It was one nasty night .... rain beating a tattoo on the corrugated tin roof of our snug little cabin. I couldn’t help thinking how rain of this intensity causes landslides.
By morning, the sky had cleared and we carried on to Whakatane, a pretty coastal town with its own waterfall in the town centre. Running full this morning, it was mucky brown with silt. The town is also noted for the BIG rock in the middle of the downtown core. We had a look at that too, then settled down to cappuccinos and the weekend paper. Steve found a cafe where the books are a straight exchange – leave one and take one. He now has four more books to read. Hopefully that will hold him for the final two weeks of this trip.
This “finding of the books” is a big deal because the cost of books in both New Zealand and Australia is unbelievable. A trade paperback that we would pay $6.95 for at home is $19.95 here.
Continuing down Hwy 30 we got to within 25 km of Rotorua when we were stopped short by a landslide that had powered trees, dirt, and rock over the road and into the lake. In their usual understated style, Kiwis call these “slips” and we’d seen quite a few through the morning, but none big enough to close the road. The diggers and dozers were hard at work on this one, so we didn’t think we’d have to wait too long. But just when it was looking like we might squeeze past, a supervisor came through with news that a second, massive slip had just occurred a bit further down. This one would take them till at least 8 pm to clear.
He advised us to retrace our route, then detour another 100 km. The coastal route was also blocked by slips so this was the only way to reach Rotorua. The rain I’d been listening to through the night had relentlessly destabilized soil banks everywhere.
He assured us there would be no slips on this route, a rural track through farmlands.He was wrong. There were lots of slips, some of them closing off well over one lane and forcing us onto the shoulder, but we got through this time.
Rotorua – the big whoop here, of course, is the geothermal activity. When Steve was here in the 60s they drove into town, asked for permission at a Maori village and spent the afternoon wandering around on their own.These days it’s all very organized, with different Maori tribes in possession of different sections of thermal pools ...and of course, they all charge admission fees to see their patch of mother earth.
We read the brochures, made a plan and headed off to Te Puia the next morning. Te Puia is a Maori “cultural experience” that also includes access to their smelly ponds of bubbling muck.
They start you off with a one-hour guided tour in their gallery of carvings. The gallery is adjacent to the Te Wananga Whakaire carving school. Here young Maoris are taught the prestigious art of carving. It’s a three-year program, under the tutelage of master carvers and only one apprentice is selected from each of the seven tribes. Te Puia is home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, charged with ensuring the continuation and teaching of Maori culture through arts and crafts.
We observed young carvers working on the intricate designs they must master using traditional and contemporary tools. The carving is beautiful, worked on the native totara wood, which is much like the North American redwood.
From there we toured a traditional village, then boarded a train that carried us around the property to see the various geysers, steaming vents, and mud pools bubbling and gurgling away. The sulphur smell is initially overwhelming, but you get used to it.
There is also a Kiwi house where they are breeding kiwi birds. This is the third time we have been ushered into a dark hole to witness a hapless little kiwi pecking around in the dirt. It seems that every group in New Zealand is trying to save the kiwi. The oddest location was the aquarium in Napier. They too had a breeding colony. What kiwis have to do with an aquarium I don’t know.
The “cultural experience” includes a concert at their meeting house.
The show begins in the green space outside. A warrior challenges us to declare whether or not we come in peace. The warrior jumps around, stamping the ground and bellowing, showing the whites of his bulging eyes and sticking his tongue out and wiggling it back and forth. Apparently this is to warn us that when he kills us he will enjoy eating us. The whole point is to intimidate the enemy into running scared so no one has to fight.
Eventually the warrior throws a carved stick down in front of you. If you pick up this "tia" it means you have come in peace and can proceed in safety. The Maori’s had chosen a “leader” to act on our behalf. Fortunately, he picked up the stick so we were safe from the hungry tongue waggler.
The one-hour performance included music, dancing, traditional ceremonies and games, concluding with the powerful haka. The word haka means “dance” but over time has come to be known as the ferocious war dance that pumps up testosterone in the warriors, but more importantly, is designed to terrify the enemy into fleeing, making actual combat unnecessary.
We carried on from there to see the Sheep Show at the Agrodome. This is a unique attraction, only in New Zealand, as they say.
The show is hosted by a big bubba of a farmer, full of braggado and good cheer. He starts by introducing the nineteen breeds of sheep. These sheep bound on stage like game show performers, jumping up tiered stands to their place in the lights. Each spot has a small pot of feed – obviously an effective incentive because they can hardly wait to get their noses into it.
After they scarfed down the feed, they slumped to the ground looking bored ...another day, another show.
The bubba brought in a skinny little sheep and demonstrated the art of shearing. These fellows get $1.40 per sheep and a champion can do 700+ sheep in a nine-hour day. Must ruin their backs because it’s bloody hard work hanging onto a squirming sheep while shaving the wool off his back. We saw one sheep in the paddock whose backside was peeled back and bleeding, so I guess it doesn’t always go easy on the sheep when a shearer is tearing through 700+ per day.
There was a demonstration of dogs at work. Lots of whistling and dogs running around and barking and sheep looking confused. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out what the dogs were supposed to do. At one point they all started running over the backs of the sheep, settling finally, into standing or lying on the sheep’s backs.
They brought a Jersey cow on stage and gave people from the audience a chance to milk it. Steve jumped in and did fine ...lots of milk spurting all over the audience. I asked him how it could be that a city boy like him was so good at it. I won’t tell you what he said.
The whole production was great. The host was personable and funny ...a good entertainer.
