Waitomo Caves – Rotorua – Māori Feast and Cultural Show- Thermal Reserve – Māori origins – Agrodome Show – Christchurch
We thought we’d seen the last of Pete but next morning he turned up( “ No worries , mate !!”) driving the shuttle that was to take us to the coach to Rotorua . A real pity because the chap who drove us to Rotorua was Pete’s polar opposite , a bore who deluged us with an avalanche of irrelevant information delivered in an almost unintelligible monotone . The entire bus heaved a collective sigh of relief when he announced , after 45 minutes , that he would give us a chance to enjoy the ride in silence . It was not to be as he started up again 10 minutes later !
Two things of interest : According to him, the Koreans are the richest immigrant group in the Auckland region having turned their hand to farming at which they work very, very hard. Also ,just outside of Auckland , we passed though the Bombay Hills ,named for Sikh immigrants from the Punjab who own large vegetable farms in the area .As we drove through the pastoral landscape , we saw herds of cattle grazing on the lush grass ; it is only further south that sheep predominate.This area of New Zealand is not as wild and rugged as the South Island but it is very pretty nevertheless.
Halfway to our first stop it began to rain and by the time we reached Waitomo , it was pouring. Waitomo is famous for the Waitomo Caves , a 28 mile network of underground limestone caves carved out by the Waitomo River and discovered in 1887. The modernistic Visitor Center at Waitomo was most impressive and we were happy to get rain slickers for the short walk to the caves. The limestone formations in the caves , the stalactites and the stalagmites were marvelous and reminded me of the Luray Caverns in Virginia though they are not as well lighted , having been maintained in a more natural state.
One of the linked caves has perfect acoustics and our guide invited us to test them out . No one in our group took him up on his offer but a lady in the group after us , apparently with some training in opera, did and her aria was a treat to hear . She got a well deserved round of applause from all of us.
The highlight of the Waitomo Caves are its Glow Worm Caves and as we descended to their level, we began to see signs of glow-worm activity. In the dim light , there were thousands of glowing strands hanging from the roof of the cave . The strands were sticky flytraps ; glow worms let them down to trap mosquitos and other flying insects for their food, much as spiders do. At the end of the trail , we clambered into boats which the guide guided into an underground stream by pulling on an overhead rope. Above us , hundreds , thousands of glow worms made the pitch blackness look like a starry sky as we silently glided past . A magical sight. The guide had repeatedly warned that photography was strictly forbidden but one tourist still made the attempt. She was quickly slapped down . Some people…
We reboarded our bus for the short drive to Rotorua and as we approached the town the rain slackened a bit. We ducked into the hotel , freshened up and then went for a stroll. Rotorua is a very pretty town , even if it’s only raison d’être is tourism . We admired the flowers, the tourist center and the neat streets and tried fruitlessly to find Nando’s sauce in the supermarket .
That evening we were scheduled to attend a cultural show at the Tamaki Māori Village. The tour bus picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the site , a network of linked buildings and a large barn- like meeting-house that served as the dining hall. We were first shown the large outdoor pit where the food ( Chicken , pork , taro and potatoes ) was cooking on hot rocks under the earth.At the meeting-house , we were treated to speeches by a Māori spokesman and two ” leaders” from the tour groups . Our leader was a Canadian and he was simply excellent with his facile speechmaking , his flowery phrases delivered tongue in cheek . Later on , we found out he was a minister ; no wonder he was so good with his speechifying !
We were then led a little distance away to a stream where a group of young Māori ” warriors” paddled their dugout canoe , posed for photos and then paddled back the way they had come . Hokey but good fun ! From there, we filed into a large auditorium with banked rows of seats facing a stage . It was cold and wet and we were glad for the hot air blowers that kept us warm and dried out our clothes. The Māori cultural show ( songs , ceremonial dances) was just ” interesting ” but was notable for the personality of the Māori ” chief ” , the master of ceremonies . He was an imposing figure of a man , had a terrific personality and a great sense of humor . His participation turned what was merely ordinary into something enjoyable .
