Sunday 1 March 2020. Taupo to Rotarua. 87km.
We left Irene’s with a mix of feeling: sad to leave yet inspired by our lovely host. Irene is 80 years old and regularly cycles and hikes so that she remains fit enough to go skiing every year. In fact while we were there she confirmed her place on a Mountains to Sea cycling tour, which she is doing with friends next month! Her husband passed away 2 years ago so she joined WarmShowers as a way of meeting new people despite her already active life. She was great fun to be around as well as interesting and thoughtful and we had so many conversations about so may different things…she even had NetFlix recommendations for us! A hugely inspiring lady and if I am even half as fit and active as her when I turn 80 I will be more than happy.
We started out by taking a quick ride into Taupo town as we hadn’t actually seen the centre during our 2 days there. It was quite nice in a “same as many other towns in New Zealand” kind of way, and then it was on the road for our journey to Rotarua – world famous for its thermal spring spas and the heart of Maori culture.
Nigel mentioned in this last blog that North Island is hilly. Well today we managed to find the only flat road that must exist here…Broadlands road, which as well as being flat was also quiet, apart from a few other cyclists training for an Ironman event, which will take place there next week. We fairly sped along the 45km road as far as Reporoa and although the scenery was pleasant it was nothing amazing. We then joined State Highway 5 on the Thermal Explorer Highway section for the remainder of our journey into Rotarua, which had lots of steaming pools in the hills on along the way. About 5km from Rotarua we could smell the sulphur/rotten egg smell….oh yes, we were definitely coming into geothermal central!
During a quick supermarket stop we made contact with Ben our WarmShowers host to let him know we were in town and to check if he was home. He was! And he didn’t live far away so it wasn’t long before we were in and settled and once again enjoying some fantastic hospitality. Ben is originally from Penzance in Cornwall, so within minutes we were all yapping away like we had known each other forever. An evening of Nigel’s cooking, travel stories and good old belly laughs followed..it was like having a night out back home!
Monday 2 March 2020. Rotarua. 20km.
We had an action-packed day in Rotarua, which started with an early morning dip in Kerosene Creek, one of the many outdoor thermal spas in the area. Ben works from home and as he had a flexible schedule he suggested a dip as our first activity of the day and, as it was about 25km outside town, he would drive. We were the only ones there and spent a good 20 minutes enjoying the warm water and waterfall before we had to get out because it was too hot! There was so much steam it was hard to take a clear photo…
Apparently it’s called Kerosene Creek because the water has a slight whiff of kerosene to it. Personally I couldn’t get it but we all definitely smelled eggy on the way home! Another interesting factoid is that Rotarua’s reputation as a spa town began in 1878 when an Irish priest with bad arthritis bathed here, declared himself cure and then walked 65km home to Tauranga…..where would the world be without us Irish eh?
We have both really enjoyed open water swimming over the last few weeks, so while Ben started his working week we did a few chores to give the rain time to pass and then took our bikes and headed out to Blue Lake about 20km outside town. Apparently it hasn’t really rained in Rotarua since Christmas Day and although it hadn’t been forecast for today it was raining first thing and made us question doing any more outdoor activities. But it eased off and off we went. Our ride took us on a trail through the Redwood forest, an area of huge Californian redwood trees on the edge of town….
…and after panting up a fairly steep hill to get to Blue Lake, it was time for lunch and a dip. The lake didn’t seem particularly blue to us but we enjoyed it anyway!
Rotarua is the heartland of Maori culture and although we had a personal Maori welcome from Rob in Whanganui last week and have learned a bit about the culture in various museums we decided that a visit to Rotarua wouldn’t be complete without an experience here. Te Puia is home to the Te Awara tribe, who migrated here from Polynesia on canoes more than 700 years ago. It’s also a Maori culture centre set in 60 hectare of geothermal forest and features a number of active geysers, boiling mud pools and live Kiwi birds as well as the NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. During our couple of hours there we saw the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere Pohutu Geyser erupt (it erupts around twice an hour)…
I saw Kiwis for the first time in a special darkened enclosure that recreates a nighttime environment for these nocturnal birds. Although they are classed as birds they are also “honorary mammals” as a lot of their features are more mammal-like than bird-like eg they have bad eyesight yet an excellent sense of smell. To me they looked like little fat furry creatures with very long beaks!
We also saw lots of amazing Maori carvings….
…but the highlight for me was the cultural welcome and the entertainment, which involved the haka. They asked for a male volunteer to accept a wero (challenge) from them to initiate proceedings and when no one was forthcoming to volunteer as chief for the tourist “tribe” Nigel rose to the challenge. He was presented with a wero in the form of a fern leaf from a warrior to the sound of a karanga (welcome call) from a female host.
When they knew that we were coming in peace we were welcomed onto their land where they entertained us with songs and dance….as well as teaching Nigel and the other men (warriors) the Haka….
Thankfully when it was all over they confirmed that as “Mrs Chief”, I was back in charge and normality was restored among the lifecyclers! But the whole afternoon was fantastic and cemented our love of the amazing Maori culture.
