First taste of Rotorua and Taupo
A week off work means adventure time! Packed up Sunday night to head South for some mountains and dirt bag car camping.
I started this little adventure with a tourist activity that I just couldn’t pass up. I went to Hobbiton. Although I was in a tour group of 40 people, surrounded by 10 other tour groups of 40 people, it was super cool to see where they filmed scenes for LOTR and The Hobbit movies. The Hobbit holes are charming and well decorated to match the profession of their “inhabitants”. I learned that the set-makers went to ridiculous lengths to make props that were only shown for a few seconds of screen time. One example of this is from one line in the Fellowship of the Ring (Book 1), where the Hobbit children are playing under a plum tree - there were no plum trees in the area and the ones that they could move and plant there would look disproportionate to the children. So the set-makers plucked all the fruit and leaves off an apple tree that was the right size, and hand-sewed hundreds of plum fruit and leaves on the bare branches. This was done all for 4 seconds of screen time. Throughout the entire tour I was thinking of my Auntie Bon, who loves Tolkien’s work and has his signature tattooed on her ankle. I bought a postcard for her and my parents at the gift shop.
After that nerdy pit stop I headed down to the Rotorua Red Woods. The mountain bike area has over 200 trails, which is great but also a little overwhelming and confusing. I tried my best to figure out good loops on my TrailForks App but still had to constantly check where I was on the map. I ended up doing a shorter 2-hour loop that afternoon on some easy/intermediate trails. The trails are all beautifully groomed and well planned out; although some are so twisty it feels like riding in circles. That night I camped in a parking lot called Trout Pools Park - there are signs that say no camping but everyone knows it as a free camping area. There is an old farmhouse surrounded by rolling sheep fields and a series of small waterfalls that are soothing while falling asleep. That evening I got talking to a few locals; one of which lived at the parking lot during the summer while he worked as a kayak guide. At dusk, he showed me a path to one of the upper falls that was lined by the most beautiful glowworms. This was my first experience seeing glowworms and I was in awe. They look like stars and when frightened, the little ball of green light shoots back in their tube-like body. Closer to that waterfall is a rock tunnel and stairs that lead down to a fence, which we hopped, and entered a cave. The cave walls and ceiling were covered in these stunning glowworms - it was like we were inside the Milky Way. We sat and talked for a while in this cave before he wanted to do more that just look at the glowworms, so I told him politely there wasn’t enough room in my car for three (myself and my bike already counted as two). Set boundaries - kiwis aren’t shy.
Got an early start and headed to the woods. Rode 30+ km of trail for just over 5 hours. The ride was an incredible experience of trusting my gut and fate. I randomly picked a trail that I thought would lead near the top but had my uncertainties about the loop. As soon as I was feeling unsure about where I was, an older local rider, Nicko, rode up beside me and asked what I was riding. I told him I had no idea and he invited me to join him on the loop he was doing. Before he had to head back to the lot due to a time commitment, he gave me recommendations on how to continue the to the top. On my way up, which was a grind, an older hiker with his two dogs gave me encouragement and confirmed that I was on the right trail. When I got to the top I couldn’t see the name of the trail that Nicko had told me about. I sat down to eat a squished muffin and along came another rider named Mike, who invited me to join him on the loop that the other guy had recommended. We kept climbing to the top of the mountain, which granted us with a beautiful view (even though it was all clear cut) of Rotorua and the surrounding hills and lakes. The trails down were SWEET AS. I was giggling and smiling the whole way down, even after bugs flew into my mouth. After that long ride I was hot and craving a lake. Mike had told me about Blue Lake which was super close and had a food truck that sold the best chips (French fries). It was a gorgeous lake with a small swimming area but perfect for a cool down. After swimming and sun bathing, I kept heading down the road to the next lake, Tarawera, where I jumped in and then read under a tree. It was a hot day and I jumped in the river below the waterfalls at the camp spot to cool off one more time before bed. That day left me feeling so content and with a huge gratitude to humans and trusting the process.
Left the lot early again to take advantage of the cool morning weather. This time I felt like running. I parked at the Red Woods ‘Tree Walks’ parking lot. They have a loop of suspension bridges set up high in the trees for tourists, but I didn’t feel like paying, plus I wanted my feet in the dirt. I started on a 3.6km family loop but kept getting distracted and curious about other trails...I ended up on a mountain bike trail on my run - ha! I stopped on a bench to listen to the birds, enjoy the palm trees against the blue sky and to do some squats and dips before carrying on. I got to the top section of this trail and realized that if I kept following it I would end up outside the Red Woods Park, so I headed back the way I came (which was actually super fun because it was all downhill). I did take few new trails on my way back to the parking lot. One of them lead to a Fairy Grotto...a small opening that had been decorated with fairy doors and windows on all the trees, sparkly banners, and a mini tea time set up in the middle. It was full out fairy themed. It was a little bit creepy but so cool at the same time. I want to take my mom here when she comes - she would love it, as she loves fairy things. When I got back to the car after my hour and half run, I was exhausted and really didn’t feel like biking, so I didn’t. After a quick bite to eat, I headed to Taupo and checked out Huka Falls on the way to the next free camping parking lot called Reid’s farm (Hipapatua Reserve) beside the Waikato river. Huka falls was impressive, a lot of water flowing through that river and under the bridge, but I didn’t stay long - too many tourists and pictures being taken. Later on, while eating lunch at a Thai food restaurant, I booked my reservation on the shuttle bus for the Tongariro Crossing the next day and Googled free things to do in Taupo. The first thing that came up was to hike Mount Tauhara just outside of town, so, since my run that morning wasn’t enough, I headed to this next mountain. It was just over an hour up - and it started by climbing a fence through a field of cows. All their big beautiful eyes and long eyelashes blinked at me as I followed the yellow trail markers. It was another hot day but that meant the views were stunning. It was super windy at the top, which cooled my sweaty body but also reminded me to stay humble as I climbed a rock at the summit. A girl who had come up from the South Island asked me to take pictures of her at the top so I asked the same from her. After the hike I went back to Reid’s farm to set up camp. This lot was much bigger than Trout Pools. There were probably 60-80 cars/vans/tents all set up there.
