Talking of eggs, the whole place honks of them. Rotten ones. Or, more accurately, sulphur. If you know any good fart jokes the locals have probably heard them a hundred times. That said, you quickly get used to the strange scent.
Rotorua is no secret, it’s the North Island’s most popular tourist destination, and you can see why. Bar breathtaking landscapes (although with 16 lakes in proximity, it’s no shrinking violet scenically), Rotorua offers the classic New Zealand experience. As well as the volcanic vim, it has a raft of hair-whitening adrenaline options and a host of Maori cultural experiences, all three thoughtfully compacted into one place. If you wanted to taste what’s billed as “the youngest country on earth” (as in the last to be inhabited), in a single day, this is where you’d come.
There’s also a rare chance to see the only bird in the world with nostrils in its beak: kiwis, the country’s endangered icon. The Kiwi Encounter is an insightful celebration of the conservation work supporting the flightless fowl in their battle against extinction (their insistence on monogamy isn’t helping matters). A heart-warming tour of the working nursery included a glimpse of tiny bumbling baby kiwis less than a day old, and ended with a hushed kiwi viewing, as older ones potter about hunting for tasty grubs.
From birds to geysers, the excellently-named Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser spurted out its stuff for 329 consecutive days in 2000. It’s less predictable now, but Rotorua’s largest still pleases the crowds most days with its spectacular busts of over-excitement, spurting up to around 10 metres.
As there are numerous geothermal reserves, so too are there numerous Maori cultural experiences, and the shows here are probably the country’s most professional. That evening, our tour group elected a leader to meet our Maori hosts. Duly selected, via a process of who’s going to nominate their mate in the most insistent manner, we were warned that it was culturally offensive to laugh during the greeting ceremony.
I deeply wish I could have been more respectful, but what do most children (and seemingly a lot of adults) do as soon as they’re told they mustn’t? Our leader stood stoically in front of a skirt-wearing Maori chief as he danced threateningly and stuck out his tongue provocatively, while we fought off our giggles behind him.
On reflection it was a stirring performance and a clear insight into what made the Maoris such fearsome warriors. We exchanged hongis, the traditional nose-kiss Maori greeting, and watched a spine-chilling haka. After having the disrespectful smile wiped off our faces, we scoffed down a huge hangi feast, cooked in an underground steam oven.
Culture met sulphur at the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village the next day as a Maori guide showed how his ancestors used to, and still do, take advantage of the land’s geothermal gifts: using the hot springs, steaming vents and mineral water to cook, warm and clean themselves for more than 200 years. Enough talk, I wanted to get in the good stuff.
I had previously been a cynic when it comes to pampering. However, after hearing the usual Biblical-style tales of the blind, legless and comatose travelling thousands of miles to be cured by the thermal baths, at the Hell’s Gate spa I was happy to plunge in. I was soon plastering myself in mud like a three-year-old. And, yes, afterwards, I felt very relaxed. That would soon change however, as adrenaline activities beckoned.
As well as a bungy jump, jetboating, white-water rafting, mountain biking, luges (go-karting) and monster truck driving, Rotorua is the original home of the zorb. Whoever invented this, and they were clearly about seven, deserves a knighthood.
Just jump inside a giant plastic ball, add a splash of water (to avoid chaffing) and roll it down the biggest hill you can find. Brilliantly stupid slippery hilarity. Only a Kiwi could have thought of it.
Next door, at the Agrodome Park, I had a go in a skydive simulator. You lie on a massive hairdryer and aim to try and float yourself in the colossal blast of air with the subtlest of body adjustments. You can command complete control. Or you can shoot up like a cannonball into the netted ceiling, then fly off sideways, then flip over in midair and crash humiliatingly onto the crash mats. Like a drunken gymnast with a death wish.
Neither of these two activities, however, come close terror-wise to the Swoop. I’ve only been on it for a few seconds, but something seems to have gone awry.
“What’s wrong?” I shriek, rather too femininely. The three burly blokes below me break into loud belly laughter. Nothing’s wrong. It was all planned. Their prank has given them their day’s chuckle. Ha, bloody ha.
Their ruse made it a whole lot easier to pull the chord at a 40m height and plunge earthwards at 130km/h as my internal organs reshuffled themselves, I wanted to get the hell away from them, asap.
Never mind the fart jokes. Gotta love that Kiwi ‘sense of humour’. Haven’t you?
Going To Extremes
When it comes to New Zealand’s adrenaline activities, the real challenge is to try and think something up that they haven’t already thought of (hand grenade tennis anyone?). They really can be like a bunch of completely fearless five-year-olds.
3, 2, 1 … Bungy
As well as inventing zorbing and jetboating (attach one very big jet engine to one very small boat), AJ Hackett appropriated the bungy jump from Vanuatu. Now NZ has nearly as many bungy jumps as it has sheep, and the first commercial jump, the Kawarau Bridge, is still operating in Queenstown, South Island. Not far away is the world’s third highest (formerly the highest) jump, the stunning 134m Nevis Bungy, where you take your elasticated leap of faith from a small wind-battered metal hut suspended by wire over a yawning canyon.
Sky’s the limit
It’s hard to find a town that doesn’t offer tandem skydiving (as cheap as NZ$220). One service even takes off from
North Island and chucks you out over South Island, saving you the ferry cost.
Braving the water
White-water rafting is ubiquitous, as is kayaking, while river sledging is another quirky one. It’s sort of body-boarding meets white-water rafting, simply grab a sledge and plunge straight into the rapids. Canyoning is of a similar vein. It mostly involves abseiling down waterfalls, bombing down natural rock slides and plenty more rope and water action.
For adventure caving, head for Waitomo (North Island) and a vast underground network. The Southern Alps, where the late Sir Edmund Hillary learned his trade before conquering Mt Everest, offer plenty of good mountaineering opportunities.
Paragliding, mountain biking, surfing, windsurfing, sailing, scuba-diving, skiing and snowboarding all have good options and sizeable followings, too. It’s impossible to get bored in New Zealand.
Take A Walk On The Wild Side
New Zealand has breathtaking scenery to rival anywhere in the world, and the best way to experience it is with your walking boots. The Department of Conservation (www.doc.govt.nz) maintains numerous trails, from one-day hikes to much longer, through national parks, often with excellent quality huts for overnight stays. The mega popular Milford Track is probably the world’s most famous trail, but others, such as the Routeburn, are arguably equal in their drama. There are nine Great Walks (though oddly they include one kayaking trip). Most are in the South Island, but the North Island’s world heritage-listed Tongariro Northern Circuit (near Rotorua) offers a unique and wondrous volcanic moonscape.
The trail journeys between volcanoes, jets of sulphur and bizarrely coloured lakes. It feels like another world, and parts of Mordor were filmed there for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Walks are best attempted from October to May, when it’s warmer, but the Kiwi weather can change with astonishing speed, so always be prepared for all types.
One more thing: don’t be offended if you get called a ‘tramper’. They call hiking ‘tramping’.