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The land of Smelly Mud 

photos and text copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved 
 
 

12/31/97 
Waitomo S 38 degrees 15.848' E 175 degrees O7.363' 
 

My last six days in New Zealand were spent mostly on buses. Buses that careened through the hilly countryside of the North Island at speeds regularly over the government-mandated limit. Speeds where panicked occupants like myself imagined their demise at every corner. Remember that feeling that courses through your body when you do something life-threatening like leave the iron on at home, or run a red light, or the condom breaks? That quick flush of heat combined with goosebumps crawling up the nape of your neck? 

Well that's how I spent the better part of six days touring. In comparison, my "action-adventure" experiences were tame. I took a four-wheel drive trip up a dormant volcano in Rotorura and trekked around the crater in my sandals with 200 foot cliffs on either side, but the scaryiest part was the Land Rover packed with nine people tipping back and forth at 100 km per hour on the highway to and from the woods. The next morning I went to Waitomo and abseiled (rapelled) 100 feet into a cave suspended by a single rope into a 10 foot underground river, but on the way the van driver fell asleep and we turned the wrong way down an onramp scaring the daylights out of the oncoming vehicle and forcing me to check my underwear for unsightly introductions. 

Yes, New Zealand is know as the action-adventure capital of the world, and the pride trickles right down to their transportation system. 

Though short, my exploration of some more of New Zealand was really interesting. Rotorura is the most popular tourist area in the country and is home to heaps of thermal activity and Maori history. Most New Zealanders I talked to automatically wrinkled their noses in disgust at the mere mention of the town. See, Rotorura is also know as "Sulphur City" due to the geysers, hot thermal springs, and volcanic activity. I'll always remember ist as the home of smelly mud. 

I had seen pictures of the boiling mud pits on postcards, and that's exactly what it looked like. A big pit of mud boiling away with big gaseous bubbles popping, belching and hissing. In between waves of hurried, chatting, Japanese tour groups, if you paid attention, you got to hear the gurgling, slapping and joyous burbs of the mud. It was actually very calming. I guess that's why they perched an eight story hotel right on the edge of it, so the inhabitants could get a good night's sleep after their harrowing bus rides. 

The Whakarewarewa geyser Pohutu was next on our trip through Rotorura, and it was steamy and smelly and quite a sight. It more or less constantly spurts boiling water up in a virile arc. My camera got caught in a little spurt and the liquid scarred the plastic case. I guess it's not the same mineral water they sell at 7-11 for 3 bucks a bottle. 

I like a town where random holes in the ground spitting steam doesn't mean that some Con Edison guy has done shoddy work on the heating system. There are smelly natural holes all over the city, coming out of fenceposts, out behind the Burger King, in the front yard of your neighbor. In fact, one of the busdrivers informed me that all the hotwater and half of the remaining energy needs of the town are provided by the thermal springs. A nice tax savings no doubt. 

In a quest to do all things touristy, my friend Asa (say "Orsa") and myself attended a Maori concert. The Maori, as you know, were the initial inhabitants of New Zealand before the English arrived and gave everyone distinctive accents. Rotorura is a center of Maori heritage, and as such, offers many opportunities for visitors to experinece a slice of Maori culture. I'm not convinced we made the best choice. 

Yes, the concert was held in an authentic Maori meeting house, yes there were authentic Maori outfits, yes as far as I could tell these were ancestral decendants of native Rotoruran Maori tribes, but more than one of the singers seemed profoundly bored during the performance. Especially the men, aged between20 and 25. They were clearly weary of the audience, each of whom had shelled out fifteen bucks to improve their cultural vision of New Zealand. Only in a few moments did the men shine. Called upon to show the traditional Haka war dance, this trio did an excellent traditional job of intimidating their opponents, by shouting, sticking out their tongues and making themselves as ugly as possible. Minutes after the show the men were redressed into their current-day cultural costumes, which included a Led Zeppellin t-shirt. 