It had been drizzling constantly and we were glad to shed our plastic rain ponchos and get back to the shelter of the dining hall. After appetizers and a glass of wine , we were invited to help ourselves to the hangi meal , served buffet style . The food was reminiscent of a luau, though the quality was much , much better. In addition to the foods from the pit, there were a variety of excellent salads. Dessert was plain but good and consisted of vanilla ice cream , trifle and chocolate cake . Dinner over , we said our goodbyes to the Chief and took the bus back to the hotel .
Next morning our half day tour of Rotorua began with a stop at the Te Puia Cultural Center and the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Springs . The Springs are notable for their geysers , their mud pools and the pungent reek of sulphur. A multistory hotel overlooks the springs and I wondered how guests could stand the smell. The Cultural Center was most informative and had an interesting display showing the origins of the Maoris. That the Maoris traveled to New Zealand from far-flung islands is widely believed ; whether they came from Polynesia or Hawaii or elsewhere is still a topic of debate. This background explains, to me at least, why the Māori are so much more self- confident and have assimilated so much better into society unlike the Aborigines of Australia, or Native Americans. Unlike the others , they were emigrants , had a better world view and a sense of self. Besides , the European settlers they face off against did not come in such overwhelming numbers as in Australia or America . Our Māori guide was a dignified , well -spoken man and we were highly impressed by him as he took us to a Māori meeting-house and gave us a short talk on Māori customs and beliefs .
On the way to Rotorua we had gradually seen the number of sheep grazing the roadside meadows increase. First there were a few sheep , then dozens , then scores and finally hundreds. Not as many as on the South Island but still a large number. We’d heard various wildly varying estimates of the total number of sheep in New Zealand. Some pegged it at 60 million , others at 35 million . However , in all cases the estimated number of sheep was t least nine to ten times the number of people. According to the irrepressible Pete , the number of sheep had dropped because many restaurants served lamb chop specials and all-too-many diners were asking for seconds !!
The wool and livestock industries being so central to the economy it was no surprise that one of the chief attractions in Rotorua was the sheep shearing show at the Agrodome . The Agrodome is a large exhibition hall with comfy seats for about 2,000 people and it was almost full with the busloads of tourists descending upon it. I had not expected however that a sheep shearing could be so entertaining. Credit should go to the m.c , a wiry , balding man with ropy muscles whom I’ll call “Ray”. A high energy sort , Ray kept the show moving right along even as he had us in stitches with his patter. As we watched, Ray and his assistant chivvied the 19 different breeds of sheep into their set places on the stage , had a sheepdog go from one side to the other by jumping from back to back on the sheep , sheared a sheep on stage and staged a milking contest. The sheep shearing had its surprises . I’d thought the sheep would not like being sheared but it lay quietly between Ray’s legs as he sheared it in less than 3 minutes. Three minutes seemed awfully fast to us but Ray said that the record was held by 25-year-old Dion King who sheared almost 866 lambs in a single 9-hour day back in 2007. That works out to about 40 seconds per animal for nine hours at a stretch. Simply amazing !!
By the way , the reason for the fluctuating numbers of sheep is the volatile price of wool which has been as low as $2 and , at other times , three times as much. Each sheep yields about 2-3 kg of wool but by the time you figure in the price for shearing ( approx. NZ $ 2.50 / sheep) and rearing , the profit is not much .After the indoor show , we went outside where Ray put his sheepdog through its paces , herding three lambs into a pen as we watched.Point of information : the sheepdogs are voiceless and do their jobs in silence.
We also saw a video on the manufacture of wool and inspected an enormous hundred year old machine used for wool carding , separating the tangled raw wool into strands that can be woven into sweaters. An interesting nugget of information was that possums ( different from the American opossums) first introduced into New Zealand in 1837 to start a fur industry have become a major pest, destroying vegetation and trees and multiplying like crazy in the absence of their natural predators .In spite of best efforts to eradicate them , there are 30 million possums in NZ right now. Many of them are being trapped and killed but there hardly seems to be a dent in their numbers . At the center we were shown sweaters made from a mixture of sheep’s wool and possum fur which to the uninitiated doesn’t look different from 100% wool.
The Agrodome show was the last thing on our agenda in Rotorua. We then went back to the hotel and packed our luggage for the short airplane hop to the South Island and Christchurch.