Day 3 Travel notes
We left Auckland early and headed south on the Rt. #1 expressway. It was good to get out of the city and into the countryside. Everything was green and colorful with flowers. Once on the highway the driving was much easier. Our first destination was the Waitomo glow worm caves, about 200km from Auckland. The glow worms are the larva of a small gnat (Arachnocampa luminosa) which emits light to attract food. They hang strands of sticky silk down below them and when small insects get stuck to these 'fishing lines' and the larva pulls them in and devours them.
The caves are a popular attraction and there were a number of tour busses and cars there when we arrived. The beginning of the tour was rather like cave tours everywhere else but once we got to one of the darker caverns we could see the blue glow of the worms on the ceiling. Later we got in small boats which went through nearly pitch dark caverns where the ceiling looked like strange constellations of blue stars. Quite impressive, but there was no way to take photographs of them without some special equipment.
Leaving Waitomo we took an indirect, scenic drive to Rotorua on highway #30. This went through some of the major timber producing areas with slow winding roads, logging trucks, livestock trucks and other road hazards. Pretty scenery but it was necessary to stay alert when driving. It was interesting to see how they managed timber production in the region. There would be one area that had been recently harvested and next to it there were areas of seedlings, then young trees and finally mature trees nearing the size for cutting. They were clearly planted forests as the trees were in straight even rows, just like the corn fields in Iowa. It looks as if they were very carefully maintaining a sustainable forestry industry and were doing it in an environmentally sound way. Another thing we noticed was the farm fields which were delineated by huge hedges. Looking closer they seemed to be some sort of evergreen planted in dense rows. They were trimmed all squared off like a normal decorative hedge at home, but were 15 or 20 feet tall or taller and maybe half as thick.
We reached Rotorua and went to the town center looking for a place for a late lunch. This turned out to be a mistake. Rotorua is sort of like the Yellowstone park of the north island. Since it was the middle of the holiday break for the schools the town was crowded with tourists from NZ and from other countries. We drove around for 20 minutes before we even found a place to park. In addition it was a very warm day and the smell of hydrogen sulfide from the geothermal areas was pretty strong. Definitely not what we were looking for. We had a meal at the local equivalent of Sizzler and left quickly to find our hotel.
We were staying at a place called Solitaire Lodge which was about 20 km outside Rotorua on Lake Tarawera. We wondered if we were on the right road as we headed out into what seemed like a very rural area. But eventually we found the lodge and it was spectacular. Situated on a small peninsula into Lake Tarawera, surrounded by water on three sides with views of mountains and hills around us and the Tarawera volcano just across the lake. They greeted us like we were royalty and took us to our room with our own patio and lake view.
Later that evening we joined the other guests (Solitaire Lodge only has 9 suites) for cocktails and before dinner conversation. We had a wonderful evening talking to everyone and hearing about their experiences in New Zealand. The meal was superb though I can't remember what I had - I think lamb, and we stayed up late talking over coffee and desert.
Day 4 Travel Notes
Last night we were up late talking with the people here at the resort. Staying there were four couples from the US (including us), a couple from Amsterdam and a couple from England. Lots of good conversation but a bit too much wine. Jan felt a little under the weather this morning but was fine by breakfast.
We finally got things straightened out regarding the trip information we were supposed to have received on arrival. We still don't know what happened to the original packet, but the travel agency sent all of the required material by fax today. That was a relief since it included vouchers for many of the side trips and for our passage across the Cook Strait.
With that taken care of, we set out to explore the area. First we went to the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute near Rotorua. It has exhibits of Maori art and a replica of a typical villages. It is also a center for the preservation of Maori culture with classes teaching wood carving, weaving and other crafts and performing arts. We were able to watch craftsmen producing some of the intricate and beautiful wood carvings.
The Institute is located next to a major geothermal area with boiling mud pools, mineral hot springs and active geysers - one that erupted almost continuously. We spent several hours exploring this area. One thing that surprised us was how close to the geysers and hot springs you could go. In the US there would have been fences, warning signs and watchful guards. Here they assumed you had common sense enough not to do something stupid. Very refreshing.
Next we went to The Buried Village, a settlement (Maori & European) which was buried in a volcanic eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886. In the 1860 a major attraction was "The Pink and White Terraces" which attracted travelers from half-way around the world. There was a hotel built near the Maori village of Te Wairoa which served these European travelers. When the volcano erupted it buried the village, partially destroyed the hotel and completely buried the Pink and White Terraces. Over 150 lives were lost.
At the Buried Village they have excavated some of Te Wairoa and recovered many artifacts from the time of the catastrophe.
In addition to the village there was also a rather pretty waterfall nearby that we were able to hike down to (and back up from). Again I was struck by the lack of the sort of warnings and protections that we would expect in the US. Not to say that any of this was unsafe but that they didn't try to make the safety idiot proof like they would in the US.