In May 2008, I went travelling on my own for the first time and was out of England for a month. Along the way I took in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Thailand before coming home. I kept a journal of my time on the road, so here’s a day by day account of my trials and tribulations that has the undeserved title of Dave’s Odyssey.
Day 13 – Rotorua
Cameron returned to his laid back approach with a 7.30 a.m. wake-up call today. Our first stop was just down the road at Ohinemutu village, a Maori settlement. It contained St. Faith’s Church along with memorials to lost Maoris. Their bodies were not buried underground due to the geothermal activity. This was on show even on random streets in Rotorua where steam was rising from grates and some areas were cordoned off by fence posts.
The idea that New Zealand’s north island would be warmer had clearly gone to the heads of some of the tour group. The sun was out but it was chilly so we had to go back to the hotel for the benefit of those that hadn’t brought a jacket or were wearing shorts!
We then headed for the Government Gardens where a photographer awaited us. It was like being back in primary school as we were all lined up for a group photo. While this was going on a party of East Asian tourists were passing and decided to take shots of us as well. Most of our group assumed they were Japanese and shouted ‘sayonara’ as the tourists waved to us. Their lack of smiles and puzzlement suggested to me that they probably weren’t from Japan.
After our group photo we had a bit of time to wander the gardens. Staying in Rotorua, one thing you have to get used to is the smell of sulphur. This scent grew stronger as I headed back to the coach and I soon found the source. It came from Rachel Spring, which was worth a photo though when THAT close up a nose peg is well recommended.
The last stop on our tour was Te Puia, a Maori site a bit like a museum but with more spectacular sights. We were met by a tour guide who carried some form of plant through most of the next two hours or so. She informed us that one way or another we help to fund Te Puia and that the tour was not just for information but was symbolic of unity between ourselves and the Maori. It’s their belief that our ancestors live on through us and that our tour of Te Puia secured bonds of friendship with our predecessors and those of the Maori alive today. It was an idyllic notion to have all of us getting along.
At the entrance was a pile of stones supporting a small fountain. We were invited to scoop a handful of water from the basin and place it on the rocks. The gesture was a means for us to share our important memories with the Maori. I thought of my close-knit family – those alive and those now gone – as the memories I wanted to share with these remarkable people.
Te Puia contained some fantastic displays. One of the earliest was a darkened corridor illuminated by screens telling stories from Maori myth and legend. There were too many to note here but each offered an explanation for the characteristics of New Zealand’s landscape including the geysers and mud pools.
We were next shown a series of Maori dwellings, including a meetinghouse in the centre. Our group was permitted to enter but out of Maori custom we were asked, if able, to remove our shoes first. The interior was set out like a very small theatre with a stage at one end while the walls were covered in intricate carvings that were a testament to time and patience.
Next up we moved onto the Arts and Crafts section. Two women were hard at work fashioning clothes from plants. The plant our guide had been carrying throughout the tour was now used to demonstrate how the process worked. At one point she had to rub the stem of the plant against her bare leg which won a few whistling approvals from the elderly gents. We also saw a wood carvers’ hut where two men gave another demonstration. I was glad to be near the back as bits of wood and splinters were flying everywhere. It turns out only men can carve in Maori tradition but this is not a sexist custom for once. Women are highly regarded in Maori society and considered too good to belittle themselves with the simple act of carving. We also learned that the Maori world is different to the vanity world of Europe. Here the larger the woman the better, in fact being as thin as a model is frowned upon. It’s refreshing to see different attitudes.
The next section of Te Puia was the geysers and mud pools. The steam from the geysers rose so high that at times you couldn’t tell where it ended and the clouds began. We were invited to sit on the rocks overlooking the geysers, which initially didn’t seem safe what with small patches of steam pouring out of them. It was a warm seat on the rocks but pleasant rather than uncomfortable.
Time was against us so we stopped off quickly at the mud pools before concluding our tour with a must-see in New Zealand – kiwis. The hut we were escorted into was dark as the kiwis are nocturnal but we still had enough light to perceive them. They were much bigger than I expected. Only two were in this enclosure. The female had rejected four previous suitors before being willing to share her home with the fifth male.
During our stop in the kiwi hut, the tour guide was telling me about Japan and how she had spent three years there. In terms of the language barrier she said it wasn’t as bad as you might think. One soon learns some emergency dialogue to get by. It certainly made me feel better about going to the Land of the Rising Sun one day.
We were taken back to the hotel after Te Puia and the afternoon was free. I headed into town and had a quick wander round the shops before stopping off at an Internet café. It was high time I emailed some people. I spent an hour sending half a dozen emails and getting up to date on the football. The season isn’t quite over but it’s getting there now.
After the café I bumped into Alison from our tour group who pointed me in the direction of a walking trail along Lake Rotorua. It would lead me close to the hotel so I decided it was worth a look. Wooden walkways had been set up as some parts were dangerous due to the ever-present geothermal activity. Pesky midges were all over the path but that didn’t stop me finding one or two highlights.
I happened upon two pools with peculiar names – “The Coffee Pot” and “Cameron’s Laughing Gas Pool.” “The Coffee Pot” was used by early European settlers to cure a series of ailments but the smell wasn’t good and the liquid stained the skin. “Cameron’s Laughing Gas Pool” was, unfortunately, not named after our tour guide. Its name came from its therapeutic effects for those that dared to use it. Immersion in the water caused laughing fits and the really unfortunate were known to faint, which wasn’t a good idea if you were alone. Despite a fence keeping tourists at bay I did notice a line of footprints leading up to the pool. Some people are just too curious.
After the walk I headed back to the hotel for a shower and to prepare myself for the Hangi dinner and Maori concert in the evening. The meal began at 6.30 and the place was just around the corner from the hotel. Hopefully it would be a night to remember!
The concert took place at Matariki. We had food first which turned out really well because I’m always a bit wary with these buffets. As it turned out they had plenty to offer. The dessert was paradise but I opted for something small in the shape of chocolate ice cream, fruit salad and a large serving of some of the most delicious cream I’d tasted in years.
Before the meal our hostess, who was also part of the show, took us through the Maori greeting. A Korean couple that were the only representatives from their country were given the honour of meeting the Maoris. A warrior appeared on stage, did some fancy moves while twirling a large spear, before placing a leaf on the floor. The Korean man was then invited to pick up the leaf before shaking hands with the Maori warrior and they concluded by touching noses twice. With that the ceremony of welcome was over.
The Maori show itself was simply brilliant. A series of different dances, singing, wielding all kinds of items as part of their routine, it was a privilege to be there. Before the show ended a group of women were chosen to go up on stage and practice one of the dances. The best bit was when the men were hand-picked to perform some warrior moves, including shouting very loudly, widening their eyes as much as possible; in short trying to ‘pull an ugly face,’ their words not mine. Thankfully, I avoided being nominated to go on stage but it was hilarious all the same.
The show drew to an end and as we left I bought a couple of photos as mementoes. My own photos hadn’t come out that good so these made up for it and at $5 each I couldn’t complain.
After the show it was back to the hotel. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Rotorua and press on to Auckland, our last stop in New Zealand. When I get home I’m going to read up on the Maori who have really fascinated me during my brief stay here in Rotorua. Hopefully the rest of the tour will bring the same kind of surprises.
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