It was absolutely pouring rain when we woke up, but I’ve come to learn that New Zealand’s weather can be rather bipolar. The day begins stormy and ominous and by lunchtime the sky is a piercing shade of blue. The air gets dryer the further south we go, so that freezing wind/blazing sun temperature shift is more obvious. Layers layers layers.
We spent a lazy morning in Rotorua, rising slowly and not rushing out of town. The plan was to visit the Rotorua Museum, but we learned that it’s closed indefinitely in order to bring it up to Earthquake code standards. The outside of the building was intriguing and grand, so it was worth a trip over there if even just for a picture.
Our Lonely Planet New Zealand book directed us next to the Kuirau Park for more geothermal activity. It’s free, which is always surprising. The park was cool enough that you could almost forgo the overpriced “official” geothermal parks in town. Steel-colored mud pots and gurgling streams sat unattended and with nothing to keep you out except short wooden fences. I’m not sure we’re mature enough for such independence among treacherous natural phenomenon:
“Nobody is watching this thing…can we touch it?” (referring to the scorching hot Sulfur pit)
The best part about the Kuirau Park was this long wooden walkway built on top of the lake. Steam from the geothermal lake billows up and over the walkway, swallowing you into a cryptic mist. It’s a scene just begging to be photographed into oblivion.
On the (left side of the) road again but this time Katie took a crack at driving. I let her practice in the parking lot, which was a considerably milder transition than I had at the Auckland Airport. Now that we’ve both safely operated the car, that bucket list item can be checked off.
The driving was easy and un-congested. We took our time and stopped when we reached Waitomo so that we could see the glowworm caves. The glowworms are tiny cave-dwelling worms that illuminate into a deep neon blue color when the light is low. This is meant to attract bugs for food. Supposedly it’s a ridiculously cool site to see via a rowboat that floats you through limestone caves. We were naïve in thinking that we could show up and buy tickets on the spot, considering the fact that tours run every 30 minutes. Too many tour buses packed like clown cars had the same thought, and by the time we arrived in the early afternoon, all of the spots were booked out.
I turned to a panicked Katie as the color faded from her face like a child whose ice cream had fallen on the floor. A staff member walked by at that moment and asked if we were okay. Katie instantaneously responded “No!” in a cracked voice. Taken aback, this angel of a staff member listened to our story (about driving 3 hours and Katie looking forward to the tour for weeks). He told us to hang on, called his manager on the phone, and had him come down to hear about our woes. In minutes, he had added us to a sold-out tour with the wave of his hand. I cannot stress this enough—I have never met nicer people than those in New Zealand. It’s so genuine and organic that it catches you off guard each and every time.
Photography isn’t allowed inside the caves, so I had to burn the image in my mind of thousands of florescent squiggly lines consuming the rocky ceilings. We trekked through chilly, narrow walkways and piled into wooden rowboats that were slowly floated through the caves. Everybody sat there deathly silent. The only sound you heard was the boat as it bobbed between underwater boulder peaks, and the gasps of patrons gazing upward. The glowworms covered the rocks above us and twinkled in an iridescent glow. It’s definitely something you don’t see just anywhere.
The drive from Waitomo to Hamilton was only about an hour. Rolling hills lined the skinny highway with sheep and cows for miles. It was quiet and secluded. We stayed in Hamilton because it had a (very, very) small airport where we could drop the rental car and a station to catch the train in the morning. Hamilton was a classic small town sandwiched between rural landscapes. Our hotel, VR Hamilton, felt like an old fashion apartment. The building was constructed in 1825 and is a city landmark. The ceilings are especially high and the trim is intricate. That regal atmosphere gives the err of a once-prominent destination. Sitting at the old-fashion wooden desk by the window felt like home.
Tapas dinner at Palate Restaurant led to craft cocktails at a hidden bar down a shady alleyway. The hostess at dinner recommended the bar for drinks and even drew us a map with directions (because people in New Zealand are freakishly nice and helpful, all the time).
“It looks a bit dodgy, but I promise they know how to make a drink”
The sunset was pink over the rooftops in the quiet just before bed. The streets were empty beyond a twinkling of apartment lights. The serenity of the streets never grows old and the stillness echoes inside my bones with such a familiar peace. The whole town feels asleep together like family, surrounded by countryside just beyond the rooftops. Twilight sky, heavy drapes, and a dark room. I could never go home and settle in like sand.