New Zealand: Rotorua | Taupo | River Valley

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The nine hours of beautiful sleep was needed after an adventure packed afternoon, and we were blessed with a little lie in until 8am. After rushing around we set off at 8.45am and headed towards the Ruakuri Bush Walk. Ruakuri means two dogs because back in 1800s the Maori people (Kiwi native locals) heard a noise, followed it and found 2 dogs living at the entrance to the caves. The Maori people never went into caves, basically because they were shit scared of them as they thought caves were the gateway to the underworld. The walk took half an hour and looped like the figure 8 - we walked through caves, alongside fierce flowing streams and up a LOT of steps. Not quite how I'd describe a 'leisurely stroll' as labelled by Fish because you don't usually get calf burn strolling, but whatever. It wasn't a particularly hard walk, just a little hilly, and after spending my entire afternoon the previous day in caves, it was nice to see a few more after having learnt a little more about them. I never thought I'd say this but I actually quite enjoy kickstarting every morning with a little walk. But the minute they start taking hours and hours - hell no. At 10am we set off again to the supermarket for a quick toilet and breakfast break before heading to Hobbiton in Rotorua. The girls are both massive Hobbit fans whereas I've never even seen the movies. I kind of knew the general gist - tiny little hairy hobbits living in minature houses who go on an adventure with a big wizard called Gandalf, and a powerful ring thrown in for good measure - so I was happy to go and even a little bit excited. 

Regardless of the film it's always interesting to wander around film sets and learn a little bit about the background. Besides, I can watch them when I get home and say I've been - so what if I'm doing it in the reverse order? One of the requirements of filming was that the set had to be kept in tact as the guy who owns the farm wanted to make it into a tourist attraction. It's one of most popular attractions in New Zealand and that's probably down to the fact everything is minature to replicate how it would be for the hobbits. The ticket was 94 dollars which is pretty pricey, but it included transport to the set and a beer or cider at The Green Dragon at the end of the tour. We hopped in the tour bus and drove through 1250 acres of Alexander Farm which boasted 13,000 sheep and appears as Middle Earth in the films. Funnily enough none of the sheep were in the films because Peter Jackson decided they were too clean, so imported Suffolk sheep from England which fitted the more rustic bill. Peter's agent scouted the location in 1998 and flew over the entire farm to take pictures which landed on Peter's desk. Before he knew it he was in the same location and fell in love with the rolling hills, scattered tree lines and lack of 21st century clutter. I guess you could say Mr Jackson was a bit of a diva because he brought in 26 different types of animals for the films and imported an American eagle to demolish any trace of native New Zealand animals because he didn't want them in the films. 

We were given quite a few interesting facts and despite the fact I've never seen any of the films or read any of the books, which I'll be doing on the next flight, I'll fill you in on some of the secrets. The Misty Mountains only appear in the film for 5 seconds because the 2 other locations used were in the South Islands. Most of it was filmed in Wellington and one life-size set was built as well as another one 25% scaled down. The production team filmed the exact same scene in each of the locations and placed them over each other to look as though the hobbits were interacting with Gandalf. While filming there was a no fly ban imposed because the production team didn't want anybody to see what was going on, and 3 pilots lost their licenses for flying over. Thatchers from England were flown over to thatch the roofs because the Kiwi people had no idea how to do it. The Beatles tried to buy the rights to the film but were declined because J R R Tolkien didn't want it to turn into a disaster like The Yellow Submarine. Tolkien's son hated the movies because they were so different to the books which his father sent to him chapter by chapter. The party tree is now the most photographed tree in the world and at Bilbo's 111st birthday party the cake accidentally set on fire which you can see in the film, but wasn't supposed to happen. In the scene after his party in which Bilbo and Gandalf were smoking, if you watch closely the birds are flying backwards because the sun rose on the wrong side so they had to play the scene backwards to correct it. Fun facts aside, we were introduced to our tour guide Andy who told us that a third of people who visit the attraction have never seen the films or read the books which made me feel a little less embarrassed raising my hand and admitting I fell into that category. Before the films, New Zealand's biggest trade was dairy and since the films, Peter Jackson has been massively influential which has resulted in tourism and the film industry overtaking dairy which is why he was knighted.

