Heaven or Rotovegas

22nd May 2011

It’s just as well I don’t put much stall by reputations, for if I did I would almost certainly have missed out on a fabulous weekend in the central North Island city of Rotorua, which the locals warned me away from with the same degree of vehemence you’d expect from the Japanese government over the Fukushima nuclear plant. “What the &^%^ are you going there for?” was one of several adverse reactions I received from bemused work colleagues who demanded to know why, of all the beautiful places to visit in New Zealand, I would wish to spend my Easter break in a city referred to with almost cringeworthy regularity as “Rotovegas”. Even Holly, who is more in tune with my tastes than most, actively tried to prevent us from stopping off there during our epic driving tour from Wellington to Auckland late last year, even though it would have been out of our way to avoid it.

Of course, if someone tells you somewhere is shit, it only makes you even more curious to go there. And when lots of people tell you somewhere is shit, it makes you want to spend a weekend there to determine exactly how shit it can possibly be. Well, I’m sorry New Zealanders, but Rotorua is, quite simply, not shit. Which doesn’t mean that it’s particularly great either, but it’s unequivocally not worthy of the opprobrium that is repeatedly shovelled upon it by Aucklanders.

I have already made the case that New Zealand’s towns and cities do not necessarily represent the best of what the country has to offer, and often play second fiddle to the natural wonders upon and near which they were built. So yes, if one were to judge Rotorua solely on its merits as a city in itself, then it would probably be found lacking compared to equivalently-sized conurbations in Europe. This, though, would surely miss the point of what – for tourists at least – Rotorua is designed for: an accommodation and entertainment hub from which the surrounding landscapes can be explored and to which weary travellers can head for an evening of food, drink and revelry after a day of sightseeing. Judged on this basis, Rotorua delivers everything you could reasonably expect, with cheaply-priced hotels and a main street lined with pubs, bars and restaurants providing us with everything we required for an entertaining night out.

It is true that Rotorua has something of the shabby, concrete-fetishising northern English town about it, but for one night only that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We even managed to find a pub that served not only Stella, but bags of crisps – an inexplicably atypical occurrence over here: I almost felt nostalgic. Perhaps it is the overriding niff of rotten eggs that is responsible for Rotorua’s unfavourable reputation, and it’s true, the smell does hang around like a fart in a briefcase. But for me, that’s a small price worth paying for the access it provides to the dazzling array of geothermal marvels that provide the main incentive for tourists to flock to the area.

We began our central North Island adventure with a couple of hours at Orakei Karako, an off-the-beaten-track geothermal park which was pleasingly devoid of the tourist hordes that can sometimes detract from the impact of other parks in the area. (This is the moment when Holly interjects to point out that our “adventure” actually began en route to Orakei Karako, when I suddenly noticed halfway along a deserted country road in the middle of bloody nowhere that our car’s petrol gauge was pointing to a less-than-empty tank, despite - I swear - it being closer to half full only an hour earlier, and us having to endure a sweaty-palmed, heart-pumping quarter of hour in which we chugged along praying and hoping for a petrol station to magically appear before the car would splutter to a fuel-less halt. Thank god, one did, and we were saved. And Holly was a bit cross. But I digress.) Orakei Karako is, for wont of a better word, a wonderland. Reached via motorboat across a river from a carpark, it rises out of the water in a psychedelic patchwork of glistening yellow and blue rocks, and continues to astound as you weave your way along a wood-deck pathway that sits above a steaming, bubbling carpet of geysers, hot water stream and mud pools.

If there is a better example of an alien-aping landscape anywhere in the world, I’d love to hear about it. Quite apart from the colour scheme, which was like an artist’s approximation of the inside of Syd Barret’s head during one of his mind-melting LSD trips, the sounds and smells on display were like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

The aforementioned pong d’oeuf was even more obnoxious here, while the soundscapes were like something off 1970s Doctor Who. Best of all, perhaps, was the bizarre rock formation that looked like a slumbering woolly mammoth covered in icing sugar.

As if all that wasn’t exotic enough, we found ourselves the following day in a more well-known but no less jaw-dropping thermal park a few miles east. Vaster in scale and just as smelly, Wai O Tapu offered further volcanic wonders, including a series of blue and green pools that were so striking in colour that they barely seemed real.

A giant steaming geyser also gave us the opportunity to take some suitably fantasty-esque photos as our silhouettes stood engulfed by great misty swathes.

But then, just as I began to feel like I really had been transported to some distant planet, we were brought straight back to earth by the rolling dulcet tones of an elderly Scottish couple who had come all this way from Lockerbie. It’s at such times that the world feels really quite small.

We could have easily spent days exploring the region, as the two parks we visited, and the famous Green and Blue lakes that sit like dreamy oil paintings at the foot of verdant mountains, barely scratched the surface of what the area has to offer. Even Rotorua, with its spectacular adjoining lake and impressively palatial museum, is probably worth another trip, though next time we might forgo the blandly international Hotel Ibis for somewhere a little more characterful.

But after two months of work that left me feeling like my holiday down under was well and truly over, Rotorua and its magnificent geothermal wonders made me remember just how special this country can be - just as long as you remember to pack your nose pegs…


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