In and Around Rotorua

Open Letters
7 min readMay 30, 2018


Glow worm caves ended up feeling like a bit of tourist trap. You can find little enclaves of glow worms all over the country but I had been holding my breath for one excursion in Waitomo that included abseiling down 100 meters into the cave, inner tubing and zip-lining. In retrospect, it was too good to be true and I actually have more complaints than complements.

But before I move on — here is the story of the glow worm. It’s a fly larvae. The glowing is actually a digestive system at work. These little gnats spend 6 to 12 months as larvae. Their sole purpose during their adult life span, which is only a matter of days, is to reproduce. Adults don’t even have a mouth with which to eat and they are not very good flyers. So we literally paid hundreds of dollars to to inner tube through freezing water to see larvae poop hanging from ceilings. Excellent. Ok, moving on…

Rotorua is known for being the North Island version of Queenstown — activities galore. All of my touring resource guides conveniently left out one glaring detail though — sulfur. The entire city smells like one massive egg fart. Those natural hot pools and mud baths come at a cost. When we rolled into the city at about 6 pm that evening we parked, opened the door, gagged a bit, closed the door, and took a few moments to regroup. I’ll just be honest that from this point forward inappropriate fart jokes became about as common as Trump on CNN.

On the outskirts of the city, we spent a leisurely afternoon walking 15 feet above the forest floor in a young 100 year old redwood forest. New Zealand’s native trees are very slow growing and when the country grew in population they needed a more sustainable building material. Redwoods were tested at this site but Pine is the overwhelming winner. Pine trees actually grow so well here that the Department of Conservation has launched efforts to control the spread.

We also took a tour of a Maori Village — Whakarewarewa, which is actually the abbreviated version of the full name — Te Whakarewarewatanga-o-te-ope-a-Wahiao. That’s 37 syllables in case you were trying to count. The longest name in New Zealand actually has 85 syllables and goes like this: Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu.

The village we toured is actually a living village so 25 families still occupy the place. It reminded me a lot of the Indian villages that my grandma took me to when I was a child — a little run down but still clinging to a fading way of life. They showed us how they are able to cook using geothermal steam and our guide explained that as a child he would dunk the family’s vegetable dinner into the hot pools and have a cooked dinner in under 3 minutes. The bathing pools are still used to this day and at the end of the tour we were treated to a cultural performance where they demonstrated the Haka, a welcoming dance and basically taught us a Maori version of the Head Shoulders Knees and Toes song.

We settled for dinner on the downtown strip, sampling dishes from different restaurants. One brewery was hosting a young female musician who captured our attention. She was a natural musician with an amazing spirit and it gleamed through in her music. The kids were dancing and then about a hour into her set, all of the sudden, but just after we joked about requesting the song, she started with “you think you own whatever land you land on. The earth is just a dead thing you can claim…” Pocahontas! It’s Colors of the Wind!

Alice Sea’s (and our) CD cover

Lets pause here and do some math. What are the chances? She sang at least 30+ songs that night, only one of which was from a Disney movie. How many movies has Disney made?(146) And she played our Colors of the Wind song! That movie that is 23 years old! Needless to say, we bought her CD and are now forever fans. Alice Sea everyone — for when you need some spiritual revival in New Zealand.

On Monday the weather had finally cleared to the point where we felt confident that we could hike out and test out the natural hot water beach on the other side of Tarawera Lake. We didn’t know if the water taxi would come retrieve us so we prepared for a two way hike. By 8:40 am and we were on the trail with full stomachs and lunches packed.

Signs of autumn show up in the non-native trees but overall the forests seem to maintain their tropical green appearance all year round. On our way around the lake we discovered some nonnative species that surprised us. Is it a possum with short arms? Nope. It’s a wallaby! Both the black swan and the wallaby have been introduced from Australia.

15.5 kilometers out and we were granted a dose of much needed luck. We stumbled across a handwritten message that this was the last hill with service. I checked my phone and barely accessed a message from the water taxi company that they would be able pick us up at 3:45. We now had an extra hour and a half to enjoy the hot water. Wohoo!

We stripped down to our swimwear and danced our feet along the waterline. Ouch! The sand was hot! Like really hot. We had to run past the beach and into the water which was freezing so that you didn’t burn your feet. But don’t bury your toes in the sand because it’ll still burn. Ahh, so nice though. Brush your hand along the surface of the water and its hot. Sometimes too hot. We ended up tepidly tiptoeing our way around the lakefront swishing the water around us to create a protective field of lightly mixed water. We were never quite sure if we were burning or freezing. We didn’t bother to look it up but I think we will be forever fascinated by the experience of freezing water sandwiched between burning hot surface and floor temperatures.

The water taxi guide turned out to be a very friendly fellow who is married to the granddaughter of a famous Maori woman who navigated these waters 130 years ago, when a volcano erupted and completely transformed the landscape. He offered chilling descriptions what happened on the night of the eruption and the devastation that remained. It was neat to patch together his stories with the ones that we heard from Whakarewarewa village the day before.

We made our way back to town just in time for happy hour priced lamb burgers. A word to the wise, lunch and dinner menus here can be exactly the same but if your order your meal after 5 pm the price nearly doubles.

Instead of pushing forward to the next town that night we parked our little van in a holiday park with an indoor pool and a hot tub. Glory. It was pure heaven. We shared the space with a group of lumberjacks and learned about their trade. They all looked to be about 25. Apparently its so dangerous that no one lasts very long in the industry but we also learned that on good terrain each man can cut about 100 trees per day — Riata Pine as we all now know.



Open Letters

Slow Traveler, Tree Hugger, Flawed, Productivity Enthusiast, telling my story