We walked round the set which took around 2 hours and were shown which parts were real and fake. Most of the props are obviously fake, but all of the hobbit holes stone and wood is real as well as the flowers and vegetable patch. When one trilogy had been made, the crew painted wood chippings, mixed them up and threw them over the wood to look like moss, creating an authentic and aged feel. All the little hobbit holes were immaculate and the brightly coloured doors and flowers made them pop. I obviously passed each one saying 'omg this is so cute' over and over again but how else do you describe an adorable little hobbit hole, eh? We walked up the hilly set admiring each hobbit hole before winding round and back down towards The Green Dragon for our complimentary drink. Out of the 4 choices I opted for a generously sized apple cider which was delicious. Served in large ribbed ceramic handle-less cups, we drank up and came to the end of the tour. Our guide Andy was amazing and was enthusiastic enough to answer any questions we had - including 'did you actually like the Hobbit before applying for the job?'. I'm pleased to say that he did and now has a Lord of the Rings tattoo on his ankle. What's even crazier is that he's Scottish, graduated in July 2014, travelled America, flew to Aukland and now works and lives in Aukland. Complete transition but just goes to show that the world really is your oyster. As cliche as it sounds, I struggle to find sympathy for people who moan about their lives and fail to do anything about it. If you plan and save you can go absolutely anywhere and do anything. I've seen so many examples of this in the last 9 weeks and while I'm happy to go back home and start my career before thinking about the next place I want to travel, there are so many options for people who are bored of life. 

That aside, we then went back and were driven back to Rotorua. Some of the group opted for the Tamaki village experience - traditional food and dancing with the native locals, but at 90 dollars for a few hours we decided against it. Blessing in disguise really as we ended up spending the afternoon in hospital with Kate as she had an eye infection. 2 hours and 200 dollars later we were back in the hostel bar eating dinner before retreating to our room. It's amazing how quickly time can go when you play the alphabet game on loop. Nobody else was assigned to our room so we pretty much had a private room for the first time in 6 weeks which was amazing. After a little bit of blogging and a spot of KUWTK we went to sleep ready for another long day. I woke up with zero Friday feeling because I felt as though I was coming down with a cold, was tired despite my 9 hour sleep and it was miserable outside. The bus group had changed quite a lot but at 9.30am we made our way to Te Puia to visit the Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley which cost 31 dollars for a 2 hour guided tour. Our tour guide Carol was so friendly, upbeat and enthusiastic and taught us a bit about the native Maori people and how carving and weaving is integral to their culture. We were taught parts of the native language and shown the carving school where people are selected to undertake a 3 year degree. Small and large houses were carved in 2 years by 3 men on each project, and the detailing and patterns are so delicate and intricate which was incredibly impressive. Maori people are very spiritual and use symbols and lines within the carving to express their values and beliefs. It was very interesting to learn a little bit about the Kiwi heritage because their traditions and spirituality has lived on throughout numerous generations and is still prevalent today. 

Whereas England has a lot of history, some traditions and values have been left behind in previous eras. We are very much about technological revolutions and making things quicker and easier, however it was quite refreshing to see a different perspective. Carol also showed us a wooden instrument which had been carved to replicate her identity. The seats around the 3 holes represented her children and the 4 vertical diamonds represented her siblings. On each side was a different pattern - one for her mother's side and her ancestors, and one for her father's side and his ancestors. The purpose of the wooden carvings is to express one's identity which is also signified on their backs in the form of a tattoo. Carol explained that when grandchildren come along, she will add to her identity by extending the tattoo on her back. After looking the the buildings and schools, we we walked around the misty and eerie location in the drizzle to see some of the natural processes. This is the part of geography I particularly loved so for me, it was incredible to see things I learnt about in books in real life. We saw geysers, mud pools and hot pools - one in particular called Ngararatuatara Hot Pool which we cooked eggs in for 8 minutes, bubbling at 100 degrees. We then peeled and ate the boiled eggs which was an achievement for me seeing as I hate eggs, but I couldn't surpass the chance to eat one that had been cooked in a natural hot pool. It wasn't the worst thing I've ever eaten but it did make me gag a bit towards the end which wasn't the most pleasant experience.

