Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Rottenrua's not so rotten

I am now in Rotorua with the smell of sulphur in the air (no, not me, the place is riddled with hot springs). Mary has just boarded a bus for Auckland while I stay here one more night.

My day in Whitianga had been spent mostly washing clothes and chilling out. It is a small town with a lovely beach and a brisk trade in backpackers. As a result the place was booked out and I ended up in Bay Watch, actually a bedroom converted to a 4 bunk dorm, run by an elderly pair who seemed to just let it run itself. An English woman, Toni, seems to have allowed herself to be sucked into the Bay Watch whirlpool and is staying there the season. She was in one bunk. Another bunk was occupied by the only other occupant, Herr Schmidt, actually Patrick, a consultant from Munich. The dorm had no key and the backdoor to the house was left continually open. I am not sure quite what this says about Bay Watch or Whitianga, but you can draw your own conclusions.

That evening Patrick introduced himself. A year or so out of college, he is travelling alone and I get the impression he is suffering a little. He wanted to know about the Magic Bus. I gave him the lowdown, but politely refused his offer to go to the cinema. I was hoping to meet up with the others after my laundry was done. Waiting for that I walked the quiet beach.

When I did get to town I headed for an Internet terminal in the local sports bar, Smitty's. There was Patrick with the news they were all down. I was hungry, so I assented when he proposed going for food. A lot of places close down really early in Whitianga, but in the end the Italian place, Dino's, where we ended up was pretty good. Another German group were sitting next to us (Germans are the new Irish), while a pretty Canadian served up my spaghetti marinara.

Across the road from the restaurant was the main backpacker pub, The Blacksmith's. Anthony and Philip from the Magic Bus were sitting with three grungy girls I'd noticed earlier. Naturally I had to intrude. Annie from Oregon, Lauren from Vancouver and Lynn from Palmerston North (New Zealand) were pretty and fun, so it whiled away the hours, well, hour. For a seaside town, things were very quiet.

Next morning I awoke to rain. The weather, which had been cloudy, was now distinctly homely. Cookie, the driver, was waiting when I emerged and after picking up a few others destined for Auckland, including Philip and Brat, we headed off. I had believed I would have to go to Auckland before going to Rotorua, but Cookie had told me the day before I could avoid that by getting picked up by another Magic Bus at Waitomo, famous for its vast cave system. It sounded good to me, saving me an extra day. Waitomo too sounded promising and I put my name down for black water rafting.

At Waitomo, Robbie, a new guy on the bus, several girls from the bus we were joining, and I got our wetsuits, wellies and helmets for the cave trip. The idea is to float down an underground river using tyre tubes. Quite apart from the stunning interiors of the caves, the trip is also an opportunity to observe one of Nature's treasures for the roof is studded with the bright blue lights of glow worms.

Our guide was a huge Maori guy who nearly killed us before any caves were reached speed driving to the mouth of the system. Ironically as we got in he told us seatbelts weren't used here. Luckily we had already put on our hard hats which hit against the roof perpetually. There is an optional tour involving abseiling into the caves, but we scaled the stairs to the mouth instead. Once inside, with our hat lights off, the glow of the glow worms was truly spectacular, especially when we entered the cathedral cave, a vast cavern, lit by thousands of the larvae. I was put at the front, told to turn off my light and on we trudged. Eventually we were walking into deepening water, then the floor went. Our tubes kept us upright and we formed a line,each holding on to the tube in front, excepting me of course.

We came to a platform with water rushing over the edge. Our guide told me to stand backwards at the edge, my heels over, arms crossed, looking at the ceiling, tube around my backside, light off, and fall. I did. I came up spluttering but alive and when he told me to stand the water was only waist high. It got deeper though. A slide lay ahead and as I neared it one of my wellies, full of water and too large (the group before us took all the boots), slipped off my foot. No diving for that. At the slide I was told to lift my feet as I hit the water, otherwise my legs would double up and hit my chin (shallow water being at the base). Again I did as I was told, but with an absent welly, I still grazed my heel and walked the short remainder of the trip with a little limp.

All in all the experience was amazing. Surprising myself, I had no claustrophobic qualms, no problems whatsoever though I did whimsically wish the current had been strong enough to push us.

We had a shower, got dressed, drank some soup and got on our new bus. Lo and behold, grinning and waving, there was Mary, en route to Rotorua. She had done a boatride through the caves and was convinced the glow worms were fake. Now plum-tuckered out, we fell asleep, awakening to the smell of rotten eggs in Rotorua. As it transpired we were in the same hostel and were booked in for a Maori dinner and show that night. Some things just work out.

We had been told to await pickup at 6.15 and avoid any bus that didn't look like the one on our ticket (another operator apparently poaches tourists). The bus arrived at 6.40 and was totally different to the one on our tickets. I suspiciously asked questions of our guide (Dennis), but when he produced more tickets with our names on them I conceded he was the real deal.

A chief had to be chosen from our busload of passengers. Once again a German, Alex, emerged from the back seats to take up the challenge. His role was to represent our canoe (bus) in the welcome ceremony. When we arrived we were urged not to laugh at any part of the welcome ceremony. This is a dangerous thing to do as it puts the idea of laughing in your mind. Standing around an enclosure, our five chiefs (one from each bus) stood forward facing three gates into the village. Screams were heard from the nearby forest when suddenly out of one of the gates a warrior jumped out. He goggled, lolled his tongue, hopped around while brandishing his decapitator. Don't laugh. A huge fat guy, naked to his skirt appeared over the gates, lolling and goggling some more. Don't laugh. Two more warriors repeated the actions of the first, the last leaving down a leaf of peace to be taken up by one of our chiefs. To be honest, the urge to laugh was modest. I thought of Irish dancing and how ridiculous that can seem. This was an ancient ceremony and deserved respect. However, always at the back of my mind was the question: how much of this is authentic and how much drama for the tourist.

It had been raining all day and was still. The invitation to enter the village accepted, we rushed through at speed to avoid the wet and into the auditorium for a song and dance routine. They said that some songs had been adapted to modern tunes and I'd swear the last one was a Japanese song from 'Kill Bill'. The Maori are a handsome people and one of the women was real model material, which was as well as she seemed to mess up in almost every number. The others were a wee bit more professional.

Finally we went for dinner. A Maori hangi feast is comprised of food cooked on hot stones under the soil. This gives it a slight earthy taste which is pleasant. There was quite a feast laid on with lamb and chicken, greenlipped mussels and seafood, potatoes and sweet potatoes, etc., and we were encouraged to eat seconds, which I dutifully did. The pavlova and other dishes were served for dessert, again with seconds. Afterwards I was stuffed (and cooked on hot stones under soil). The chiefs were presented with small gifts, one of them, an old guy from Kerry, doing Ireland proud with a nice little thank you.

The coach home was taken up with karaoke, though I'm not sure about "The Wheels on the Bus" being a karaoke classic. Back at the hostel, Heiko, from the Paihia group showed up and off we went to the local Irish bar. Guinness and baby Guinesses for all concerned. Things seeming fairly quiet here too though, it closed by 11.30.

Given my stuffing earlier, I deservedly suffered indigestion last night.

Having bumped into Mary again, it was sad to see her head off this morning. She leaves Auckland for Melbourne tomorrow and then on for an enviable trip to USA, Canada and Mexico. I wish her well.


At 11:12 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Niall,

Still keepin' track of your travels and still envious! It's pissin' rain and it bleein' freezin'. All is good with the Placers! later



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