I could leave the post as that but we have been here for nearly three weeks and have got quite a few things worthy of a mention.
When we arrived in Sulphur City we headed straight for our hostel - The Funky Green Voyager - and checked in to our cosy dorm with (possibly) the best mattresses in the southern hemisphere. Our friend Candace cheerfully welcomed us as she had stayed there the previous night. The hostel came highly recommended by several people with whom we had spoken. It was immediately obvious why. The place has a self service fridge filled with beer and soft drinks for $2 (£1) each, an unlimited supply of eggs, fresh herbs growing in the garden, chilled out tunes playing in the communal areas and a general homely feel.
It was an interesting place with some very interesting occupants. There was the Canadian woman who treated herself to a trip to NZ for her 50th. She left her kids at home and is cycling around the whole country alone. She had calves like fists. There were several people from the film industry, many of whom were working on the new Hobbit film, a woman who had just inherited a house just outside Cockington in Torquay, and a nano technology scientist. Not your average backpacker folk.
Rotorua's distinct smell is caused by the sulphurous gasses that bubble up through the countless thermal pools scattered around the area. For anybody who hasn't smelt sulphur before just imagine a potent mix of sewage and rotten eggs. At first it is over powering, but that only lasts a day or two. On our first day we visited the Living Thermal Village: Whakarewharewa (That's the shortened name!) to see where a lot of the stench was coming from. It is the same as any other fully functioning village, except for the fact that there are massive craters filled with boiling water in-between every house, 20m high spurts of scolding steam coming out of the ground, and an entry fee. The inhabitants of the village cook using the steam (which somehow doesn't make everything taste of rotten eggs) and bathe using the water - it's a very environmentally friendly way to live. We were given a guided tour by the Maori's Eddie Murphy, and were treated to a show afterwards by the warriors. At the end they did an impressive haka, and asked for volunteers to repeat it. Nobody actually volunteered, and there are no prizes for guessing who got dragged up with a few other blokes in front of a hundred people. I had already participated in a war dance that week so I should have become quite the intimidating warrior.
Our next activity was white water rafting. I had done this before during a bro-mantic weekend in North Wales with 20 testosterone fuelled stags, but nothing prepared us for the horror of two mouthy Essex girls still drunk from the night before. We first met them on the shuttle bus that picked us up from our hostel. They stank of Cheeky Vimtos and kebabs. As soon as we arrived at the rafting centre Steph nudged me and said "they better not be in our raft!".
We have met people from all over the world during our travels, but nobody has been as excruciatingly, mind-blowingly infuriating as the girls (we will call them Tracy and Sharon) who live less than 5hrs away. They might as well have been alien. Needless to say there wasn't a single moment that we could have taken to enjoy the scenery around us, because Tracy was too busy creating songs out of everything that came out of the instructor's mouth - claiming "I'm gunna be the next Keisha(?)" - and Sharon refused to paddle. Rafting this river has to be taken seriously as proven just a week before. Our friend Lyndsay - who we met in Paihia - fractured her skull when somebody couldnt control their own paddle. Things like that happen regularly and these girls didnt seem to care. We endured it throughout the 50mins of rafting and managed to enjoy some of it regardless. However, as we approached the highest commercially raftable waterfall in the world (7m) Tracy and Sharon decided that they wouldn't bother trying to paddle at all, meaning that we inevitably flipped because our angle was out. We were told that in the event of flipping we should get under the raft and put our heads into the air pockets that the seats allow. This all went fine, but when the instructor flipped the raft back over it landed on my head and pushed me under. I kicked back but came up under the raft, so I headed in one direction to find the surface but only found more rubber. I changed direction swimming against the flow hoping the raft was heading down stream, but neither I nor the massive dinghy seemed to be moving. After changing directions a couple more times panic set in. I was under there for quite a while, but at least I didn't have to listen to Tracy's singing. Eventually I followed the grooves under the raft and managed to swim to the front. I had been submerged long enough for the instructor to get himself in, drag four other people in and for them all to retrieve their paddles and get into position. It was quite scary and it took me some time to catch my breath, but I did wonder afterwards whether I had done it on purpose for a little respite.
In all honesty, it was good fun but there are three reasons why it wasn't as enjoyable as North Wales.
