We spent our first night in the Bay of Plenty at Kaiate Falls, where we could see a magnificent view of Mount Maunganui.
The camp was deserted, which meant that we had the beautiful falls – which are a series of nine separate cascades – and the swimming lagoon at its base, all to ourselves.
We could see that people had hung up rope swings from some of the higher plateaus, so we decided that in the interest of living life to the full, we should give it a go. After confidently climbing up to where the rope was, we took a peak over the edge and decided that actually living life to the full didn’t mean breaking our necks by jumping from the highest point on to rocks hidden beneath the water. Instead we shuffled down to the next ledge and took turns cheering each other on until one of us decided to take the plunge…
After a warming mug of hot chocolate back at the van, we were ready to carry on with our journey. We had wanted to swim with dolphins in nearby Tauranga and then climb Mount Maunganui, but because of bad weather the Dolphin swim was called off twice and we never made it up that mountain…
So on we went to Rotorua – a New Zealand city famous for its geothermal activity. The city itself is clean, quiet and pretty, but its trademark is its smell – rotten eggs. The smell comes from the clouds of hydrogen sulphide that escape from geothermal chambers underground.
Not having learnt a lot about Maori culture so far, we decided to go to one of the many Maori villages in Rotorua. We chose Mitai Village for a cultural performance and traditional ‘Hangi’ dinner that included a visit to the wildlife park Rainbow Springs to see the Kiwis after dark.
We expected the cultural performance to be a bit tacky, considering it’s held purely for tourism and not practiced for real anymore, but (despite there being far too many people there) we found the show very informative and entertaining.
After the performance, we got to try Hangi – a traditional Maori meal that is cooked with hot stones in a pit that’s covered and buried with earth. I was a bit disappointed with the ‘unveiling’, which seemed to involve lifting off layers of what looked like carpet to reveal the food cooking underneath. It did taste good though – and we both enjoyed second helpings!
The best part of the evening came when we, along with four other people, were ushered out of the crowded room and introduced to our Rainbow Springs guide, who would be giving us a private after-hours tour of its famous Kiwi enclosure. It felt like an incredible privilege to wander around the park after closing time and our guide was so informative it was hard to take everything in!
After showing us various different native birds and reptiles, he explained that New Zealand has practically no native mammals. Aside from a few species of bat and some seals, the country’s wildlife is almost exclusively made up of birds.
This is why New Zealand’s most famous animal – the Kiwi – is so endangered. Because kiwis evolved to become flightless, they make very easy prey for animals that were introduced by settlers, like cats, dogs, stoats, weasels, ferrets and possums. Even kiwi eggs can be targeted by rats. As a result, nowadays kiwis only have a 5% rate of survival in the wild.
Places like Rainbow Springs are doing wonders in terms of kiwi conservation by taking kiwi eggs from the wild and keeping the birds in captivity until they weigh around 1kg – when they have a far better chance of survival – before they are released.
Fun facts about Kiwis (the birds, not the fruit!)
– They were almost categorised as mammals because they don’t fly and have bone marrow, rather than the lighter hollow bones that most birds have
– Mating pairs stay together for life
– A female lays just one egg at a time and the egg is normally two thirds the size of her!
– Despite looking rather beaky, kiwis actually have the smallest beak in nature. This is because beaks are traditionally measured from nostril to the tip – and a kiwi’s nostrils are right at the tip of its beak!
– Kiwis are nocturnal, but a kiwi’s night vision is actually only about as good as our own. They rely heavily on their sense of smell (which is fantastic) and their hearing to get around in the dark
– They have whiskers, like a cat, and for the same reasons – for balance and manoeuvrability
– Their beaks are so sensitive, they can pick up vibrations
– They can live for up to 80 years!
After our night with the kiwis, we were up bright and early to experience more of the geothermal wonders of Rotorua.
Of all the places you can go to see demonstrations of the region’s volcanic activity, we decided on Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which has the highest geyser.
The Lady Knox Geyser is set off by staff every morning at 10am. It can go off on its own after a while but, because so many people want to see it, an eruption is forced by staff members by putting a special kind of soap into the hole which causes a chemical reaction. On the morning we were there, it seemed that Lady Knox was a bit sleepy and it took a special addition of ‘Geyser Viagra’ to set her off!
Although the geyser was good to see, it was the other sights at Wai-O-Tapu that made the visit worthwhile for me. Following the trail around the park was like walking around a strange and volatile-looking planet. With toxic lime green pools, steaming vents, belching mud swamps and simmering orange water that hissed like freshly-poured champagne in a glass. It was hard to believe we were still on Earth!
After Wai-O-Tapu, we wanted to get a bit closer to the geothermal action and we’d heard about the perfect place to do just that – Kerosene Creek. This is a small stream that runs over an old lava flow and is heated by the volcanic activity underground. The result is that it’s like being in beautiful (but slightly smelly) outdoor Jacuzzi. The only downside to this was, after spending two hours enjoying the novelty of relaxing in a heated river in the middle of the woods, our bathers were stained by the brown water and completely stank!
Before we left, we wanted to experience one last thing that Rotorua offers by the bucket load – adrenaline-filled fun. There are all kinds of exciting and adventurous activities you can do here, and after having enjoyed white water rafting so much in Ecuador, we decided to give it another go on the Kaituna River.
Now, the Kaituna River is well-known for rafting because it has the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. The Okere Falls highest drop is 7 metres (23 feet) – and we were going to go down it.
All suited and booted, we found ourselves paddling along the river and bracing ourselves for the first of three falls; the first two would be easy, and the last would be the big one. There was no time to get anxious or panic – it was paddle or fall out, and you really didn’t want to fall out before the 7 metre waterfall!
Each time we’d reach a drop, the captain would shout ‘get down!’ and we’d all slide down from our perch on the edge of the raft and curl up in a ball as quickly as possible as the raft went sailing over the top.
When we finally came to the last, and biggest, drop our captain told us that this was it and the next time he called out we should get into position and take a deep breath. As the river disappeared ahead of us I had a twinge of fear. Clouds of mist billowed up in a deafening roar of crashing current. I waited for the captain to call out, but nothing came. We were getting closer and closer to the edge and he still hadn’t called. Had we not heard him? Was he still there??
At the very last second, just as the front of the raft seemed to be teetering over the egde of the massive drop, I heard it – ‘Get down now!!’
I didn’t need to be told twice. I was down in the bottom of the raft, clinging on for dear life as the raft tilted, fell away and the water enveloped us.
It was like being stuck in a wave. The current was pushing and pulling at me and water filled my nose and ears. Then suddenly we burst back up into the air and the water was streaming away out of the raft. We looked around to check everyone was still in and then broke into cheers and laughter – we made it!
We left Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty on such a high. We’d did so much here, from learning about Maori culture and swimming in beautiful and secluded locations, to rafting the highest possible waterfall and seeing kiwis! There was so much more we could have done here too, but we had to continue our journey and see what came next in our big New Zealand adventure.