Alex and I left the coast & cute little Napier to head to the center of the NZ, yet another treasure chest of amazing things to do. We didn't quite have time to drive by "Mt. Doom", which is in Tongariro National Park, but instead we stopped for a quick lunch in Taupo, on the shores of Lake Taupo. It was yet another lovely lake and a decent town (we had sushi! hooray for something different!), but we knew Rotorua held more promise. Just outside of Taupo, however, were some waterfalls I didn't want to miss. My navigator was a bit off her game, so it took us a time or two to find them, but man am I glad we found Huka Falls. SO, one of NZ's biggest rivers all of the sudden turns about 90 degrees through a narrow tunnel-like canyon before barreling over a small cliff. It's not a long drop or anything, but the raw power of the water you witness is really amazing. You get to cross over the canyon before getting right up to the edge of the cliff, and we just couldn't stop staring at the rushing water.
At this point we were both practically hypnotized, and quite warm (hot day), and somehow that last bit of drive up to Rotorua was lovely, but also a bit soporific, so we pulled off at a campsite for a quick power nap. Honestly, it's not like we had some amazing drunk-fest late into the evening, but maybe we were just feeling our age! ;) Humiliating, but funny. We got moving again and quickly enough we could smell Rotorua coming. So, Lake Rotorua is a fascinating place, and it is basically a giant hole into the center of the earth or something. There have been tons of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other violent actions, and you can absolutely smell the sulfur everywhere. There are tons of hot springs all over the place, and for some reason, it's also become the cultural capital for all things Maori. Super cool little town, if you can bear the smell (which you do slowly get used to, I suppose). Here's the lake from our fancy hotel Alex had found for us:
(Far-off overview, so you can see it wasn't all that high at all.)
(Looking up river, on a footbridge over the canyon.)
(The actual falls, but it does NOT do it justice).
(Looking downriver. Also cool how quickly it calmed right back down. The color was also great.)
The interesting thing is that everything in the dances, from the swinging of different objects to the eyes & tongue thing is actually to warm up & prepare all muscles in the body. Yes, in case of a fight, but apparently the Maori were perhaps in the past a bit cannibalistic, so they needed to be prepared when anyone came visiting. (They leave the part about cannibalism out of pretty much all history, but there was apparently some sort of indigenous tribe on NZ when the Maori arrived from the south Pacific islands, way back in the day... and, well, there's no genetic material left from those folks.) In any case, it really drove the point home for me that they have absolutely zero to do with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and in fact are much more similar to native Hawaiians, for example. NZ is really a great big South Pacific island who has fully embraced English culture & the Queen, especially.
We learned even more about this really interesting mix of cultures the next day, a rare rainy gross day, when we visited the Rotorua museum. We LOVED this place. I liked it way more than the vaunted Te Papa back in Wellington. So- the building was originally a fancy spa, for the super rich English to come & take the waters. That closed sometime after the wars I think (too expensive to maintain), and our adorable little old lady guide explained that at one point it became a nightclub with a bit of a shady reputation - scandalous! It was only recently that some fabulous benefactor turned it into a museum. One half is about the old spa, and you can see old pools & old "exercise" equipment in the basement. There's a new fancy air-sealed art exhibition space (they had to do this b/c there's too much sulfur in the air to actually display art otherwise), but the jewel in the crown of this little museum is the Maori wing. Not only do they have tons of great examples of Maori creations (the carving! amazing!), but they also have great historical exhibits, like a very moving movie about area Maori servicemen & their families during WWII. Also- did you know that there used to be these amazing "terraces" that were hot springs in hardened terraced pools of lava rock - they were called the "Eighth Wonder of the World", and Maori used to take wealthy European tourists out to see them. Google Image search for "Pink and White Terraces" to see old paintings & photographs. Yeah, they were all destroyed by a super violent volcano eruption in 1886. Really, really fascinating stuff - great museum. Plus it's a really pretty building (several buildings in Rotorua have this English Victorian/half-timber kind of style):
After several great hours wandering around, it was time to move on. We weren't done in Rotorua, however. Our fabulous hot-springs spa experience and unreal rafting trip are up next!