3. Near death experience.
Back at our hostel the owner, Gerrard, suggested that we should stay for a couple of weeks as cleaners for free accommodation because we would fit right in. We would only have to work between 10am and midday, and we would get our own caravan and good discounts on local activities. It came at a good time as we were considering cutting the trip short due to dwindling funds. After considering it for a matter of minutes we accepted and Gerrard gave us high fives. We joined the four other employees, Hannah (Berry) from England, Paul from Canada, Leah also from Canada and Zoe from the Netherlands. We had a great laugh working there because the staff were fun and the hostel was very sociable. Gerrard, his wife Ania and their two awesome kids Don, 4, and Lola, 2, invited us to their place for dinner several times a week so we got some precious home cooking in our bellies. Our contribution was desert: a secret barbecued chocolate banana recipe which everybody loved and started to imitate (thanks Martin!). The kids would always run over to the hostel after kindie (kindergarten) and ask to be chased around the garden, play rugby (like the All "Blicks") or just to be nosey.
After a week or so we decided to go to Mitai - a cultural evening recommended by our friends. It was brilliant. We had a real Hangi, a great performance by the Chief and his warriors, and saw the tribe paddling a Waka (traditional canoe). In order to get to the river and see the Waka we had to go on a short bush walk. Throughout the walk we could hear the warriors making the guttural grunts while hiding in the bush. Occasionally one would make himself visible and stick his tongue out. A bit rude I thought. However it did give us an idea of what the Europeans must of been welcomed with when they first landed. Later on, after our Hangi, we were taken on a night walk through the bush to see glow worms in a natural spring. The water there was so clear that it looked about a foot deep - it was actually more like 10. The glow worms glowed as expected.
Another of our evenings was spent at a Polynesian Spa. There were natural water pools ranging from 38-42 degrees. So we (Steph, Candace and I) boiled ourselves alive while watching the sun go down over Lake Rotorua. We spent a good 4hrs there and by the end of it our skin looked and felt like bleached leather. Candace liked it so much that she went three times in a week.
We said our goodbyes to Candace as she decided to move on south. She only had three weeks left so she needed to get going. It didn't last long as she was back within 48hrs. She said she got homesick without us and decided to come back for a few days before heading off for good.
A highlight for us both was the Redwood Forrest. We did an amazing 3hr hike through the huge trees and native bush. At one point while we were scaling some steps up to a lookout point we heard some raised voices and what sounded like a Haka. Quite a scary thing to hear when you're on an almost deserted track under a blanket of forrest. 10 mins later some Maori guys ran passed us up the steps. Turns out they were going for a run as part of boxing training and psyched themselves up with a war dance.
After 2 weeks of work we booked our bus and packed to leave. We had actually timed it quite poorly as it was Don's birthday the next day and he wanted to show us his presents. Fortunately the Stray bus broke down that day and was 3hrs late. Within that time Gerrard had persuaded us to stay one more night and invited us to Don's birthday celebrations. He called his friend Beth who was coming up for the party. She is a Brit who owns a hostel in our next destination Taupo, and she agreed to give us a lift the next day and a discount on our stay at her hostel. Result!
The next day we did a bit of work in the morning and then helped get ready for the party. Steph and I created a plate of healthy creatures. A cucumber snake with pepper tongue, carrot snails with spring onion eyes and cheese shells, tomato ladybirds with icing spots and some pepper ships with lettuce sails. We managed to do this with the instructions from Ania's german recipe book. They were uber good.
To say thanks for helping out and staying over Gerrard and Ania paid for us to go out on the amphibious Duck Boat excursion with them. Don brought about 10 excitable 3 year-olds with him and we took over most of the boat. The driver/captain made the very unwise decision of handing out duckbill-shaped kazoos to everybody. I think he may have regretted it as minutes later the noise became deafening. Try telling a bunch of kids that they shouldn't make noise while the guide is talking! The tour was good fun though, we drove around parts of Rotorua that we hadn't managed to see before and Don got to steer the boat on one of the lakes. When the trip was over one of Don's friends said to him "you're the best driver ever!" - bless.
Before we left Rotorua we went back to the Funky Green Voyager and treated ourselves to a Burger Fuel. They do gourmet burgers which are the size of frisbees. I chose the spicy Ring Burner. Ouch! After devouring those we finally said goodbye to our new friends (except for Hannah who decided to book flights to Fiji to meet us when we get there!) and jumped in the car with Beth. We haven't stayed anywhere as long as we stayed in Roto Vegas and we enjoyed settling in for a while and hanging out with mates. However, our feet had become ever so slightly itchy and we were glad to get moving again. After all, we have less than a month to do the rest of New Zealand.