Smells Like Reykjavik

Warning: the following post contains marsupial-involved expletives and may be offensive to some readers.

Rotorua is, according to more than one guidebook, the “Las Vegas” of New Zealand, so much so that they sell t-shirts that say “Rotovegas.”


Having lived in Las Vegas, I feel qualified to raise a quizzical eyebrow, ever so quizzically, about the comparison. Rotorua, sort of in the north central part of the North Island, is famous for the fact that it is sitting right on the Taupo Volcanic Zone and is full of bubbling mud, boiling mud, steaming mud and hot water in all its forms, including vaporous. The smell of sulphur is always in the air.

Rotorua is also the most visited destination in New Zealand, which I find also puzzling. It’s okay. It was a pretty drive to get there, through all sorts of volcanic landforms and mountains and coniferous forest, but once there, eh.

(Maybe that’s where the comparison to Vegas comes in… once you’re actually there, after hearing all the hype, you go “eh.”)

To get to Rotorua I had to drive through Matamata, where they filmed all the Hobbiton scenes in LotR, though the farm actually used as a location is privately owned and not cheap to visit. Plus all the sets and such were dismantled years ago. So essentially you pay a lot of money to look at a green hillside.

I wasn’t expecting much, and certainly was not interested in paying to see a hillside, but the area itself surprised me. It was so boring and unremarkable. I have seen so many more Hobbity places in New Zealand, where the brilliant green hills go on forever, dotted with lovely trees. I wonder why the LOTR filming scouts chose Matamata. Was it a logistical thing? Did they get a sweet deal from the landowner? Tis a puzzlement. I snapped a photo of their rather plain Gollum statue anyway, shrugged and got in my car.

In Rotorua, there are a lot of ways to part with your money (hmm, now the Vegas comparison is making sense), though none involving strippers, booze, gunfire or Cirque du Soleil, at least as far as I could tell. The biggest gamble seems to be whether you’ll be around when one of the geysers erupts.

There are several thermal parks and spas and Maori cultural experiences on offer, as well as assorted sheep-shearing, bungy-jumping and jetboating opportunities, but all of them felt touristy and were pricey to boot. Since I’ve seen geysers and bubbling mud up close in Iceland (and smelled it as well), I opted to go to the Waimunga Volcanic Valley, a little out of the way, a little less touristy, a little lesser known and a lot cheaper (though not cheap… even with my YHA discount it cost me about US$20).

It was amazing.

I had the place to myself aside from a small family of Italian tourists… or so I thought. I strolled down the main walk, about two miles one-way, enjoying the various craters, bubbling and boiling rivers, mud pots and assorted algae stews. Waimunga was formed when nearby Mt. Tarawera, a shield volcano, ripped itself in two in 1886 and opened up a deep rift valley pocked with craters that stretches for miles. It’s an amazing thing to see, more than 100 years later, the sheer brute power of the explosion. The mountain is torn in two like fresh bread.

For a few years Waimunga had the world’s largest recorded geyser, but it petered out in 1904 or so. A subsequent (smaller) eruption left the valley with the world’s largest hot spring, however, and the mysterious Inferno Crater, unique on the planet.

For reasons scientists haven’t figured out, the Inferno Crater’s water level fluctuates on a regular cycle of about six weeks, starting low and then filling as the temperature of the water rises from warm to boiling hot. Eventually, the boiling hot water overflows the crater’s rim for a couple days, after which the water level drops way down and also cools.

Scientists may not get it, but I do. I think it’s a case of geologic PMS.

I ventured off the main path to take the Mt. Haszard (great name!) hike, a short but steep trail reserved, according to the sign, “for fit people.” I went on it anyway.

I was enjoying the great views and the mild weather when I came around a corner and saw a butt.

A big, gray, furry butt sticking out of the bushes, with a long tail.

First thought: Crap! It’s a raccoon with a weird tail and it’s probably rabid and is going to attack me like that woman they interviewed on NPR who had a rabid raccoon clamped to her leg even though her family had beaten its brains out with a crowbar and a 2×4!

Second thought: wow, that is one big cat.

Third thought: Holy fucking wallaby, Batman!!

Yes, that’s right. A wallaby! It turned and looked at me, unconcerned as it chewed. When I reached for my camera it hopped a couple meters into the bush and turned and stared at me like what are you doing here? The feeling was mutual.

Though it is always amazing to see a wild animal in its non-native habitat.

We looked at each other for a while longer and then he hopped off deeper into the bush. Later on in my hike, a feral piglet darted across the trail, squealing. At first I thought well, if the animals are going about their business, it’s a good sign, right? Because don’t animals sense an imminent seismic event and flee? That must mean Tarawera will be quiet for a while…

Then I realized both of the animals I’d seen were introduced to New Zealand (and considered pests who destroy the natural ecosystem). They were clueless foreign tourists just like me.

Photos: Matamata’s less than scintillating Hobbity welcome; sitting on top of a giant fireball of magma, even the sewers and drains steam in Rotorua; arriving at Waimunga Volcanic Valley; more shots of Waimunga including Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring and the Inferno Crater (the really blue one); a wallaby!! (look in the middle of the photo… he’s gray and adorable but pretty well-camouflaged, though near enough to touch when I first saw him); Mt. Tarawera, with its eruption chasm visible… follow the chasm in a line towards where I stood when I took the picture and you can see the rift valley, which continues for miles; one of the hobbity hills I’ve seen that wasn’t in Matamata; cows!! Bovines block my way… feelin’ lucky, punk?; in Taupo, the oddest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. The eating area was an actual plane. It made me almost want to eat there. Almost.


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