The Luge, Thermals, and…Rotovegas?

The drive to Rotorua was uneventful. There were no more GPS hiccups, thankfully. The roads we drove all looked vaguely familiar, as I’d driven most of them once or twice before. Our AirBNB was near the outer part of town. We were parking a few minutes after pulling off the highway. We’d left Taupo just a bit too late to meet our host before he went off to pick up his kids from school. But the door was left open for us, so we unpacked and checked the place out.

It was a completely separate unit from the house. Thinking back, it may have been half of what used to be a two car garage, since the existing garage was just on the other side of the wall. It was a small space, with the bedroom at the back and a small sitting area at the front. We had our own fridge, a kettle, a microwave and kitchenware, and the bathroom inside the main house was just for us. It was a nice change from our last two stays.

About 15 minutes after we’d arrived, our host pulled into the drive. We said hello and were introduced to his kids and chatted for a little while before the three of them went into the house and Dad and I went back into our room. The weather that afternoon was overcast, and it was raining on and off. It didn’t inspire Dad or me to do much of anything. A quick stop at New World for dinner was as exciting as it got our first night in Rotorua.

Our second day was much more eventful. Rotorua is home to the North Island’s Skyline. There’s another down in Queenstown. They are basically adventure centers. Both have luge tracks and zip lining and various other activities people can enjoy. I’d booked the luge/zip line combo for Dad and me. There was no set time to arrive, so we took time to enjoy breakfast before we left the house.

It wasn’t more than a 10 minute drive to the Skyline. There were cars in the car park but it wasn’t packed. So the place wasn’t like to be totally full of tourists…other tourists that is. We crossed the pavement to the large, glass building. There was no one else in line so we walked straight up to the woman in the booth and gave her the name on our reservation. In exchange she handed over two tickets for the luge, two tickets for the zip line, and let us through onto the gondola.

Dad and I waited for the next empty gondola to turn into the loading area and jumped on board. A man snapped our photo, like he does for everyone, and the doors folded shut as we began to ascend. The sun was climbing higher and higher in the sky and shining right into our little glass gondola. My attempts to take a selfie resulted in Dad being in complete darkness and me being pasty white in the sunshine. So I gave up and enjoyed the ride. Mountain bikers rode trails below us and a small herd of deer stood grazing on the hill.

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At the top, we exited the gondola and found ourselves in an empty building. We walked across the open space, past a small shop, and through the doors on the opposite side. These took us outside to where all the fun was waiting. To the right was a cafeteria and lots of tiered outdoor seating. Out in front of us was the start of the luge track, a couple small booths with zip lining equipment, and the zip line launch point on the right of the deck. And at the far end, the Rotovegas sign.

We started the fun with a luge ride. It’s a very simple thing. You sit in a cart, you roll down a hill, then do it all over again. Might sound kind of dull, but it’s actually a lot of fun! I think Dad and I both had our doubts about how much fun it would be. Later on though, Dad would admit to me just how much he enjoyed it. There were three different tracks to take, and we tried them all at least once.

The Scenic was our first, a nice easy warm up. We got to the bottom, a feel for the carts under our fingers, and took the chair lift back to the top. Our second ride was down the Intermediate track. This one had some harder turns, a few raised corners, and less slow-moving kids on it. This is where we started to get into it. Between our second and third ride we took a quick snack break and enjoyed some chips and a drink. Then we were back to it.

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It was onto the Advanced track now. No more of the Scenic/Intermediate crap. I’ll admit though I was a bit nervous. The tight corners always made me fear I was going to flip my cart. Spoiler alert: that never happened. Off we went at high speeds! Turning, swerving, racing each other, cutting each other off. There was one hill you even got some air off of on the Advanced track! When we’d had our fifth and final run I was sad it was over.

There was one more thing yet to do, however. When we’d returned our luge helmets, we walked over to the zip line booth. The zip line went every 30 minutes, so we had 20 minutes to kill before our turn was up. We found a spot in the sun where we could sit and enjoy the view. Skyline looks right out over Lake Rotorua. The scene was picturesque with crystal blue water, green hills and a smattering of clouds in the distance. Dad commented that it was unusual to see a lake so devoid of any boats.

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When the time came we returned to the zip line booth. Our guides helped us into our harnesses, told us to grab a helmet, and then follow them down the steps to the launch point. The Rotorua zip line isn’t quite as awesome as the Queenstown zip line. Rotorua is a single long run, while Queenstown lets you choose a 4 or 6 line run through the forest around Lake Wakatipu. But it was still fun.

