Thursday, 22. November 2018
Route: Rotorua – Huka Falls – Taupo – Levin
Distance driven: 366 km
It’s another lovely morning in New Zealand. We have just spent our first night on a paid campground instead of freedom camping. After arriving at Rotorua on Wednesday, it had been raining non-stop, and it wasn’t going to change anytime soon.
Thanks to our little walk at Okere Falls in the late Wednesday afternoon, our clothes and shoes were soaked. A last-minute offer on Campermate felt like a meant-to-be; a powered campsite at Holden’s Bay Holiday Park would cost us 30 NZD. That day, it meant 18,50 euros for a heated van, dry clothes and a proper kitchen, not to forget the free use of hot pools where to relax and laugh at the rain.
Oh yes, we have a deal!
Except that the kitchen was so full we ended up using the outdoor barbecue. And that after dinner we were so tired from the day’s adventures that we collapsed in our bed without a glance of hot pools.
Even so, Holden’s Bay felt like luxury compared to the place we ended up spending the following night.
Visiting Wai-O-Tapu, Rotorua’s steaming tourist trap
Our first destination for the day was Wai-O-Tapu, one of Rotorua’s many geothermal attractions. In this geothermal park, visitors will get acquainted with hot springs that romantically smell like rotten eggs. If you’ve ever travelled to Iceland, you’re most likely familiar with the scent.
I can’t remember why we chose Wai-O-Tapu out of all geothermal options in Rotorua. Most likely some digital storyteller skilled with Search Engine Optimisation included it in the list of the best places or the most fascinating attractions to visit in New Zealand.
As I’m writing this story, I’m looking at the brochure I got from Wai-O-Tapu. Besides the site map, the leaflet is filled with praising words about this unique attraction. I can’t help thinking calling Wai-O-Tapu as a ‘Thermal Wonderland’ feels a bit overrated after visiting Iceland’s quiet and admission-free Seltún a couple of years earlier.
Compared to New Zealand’s Wai-O-Tapu, the geothermal area of Seltún in Iceland is a lot smaller. It’s also one of the many reasons I found it more attractive.
I’d be lying if I said the half an hour queue and a 20-euro admission fee didn’t affect on my rough evaluation.
A tourist who always swims upstream
At the time of our visit, we were still a few weeks away from the beginning of New Zealand’s busiest holiday season. Yet, the geothermal park of Wai-O-Tapu was busy as ever.
The park features three marked walking trails with a total length of three kilometres. Most visitors only circle the route number one, the ‘main’ trail that goes around Wai-O-Tapu’s famous Champagne Pool. This colourful hot spring sized 65 metres by diameter and 62 metres by depth is the largest one in the park. Experts believe the Champagne Pool to be approximately 700 years old.
As we circled all the trails in Wai-O-Tapu, we got the best views of the Champagne Pool at the end of our visit. For the first kilometre or so, we mainly focused on running away from the tourist crowds. We shuttled through the boardwalks like salmons; swimming upstream, ignoring the arrows suggesting the direction to take. We weren’t necessarily proud of ourselves, but at least we got a little privacy every once in a while.
While most visitors might find the Champagne Pool the most impressive experience in Rotorua’s geothermal wonderland, I was intrigued by the colourful rocks and caves, not to forget the poisonous-looking Devil’s Bath. This neon green pool gets its incredible colour from sulphur, and it was something I have never come across with before. Not in Iceland or anywhere else in the world.
Now even the tourists swimming upstream had to admit there’s indeed something unique in Wai-O-Tapu.
Huka Falls – the most popular natural attraction in New Zealand?
After Rotorua’s steamy experiences we started driving towards Taupo, a town that’s home to the largest lake in the country. Before heading to the lake, we turned slightly north towards Huka Falls, a waterfall that we had read is the most popular natural attraction of New Zealand.
It goes without saying our expectations of Huka Falls were high. Especially because we remembered our walking New Zealand guide, Agnès, telling us about these amazing swimming spots near the falls where you could float in the warmth of underground heat.
In my mind, I painted pictures of an idyllic creek with no one around, a secret spot where I could forget my bikini and float completely nude allowing the hidden hot springs fondle my naked butt.
This overly romantic image disappeared fast once we arrived at the Huka Falls parking lot. The crowded riverbanks reminded an anthill if only ants were taking selfies with fancy smartphones. I didn’t even feel like hitting the surrounding walking trails. Instead, we took a few good minutes to admire the forceful falls sparkling in bright shades of turquoise as well as the speedboats spinning tourists in the whirlpools. Then we gave up and headed for more peaceful spots.
No skinny-dipping for Saana today.
