What are a bunch of grown men to do in Rotorua for a weekend with no strings attached? That question probably meant a few different things years ago but nowadays, it’s about the destination and how much action, adventure and sights we can squeeze in. Keen on adrenalin? A bit of Kiwi nature and culture? Sometimes we need a reminder that Rotorua is the hub and has it all, even in winter. The best thing is, it’s close enough to the big smoke to tackle it in a weekend.
In an attempt to jam as much into a few days as possible, we have no time to waste and first up on the itinerary is throwing ourselves down a hill in a ball, like an adult rollie pollie. This is where the original Zorb comes in. It looks tame enough from the bottom of the hill but as you slosh around in water as the ball gathers speed rapidly, you get the impression the inventors got caught up in a runaway snowball when they thought of this. Or they watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark with the unstoppable boulder. It’s a bizarre way to travel but this is where the real buzz is as you are completely helpless careering down the hillside on one of the three tracks. The Zorb is the perfect example of New Zealander’s scheming up hairbrained ways to get a thrill and it’s as brilliant as it is bonkers.
We’ve decided to mix the adrenaline up somewhat. Going to Rotovegas and not seeing some geyser action is like going to the real Vegas without putting a few bucks in a slot machine or going to KFC for a salad. And, if you ever wondered why the Te Puia car park is so full, it’s because of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest active geyser, Pohutu. On cue and without human intervention it erupts every half hour or so and belches for a good two minutes for us. It’s scary to think all that volcanic action is bubbling away under our feet and this geyser can rise to 30 metres high. It’s not the only attraction at Te Puia though and besides the other varieties of geothermal pools, there’s the Kiwis, Maori cultural performances and carving school. It’s an opportunity to truly take in the skills. The revival of Maori arts and crafts has been a big focus for Te Puia and you get to appreciate the ability that goes into the jewellery, moko and carvings on the traditional buildings. It reminds us that being a tourist in our own country is often underrated.
That was enough of the leisurely pace and our leader had organised hurtling down the Kaituna River in a River Rats inflatable. A river cruise sounds great until we get schooled with paddling techniques and safety instructions. We ask about the grading of rapids and it turns out we’re negotiating Grade Fives whilst doing the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at seven metres. Images of the Huka Falls enter. There are other less extreme rapids, but we’ve chosen the fives. As we set off, the beauty of the unbeaten track and native bush of NZ is a highlight and it helps build the anticipation before we get soaked. There are caves where Maori women and children used to hide plus the legend and burial place of Chief Tutea. Back to the present day and apparently 5% of the boats flip upside down at the bottom of the Tutea Waterfall. Great. Being at the mercy of the river and the guides is exhilarating and one wonders if our frantic paddling is actually doing anything. The contrast of calm waters then the crazy Grade Five rapids is a shot in the arm and again, like the Zorb, brilliant.
From the river to the sky, we take ourselves to the Rotorua lakefront and eye up our aircraft for a whirlwind afternoon trip to see White Island and Mt Tarawera. Being in a small plane has its own adventurous charm but just to take it up a notch, the Volcanicair floatplane hoons along the water, lifting off to our destination of White Island, 50km off the east coast. Yet again, it’s a unique way to travel. Unlike regular air travel, this trip heightens the senses. The noise, the height, the views are immense, and you get the best look at the pristine lakes around the Rotorua area, many of which don’t see vast numbers of tourists. The countryside from the Blue Lakes of Rotorua to the Bay of Plenty coast changes up from forests to farms to orchards but nothing compares to a smoking island volcano in the middle of the ocean! It’s the only permanently active volcano in the country and is a remarkable sight out at sea, in a plane, that happens to use water as a runway. Mt Tarawera isn’t far behind for unique view and our pilot lets us check out the destruction of the eruption that covered the Pink and White Terraces. We receive commentary throughout the trip about the landscapes we traverse, and it puts into perspective how varied – in particular – the Bay of Plenty region is. When we finally land and become a boat again, it’s time for a debrief and within walking distance is Eat Streat, the dining district of the city with wall-towall choice for a beverage and a meal.
With all the adventure and adrenalin options it’s easy to forget the chilled-out activities and taking a drive around the circuit of some of the 18 lakes in the region is a reminder why overseas tourists are so captivated by the place. We’d seen a few from the air yet getting out on the lake is another world altogether and the cruisy pace is a direct contrast to the other things we’ve been up to, the plan being to take things slower on Day Two. It turns out Waitomo isn’t the only place with glow worms and a short, calming kayak away with Waimarino on Lake Rotoiti are the caves, followed by a lakeside thaw out in the Manupirua Hot Springs. Whilst warming up and taking in the atmosphere, there’s a discernible envy for the folk who have holiday homes here.
Our time on the lake is only halfway through and this time we’re cruising the Rotoiti ripples on the 53-foot catamaran, Tiua. We’ve ditched the paddles for Pure Cruises’ luxury yacht that conveniently boasts a licenced bar – something the kayaks sadly lacked. We get to see more of the lake over a gourmet BBQ lunch and we regret not booking the boat for the night and calling in sick at work. Besides the luxury trimmings, the real advantage to seeing Rotoiti by yacht is the access to hidden coves and bays that the roads don’t get to and are too far for the kayaks. As a bonus, we get an education into the history and the cultural significance of the lake from our hosts who have the best of jobs. It’s more often than not extremely flat and smooth on the lake but no one is game enough to jump into the water with the trout at this time of the year. It is not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon on the water.
Contrary to popular belief, heading to a spa isn’t just for the ladies and the hot pools at the Polynesian Spa are the tonic for the end of the trip which has only really paused for sleep. It feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of Rotorua over the course of a weekend because there’s just too much to do, whether you’re looking for a buzz, a rest, some exercise or some entertainment. It’s the mecca of North Island mountainbiking, the cultural epicentre for Maori and it’s all close enough for a weekend away. Plans are afoot to take in Crankworx next time around, the world’s largest mountain-bike festival through 200km of Whakarewarewa Forest trails, check out the Redwood Forest and test our fear of heights on the ziplines.