03/06/11 - Rotorua
The first thing you notice when you step outside in Rotorua is the smell. Like egg in your face, it hits you hard and pungent. This made me wonder whether or not living and breathing sulfuric fumes is a healthy way of life. I know I wouldn't choose it, but obviously many have. The area is known for its natural hot springs; healing pools of mineral water warmed by the bowels of the Earth. Perhaps there’s a hidden benefit to the noxious air that I’m not privy to? Either way, I don’t think anyone can deny that Rotorua stinks.
Before reaching Rotorua we pulled off in the outskirts of town to visit a place called Wai-O-Tapu. Known to be one of the best geothermal areas around, Wai-O-Tapu is also Maori owned and run. Their gift shop was one of the more impressive when it came to wooden carvings and diversity, but we stood firm and spent our money on the sizeable entrance fee alone.
Vapor spewed through cracks and fissures as we entered, forcing us to march through a wall of hot mist. Bubbling pools and unearthly caverns littered the landscape, and that unholy smell continued to permeate the air. With such toxic phenomena seeping up from the ground, it was no wonder that many of the attractions bore names derived from the likes of Hell or Lucifer: Devil’s Home, Devil’s Ink Pots, Inferno Crater, Devil’s Bath, etc., etc. Yeah, the Devil must really love this place, as it seems he’s taken up permanent residency.
The day was overcast, sprinkling droplets of rain on us every so often as we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the volcanic landscape. We toured past craters and pools and traversed a long boardwalk over the "Artist’s Palette" – a large stretch of shallow water segmented into smears of color. Just as we were closing in on the jewel of Wai-O-Tapu, Champagne Pool, our vision was obscured by a thick wall of steam. It flowed forth and swept over us. A literal heat wave. My skin moistened as it passed, then a chill wind made it pucker. The alternating temperatures felt both refreshing and peculiar as we stood at the edge of the Champagne Pool, it’s iridescent orange glow fading into blue. It looked preternatural and strangely inviting. I would’ve been tempted to jump in if not for the scalding hot water.
We hiked through mini canyons and past green and white crystallized chambers. At the end of the trail we were shocked to find a pool of neon green liquid, and that’s no exaggeration. Just looking at it conjured up cosmic fantasies of the inexplicable kind: It’s an alien blood bank! An acid rain pool! A nuclear frog zombie infestation! It boggled our minds. Unfortunately, the pictures don’t do it justice, so the vibrancy of that electric green slime-way will have to live in our memories alone.
From one kind of funky green to the next, we checked into Funky Green Voyager that afternoon. It was a fun, sweet little hostile with friendly staff and a pleasant atmosphere. It’s only downfall: One lone sink in the kitchen. That made things tough come dinner time, when ten other people were cooking alongside us and then cleaning up simultaneously.
We decided to be decadent that evening and unwind at the Polynesian Spa just as the sun was setting. A mixture of alkaline and acidic hot mineral baths were carved into a stone garden overlooking Rotorua Lake. The sun cast a pink hue along the horizon while birds flocked on an island. They were squawking up a storm in the evening glow. We sat back and relaxed while our muscles unwound. As the evening wore on we switched from one bath to the next, exploring their slight variances at our leisure. Oftentimes we had entire pools to ourselves. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven…except I couldn’t imagine heaven smelling like rotten eggs. Yes, we were embracing the many joys Rotorua had to offer. I’m sure Katie was getting rather tired of me saying “Man, it stinks,” but I couldn’t help it! It startled me every time I stepped outside!
The next morning, after eating some delicious local eggs (free range makes all the difference, I’m telling you), we drove a few miles out of town to the most touristy place we’d ever been in New Zealand. A farmland experience with a theme park frame of mind. The name alone says it all: Agrodome. You know you’re in for an authentic experience when the sheep shearing show can seat a thousand.
