. Just unexpected.) I guess that next to ice (in the form of icebergs and glaciers), underwater rivers are becoming my second favorite scenery. Though there probably aren't a lot of raftable underwater rivers around.
(For some obscure reason, there was a large wood carved wizard at the cafe where the black water rafting tours start. Someone had put an inflated inner tire with elven runes around him.)
I had to be in Napier in the evening, which is straight across the North Island, so I had a bit of driving to do. Napier itself promised to b boring. It's best known for its Art Deco architecture, which is fine if you like architecture, but quite dull otherwise.( And even if you're a fan of architecture (which I'm not), the city has a number of Art Deco buildings scattered around, but it does not really have a continuous Art Deco main street. And if you're not excited by architecture and look at the 'things to do' list at the hotel, you notice that the things that sound interesting are located in Taupo, about 100 km away.
So I expected to get to Taupo in the late afternoon, walk around a bit, look at some Art Deco buildings in case I might suddenly develop an unexpected interest for architecture (which I didn't), have a bite somewhere and have an early night. But while working around I heard some music playing and it turned out that there was an open air festival in Napier that evening. A couple of New Zealand bands were playing in the (Art Deco) bandstand on the beach. The area in front of the bandstand was fenced in, and since the concert had started in the early afternoon and only two more bands were left on the bill when I arrived, I didn't buy a ticket, but just sat on the beach, looked out at the Pacific Ocean in the evening light (no sunset over the water though, since this was on the east coast of New Zealand) and listened to live rock music by Zed and some other group I with a name I don't remember. [Looking around on the net it seems like the last group was Nesian Mystik. Maori hip-hop. Sounds about right.] So the day ended more enjoyable than I expected.
From there I drove to Wellington. Not much to do on a Sunday afternoon, so I walked around a bit and took the cable car up to the entrance of the Botanic Gardens and walked back down to the city from there. (The picture of the cable car is from the cable car museum - the active ones don't look like that.)
Not counting the 'one ring' around the wizard at the black water rafting site, Wellington was the only place that had any Lord of the Rings stuff visible in public places that was not directly connected with either New Zealand Post or Air New Zealand. They had a cave troll near the town hall, a dark rider on a fell beast on the Embassy Cinema and the tower of Barad-dûr at the New Zealand museum, which I visited the next day. (While the sign next to it didn't make it quite clear, I assume it is the original model used for filming. It might just have been a copy, but since the original was no longer needed for filming, there is no reason not to exhibit that in the museum.)
On after visiting the museum on Monday morning and walking around in that area, I drove up to Mt.Victoria for some bird-eye view of the city and a visit to the Richard Byrd memorial at the lookout.
Next day it was time to leave the North Island and take the Interislander ferry to the South Island.
Onwards to the South Island of New Zealand.
Back to New Zealand, part 1
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