They hooked us in and double-checked all the pieces. They also showed us the brace position for when we came to the end (purely for comfort, not so much safety). As we went down the line we’d be reaching at least 80km, a speed I’ve never traveled without a car around me. I find zip lining to be a bit like the swing I did in Taupo, only I fear for my life less. When they released me, and I began zooming along down the line, I felt at peace, I felt unbound. There I was, soaring through the trees, unable to do anything but hang there and watch the world pass by.

When Dad and I both reached the end (which didn’t take long) they unhooked us from the line and brought us to a platform. This was the part I was really looking forward to/totally terrified to do. The platform is designed so you can fall backwards, as you would do for a trust fall, but then the cable catches you and drops you gently to the ground. I went first.

I started off by almost falling of the miniature gangplank you have to walk out on backwards. If my heart hadn’t already been pounding, that near slip would’ve done the trick. I was grateful for the countdown our guide gave, because if I had to go on my own, I might have been there a while. But with the count, it was just like ‘Go!’ and I went, and it was scary then cool and I did it for real! I mean, I didn’t freak at the last second and bend my knees or anything. Whoo! I got to watch Dad do his fall, and even that was a little scary. But he fell like a champ, too.

That brought our fun adventures at Skyline to an end. We rode the chair lift back up for the last time, returned our gear, and took the gondola back down to the car park. The most we’d eaten all day were the fries, so Dad and I were both feeling hungry. From somewhere in my brain I remembered a place called Hell Pizza. They were pretty vegan friendly so I suggested we go there.

The shop was small and entirely empty when we walked in. I took a minute looking over the menu and conferring with Dad before I ordered up at the counter. The wait was short, and soon there was a pizza box in front of us with delicious pizza goodness inside. We sat in the empty shop and ate our fill. A few slices went uneaten, so we closed up the box and took them back to the car with us. It was nice having a fridge back home.

Back home we spent a bit of time talking with our host before we slipped back inside our room and chilled out for the night. We had a full day planned for tomorrow. The first thing you probably notice about Rotorua (besides the fact that it’s not anything like Vegas) is the smell. Sulphur fills the air almost anywhere you go. Fortunately it’s not always super strong. But the reason it smells this way is because of all the natural hot springs and thermal areas in the region.

Dad and I were going to see some of these geothermal wonders at a place called Wai-O-Tapu. The park is a half an hour south of Rotorua. Dad and I actually drove past it on our way into town. When we woke up that morning the sky was very grey, and it was clear it had been raining over night. A bit of rain has never stopped us. So we pulled on our boots, grabbed our rain gear and set off for Wai-O-Tapu.

When we reached the large sign reading ‘Wai-O-Tapu’ we turned off the highway onto a narrow, unmarked road winding through the bush. A few minutes later we turned into the carpark. We dodged puddles as we crossed to the visitor centre and bought our tickets. The woman at the counter asked if we also wanted to see the Lady Knox Geyser erupt. We figured what the hell, so she told us where to find the geyser and what time we should be there.

The eruption was taking place in about 45 minutes, so Dad and I decided to walk around a bit of the park before going to see the geyser. We studied the map and saw there were several different loops to walk all through the park. The first track was the biggest, so we thought we’d do one side out and back, then walk the other when we’d come back from the geyser.

I’d been to one other thermal area in New Zealand before this, and I have mixed feelings about them. It’s always cool to see great plumes of steam rising up out of the ground and up through the trees and the bush, like there’s some sort of smoldering fire hidden below. But at the same time, a lot of the pits and craters and mud pools all look very similar. Not to diminish Wai-O-Tapu. It’s a big park and there were some pretty cool spots.

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We walked up a path lined with trees until we came to the top, and the land flattened out before us. It was very barren looking, as you might expect from a large thermal area. Pockets of steam hovered over the land as far as we could see. A few of the heartier bushes grew in amongst the gapping holes with names like “Devil’s Home” and “Devil’s Ink Pots.” The color palette was mostly gray rock, but patches of red or yellow were scattered about.

We went as far as the large shallow lake at the centre of the park. After spending a moment taking in the view, we turned back around. Back through the visitor centre we went and back into the car. The geyser was a five minute drive back down the road we’d come in on. It led us to a long dirt lot with an entryway set in amongst the trees. I parked, and we followed the rest of the crowd under the archway.

