Rotten Eggs in Rotovegas

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009

Rotorua is the capital of New Zealand’s principal geothermal region and, on occasion, is referred to as the country’s answer to the Nevada tourist magnet that sits astride a well-known Strip. It’s quite clear, however, that no-one who repeats the Rotovegas nick-name has ever been to the home of The Venetian, The Bellagio or The Mandalay Bay;  Manly Barrilow or Elton John. Indeed, it’s questionable whether they might have even been to a city at all. Anywhere. Of any kind.

For Rotorua is, basically, a very unremarkable sprawl of motels, petrol stations and DIY stores, with a small central business district and a couple of golf courses. Oh, and it’s by a lake. Which stinks. I don’t mean in the manner of the odd waft of something not quite discernible. I mean that it perniciously hums with the throat-catching claw of hydrogen sulphide, which bubbles, seeps and spurts through rock, soil and water at almost every opportunity.

And that, of course, is exactly why you’ve driven for three hours to get to Rotorua, and not to gamble in a vast casino or frolic in a hotel of limitless luxury. At its heart, there is the most handsome of former bath houses, a Tudor pastiche in the mould of many a British municipal park pavilion, but on a grand scale. Now a museum, it’s surrounded by the beautiful Government Gardens, around which the spa-seekers of days gone by would promenade in their fulsome skirts and stiff collars, trying not to wretch as they inhaled.

The bathhouse has been superseded by the modern and not-desperately attractive Polynesian Spa, but it’s here that visitors may ‘take the waters’ in various ways. The best option, assuming that a soaking is all that’s desired (as opposed to a varied selection of massages and rubs) is the Lake Spa Retreat package, which affords visitors comfortable changing facilities and complimentary towels, and then access to five lakeside pools whose thermal waters are cooled to varying degrees. The water is no more than knee-deep though, so this is not a place for wannabe Duncan Goodhews.

To swim in warm waters, heated geothermally but not themselves mineralised, the restored Blue Baths are the place to head, between the Polynesian Spa and the Museum.

Ideally though, these aqueous activities should be undertaken in the afternoon, for the early start from Auckland is dictated by the need to travel another 30kms beyond the town to the so-called ‘Thermal Wonderland’ at Wai-o-Tapu.

It’s here that visitors are entertained by the Lady Knox geyser which, aided and abetted by a paper bag full of washing powder, thrusts skyward daily and promptly at 10.15am.

The geyser itself lies before the main entrance and ticket office for the park, so arrival in advance is required to afford plenty of time to park, purchase tickets and then drive back a little way along the access road and down a side turn to a secondary parking area.

From here, it’s a short walk to the viewing terraces and the daily show which, despite the commercialism, is still a fairly awesome display of the forces at work beneath our feet. When Lady Knox has done her stuff, the assembled throngs make their way back to the main park entrance, however you may wish to give them a head start by retracing a route back along the access road a little further, to some frankly weird bubbling mud pools. Having considered the likely effect of falling into one of these spluttering pits of clay for a few minutes, a return to the park entrance will probably have allowed the jam of visitors to have cleared through and spread out amongst the further attractions.

The entrance building includes a café and essential taterama but, beyond its portals, the really spectacular stuff is quickly reached. Since the volcanic demise of the famed Pink & White Terraces of Mount Tarawera in 1886, Wai-o-Tapu really is the most arresting of Rotorua’s attractions, but one that seems relatively untouched by the coach-touring hordes – perhaps due to the early hour of the geyser eruption.

There are sinkholes and silica terraces, the champagne pool and more bubbling mud, sulphur lakes and rainbow falls, all interlinked by footpaths and walkways which come within inches of subterranean exhausts which would skin the unwary alive, were they to stray beyond the marked tracks.

A day-trip from Auckland would necessitate that back-track to Rotorua to take the waters, but to make the absolute best of the available time and having re-visited Rotorua, the traveller should, once again, re-pass Wai-o-Tapu and travel along the Thermal Explorer Highway towards Lake Taupo.

For here, just before the town is reached, are the Huka Falls and, just upstream of them, the preferred accommodations of visiting Royalty and celebrities – the exclusive Huka Lodge.

The falls themselves are a most impressive 20 metre wide torrent, through which the Waikato River, 100 metres across immediately above and below the cascade, is forced with thunderous velocity. The swirling waters turn from white to green to blue and back again as they tumult, and thrill-seeking visitors with a little more time to spare can take a jet boat to within touching distance of the lowest fall.

There is a free car park and small kiosk, and a bridge and walkways cross and surround the falls, providing plenty of photographic opportunities. It won’t be a lengthy pause on the return to Auckland, but a memorable and worthy one nonetheless.

The drive back to the city may afford more opportunity to pay attention to the towns passed through earlier in the day, as the road North West from Taupo soon completes a loop and rejoins the route initially taken to get to Rotorua.

Tirau offers up its somewhat bizarre Tourist Information Office and public loo, Cambridge its white clapboard church and Hamilton endless beautifully-kept floral displays along its wide grass verges. It’s a great deal to have packed into one day, but hopefully the opportunity for that restorative bathe in Rotorua will have eased the strain and arrival back in Auckland will not coincide with terminal exhaustion.


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