Driving back into town we spotted steaming thermal vents alongside the road. There really is not that much to see as these are just holes in the ground with steam pouring out of them ...rotten-egg-smelly sulphuric steam at that. It’s a bit strange though, to realize you are sitting directly over all this super-heated volcanic water ...with nothing but a thin-crust pizza of salty dirt between you and the boiling cauldron. Will be glad to move on tomorrow.
Come morning we moved on to the “Thermal Wonderland” of Wai-O-Tapu, about 30 km south of Rotorua. After viewing the full-colour photos in the brochure, we had high expectations.
Well, after tromping up, down, and through this area with about 1,000 other wonderland seekers, I commented to Steve, “Human beings are the only species that will spend $23 per head to slog around in the hot sun viewing dirty, stinking, bubbling and burping sulphuric mud holes". The only pretty place was a small lake of a most incredible green colour.
Their other claim to fame is the Lady Knox Geyser which erupts every day at 10:15 am precisely. Precisely five minutes after the young tour guide drops a packet of soap powder down the vent. Truly. You think I lie, but I don’t. They put soap down the vent to make it erupt.
But what are you going to do. We are in Rotorua, famous for its thermal action and people are going to ask, “Did you see the thermal action in Rotorua?” When you say, “No.” They are going to say, “Wow, you sure missed something incredible.”
Maybe we’ve been on the road too long, not just in this trip but in all the trips over all the years. We’ve seen geysers and we’ve seen thermal vents, and we’ve smelled rotten eggs before. You do get a bit blasé about these things.
We moved on, back up through Rotorua to the coast, then west to Waihi Beach for the night. Our cabin is directly across the road from the beach, a lovely sweep of sand and surf with a special treat for us ...it is littered with thousands of beautiful spiral shells. We go nuts, collecting a huge bag of them. We cannot help ourselves.
First stop the next morning is the Martha Mine in the town of Waihi. Gold was first discovered in the Waihi area in 1852. By 1890 the Martha Mine was a huge operation, employing up to 600 people in a conventional underground mine. It closed in 1952.
In the 1970s the increasing price of gold sparked renewed interest in the Martha Mine and it was reopened. New extraction technology meant that shafts that were previously believe to be mined out ...could now be effectively re-mined. The mine re-opened, this time as an open pit mine.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get on a mine tour till the end of the week so we missed out on that but did the next best thing and went up to the lookout. Here we were able to see right down into the massive opening, watching these humongous dump trucks creeping up a track that corkscrewed from the bottom, hauling huge loads of ore to the crushers.
Since it reopened, the mining company seems to have made a substantial effort to keep the whole operation in harmony with nature and the community. Driving into town you would never know there was a massive open pit mine looming over the town. The tailings have been “rehabilitated into meadows and grazing pastures for cattle, and 120,000 trees and shrubs have been planted to disguise the settling ponds and tailings storage areas. “
It would be even more impressive if the company did not work so hard at convincing you how wonderful they are. Their brochure is very informative about the whole mining and refining process ...but equally informative about letting you know ad nauseum how much money they have reinvested back into the community.
The Coromandel Peninsula, an exquisite finger of pure paradise offers the New Zealand speciality ...rich lush green meadows carpeting undulating hills and valleys on the one side, spectacular vistas of golden sand sweeping into turquoise water on the other ...over and over, all day long.
We get off the main road to check out Hot Water Beach. Hot water bubbles up from under the sand, hot enough to burn feet or bums or whatever you stick into it. It’s a bit like quicksand, so if you stand there and wiggle your feet a bit, they sink in. Steve did this and was hopping around, in pain, moments later.
What people in the know do, is wait for an incoming tide, then dig a hole close to the water line. They lie down in the hot sand, letting the cool water of the incoming tide wash over them, cooling the hot water seeping up. This is reported to be excellent for rheumatic problems. There is a kiosk that rents shovels for a few bucks.
After spending the night at Shelly Beach, we head north to Fletcher Bay at the tip of the peninsula. To be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about today’s excursion. We’ve been driving for six months now ...well over 30,000 km and I am pretty much “awed out”. Another day of narrow dirt tracks, corkscrew turns, and peek-a-boo glimpses of fabulous tropical beaches ....tough eh?
But then, we set off and I have to admit that this stretch of road is one of the most interesting in the world. I loved it. Yes, it was up, up, up and down, down, down. Yes, 30 of the 60 km each way were dirt and yes the road was so narrow and the cliffs so steep that I feared for my life at times. The turns were so corkscrewed that anyone with a predilection to motion sickness would have lost their breakfast in the first 15 km ....but oh my, it was grand.
There aren’t many towns enroute. Colville is about it. There is a general store and a modest little cafe. Otherwise, it is just one ocean vista after another to the west, and one lush green hill after another to the east.
Along one patch of oceanfront we were awed by ancient pohutukawa trees. Gnarled by the elements they were clearly fighting a losing battle against coastline erosion, their roots exposed by wind and waves. Bent and broken and twisted like arthritic old claws, it hardly seemed possible, but many were vibrantly alive with fresh greenery. Others were seemingly bare and dead, an invitation taken up by new vegetation to nest and take hold.
Fletcher Bay is the start or end point for walking the Coromandel Track and offers basic camping. A handful of hardy souls were camping, swimming, kayaking, fishing, and starting or ending their Coromandel Trek. We enjoyed talking to a Maori fellow who was snorkelling and spear fishing.
Coming back down the peninsula, we roosted just outside the town of Thames for two nights. There is a gold mine here that Steve will hike into the woods to find and I’m looking forward to some down time as we push into the final week of this six month trip.