Back to base at Ben’s for another great evening of conversation and laughter.
Tuesday 3 March. Rotarua to Matamata. 74km.
We left Ben nice and early as we headed towards Hobbiton, the movie set of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, where we had a tour booked for Wednesday. Similar to when we left Taupo we took a ride through Rotarua to see the town centre. Like Taupo it sits on a lake and from what we saw it seemed quite nice, despite all the unsightly construction along the lake front. With a population of 55,000 it was quite busy at rush hour but we managed to find a quiet road until we got to the outskirts. Then it was on State Highway 5, which although wasn’t too busy had a few cars and trucks that just seemed to get far too close. We thought the last 10km into Matamata would be quieter on the road but if anything it was worse! We even had one impatient truck driver almost try to run us off the road but for his efforts he did receive a few un-ladylike gestures. It made me feel better if nothing else!
We made it to Matamata unscathed and were surprised to find it’s much bigger than we expected. But as we were tired from the last few days we didn’t bother exploring and chose to just chill out in our hostel for the afternoon and evening….preparing ourselves for the excitement of visiting the Shire and Hobbiton tomorrow!
4 March 2020. Matamata to Cambridge via Hobbiton. 44 km.
We had expected it to rain overnight and it didn’t disappoint so we set out towards Hobbiton hoping it would ease off before our 10am tour. Although it was only 15km away it was quite a tough ride through endless hills with some tough climbing. As we got closer to the farm where the movie set is located, we could definitely see why it was chosen for LOTR and The Hobbit movies as it looked English and Oxfordshire-like, which is where the books are based. Nigel of course was in full Samwise Gamgee mode with his “Look Mr. Frodo! We’re nearly home” commentary along the ride.
We had booked a 10am tour but got there early enough to take an earlier one, so they obviously weren’t fully booked. The tour involved a bus ride to take us right down to the village of Hobbiton and from there our guided tour began. There were 44 very cute Hobbit houses, including Bilbo Baggins’ famous Bag End…
…all of which had doorways just about my height…
It was so well done because it looked like the hobbits had just gone out for the day… gardens were all in full bloom with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees and tools were left as if someone had just been working there. Some of the chimneys even had real smoke and the mill was working!
We learned lots of interesting nonsense about the making of the movies and the tour ended with a drink in the Green Dragon pub with English folk music playing in the background. A very enjoyable couple of hours and even through we aren’t geeky fans of the movies, it was well worth the visit. And as if by magic the rain held off for the entire tour and didn’t start again until we were getting ready to get back in the bikes!
Cambridge was our destination for the day, which although was only 27km away was quite a tough ride as there were more hills. But it was a quiet picturesque road and the rain eventually stopped so we didn’t really mind. We took a lovely route via Karapiro Dam, more by luck than plan, and after a supermarket shop we arrived at our campsite around 3pm. We are also obviously in horse stud territory in this region as there were loads of stud farms, saddle shops, horses and horse paraphernalia along the route. Afternoon tea with hot cross buns followed before we decided to take a walk into Cambridge – awarded the title of the most beautiful large town in New Zealand at the end of 2019. It’s definitely a town of trees with a tree-lined Main Street and lovely tree-lined river paths….
….but the town itself didn’t really wow us. Like most towns that we have visited here, with the exception of Wellington, they all seem to lack a bit of soul. They are generally full of single storey buildings with uninspiring shopfronts, and all planned in an organised grid….very different to home where I guess our towns grew up over time and have a mix of old an some new blended together. Nevertheless we had a lovely stroll in the very hot sunshine as I searched in vain for a birthday ice cream. We know we will be in the middle of the hills tomorrow for my actual birthday so I wanted a treat today and had set my sights on a real fruit ice cream which is a NZ speciality that I haven’t tried yet. Unfortunately the ice cream shop shut at 5pm so I was denied that and had to go for a normal icepop instead. We returned to base camp for dinner and a mini planning session for the next part of our trip north.
5 March 2020. Cambridge to Waingaro. 88km.
For my birthday I decided I would like to go for a nice bike ride into the hills. Unfortunately the traffic on the road for the first part of the journey wasn’t the nicest, which meant we didn’t really get a chance to look at the scenery. But it was reminiscent of English countryside and we could have easily been in Oxfordshire or anywhere in Middle Earth!
They have had a very dry summer season here as you can see from the scorched grass and many of the towns and villages in the region have signs showing water alert 4, which is their highest level and means a complete ban on water for outdoor use is in place eg hosepipes, sprinklers, etc.
Again the route was hilly and over the course of the day we climbed about 800m but when we eventually got onto a less busy road the scenery was fantastic and we could really enjoy it. Well worth the grind!
Lunch was a classy stop at the side of the road….
….and we got to base shortly afterwards. We had booked a room at the only available accommodation on this road – a Forest Park that we thought only had indoor accommodation available. We got there to discover they also had camping and a great camp kitchen so we had the best of both worlds….an ensuite room (LUXURY!) in the heart of rural forest with no one else there except ourselves. A lovely relaxing end to a fairly tough day on the bikes – and one befitting of a just-turned-48-year-old!