From Taupo, I headed north toward Rotorua, stopping first at the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. Wai-O-Tapu means “Sacred Waters,” and the 18-square-kilometer area is made beautiful by geothermal activity. Volcanic activity in this area dates back 160,000 years, and the site itself is located on the edge of the largest volcanic depression within the active Taupo Volcanic Zone. Volcanic gases add many minerals to the boiling water within the park, with colloidal sulphur and ferrous salts turning the water neon green in some places, manganese oxide coloring the water purple, and antimony painting the water orange. With sites poetically named “Devil’s Ink Pots,” “Champagne Pool,” and “Bridal Veil Falls,” I was more than excited to enter into another world and to view the colors, steam, and sounds of the area.
But it was cold and foggy when I arrived. I headed first to the Lady Knox Geyser, which I was surprised to see was prodded into eruption daily at 10:15 AM by introducing an organic substance into the chamber of water. The substance breaks the surface tension on the cooler water that lies above a pool of hot water, causing the eruption. I later compared pictures with a friend who had visited the park on a clear day, and the geyser’s tall column of water against the bright blue sky was much more vivid and exciting.
From the geyser, I walked through the park, trying my best to see everything through the fog. The sound of the boiling ground, the sun shining through the fog over the muddy terraces, and the neon green Devil’s Bath were my favorite parts of the park. There were fantails everywhere, fearless as usual. Despite the fog, I could feel how special this place is and has always been to the Maori people. I considered waiting for the sky to clear and walking through again, but it was already about noon by the time I left the park. On my way out, I stopped to see the bubbling mud baths nearby, where the thick, coffee-colored mud gurgled and burbled and popped as within a witch’s cauldron.
I spent a few hours soaking in a hot thermal pool as the sun emerged and the steam from the naturally-fed pools rose up in the mid-afternoon air. The winter sun on my face was the perfect complement to the hot water in which I submerged my body. From there, I drove through Rotorua and to the Rotorua Redwoods on the opposite side of town. There, I walked through the oh-so-peaceful forest, thinking fondly of the hemlock trees at home and enjoying the silence and stillness of the afternoon as golden sunlight filtered through the pines.
My relaxing and reflective afternoon in Rotorua marked the end of my solo travels. That evening, I was excited to get together with my friend Megan and her family. We sat at a bar in town and ate pizza and listened to blues music, and it was wonderful to have company after nearly a week of barely talking to anybody. The following morning, I joined Megan and her family again for more adventures into other worlds.
First, we drove to Hobbiton, the set of The Shire for The Lord of the Rings movies. Our tour guide, Sam, who allows visitors to call him Samwise, took us through the set, pausing in his stories of behind-the-scenes information to give us time to take pictures of the adorable hobbit holes. The Shire had originally been built with Styrofoam and disposable materials and the set was destroyed, but when the landowner was approached and asked permission to rebuild the set for The Hobbit movies, he requested that it be built as a permanent set which could then be opened for tours. With a free beer at the Green Dragon by the fireside as a conclusion to the tour, it was well worth the money spent.
When we left The Shire, we drove to the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. After a brief tour of the large chamber of the cave, we entered a small boat over black water and silently set off into the depths of the dark, black cave, the glowworms providing the only light. It was surreal. I was reminded of my swim in the bio-luminescent bay on Vieques in Puerto Rico and walking along the sand on Pulau Bangkaru in Indonesia, where bio-luminescent plankton sparkled whenever I put my foot down. In the cave, it was quiet and still, and the glowworms created a strange, starry sky on the ceiling of the cave. As we floated, we began to see light at another cave entrance, and we drifted outside to a rainy, misty, green world, as quiet and still as in the cave, as if we were seeing it from another plane of existence and we weren’t actually there. It was beautiful.
From the caves, I said goodbye to Megan and her family and drove to Raglan, a small surfer town about two hours outside of Auckland. It was dark when I arrived, but I enjoyed a cozy kitchen in the hostel, and in the morning, I walked to the bay to see a pretty morning sky before driving back to Auckland to return my car. My solo trip had concluded, and the students were due to arrive in just a few days!