After my springs soak I set up camp with the remaining dregs of daylight, testing out the rear door awning, the thumb-drive like device that allows me to obtain internet access anywhere there’s sufficient cell signal (success!), and the stove (I heated up some [undersalted] ready-to-eat seafood chowder from the Countdown grocery store, accompanied by a mug of NZ-produced Sauvignon blanc and local camembert and smoked salami slices on baguette).
The next morning – awakened early by birds and the loud complaining yowls of the toddler German girls in the adjacent tent (despite my earplugs) I took one last quick soak, washed my dishes in the communal campground kitchen, and packed up. I headed back into Rotorua, which I had overshot purposely by about 15 miles to overnight at the hot springs camp, and headed to the i-Site (the tourist info office) for help booking a tour of one of the local Maori villages.
Rotorua is not exactly a charming town – supposedly some of the locals call it ‘Roto-Vegas’ because it’s turned into such an unabashedly touristy sprawl: think Poconos-style motel after motel and a downtown choked with knick-knack shops. But it is sort of a must-see destination, so I picked the most ‘real’ of the options and for about $50 NZD got a ticket for a sampler meal cooked in a hangi—which is a dugout oven in the thermal ground—and a guided tour of a village that people really do still live in (they close the gates to pakeha, a.k.a. non-Maori folk, at 5pm sharp) which included time to see one of the two daily [ultra-touristy] demonstrations of costumed Maori doing a few traditional songs and a haka, a war chant intended to intimidate the opposition, which the practically deified, universally-beloved-by-Kiwis rugby team the All Blacks still perform pre-game. (The All Blacks won the World Cup here in November by ONE point, a fact Kiwis will breathlessly recount at the slightest mention of the team or Cup or even ‘November’).
All of the geothermal activity gives the town’s air a distinctive scent: slightly sulfury, not unpleasant, but very marked. The surrounding hills are green, but all about are areas where the various fluids bubbling/wafting to the surface have left colored mineral deposits behind of green and ocher red/brown – the entire effect is otherworldly and carries a slight hint of danger – you’re very cognizant of walking on top of the thinly crusted over surface of molten materials.
My visit to the small and steamy town – specifically, Te Whakarewarewatanga – kicked off with my hangi sampler – sliced carrots, cabbage, cob corn boiled directly in one of the thermal pools, stuffing, potato, sweet potato (called kumara here), a chicken drumstick with gravy, and what they call silverside (i.e. corned beef). Dessert was brought out a bit later: steamed pudding with [canned] fruit salad and freshly whipped cream. It… was…. frickin’…. delicious!!
The hangi method of cooking imbues the food with a slightly smoky, minerally, salty flavor. It’s a steamy cooking method, too, so the food is moist, rich, and knee-weakeningly good – an ancient version of sous vide. I had just to gently nudge the chicken with the nose of my knife and it fell compliantly from the bone to lay prone and tempting on my plate. Even though I am normally a bit eeked out by (and consequently avoid) chicken, particularly the drumstick (with the huge artery running thru it, yuk) I ate the bejesus out of this meal; when I was done it looked like my Depression-era grandpa had been at it, and only the lonely, picked-to-pristinely-clean chicken femur remained.
The timing of this meal perhaps has forever cursed me with a certain Pavlovian response: in these geothermically active areas, the steam and gases puffing out of fumaroles are randomly wafting over you as you wander about. The experience is a rather pleasant one, as if the earth has leaned over and exhaled her warm breath on you. Having started my geothermic experience with to die for stuffing and corned beef, each time I was caught in a waft thereafter my tastebuds instantly started chorusing in happy expectance, “Corned beef!!! Stuffing! Yummmmm!” This started to get exasperating after about the fiftieth time and I had to tell them firmly to calm the heck down.
The guide who toured us around was very informative and it was most interesting to hear about the habits/traditions/symbolism of the Maori and the two iwi (in essence, ‘tribes’) who lived in this particular village.
However, her speeches and diction were also a touch synthetic – ‘Welcome to the land of my people, home of my ancestors, o my honored guests’ and that sort of thing. Fun though. As was the cultural performance, though we all – performers and audience alike – knew it was inherently a bit cheesy and silly. (The audience participation portion, however [that phrase alone is enough to turn the blood in my veins to ice!] was torture. The hokey pokey in Maori? Er, no. Sorry. I’ll be sitting this one out.)
At the end of my wandering around the village, I scooted back to my campervan and dialed in to write the news from the parking lot. I finished not long before sundown, so made my way south to Taupo in the last of the light, where –having no reservations and wanting anyway to make an early start the next day– I decided to try my first night just snoozing in a random place in the van. This was harder than it looked. I wanted to find a place where I wouldn’t be ON someone’s lawn or right in front of someone’s house – I didn’t want anyone to get pissed off at my vagrancy – but I also wanted to be in a safe spot near people and off main roads for quiet. Auckland, with residential streets lined everywhere with cars, would have been easy for this. Taupo, with much more space, had ample driveways and thus few people parking on the street. I finally settled on a few spaces at the main street-adjoining end of a residential street that belonged to a physiotherapy practice, and set my alarm for 6am to be sure I cleared out before any employees arrived. It was fine and safe, but I was so worried about being rousted by police (which was silly; all they would have done would be tell me politely that I couldn’t overnight there) that I woke up practically every hour. At 5am I got fed up and moved the van into the commercial district closer to the enormous lake and resettled myself for sleep, catching a solid 3 more hours in my new location before I got up and started my day.