After the guided tour had finished we treated ourselves to a hot chocolate and a piece of chocolate cake to warm up - mainly because all I could taste was egg. It was raining heavily by this point so we were thankful to hop back on the bus when Fish came to fetch us. After a short journey we then stopped at the Waitotapu geothermal mud pool which was steaming and smelt like egg. I couldn't deal with or escape the smell so after a quick glance (which was actually really cool as the mud was just bubbling like crazy), we boarded the bus and continued on to Taupo. Further on in the journey we stopped at Huka Falls Scenic Reserve to visit the waterfall which is the main drainage system for Lake Taupo. An Olympic sized swimming pool of water passes through the waterfall every 3 seconds. It was the most fierce and aggressive flowing water I've probably ever seen and it was incredible to observe. The water was a light aqua colour with masses of white froth from the strength and power of the flow. In terms of the history, Maori Hapu (sub tribes) lived and worked in the area for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. They understood and made use of the volcanic and geothermal landscape, cultivating land, harvesting native fish and gathering kokowai (red ochre) from the hydrothermally altered soil. In the 1870s, Europeans began to settle at the outlet of the Waikato River, on the edge of Lake Taupo. As Sergeant Talty predicted, the regions attractions gained international repute and Huka Falls became a 'must see' on young New Zealand tourist itinerary. As the 20th century progressed, Waikato developed into one of the country's major electricity producing rivers. It supplies 8 hydroelectric stations and provides cooling water for 3 other stations, 2 of them geothermal and one thermal. The Waikato River system produces about 15% of New Zealand's power which is incredibly impressive in itself. 

Taupo itself looked a little old, tired and dated although we were spoilt for choice in terms of food - Domino's, McDonald's and Subway as well as Indian and American style eateries which made our mouth water considering it was 3.30 and all we'd eaten was breakfast and a slice of cake. We dashed to Domino's to curb our hunger and chilled in our room for a little bit. That night we headed down to the hostel bar and had such a good night. It was entertaining to say the least - our bus driver was kissing and grinding on a passenger and a guy we 100% thought was gay isn't actually gay. Anyway, everyone was lively, the music was good and after a few too many white wines we went to bed, not before a DMC carpet chat with Kate over snacks. The following morning I managed to speak to my boyfriend properly for the first time in ages which was so nice. A decent wifi connection gave us a solid hour and a half so we managed to properly catch up and get excited for the weekend he's booked for us in London when I get home. I bought him tickets for Derren Brown live for Christmas so we're going to see that 3 days after I get home, and he's booked us 2 nights in an apartment which looks amazing. I also got a chance to catch up with my parents which was lovely - they can't quite believe I go home in 3 weeks. The rest of the day was spent hungover in bed as we had a rare day off scheduled into our itinerary. The weather was horrendous - grey, rainy and miserable - so we didn't feel as though the day was wasted and to be honest, we were all in dire need of some proper chill time. We did a snack run in our pyjamas and spent the day napping and listening to Justin Bieber's new album. What more could you want? After some disappointing pasta for dinner, we got ready and went to one of the couples rooms for drinks. None of us were really feeling it as we were all pretty knackered still, so when they went out at half 11 we retreated to bed and were bitterly awoken by an 8.30am alarm. 