Dazzled by the native culture of the country, me and my travelling buddy set off to explore more of the physical beauty of the island. We took a trip up Mount Tarawera which was a fine, normal-looking mountain up until June of 1886. Between 1 am and 6 am the mountain exploded and covered 800 sq kilometers with ash and pumice. It killed 156 people, and generally ruined the local tourist trade which had been coming to view the thermal pools and Pink and White terraces, at that time regarded as one of the wonders of the world. 

The volcano has been dormant since then, but to me, seeing the amount of earth blown out of the crater in a single night, Mount Tarawera is still a wonder of the world. We drove to the top in a Land Rover over an exceptional rough road. Parked about 300 feet from the crater lip we walked 
to the edge and looked down and across, about a half mile or so. It's like being at the top row of a gigantic stadium and knowing it was built in a few hours. Unbelievable to contemplate the mammoth volcanic activity happening overnight. 

Another mystery is how Asa convinced me I could climb the volcano in my sandals, since my boots had been stolen. I don't recommend it. Anyway, the sight was wonderful, and colorful as well. The rocks, most about the size of golfballs, were in rusty red, black and white. The 500 foot slide through the lose rock down into the crater was a blast, like walking downhill in the snow. At least it was easy to remove the stones from my sandals at the bottom. 
 

Leaving Rotorura the next morning, after a harrowing two hour mini-van ride, I found myself in Waitomo. I said a quick goodbye to Asa and delved into the lurid world of limestone caving in New Zealand's famed Glow Worm caves. The glow worms are larval insects, maggots actually, that glow in damp caves and hang little webs down from their cocoons. Other insects are attracted by the light, caught in the webs, reeled up and eaten. The glow comes from a chemical reaction in digestion. Viewed in the dark, the glow worms look like faraway stars. Luckily for tourist vendors, caves are dark, and tourists love internally-lit larva. 

The robust economy of Waitomo is led by action adventures connected to the caves. I took a trip called Blackwater Rafting II - the sequel. Our group of six were outfitted in wetsuits, caving helments, big white wellington boots, and climbing harnesses. We travelled - again by bus - to the middle of a hayfield to learn how to operate our rope accessories, and then meandered over to a clump of bushes, where there was a little platform and a hole in the ground. We hooked in one at a time and lowered ourselves in. It only looked like a little hole. When I got into it and took a peek it seemed like I was looking down a one-hundred foot chimney just wide enough for me to get through. Appropriate just a few days after Christmas, a kind of Santa-for-next-year training mission. About half way down I took a moment to look over my shoulder and my lungs spontaneously spit out a hearty, "Oh shit!" I returned my glance to my beat up pair of white wellingtons and tried to remember what it flet like to be standing firmly in a hayfield just a few minutes before. 

Though I was mostly afraid of freezing to death underground, our guides found a number of more decisive fear-inducing activities that made me forget about temperature. First we attached ourselves to a rope and zipped 100 feet over a river in the dark. Then we jumped off a little cliff in innertubes into a pool of black water. Momentarily relaxing we drifted along the river staring at the cave roof filled with Glow Worms. Next we ditched the tubes and began a half mile wade through waist deep water in a series of tunnels. This was fascinating. Surrounded by a family of three, a newlywed couple and our two cheery leaders trapsing happily through a small, wet hole in the ground. 

Our exit from the cave was by climbing up a thin waterfall about twenty-five feet high. I finally found the type of activity my long skinny body wast uniqely adept at. To climb up through the waterfall you have to press your legs and arms against both sides of the cave and crawl hand and foothold at a time bracing yourself agains the rushing water. My wingspan made me a natural. 

Sent ahead by the staff, I sat alone in a rushing pool at the top of the falls waiting for the rest of the group to arrive with my light off. A black loud hissing hole in the ground all by myself. Very nice. Eventually we all squeezed out a little crevice and found ourselves back in a non-descript hayfield as the sun set. Not bad for a tourist trap. 

I finished my stay in New Zealand by returning to Auckland, hanging out with a Belfast native named Martin, and attending to a variety of mundane travelling needs, post office trips, and junk food consumption. I'm spending New Years eve in Sydney Australia. Another country, new things to see, more bus rides, and mammoth fear of the unknown. 

 

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