3 weeks of work in Wellington done. Now the true holiday part of my trip to New Zealand starts!
First stop was Rotorua, hub of hot springs and Maori culture.
The 6 1/2 drive from Wellington actually just flew by. Nothing like the dull motorways of Britain, the roads in NZ were fantastically scenic.
The main SH1 that takes you up the North Island goes right through town centres and winds its way up and down mountains and has a maximum speed limit of 100 km/h (about 62 mph). While you don't get to places as quickly, the views definitely make up for it.
The drive also took me through Lake Taupo. Although I didn't have time to do a proper stop, a quick pitstop at the panoramic viewpoint was better than caffeine and gave me a chance to stretch my legs while breathing in some fresh air.
Finally arrived in Rotorua just before 6 pm.
Yup, definite smell of rotten eggs.
Checked into the hostel (yup, I go from 4-star hotels to hotels just like that) and as I was waiting for my friend Ben to get there, I went to check out a rather well-known local 'secret spot' just outside of Rotorua.
Kerosene Creek is about 20 minutes drive outside Rotorua, and is a free hot springs just a short walk from the car park. Really nice and warm water, with a mini waterfall for a bit of a hydro massage. Just the thing I needed after the 7 hours or so of driving.
If you dig your feet into the sand it actually was scalding hot. And the place did actually smell of kerosene - strangely not many Europeans seem to be familiar with what kerosene actually looks/smells like.
A group of friendly fellow travellers (2 Germans, 1 Aussie, 1 French) even gave me a can of beer. One of them was called Hagen, sort of like the ice-cream.
The sun set and it got dark very quickly. Stars came out of their hiding place and we lay back to watch the Southern Cross and other constellations appear from beyond the rising steam.
Better than any spa I've ever been to.
Back in Rotorua, Ben and I had dinner (Thai) and then went in search for drinks. We first tried the Irish Bar, which told us that it was closed, at like 10 pm!
We found a fairly busy pub with a live band so problem solved. The most amusing part of the evening was undoubtedly when this guy (Hamish) wandered over and asked if Ben and I were a couple, and then proceeded to proclaim that he was straight (and married), but "curious about the other side" and telling us that we were cute.
Cue time to go...
The next day (and we did actually have an early start), we went on a day-tour to White Island, one of the world's few accessible active volcanoes.
The island was a 80-minute boat ride from the harbour town of Whakatane ('wh' in Maori is pronounced like an 'f' sound, which makes it sound a little rude).
As we approached the island, the puffs of white steam gave us a first feel for just how active the volcano was. We had to transfer to a small inflatable motorboat to transfer us to the little jetty.
Everywhere you looked, it felt a little like a warzone or another planet.
As was to be expected, the air around the volcano was quite irritating to our lungs, as the sulphur dioxide dissolves in water to form sulphuric acid. We were issued with gas masks to deal with this. For most part it was just about bearable for me not to need to wear the masks except for a few deep breaths every so often, but right at the edge of the crater, it was pretty impossible without using the gas mask.
Because of the constant level of activity of the volcano, there wasn't really much to see except steam on the edge. So not really like the dramatic glowing red lava like Mount Doom but still pretty cool to have stood on the edge of a volcano crater.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were sulphur mining operations on White Island but these were abandoned in 1914 when a lahar (volcanic debris flow) killed all 10 workers on the island.
On the boat ride back, we got some really nice bonus wildlife sightings, starting with this cute fur seal that was probably us as much as we were watching it.
The highlight of the day, though, must have been the dolphins and orcas (killer whales) that we were very fortunate to see on the boat ride back.
As always, the dolphins were really playful and swam under the bow of the boat. I think they were racing us. Although the orcas weren't as sociable, the tour operators were extremely obliging in spending a lot of extra time chasing after the orcas (killer whales) so we could see them up-close.
It was really special to be able to see these majestic creatures in their natural environment, and reminds us that they really are not meant to be put into captivity, so please please do not give SeaWorld and the like your cash.
In addition to the seals, dolphins and orcas, we also saw a shark just sitting under the surface that made a quick getaway when we approached and some albatross (they look like seagulls until they take flight). We were extremely lucky to have seen all that in a single trip - the tour operators said that they only see the orcas once in every 20 trips or so and they almost never see a shark.
All in, a great day that was well worth the NZ$199 price. Pee Jay White Island Tours is the only operator that is allowed to do these tours, so do check it out if you have a day to spare while you are in Rotorua.