Up at 4:45am to get to the i-Site Info Center in town by 5:10am to catch the shuttle. Chatted with a couple from Ireland who were being picked up there too, then a middle-aged woman named Analita from Holland. We had originally agreed to hike the crossing together since we were both alone, but our paces did not match, which would not have been an issue for me, although I had made the foolish decision to wear shorts. And it was freezing, and my legs were numb and bright red the whole time. I had to keep a fast pace so my body would stay warm enough in the wind, so I ended up leaving her after about an hour into the hike - she was understanding, thankfully. The hike was beautiful despite the wind and cold and my silly choice of clothing. Luckily I did have my rain jacket and puffy with me so that helped warm my torso. We had views of the valley on the way up and down, but we were covered by thick fog at the top. The changing landscape of mountains always interests me - we started with a flat, easy boardwalk, then got up to the stairs and volcanic rock, next followed a couple desert-like sections with sand and scattered rock stretching out through the fog. The upper section of the crossing was all loose rock and gravel that let your feet sink in with every step, filling socks and shoes with grit. I didn’t spend more than a few seconds at the top cairn due to the wind, and while other people were carefully making their way down again, I was running past them trying to get out of the cold. It reminded me of scree running down Yamnuska last September in Alberta with my brother. I had a blast and even got some hoots and hollers from other hikers on the run down. Finally I was able to get out of the wind at a hut in the sun about 6km from the pickup parking lot. I ate all my food and drank all my water, and waited for over an hour to see if Analita was going to show up...she didn’t and I was getting cold again from not moving so kept on heading down. It actually got pretty warm then - the sun was out, the wind was gone and I actually got a bit of a burn on my thighs!
When we got back to town, I got change at the bank in hopes of having a shower at the Super Loo, but it closed just as I got there. It would have been nice, but jumping in the river at the campsite was just as refreshing. I had a big feed and settled down with my book. While reading, I overheard that my neighbours, four Kiwi guys from Whangarei, needed an extra pot for dinner, so I offered them mine. To repay the favour they invited for breakfast the next morning.
I was one of the first people awake in camp, so I quietly went down to the river for a swim and to bask in the morning sun. Eventually the boys woke up, cooked breakfast and called me over to eat. They were all good mates - three of them were brothers. After breaky, they invited me for a few games of grass volleyball, which turned into 4 hours of games and swim breaks. It was awesome...four shirtless kiwis and me playing volleyball. At one point three German guys came over to play with us too. Around 1:30pm we were all starving so we parted ways temporarily to eat and I went for a ride. We met up again at the Spa Thermal Park where there are some hot polls that run into the river. This is where I did an easy ride around the track there and to Huka falls on the other side of the cliff. It was nice to get a view of the falls from a different perspective and with less people around. The hot pools were great, except that we were all sun burnt so the upper, hotter pools hurt. The cool water stayed low in the riverbed and the hot water floated on top.
Super easy, relaxed morning. Went for another swim in the river, ate and finished reading my book. Sheryle had lent me The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. I thoroughly enjoyed it and made many notes about it in my journal. I had read one of Coelho’s books earlier this year, The Alchemist, which was also a great read with so many important lessons. My phone had died the night before so I headed into town to charge it at a coffee shop before I made my way back up to Rotorua. I hadn’t planned on doing much activity that day as I was still recovering from all that sun and volleyball the previous day, and my sun burn hurt every time I moved. But as I was driving, I kept seeing signs for Rainbow Mountain and felt such a strong pull to check it out. A rider had told me about Rainbow Mountain before, so I knew there was riding on it. I decided to ignore my tiredness and burning skin and went for a ride. I had some minor doubts about the difficulty of the ride, and there were some hikers that had some negative and discouraging comments as I was biking up, but I tried not to let that get to me and focused on the trail. There were a few parts on the climb up that I had to walk because of some giant, eaten out ruts but it was do-able. At the top there was a big rock with a carved spiral in the middle and some writing about the Maori culture behind it. The ride down was super fun, although I was cautious since I was alone and didn’t know the trail. I ended up walking a few parts with ruts but the rest was all flow. The trail back to where I parked was actually the worst part of it. It obviously hadn’t been cut back since last year and the broom, fox glove and blackberry bushes were reaching their way across the trail to smack me in the face and chest, and grab on to my clothes and skin with their little thorns. I tried to laugh it off the best I could. I took it as a challenge to practice maneuverability and balance on my bike. I was happy to be back at Trout Pools in Rotorua.
I was tired by this point and hadn’t slept well.
I had to go back into town to charge my phone again. This time I had to pay $2 for the charge...while I was there, I looked up some easy mountain walks to do on the way back to Sheryle’s. It apparently wasn’t a day for mountains because I kept getting lost and frustrated with the amount of people in the parks. It was a Sunday and close to Christmas so I guess everyone wanted to walk around. I tried to do a small bike loop of the Karangahake gorge trail but there weren’t actually many bike trails open and there were so many people and I really wasn’t feeling it. The 1km tunnel was cool though. Back to Sheryle’s for a shower and I was off again to Clevedon for a 440 staff Christmas dinner!