Rotorua is another enormous volcanic lake just an hour north of Lake Taupo. The exhaustion from yesterday’s grueling drive is still fresh, so we take it easy this morning, grabbing coffee and breakfast at a nearby cafe (which is characteristically delicious) before hitting the road. The drive is — of course — gorgeous, and passes much quicker than expected, leaving us with some time to kill before our tour of Te Puia.
Te Puia is a famous Maori cultural center in this area that puts on performances and demonstrations, has big museum displays, and showcases some of the world’s most unique geothermal features like bubbling mud pools and the biggest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere (the biggest in the Northern Hemisphere is Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, in case you were wondering…I know I was). To say I’m almost embarrassingly stoked about today’s tour of Te Puia and the corresponding Maori performance would be a huge understatement.
In our quick break before heading to Te Puia, we stroll along the boardwalk of Lake Rotorua and then grab our second coffee of the day. Lake Rotorua is smaller than Lake Taupo by a lot, but is equally beautiful, with the same elegant black swans dotting the shallows and a big green island standing stoically right in the middle of the water.
Coffees in hand, we hop back in the car and make the quick (albeit confusing) fifteen minute drive to the center. The walk from the overflow lot, where we park, to Te Puia sets things off to a great start. Even though there’s construction along much of our walk, the whole area is ringed with vibrant green forests and — along the walkway to the cultural center — there are big wooden poles sticking out of the ground at an angle, each one carved with a unique set of Maori designs.
First on our agenda here is the cultural demonstration, which is unreal. We get to go into a hand-carved building and watch performers from local Maori tribes do traditional dances, songs, and rituals, including a phenomenal performance of the Hakka (!!!). Throughout the demonstration, the performers explain the cultural and historical importance of every detail, so by the end, I am not just left blown by how cool everything has been, but am also left knowing way more about New Zealand’s indigenous people than I could ever have learned from an online article or museum brochure.
After the cultural experience, we meander our way over to the geyser in the hopes of watching it go off. According to signs, it sometimes gets a bit of performance anxiety and so, though it should go off every thirty minutes or so, it sometimes goes off only once every hour. We’re not about to miss out on the biggest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, though, so we wait — enjoying the cool breeze and the warm sun (which, finally, after two dreary days, has decided to make an appearance).
The geyser finally goes off, and I admit it freely: I am thoroughly impressed. Water shoots skyward until it’s nearly 30 meters in the air. Water droplets explode off the geyser’s stream and drift off over the sulfurous mud pools below an enormous cloud of mist, sparkling as though diamonds have been pushed from the earth rather than scalding water.
The eruption lasts much longer than expected: after ten minutes of oohing and ahing and snapping pictures, the water is still spurting out as high as ever. Having stood still by the geyser for nearly an hour by now, we sneak one last glance at the gravity-defying water feature and then head off in search of the other exhibits.
Pretty much everything in this area is affected by volcanic activity in some way. Around every corner we find boiling mud and geothermally warmed water falls and steaming mounds of molten, sulfur-tinged rock. As we walk along, Noel and Lena inform me that — because of the volcanic activity all around this area and Lake Taupo — earthquakes are particularly concerning to people up here. Earthquakes are common all over New Zealand (in fact, Lena and Noel experienced a pretty scary magnitude 7.8 one just after arriving in Wellington), but what I never realized is that the very same earthquakes that have shaken citizens from their beds and toppled shipping containers in Wellington’s shipyards are also strong enough to create whole new geothermic features up here in Rotorua. For instance, after the earthquake that happened few weeks ago, Lake Taupo residents were treated to the creation of their very own geyser in the center the lake that stuck around for hours after the ground stopped shaking. Meanwhile, Lake Rotorua got its own little mini lake geyser as well, and residents started to fear they’d have a stream of boiling-hot water exploding through their living rooms any second.
As if waking up at 12:52 a.m. to find the world shaking isn’t scary enough…
Having explored the mud pools, waterfalls, and geysers, and — of course — having pondered the finer points of New Zealand’s ancient volcanic activity, we head back to the car to make the trek back to Lake Taupo, happily exhausted.
It’s still early when we get back to the Lake Taupo area, so we decide to head to a dam that the Interwebs told us is quite appealing — especially if you can be there to watch the floodgates open in the afternoon.
The Interwebs didn’t lie.
The dam itself is pretty standard for a dam (which I know from my vast experience of staring at dams…), but the hike up to the viewpoint that overlooks the dried falls follows a path of jungly undergrowth that is shaded and lush and not at all standard.
When we arrive at the overlook, we find ourselves perfectly positioned for a view of the gorgeous dried waterfall and, as the clock strikes four, the spectacle that ensues along that very same set of dried rock pools.
At four o’clock on the dot, the large pool of river water just behind the dam suddenly starts to move — streaming through the gates of the damn, filling the rocky basin below, and cascading its way down a series of steep drops like a fountain at a kid’s water park (only, of course, way more impressive and not at all something you’d want your kids splashing around in).
Much like Huka Falls, this is a lot of water, and watching all 40,000,000+ gallons of it plunge down the 28 meters of the falls is equally as mesmerizing. Again, much like at Huka Falls, though, we can’t stay forever, and — with my face and arms already a disturbing shade of dark pink — we decide it’s probably about time to make our way out of the sun and into town to get dinner and settle in for the evening.
After the falls, we head to a supermarket to grab a light dinner for tonight, breakfast for tomorrow, and a nice bottle of wine before driving back to the hotel to drop our things. With plenty of time to kill until dinner, I grab a hat to shield my poor, poor, lobster-red face from the late afternoon sun and then the three of us take off for a short, pleasant walk down to the shore of Lake Taupo. We park ourselves at a little picnic bench by the water’s edge and break out the bottle of wine and some glasses borrowed from the hotel. Together, we sit contentedly, enjoying the wind in our hair, the sun setting over the lake, the fantastic bottle of wine, and, most of all, the sight of Noel trying to fly his miniature kite in the intense winds blowing off the lake.
Let it go down in history: today is the day I experienced a live performance of the Hakka, watched the eruption of the biggest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, and witnessed what may be the only successful flight of the Great Noel’s Miniature Kite.
What a time to be alive.