Dec 10


by in Drawing & Writing

On the way out of the “Top 10 Holiday Park” in Waitomo – goodbye, quiet park! – around 30, 11-year-old boy-scouts were sitting at picnic tables. Two scout leaders stood in front.

“OK boys. Now, who can name three creatures that can be found in the caves?”

One boy raised his hand. “Glowworms?”

“Yes, that’s right. Glowworms. You’ll find lots of glowworms in there. What else?”

No one knew. The answer turned out to be eels and bugs. The boys filled in their pre-cave assignments.

“Next question, boys. And pay attention to this one. If you get lost in a cave, how can you find your way out?”

The boys droned in unison: “Follow the water.”

“That’s right. Follow the water. It’s gotta go somewhere. Now, I’ve given you all your chocolate bars, haven’t I. Which means you’re responsible for the rubbish, doesn’t it.” The boys nodded. “Good. Now, when you’re filling out your answers there, don’t just write ‘Visited the cave.’ That doesn’t tell us much, does it. Write something else. You can be a bit more explicit, you know.”

One of the boys, who had been making eye contact with the scout leader and absorbing every word, nodded intensely at the command. In front of him was a 16 oz. energy drink. It was 9:30AM, and for us, just about time for breakfast and a bus-ride.

This bus driver wasn’t quite as chirpy as the one before. What he did say came out in good-morning monotone through low-volume speakers:

“As you can see from the windscreen, we’ve got a bit of rain, some sun, about 21 degrees [70], pretty muggy out there, not the best weather. But the plants sure enjoy it. Usually what we find is that if something can grow somewhere else, we can grow it ourselves about half the time here in New Zealand. Take Pinus Radiana, a kind of pine tree. Some people call it ‘New Zealand’s biggest weed.’ Takes 16 years to mature in California, and we’ve found that they grow taller, stronger, and thicker here in about half the time. One of our biggest exports, Pinus Radiana, mostly to China now.”

He got going again as we passed an elementary school.

“Every village has got one of those, and the government makes sure each village has also got a school bus as well, to get their children to school. These schools are bi-cultural, and the high schools and universities are, too. When the students come out they’re fluent in the Maori language – they’re conversant in Maori culture.”

Only when bus drove across the top of a dam did his talk trickle into the personal. “New Zealand’s doing a lot of things with regenerative energies these days. Decomposing rubbish, collecting the methane gas. The other one we’re doing, and it’s a little controversial, is solar energy. We’ve installed a lot of them, but that white stuff over our heads [clouds] cuts out a lot of the sunshine. The average New Zealander thinks wind farms are a good idea. And they say, yep, we’d like some wind energy. But then when they go to set up a wind farm, no one wants it around. There’s a wind farm in my backyard, and it actually is very noisy. New Zealanders want to think we’re clean and green, and yep, we’re pretty good. But it’s not a 100%, but we’re getting better and better, we’re getting smarter and smarter. And hopefully for future generations, we’ll do everything with green energy.” A few seconds later, he added, “Of course, electricity – the main requirement for cities these days.”

The bus had been climbing for a while – we were crossing the north island’s spine from west to east – and abruptly it leveled off with a spectacular view of our destination, lake Rotorua, a New Zealand Tahoe.

As we coasted down, the smell of sulfur invaded the bus. Ah yes, the thermal pools – one of the main attractions. The bus dropped some of the passengers off at their respective hotels, and in doing so treated the other passengers to a de facto tour of the city. It was…


Every street is a grid, and within it there’s zero green space. Cars race by, as in they’re actually racing each other, and too many streets there’s no sidewalk and no visible crosswalk, either. The restaurants look have faded, low-quality pictures of their meals displayed in the windows (sushi in the shape of a “smiley face”), and every second business looks like it’s on the verge of bankruptcy; a shop that advertised “Jade. Beauty. Books.” comes to mind, or “Central Back Packers” (why break that word in half?). Groups of bored, not-really-dangerous-looking boys strut around: one group of three spent a good deal of time and energy trying to jump and touch a ceiling that seemed high to them. Their hair was gelled in the same style and one had a smartphone playing Eminem from his pocket. This reference won’t work for everyone, but it’s as if 15 square blocks of Auburn, WA were laid down next to a lake that, until recently, received all raw sewage from the city of 70,000.

As we walked to our hostel we passed the Central Mall, and ate lunch in the food court with Andrew from Louisiana. Dining with us were obese Maoris, the elderly, and packs of boys. The food was… mall food.

Still, even in the middle of hell there can be a sanctuary. And that little oasis, which also happened to be green, was called “Funky Green Backpackers.”

Antje and I immediately got along with the two owners, Anja from Germany, and Gerard from New Zealand. They have two cute little kids running around the hostel, a girl and a boy, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, as a hosteler there, you feel like an extension of that family.

On day two we’d planned to visit some thermal features (think “Yellowstone”) and to the owners’ surprise, the always-bookable bus had somehow filled up. So Gerard loaded us into his VW van with his little daughter and drove us out there, himself.

On the way out he told us about the 2011 rugby world cup that’d just been held in New Zealand. “Best seven weeks of my life. Had about 26 heart attacks, though.” He also pointed out a new trans-NZ bike-trail on the side of the road. “Anja and I are gonna do that. Look how small they built it, though. Should have been wider.”

Even more than Yellowstone, the thermal features feel absolutely alien, other-worldy, Martian, you name it. Collapsed yellow sulfur caves are surrounded by pockets of boiling water and thick black boiling mud. Everything’s steaming hot and rainbow-colored and stinky. There are signs all over not to touch anything, but of course, people have. Most recently, Gerard told us, a 12-year-old boy hopped over a fence and sank into something. The severely burned boy made it out and ran for help before collapsing. He later died.

Halfway through the loop a placard popped up with a list of the most common NZ birds. Our R2D2 bird was on it, and now it had a name – the Tui:

“The largest of our honey-eaters. Renowned for it’s warble song and iredescent plumage. Relatively common even within urban environments.”

We grabbed coffee milkshakes before leaving, and offered one to Gerard. “No thanks, I’m a tea man, myself. Coffee only came to New Zealand about 25 years ago, you know. We’re a tea nation. But we took to coffee like fish to water.”

Later that day we followed the guidebook’s recommended “walking tour.” What a mistake. It was hot, and I forgot to put sunscreen on my birkenstocked feet. The walk ended with very overpriced beers at an average bar.

Back at the hostel we drank a few normal-priced beers outside with other hostelers, including Daan from Holland and Tino from Germany. The lights flicked off and on – it was 11PM, and time for a good night’s sleep.

Because tomorrow?


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2 Responses to “Rotorua”

  1. From Brooke/Mom:

    Loved this. The reference to Auburn made me laugh. The drawing and the great description made me feel as if I were along on the day’s journey. Love to you both!

    Posted on December 10, 2011 at 15:32 #
  2. From Fenke:

    i finally got around on catching up on your diary – thank you for a (or several) good laugh on a sunday morning. and more drawings please ;-)


    Posted on December 11, 2011 at 13:51 #