Sheep of all shapes and shades were called up on stage like rock stars. Shaggy, sleek, black, white, horned and otherwise, they all pranced upon their pedestals in their fluffy coats like well-trained ballerinas. They knew the routine like the back of their hooves. The sheep sheerer and MC for the day was a tanned bald Kiwi. Pacing the stage, he relayed the fine characteristics of each sheep before sheering one before our eyes. Then he asked if he could have some volunteers. Volunteers for what? Why, for milking a cow of course! My arm shot skyward. I’d always wanted to milk a cow! I was instantly plucked from the audience along with a few other enthusiastic participants. We all awaited our chance to milk the dairy cow who sauntered on stage. I’m sure she, like the sheep, was quite familiar with her role in the show. She seemed comfortable with several strangers fondling her utters. All in a days work, I suppose. I, myself, enjoyed my shot at milking a cow, which lasted a whopping five seconds.
Back in the audience a few moments later, I found myself resisting the urge to raise my hand yet again. He needed more volunteers, but this time round the crowd was being reluctant, stubbornly so. Were there no more adventurous folk out there? Slowly but surely people hesitantly lifted their arms. Katie, of course, had no desire to be part of the show even with my coaxing. Finally, out of impatience or greed or both, I threw my arm up and yelled out: “I’ll go again!” He was more than happy to take me up on my offer.
I ran on stage, the last of four participants, as he dolled out bottles of milk with rubber nipples on top. He proceeded to tell us we were going to have a milk drinking contest. Odd, I thought, but what did I know about Kiwi past times? I’d been to many county fairs in my day, so the idea of melding farm life with some healthy competition didn’t seem that unusual. I was ready. I was game. Plus, the word 'contest’ has never failed to capture my enthusiasm. Yep, I can be a tad competitive. Shocking, no?
He instructed us to hold out our bottles and “Get ready to drink!” I felt good. Confident. I was going to slug down that giant baby bottle faster than you could say lactose intolerant! Then the countdown began: “On the count of three – 1, 2, 2 ½, 3!” And just like that I threw that bottle back like a regular beer swiller. My mouth drank hungrily; lips wrapped around that nipple like a…like a…like a baby lamb. The same kind of baby lamb that was now jumping up on me anxious to have a drink. The sweet little creatures had been unleashed upon the stage and were now swarming around us like bees to honey.
Um…yeah…there was no milk drinking contest. He was pulling our legs. The bottles were meant to feed the lambs, not us. But me being me, oh-so eager to win the race, was the only one of the lot who actually drank the milk…from a giant baby bottle…meant for baby lambs. Lord knows if that thing was even clean…
Humiliation aside, the lambs were absolutely adorable and incredibly soft to touch. They drank enthusiastically while hopping around on tiny hooves with unbridled energy. It was fun to interact with them. And as for my milk drinking contest faux pas, I’m going to chalk it up to naiveté and an overzealous competitive spirit. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Next up on stage were the impressive sheep dogs. They came bounding in, their large barks echoing off the timbre walls. The MC demonstrated their abilities by having them stop, go, crawl, and bark all on command. He said it isn’t uncommon for sheep to become immune to their presence on the farm. Sometimes they need an extra nudge to keep them in line. That’s when he gave the command, impelling the dogs to actually jump on top of the sheep! A few moments later they were careening across the stage and over their backs as though they were rocks or tree trunks! Meanwhile, the sheep could do naught but stand and chew; their jaws gnashing bits of food whilst their pride ebbed away. Those poor beasts. You could practically see thought bubbles floating above their heads: “Damn these woolen coats! In my next life I hope I’m a common field mouse so people will leave me the hell alone!”
After the show, we perused the on-site stores, tested some lanolin lotions, and wandered over the farm grounds. We were happy find the show-stopping sheep frolicking free in an open field. They were grazing between performances, no doubt. We tried to get their autographs but they didn’t so much as look our way. Such prima donnas!
On our way out we stopped to take a picture with a gigantic sheep statue. It summed up our Agrodome experience to a T: Larger than life and kind of tacky. But we left there with a few new experiences, some wacky memories, and wide grins upon our faces.