Unbelievably, our month-long pit-stop in Rotorua, New Zealand is now coming to an end. It has been exactly the break we needed in order to recharge our batteries and mentally prepare ourselves for the final part of our trip: South America.
It was nice to take a break from the constant search for the next place to stay, visit, eat, etc. We all needed a rest, and what better place to have it than sleepy, tranquil New Zealand?
The first two weeks here were taken up by hosting our friends, who had traveled half way around the world to visit us here. We really appreciated seeing them all, and it was great to re-connect with “home” in a sense, hearing all the gossip and various shenanigans going on back in Quebec.
We did a fair few excursions with our friends, including a visit to Hobbiton, a night kayak tour to see the glow worms, mountain biking in the Redwoods of Rotorua, and a few visits to the many thermal hot-spots dotted around the area. We also went for quite a few walks, including a trek up Tongariro (but not the whole 19 km walk), a hike up to Wairere Falls and Okere Falls, and several trips to the seaside around Tauranga.
There was also a fair bit of feasting and drinking, thanks to our friends having brought with them several cases of “souvenirs” from their many wine-tasting visits :). One of the highlights for me was going to swim in Kerosene Creek, a river that is heated to bath-like temperatures by a nearby hot spring. Although it smelled bad, we all went in and just wallowed about in the hot water, below a waterfall. Only in New Zealand can you experience such a thing.
Although we really enjoyed seeing our friends, we weren’t used to all that company and having to organise the group activities etc. So, it was a bit of a relief when the final group of friends left on the 17th, and we were back to being by ourselves again, back into the usual routines we had gotten into over the last seven months on the road…
Now that we have been here for over 3 weeks, and have had a bit of time to explore the place by ourselves, I can finally write about my impressions of Central North Island. Firstly, the countryside around here is so green and lumpy, you can never really tire of seeing it in all lights, misty, bright sunshine or pouring rain. My lingering memory of here will be one of a modest farm house, surrounded by tall trees, green fields full of happy cows or sheep, and with some lumpy green hills in the background, all under a bright blue sky. For me, and I guess for most visitors here, the principal attraction lies in the natural beauty of the place.
The towns themselves are nothing to write home about, but nonetheless are pleasant, quiet (in the off-season), and provide all you need. Our house is in the little town of Ngongotaha (go on, try to pronounce that after a few beers). It is only a few kilometers from Rotorua, but has a small town center of its own, with a few shops and restaurants, post office, gas station etc. The houses in town are very modest, mostly small bungalows, with a few notable exceptions. Our house is near the lake, and is one of the larger properties, being a 2-storey building. Houses here are not designed for the cold – central heating systems are nonexistent, and the bedrooms get chilly at night (it got down to -2 degrees Celsius the other night). The kiwi answer is the electric blanket (or rather, electric underblanket), a great energy saver when you think about it.
It is very quiet around here, to the point of being almost dead. We have enjoyed exploring the neighbourhood, and made a few discoveries along the way: a hidden trail along a small stream that winds its way down to the lake, and a nice playground with Greg’s favourite swing that he can’t seem to get enough of (see photo, left).
As for the people, most are very friendly, and strangers will greet you on the street, even the “youth”! The Kiwis are very unpretentious, and they all seem to get along together really well. There are a lot of Maoris here in town, and they absolutely love playing / watching rugby. On the weekends, the local club grounds are the place to be to watch the local club play, as I found out while out jogging last Sunday. People here don’t seem to feel the cold, and can be seen in shorts and T-shirts even on the coldest days. I was reminded of my childhood in South Africa, also a rugby-crazed nation, and of playing under-11,12,13 rugby barefoot in the winter, which very much resembles the winters here.
New Zealand is the sort of place you come to if you just want to be left alone, to have a quiet existence, but also to have a good quality of life. Unfortunately, you will need to have quite deep pockets in order to live here – real estate, food, and petrol are very expensive relative to Canada (but about on a par with the UK). If you come here as a tourist, beware the tourist traps, which abound in places like Rotorua. You could easily get through all your spending money in a few short days if you are not careful. For example, our 1.5 hour evening kayak excursion cost NZD$520 for our family of four – no child discount available, and no group discount available for our group of ten! Needless to say, we had to steer clear of most activities such as these, and instead prefer free activities, of which there are many, such as tramping, tramping, and , errr… tramping!
But seriously, despite the costly activities, we really enjoyed our time here in Kiwiland, despite having only really seen a small part of the country. I hope to return one day, when I am rich, to be able to fully appreciate the remainder of the country in style!