On the other side of the trees was a small amphitheater in front of the geyser. Lady Knox wasn’t big, her height probably not much taller than your average trash can. She was all white except for a few pale brown streaks down her front, and sitting in a crook near her mouth was a small bundle. This was no Old Faithful. The geyser had to be set off by one of the park rangers.

The crowd grew bigger and bigger while we waited. After a few minutes, a man walked out over the rocks to the geyser. He greeted the crowd with a friendly “Kia ora!” and we all chorused “Kia ora!” back to him. He spent a bit of time telling us about the history of the geyser, how it got its name, and how it was discovered the geyser could be triggered into erupting. It turns out the land had once belonged to a prison, and a few of the inmates had once tried rinsing their clothes in the geyser. Chemicals in the washing powder caused it to erupt. (That is a very truncated version of the story, BTW).

When the story was finished, the ranger thanked us, emptied the contents of the small bundle into the geyser, and left. The group was quiet while we waited for something to happen. Soon I could see a mound of tiny white bubbles making its way out the top of the geyser. It gurgled over the edge and spilled down the side. The stream grew a bit, like a very weak fountain, and I could here people around me wondering if that was as exciting as it got.

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But then the eruption really took off. A steaming jet of water shot high into the air. A fine mist was caught in the breeze and the water looked like a fine white flag spread out in the wind. We all stood momentarily mesmerized by the geyser. But soon people began to tire of watching a column of water, and they began to file out of the theater. Dad and I stuck around longer than most, leaving only when the eruption started to shrink.

We got back into the car, drove back down the road, and walked back through the visitor centre to finish our walk around the rest of the park. Like we’d discussed, we turned right at the top of the hill instead of the left. We were back at the shallow lake several minutes later. Now we walked down the gently sloping hill to the boardwalks over the water.

I’d seen a pool like this before, but that one had housed many more colors. At the edge of the pool was a bright red-orange ring. The rest of the water further out was a murky green, with a few lighter shades mixed in. Somewhere out there were the one or two spots of blue water I’d seen from the top of the hill. The steam around the lake was so thick in some places that I almost lost Dad a couple times when I walked too far away.

A steady drizzle had started not long after we’d left the geyser. We stood contemplating our next move in front of another park map. There were two more loops left, and they didn’t look very long. We didn’t let the rain discourage us. After a last look at the pool, we followed a path parallel to a small stream and moved deeper into the park.

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Exploring the rest of the park we saw dribbling waterfalls sliding over rocks that, if I’m honest, looked like they’d been carpet-bombed my a flock of birds, an expansive green lake that looked vaguely radioactive, and an endless expanse of steaming craters and bizarre rock formations. By the time we made it back to the visitor centre, we were sufficiently drenched, the hem of my jeans being the worst area affected.

Dad and I enjoyed ourselves despite the rain. We both agreed it created a different atmosphere, one people typically avoided, instead trying to enjoy the park on a sunny day. Yay for being different! After shaking as much water off our jackets as we could, we made the short drive back to Rotorua. It was still raining when we got back into town.

Back in the room, we turned up the heater right away to try and chase off the chill we’d brought back from Wai-O-Tapu. We put together a makeshift dinner out of what food stuffs we had left in the fridge. Just like the day we’d arrived, the rain didn’t inspire us to do much. However, after a bit of lounging, Dad was up and wanting to get out somewhere, not just stay cooped up in the room another night.

I did a quick search for cafes that were open late. There were a few potentials, all rather close to each other, so I plotted a course. We pulled on our still damp rain gear and stepped out into the night. Rotorua was near deserted. No one was walking around, and I only saw a few cars drive by as I picked a place to park. I looked at my map once we were out of the car and directed us to one of our possible destinations.

The first place we scoped out didn’t look very alluring. So we turned and walked the other way down the street until we came to the Abracadabra Cafe. It had a cool name, which is always a draw, and as we stepped through the door, Dad and I found ourselves in a cozy, and more importantly warm, cafe that was nearly as empty as the streets.

A woman seated us and took our order. We each got a cup of tea, and when I saw they had a vegan dessert, I got a slice of cheesecake to go with the tea. It was the perfect way to end the day. The drinks were hot, the cheesecake was delicious and fruity, and the cafe was calm. When we finished, we walked the short distance back to the car, made the quick drive home, and snuggled down into bed. Tomorrow we were off once again, hunting for trolls.

~Ren

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