Lake Taupo and the exciting mixture of summer and winter
When driving from the town of Taupo down towards the south, at least a brief stop at Lake Taupo, the largest lake of New Zealand, is a must. One reason is the stunning snowy-topped mountains of Tongariro National Park in the horizon. Another one is the underground heat choosing its favourite spots to warm up the water in the lake. The third and the best reason is the combination of the two.
Lake Taupo is one of New Zealanders’ favourite summer holiday destinations, but at the time of our visit – still a few weeks away from the school break – the shores of the lake were tranquil. The State Highway 1 crossing New Zealand from north to south follows the eastern coast of the lake. Besides the gasping landscapes, the route provides road trippers with several spacious lakeside parking lots of which some allow freedom camping with a self-contained car.
And on the shores of some of the parking lots, the water of Lake Taupo is heavenly warm.
It was late afternoon, and we had to make a decision. The picturesque landscapes at Lake Taupo and the temperature of the water were calling for my name. But so was the ferry from Wellington to Picton of the South Island. It was too late for us to reach Wellington before sunset but too early for camping, we felt.
So we decided to skip swimming and continue driving. We choose to aim as near to Wellington as possible, catch the first ferry of the morning and hop to the South Island for the weekend.
We passed Tongariro National Park and stopped briefly to admire the snowy-topped mountains from a different perspective. The national park is home to New Zealand’s most popular one-day hike, Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We hadn’t yet decided would we do the walk or not, but in case you’re interested, you can read about it in English for example here, here and here.
Like with some other most popular attractions of New Zealand, we were going up and down with whether to do Tongariro Alpine Crossing or not. We knew the hike was listed in every single ‘New Zealand must-do’ list ever created. We also had heard that the route is so popular you’d need to hike in queues. That is something I would not like to do. The reason why I love hiking and spending all my free time in nature is the lack of people and the queues. A jammed trail didn’t sound at all alluring to me.
Luckily we didn’t have to decide today; we’d return to Taupo and Rotorua on our way back to Auckland a month later. This means you’ll get to read many more experiences of Rotorua and Taupo areas as we proceed with this little travel diary.
“It felt like a good idea when booking it.”
While Daniel was doing the driving, I spent my time searching a lovely campsite for the night. We wanted to find a free one but let’s face it; there are areas in New Zealand where freedom campsites are a rare exception. We aimed to drive as close to Wellington as possible but camp before dark. Most of the paid campgrounds required pre-booking and estimating the time of arrival wasn’t always so simple.
Just before arriving at a small town called Levin, we spotted a private driveway that you could book for camping. Campermate users praised the owners of Kohutu Farm in the comments, and the driveway description sounded lovely with animals, swimming pools and all. We booked the driveway some 20-30 minutes before our arrival. Until today, I had no idea people could offer their yards for tourists. It’s like Airbnb for road trippers; you have to book and pay beforehand, but the price is a lot lower compared to proper campgrounds.
It felt like a good idea when booking the driveway. After all, we would arrive late in the evening and start driving early in the morning, so we wanted to spend as little money on the camp spot as possible.
After only one wrong turning, we found our way to the right farm. It started to get dark, but thanks to the Campermate photos we knew where to leave the van. We knocked on the door for a good while. No one answered.
We knocked again and waited. And again. And again. Daniel peeked from the window and saw an older lady speaking on the phone. Ok, let’s wait a bit more then. At least they’re home.
A younger person looked through the window and saw us. The family’s teenage child, we presumed.
This youngster definitely saw us but didn’t bother coming to the door. Would have been kind of him or her to tell the owners we have arrived but apparently teenagers today can’t be bothered doing that either.
We kept waiting.
We knocked on the door.
What the hell?
After another 20 minutes of waiting and not knowing what’s happening a car arrived. A woman and a dog stepped outside. She greeted us cheerfully and asked what we were waiting for. We explained the situation, and she promised to tell the owners we are in the driveway desperate for attention.
Soon we got some. A sweet lady came outside and apologised for not noticing us or our last-minute booking. Her husband came out to give us a cable for electricity. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; as soon as we got into the powered van, the pouring rain returned.
All’s well that ends well. We finally got our camp spot for the night with electricity and a proper toilet. Plus we managed to book the ferry from Wellington to Picton for the following morning. That’s all we wanted, really. Yet, after tonight, we were sure about one thing:
this would be the first and the last private driveway we pay for.
Did you miss the earlier chapters of my New Zealand travel diary? Find them here:
× NZ Travel Diary | A Month in New Zealand: The Prologue (and all the Hassle!)
× NZ Travel Diary | The First Day of Driving and the Ugly Truth About the New Zealand Weather
× NZ Travel Diary | The Remote Treasure of the Coromandel: Walking to Cathedral Cove