(Not Quite) Rotting in Rotorua

The title of this post is a bit misleading — Rotorua wasn’t rotten, but it certainly smelled like it. Let’s backtrack a bit.

After Kai and I departed the Coromandel Peninsula, we made a pit stop in Tauranga to climb Mt. Maunganui. I’d been interested in Maunganui for some time, since they hold 5km runs around the base of the mountain every Tuesday night. Unfortunately Tuesday had already passed, so I settled for a light walk up the path, about a 30 minute ascent.

The summit of Maunganui is impressive, and the nearby island banks glistened with light. I wasn’t as impressed with the beauty of the Port of Tauranga, but it might’ve just been one of those days.

Before we headed back down, Kai made sure to put his football club sticker on a bench, to stake out his territory. We took the long path down to the beach, though we opted not to swim before getting back on the road.

We drove an hour to our hostel in downtown Rotorua — fittingly called Rotorua Downtown Backpackers. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill hostel, and the bathroom was painted red.

Rotorua is a cool town with a bit more historic vibe than other NZ towns I’ve been to. A ton of tourists stop here to experience the Māori cultural offerings, hot springs, and seemingly endless adventure activities. We happened to get there on a Thursday, when the Rotorua Night Market happens.

What I thought would be an artisan market turned out to be more of a food extravaganza, which I fully embraced. Kai and I wandered for a long time, studying the different food vendors before springing for dumplings.

We then wandered to Chakalaka, a South African eatery run by two dudes who highly recommended I try the peppermint crisp pudding while Kai got a sausage, like any good German would.

Satisfied, we walked over toward Lake Rotorua, where we found rose gardens and the Rotorua Museum, currently closed because it doesn’t meet earthquake safety standards. It reminded me of the Shining hotel.

Down the street we finally found the lake, which was much different from the beaches I’ve been used to on the North Island. Instead, we saw bubbling, steaming portals to the underworld, all around Lake Rotorua. And a sulfuric, eggy smell that’s hard to miss. It’s a distinguishing feature of the city.

I decided I liked this place despite its smell. As the sun set, Kai and I walked around the lakeside paths, winding through the forests and listening to Bob Marley until we found the gardens once again. Not quite ready to retire for the night, we found a bar in town called Pig & Whistle, ordering a couple beers and booking a Māori cultural experience for the next day.

The next morning, I grabbed breakfast at the Fat Dog Cafe, known for huge, delicious plates of food. For only $16 NZ (I think), the vege breakfast didn’t disappoint. Though it was truly gigantic.

Back at the hostel, Kai & I embarked on our journey to Whakarewarewa, a living Māori village just outside the city center. Though there are a few different “cultural experiences” in living villages of Rotorua, Whakarewarewa’s was the cheapest option at $43 NZ for a walking tour, cultural performance and a piece of corn. I’ll explain more later.

We were greeted by Hana, our tour guide who lives in the Whaka village. She helped us all pronounce the full name of the village, Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahaio.

We then entered the village, where about 80 Māori citizens still live, while many live just outside of the Whaka village. Hana explained that the children of Whaka traditionally dive for pennies (nowadays $1 coins) that tourists throw off the main bridge into the town — there happened to be a boy swimming in the river who motioned for our little tour group to throw coins off the bridge so he could impressively dive for them. It felt strange to throw coins at a child so I refrained, but he was a really good diver.

As we continued into town, we saw the geothermal pools that make Rotorua famous. One house (formerly Hana’s auntie’s) had to be abandoned because they tried to heat it geothermally and — long story short — it ended up creating a giant sinkhole. Other houses in town seem to be on at least semi-stable ground, but it’s crazy knowing at any point a boiling sinkhole can simply take over.

We continued to Parekohuru, the pool where the Whaka villagers prepare a lot of their food, as the chemical levels are safe. They aren’t quite sure how deep the pool actually gets — they know it’s at least 50 feet deep, but probably much deeper. It gets to over 200 degrees Celsius at some points, melting the cord that scientists originally lowered into the pool to measure its depth. Crazy stuff.

