I’m often asked what my favourite place in New Zealand is. And look into surprised faces when I say, it’s Rotorua. This touristy place that smells or rotten eggs everywhere, seriously?? Not some place on the South Island where it’s peaceful and full of nature? Yes, seriously.
Smelly, touristy, mysterious Rotorua
So, after about a year away, we were finally back in my Rotorua. As we got closer to town I wind down the windows and take in the town’s very own smell. It sits on a very thin crust of earth with a lot of geo-thermal activity underneath and as a result, steam and the smell of Sulphur is ever-present and colorful thermal fields and bubbling mud can be found everywhere.
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But for a change, we didn’t primarily drive to Rotorua for the steam and mud but for hiking and biking, two other activities that are huge in the area.
We arrived at our campground in the early afternoon and set up our tents right on the shore of lake Okareka! 5 steps away from the water, awesome! It’s yet another DOC (Department of Conservation) campground, because, to be honest, they are just the best. Not to mention cheaper than the “normal” campgrouds that usually feel way too packed. But the DOC campgrounds are also a lot more basic. The toilets were the so-called long-drops and there is no water from a tap and no shower. But we were only here for 2 nights and there was a pretty lake right in front of our nose, who needs a shower when you can have a swim instead?
Getting lost in biking heaven
After we pitched the tents and marveled at our view for a while, we got our bikes ready and drove the 15 minutes (by car) to Whakarewarewa Forest, better known as Redwood Forest (because no-one can pronounce Whakarewarewa without breaking their tongue). There are two different entrances to the forest that are about 5mins drive away from each other, one is for the walkers and another one for bikers. Very clever.
Redwood Forest is a full of single track trails that cater for kids, intermediate bikers and the pros. The trails are marked with names and grade 1 (easy) to 6 (“is it still a trail?”). The unbelievable thing is, this biker’s paradise is actually FREE to ride, there’s no entrance fee! Only if you want to take a map (and it’s better you do), you’ll pay 5 NZD. But you could just as well take a picture of the big trail map at the entrance.
We realized pretty fast that did good to get a map because the trails are not quite as well marked as they are at Woodhill in Auckland. We often had to stop at trail intersections to figure out where on the map we were and where we wanted to go, just to realise at the next intersection that we weren’t going the direction we thought. At one point we got lost on some path that hasn’t been used in a while and I got a bit nervous we might end up somewhere I couldn’t ride and get stuck (still being new to the whole single track thing). It was all good, however, and we found our way back to the official trails. And wow, those trails are fun to ride! My favourites where The Dipper and Roadside Challenge, and I’m sure, once I actually dare to go faster it will be even better!
After 2 hours of riding it was time for dinner back at the campground. Getting better and better at fancy camping, we already prepared most of our food at home and all we had to do was cooking some steaks, pour a glass of wine and watch the sunset over the lake.
We heard from some other campers that there were glowworms on the walking path that starts at the parking, so after the sun set we went on a little walk in the dark. And we did see some shiny little glowworms. Not as many as there were in the cave at Waipu beach but still really cute.
Hot water pools and the Tarawera Trail
The next morning, we got up after sunrise (I couldn’t get myself to get up this time) and drove over to lake Tarawera, because we’d pre-booked a water taxi from the landing to the not-that-famous Hot Water beach. Yup, there is more than one Hot Water Beach in New Zealand, and one of them lies on lake Tarawera. The ride with the water taxi was beautiful, the water still and green and the hills covered in Fern trees and blooming Pohutakawas and the towering volcano Tarawera at the end of the lake.
Hot Water Beach was surprisingly full, given that there were no houses along the lake. There’s also a DOC campground and many come to the beach with their own boats. The hot water was apparently very hot, we’ve been told around 85°C. But it mixes with lake water which makes it nice. In the end we didn’t swim there, though, because the driver of the boat gave us a great tip for a hot water pool along the way.
To get to the start of the Tarawera Trail, you’ll take a left along the beach (looking from the water). The whole trail is going up and down for about 15 kilometers (around 5 hours), but the longest uphills bit is right at the beginning of the trail. After about an hour of walking, you reach the first picnic/toilet area (yup, there are always toilets in the middle of nature in New Zealand) and there’s a trail that turns right but has no sign. We followed the trail as instructed and ended up on this amazingly beautiful bathing spot. The surrounding trees mirrored peacefully in the water and we could see why this place can’t be found on official trail maps. It’s supposed to stay as secret as possible. The water was just lovely to sit in. A relaxing 38°C, we’ve been told by the boat driver. It’s not a hot water spring where the hot water bubbles out. It’s more like sitting on a hot pan, as the water got heated through the pebbles on the ground. The more you dug your hand into it, the hotter it got. Isn’t geo-thermal activity just amazing?
The rest of the walk is also extremely beautiful. There is a section that seems to be prone to landslides in bad weather, so better be careful and check with the local DOC if it’s safe to tramp. Every time we came back down to a valley, the face of the forrest changed, surely about 6 or 7 times the trees changed completely.
We stopped one more time towards the end of the trail, because at a point I got extremely tired and needed a 10 minutes speed-nap and some energy in food.
About an hour later we were back on the landing. The last part of the trail is lovely to walk past as it’s closer to the lake and the water is so clear! There are some really nice sand banks for swimming but we have our very own lake so we decided to go back to the campground and have a swim there. It turned out quite chilly since the weather suddenly changed and rain started. But listening to rain in a dry tent is one of the coziest things, so we didn’t care much about it. And it’s New Zealand after all, it will stop again.
Can't visit Rotorua without seeing geothermal activities!
It really did stop in the morning, even though it was still gray. But we didn’t really care so much since we were about to go back home anyway. But we can’t leave Rotorua without one bit of geo-thermal activity, that would just be wrong (for me). So we went to Kuirau Park, which is a city park and at the same time a (free!) geo-thermal wonderland. The park is bubbling and steaming and smells quite bad of Sulphur, and it’s kind of unreal that this place is just a public park. The highlight of the park is a steaming lake and it really did a great job this time, because as soon as we got closer we couldn’t see a thing anymore and were surrounded by warm, wet fog. The wind sometimes blew some of the steam away and gave a glimpse to parts of the lake. It’s a very mystical experience that excites me anew every time I come back to the park.