Saturday morning we checked out and drove towards the Tongariro National Park. We stopped on the way to grab some food where Fish only just decided to tell us that he needed 55 dollars from each of us for the ferry from the North island over to the South Island which was in a couple of days. It would have been helpful if we'd have known this at the beginning of the trip so we could work it around our budget, so if you're doing both the islands - bear that in mind. After a quick chicken nugget burger in Burger King we made the half an hour journey to the national park. It is the oldest in New Zealand, one of New Zealand's three World Heritage areas and the fourth one created in the world. The walks offer a unique opportunity to explore native bush and waterfalls in the volcanic region as well as familiar scenery from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The park is dominated by 3 large volcanoes; Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Mount Ruapehu erupted in 1995, blasting a plume of ash and dust 12 kilometres into the atmosphere and emptying it's Crater Lake, and a lahar and small eruption made headlines again in 2007. Ngauruhoe has had several small eruptions, while Tongariro which had been dormant since 1927, came back to life briefly in 2012. We completed the Taranaki Falls hike which, despite having a completion time of 2 hours, we completed in an hour and a half. While some parts were quite hilly and muddy, we did see a couple of pretty waterfalls and snow-capped volcanoes. The fresh air woke me up a bit and I did feel better for having done it. We ended up making lunch on the bus - I'm talking full on buttering bread and ham filling production line - which was definitely something ticked off of the things I've never done before list. Next up was the drive down to River Valley, the story of which goes back half a century, when the area that is now the Lodge was the back of a family farm. The owners at the time, parents and parents-in-law of the present owners, Brian and Nicola Megaw, had a dream of sharing the beautiful location with other people. In 1978 an American river guide came through and suggested that Rangitikei would be a great river to raft. Today it is one of only a handful of grade 5 rivers commercially rafter in New Zealand which is famous for its steep and technically demanding rapids. 

Our accommodation for the night was River Valley Lodge - to get to it we had to drive through a remote valley littered with hundreds of white sheep and black cows nibbling on the grass. Although there was zero phone reception there was wifi available which we would soon learn wasn't even worthy of the word - cue socially disconnected rehab retreat. When the word lodge was mentioned I envisaged cute cabins, comfy sofas and log fires. Reality lived up to expectations. The main room had a bar and three long tables with chairs or benches either side, there was a big fire in the middle and a sofa area. It had a warm and cosy feel and was very homely. The dorms were hilarious and like one big sleepover - 8 conjoined beds on the bottom and 8 conjoined beds on the top which made us feel like we were at summer camp. The dinner option was a roast, which we jumped at the chance at, and it was a buffet help yourself style affair. Roast beef was on the menu (which despite not being my favourite meat, was actually really nice) with cheesy mash potato, roasted vegetables, green beans, peas, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. But alongside that was cous cous and salad which I just couldn't comprehend with a roast dinner. Needless to say those 2 items firmly stayed away from my plate. It was so nice to sit down and enjoy a roast and after everyone had finished we started drinking. Everyone sat around chatting and playing card games and it was a drama induced night to say the least. One near fight, a revelation, Abs being sick behind the bin and an agony aunt session for one of the couples. At midnight we retreated to bed and I actually slept really well, despite waking up with virtually no voice. I'd felt a cold coming on for a couple of days and by this point my throat was killing, my nose was half blocked half running and my gravelly tones could have passed for a male. I generally felt like absolute crap and all I wanted was to be in bed being cuddled by my boyfriend. Call me soppy but when you feel poorly all you want is some tlc and to rest up. Unluckily for me my boyfriend was on the other side of the world in a different time zone and I had 2 weeks left of adventure to get through. Not to wish my time away but I was dreaming of laying on a beach in Fiji for 5 days rather than sitting on a bus and hiking my life away while feeling like a pile of poo. Having checked out at 10 we waited until 1 to get going as some of the group did white water rafting or horse riding in the morning. We set off at 1 and spent 5 hours on the coach to our next destination - Wellington. River Valley was like a cosy little retreat and while we were completely disconnected from the world, it was such a gorgeous place to stay. 

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