In Parekohuru, they cook everything from fish to veggies, which takes much less time than a standard oven. Meats and fatty items are reserved for the geothermal ovens, basically holes in the ground that they’ve expertly turned into cooking chambers for food. If Kai and I had paid extra for a traditional hangi dinner, it would have been cooked here.

Unfortunately, we only paid for corn, which was cooked in Parekohuru. It still tasted glorious.

We also saw the geothermal bathing area, which had just been redone in the past year.

And finally, Hana led us around to a few other pools, some used by the villagers and some not. Overall, learning about the Whaka village was my favorite part of Rotorua.

Then it was time for the Māori cultural performance, where a group of six villagers sang and danced to traditional songs, finishing with the haka, a famous war dance. The performance was impressive, but it left me feeling a bit awkward and overly touristy. I would still recommend it, but I felt much more connected to the walking tour.

After the performance we were free to walk around Whaka till 5pm when the tourist entrance usually closes. Kai and I strolled around the various lakes, bathed in a delicious eggy perfume. Some lakes were spectacularly colored and others were brown, which launched us into a discussion about hypothetical lake equity. Anyway. We slathered on sunscreen and planned our next step for the day.

We drove about 45 minutes to Okere Falls, a popular waterfall where many rafting adventures take place. Neither of us felt like rafting, so we simply walked the Okere Falls loop (about an hour long) and stood looking at the falls for a few minutes, wondering if we’d see any rafters. No such luck, but it was late in the day.

I was beginning to feel genuinely worn out, as I felt the weight of four continuous weeks of travel. We headed back to Rotorua, getting groceries and some beer to wind down. Once home to the hostel, I mobilized to buy myself some ice cream. Because when Molly is cranky, ice cream is always the answer.

I walked to Lady Jane’s Ice Cream Parlour, housed within a large outdoor restaurant zone. Impressive, but all I truly wanted was ice cream. I opted for a scoop of goody goody gumdrop (basically cotton candy with gumdrops instead of gummy bears) and something with pink marshmallows. It was perfection, and I was at least 10% happier.

Still feeling anxiety, I took a “sad” selfie in hopes of making myself feel better, then I headed back to catch up on journaling and zone out with a good beer for the rest of the evening. Currently, my go-to NZ beer brand is Monteith’s Patriot APA — it has uncomfortably patriotic American branding (complete with a bald eagle), but it’s genuinely a delicious and cost-effective ale.

The next morning, I was still feeling antsy. Kai was heading out to Taupo that day, and I decided to head out as well — Rotorua was cool, but my restlessness had reached a tipping point. Perhaps it was the overcrowded hostel or the sulfuric smell. I just needed to leave.

But before that, I joined Tobias (another German friend who I’d met in Whitianga) for breakfast at Zippy’s Cafe. A little coffee and a salmon bagel’s scientifically shown to improve anyone’s spirits.

Tobias was only in Rotorua for a day or so, and we agreed the nearby Redwood forest sounded interesting. For $30 NZ they offer a tree walk, where you can walk over suspension bridges between the trees and learn about redwoods and sequoias in the area. We opted for the daytime version, but they also offer night walks for the same price, where the whole path is lit with hanging lanterns. That might feel more worthwhile for a relatively steep price. Still a cool activity!

After the half hour tree walk, we trekked around the various hiking trails in the forest, choosing an easy hour return walk. We talked about music, Germany, the usual travel conversation, all in the blessed shade of the Redwoods. For those so inclined, they also offer mountain bike rentals for an even more extensive trail system, but we weren’t quite up for the task.

It was nearly time for me to leave for Taupo, but first — culture! Tobias and I found a small multicultural festival in the middle of Government Gardens (the rose gardens from earlier). We happily sampled teas from Russia, South Africa, India, Morocco and Japan. Serendipitous.

And with that, I said goodbye to Rotorua. Despite my personal restlessness, I enjoyed the feel of the little city and its offerings. But a girl’s gotta go where the wind takes her — and the wind was pointing toward Taupo and the infamous Mount Tongariro. Ever onward!

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