Rotorua is home for the next few nights. Once I started researching what sorts of activities there are in the area, I came across more than I would have time to do—thermal wonders, Rotorua Canopy Tours (billed as the only native forest zipline canopy tour in NZ), cultural attractions, jet boating, gondola/luge rides, the Agrodome, Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park, the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest, Rotorua Museum, your choice of spas and equivalent methods of relaxation. The list goes on.
Geothermal activities are the draw at Rotorua with its geysers, mud pools and steaming lakes that stem from the Rotorua caldera on which the town sits—it's literally a hotbed of activity. What other place has a steaming pond in the middle of town? And so, going thermal is where I start.
As soon as I stumble across the website for Waimangu Volcanic Valley while researching local attractions, I have to put it on my list. It sounds raw and prehistoric! According to the informational pamphlet, the Waimangu Geothermal System is the world's newest, created by the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in June 1886. This scenic reserve and wildlife refuge is carefully overseen by a small private company that continues to record the ongoing evolution of the ecosystem. I guess regardless of how prehistoric an area may seem, when compared to geothermal areas around the world, Waimangu is considered an infant!
Situated about 20 minutes outside of Rotorua, the route is easy and pleasant. The parking lot isn't particularly full, most likely because it's winter and the day is once again cloudy and rainy. But I don't have a choice to wait for a sunny day—who knows when that'll come!—so I head on in. The display boards lining the walkway into the visitor center/gift shop/cafe look promising. The colors of the site's geothermal wonders are vibrant and I can't wait to walk the trail.
Ticket in pocket and pamphlet in hand, I head downhill and into the "volcanic valley." From a lookout, I can see steam rising in the distance. The pamphlet illustrates the trails going into the valley and Lake Rotomahana at the end of the trail. From that point, visitors can hop on a boat for a 45-minute cruise around the lake. I can also see that a shuttle provides transport both ways at set times for those who need assistance in getting back to the starting point. It's all totally doable.
The trail varies from paved to gravel and it's never really steep, except if you choose to take off on a side trail. Lookout points are all numbered coinciding with explanations in the pamphlet. I try to keep a running tab on what's what until it gets to be too much and finally just keep going without reading the accompanying info. Regardless, the environment is fascinating. Clouds of steam rise from a large lake within Echo Crater, drifting just above the surface until a slight breeze chides it to move along. Alongside the lake, the descending trail crosses with a small stream that moves deeper into the valley. The shallow stream bubbles on its way, in turn, shallow in certain areas that bloom with a bright green algae; edging up to the trail around a singular, percolating hole in the ground; and heading ever deeper into the valley. All the while, wafting clouds of steam accompany its wandering.
I feel like I could be in an episode of "Land of the Lost" and expect to see Chaka at the turn of the trail or possibly hear the roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The raw nature of the volatile surroundings, of earth in the making, easily excites the imagination. What fun!
At one point, the trail separates. One way leads adventurers to higher ground and a grand view of Black Crater; the other continues alongside the stream and maintained road on which the shuttle travels. Today, I am the Adventuress! I'm in New Zealand after all, the land of hardy souls with do-it-or-die mindsets. And I'm going to experience this volcanic valley to the utmost.
Three hundred stair steps later...alright, I exaggerate. It's more like 50. At any rate, I'm huffing and puffing and my knee hurts. Surrounded by trees and resting on a rock bench at a turn of the trail, I can perhaps see a plume of steam in the distance. Not the grand view, I think. Alright, I decide to go up the trail a few more feet to see if I'm near anything significant. If it looks more of the same, I'll turn around. If the grand view is nearby, I'll press on. Ten minutes later, more of the same. I promptly turn around and head back down. No harm done and at least I got some heart conditioning in. I am still the Adventuress, but perhaps with less of a do-it-or-die mindset.
After holding back the rain for a time, the clouds finally let go with a consistent patter. I press on, zipping up my rain jacket, putting up the hood, covering up what I can of my camera bag and tucking in my fleece scarf. It'll probably lighten up anyway. Coming from behind, a father and son pass by, heads down, hoods on, not a word between them.
Thirty minutes later, the rain hasn't stopped, nor has it lessened. Backtracking isn't an option at this point even with the sky getting darker. I seek out a tree nearby and decide to stop for a while. Hearing some deep voices, I spot Father and Son standing beneath a tree as well. So we wait.
I love the sound of birds chirping. Amid the cold of the rain and threatening gray clouds above, their sharp, bright chirps bring bursts of light so I don't feel so alone. They quickly flutter from bush to bush, looking like they quite enjoy the weather. I come to learn these birds are called piwakawaka or fantails. I tried taking a picture of them, but they're really fast so all I get is a blur of black with some white.
The rain continues. Hearing another set of voices speaking an unfamiliar language, I turn to see a family coming along the trail. Parents and their two teens, looks like. They're happily gabbing as they walk with hands in pockets, and pass me by. Soon Father and Son follow behind them. And so I tow the line behind our entourage.
Soon I hear the voices of my predecessors oohing and ahhing, then a deep lone cry of a bird. What a beautiful, solitary sound. Around the bend and beyond the trees standing in water, is the shoreline of Lake Rotomahana. And the cry is coming from a pair of swans skimming across the water. Such a peaceful moment. The swan's cry echoes through the solitude of Waimangu and its chill environment.
At long last, the trail comes to an end as it descends into the mossy lake. A plume of steam escapes from the waiting boat as an elderly couple boards it for the cruise around the lake. I decide to head back aboard the shuttle along with the family and we quickly return to the visitor center.
After a souvenir purchase and warming up with a cup of mocha in the cafe, I head back toward Rotorua. Although the rain has dampened the day and cheated me out of digitally capturing the much-anticipated deep cyan of the Inferno Crater and shimmering waters within Echo Crater, it certainly hasn't dampened my spirit.
On my way to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, I came across this lone goat on the roadside. From far away, I swear he was a statue, but as I got closer, his head turned to follow my car, and I realized he was real! On my way back, I stopped on the side of the road to make a new friend since he seemed approachable—not advised since he could have just as easily snapped at my hand. Oh, he was friendly enough though, and with each passing car, his head moved accordingly. I just felt sorry for him, being tethered up by himself across the street from his owner's house (I presume). But at least he could walk alongside the road on either side of his house. I just wish I'd had some food.
Tomorrow, the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest!
Stick with me as I continue my discovery of New Zealand's lovely North Island. Sign up for upcoming blog entries and please share if you like this as well. Cheers!