Over recent weeks, I have hosted Canadian, German and French ladies from 5W (Women Welcoming Women Worldwide). This is an international friendship organisation which provides members with a network of like-minded people to contact when travelling around the world. Members may offer hospitality in the form of a bed for the night or suggest meeting for lunch or coffee and visiting places of interest. They provide an insight into local life and company for someone who is lonely when travelling solo. Sometimes members also organise Gatherings, regional Meetups and small group tours, such as the one I was fortunate enough to experience in Laos last year.
As a relative newcomer to my area, hosting people from overseas gives me the opportunity to explore as a tourist. One of my favourite outings in town is a walk from Spa Thermal Park, past the natural hot springs in the river to Huka Falls. The springs are one of the few places in the district you can soak in hot water for free and are always crowded. New decks and changing facilities have recently enhanced the site.
The track follows the turquoise Waikato River, on which several dams and power stations have been built further upstream to generate electricity. It is a leafy track, a blessing on a hot day, and not too arduous, although it helps to be a good walker. On the opposite bank, the exclusive Huka Lodge is visible in its park-like gardens. At Huka, the river, which has flowed swiftly from the Control Gates, channels through a narrow gorge. The volume of water, approximately 200,000 litres per second, is phenomenal and its colour is a glacial.
The region is renowned for its thermal areas. Close to town are the Craters of the Moon, but in the past I have taken visitors to Wai-o-tapu, between Rotorua and Taupo. These days, like many places, it has become more commercialised (dare I say touristy?). It features a large lake with bold rusty orange banks, a small bright lime green pond of an improbable hue, many steaming rocks and hot water. The feathered inhabitants seem not to burn their feet on the hot ground, a fact which always surprises me. Outside the complex is the Lady Knox Geyser, (entry ticket required) which erupts at 10.15am each day, and an active mud pool in the same vicinity on the Loop Road. Bubbling mud fascinates me and I can gaze transfixed for many minutes, listening to the slurping and glugging sounds and trying to predict where it will spurt up next.
In the past couple of months, I have re-discovered Orakai Korako, a smaller, less visited thermal site on one arm of Lake Ohakuri. It is closer to home, which is an advantage, and I appreciate their more personal approach. (And the frequent visitor card they offered me, providing free entrance if I bring a paying guest does not sway my preference at all!) A short boat ride across the lake provides an additional novelty. Whilst the bubbling mud is not as exciting or as extensive, and is weather dependent (according to the quantity of rain), you can still see coloured silica terraces and geysers erupting if you are lucky as here they adhere to their own timetable. The deep Ruatapu Cave is one of only two caves in the world in a thermal area. (The other being in Italy.) When I was last there, I tarried on the viewing platform and noticed everyone, including children, lowered their voices. The cave projected the peaceful aura of a church or other sacred place.
My last visitor stayed for several days and was nervous about driving, although she had hired a car. I proposed a trip round the lake and a walk at Lake Rotopounamu. Setting off after breakfast, we first stopped at the Sunday market so I could purchase some vegetables, my veggie garden not having produced the vast quantities I had eagerly anticipated. Last week, Power Boats provided a cacophony of background noise, but today the sound of the musicians on the temporary stage was clearly audible. After perusing the stalls and having a coffee, we began our adventure.
SH1 winds its way south, following the lake edge past the ‘Jumping Off’ rocks and going through the settlements of Waitahanui, Hatepe and Motuoapu to Turangi. At present, the countryside is dry and brown as there has been no rain for several weeks. The water, by contrast, was blue, calm and glistened in the bright sunlight.
Beyond Turangi we turned left onto SH47 and passed over the saddle towards my intended destination. At the last minute, I drove beyond the parking area and headed for the former Opataka Pa where we inspected the old food storage pits and house sites. There was little else visible, although this had been an important Maori settlement during the Waikato wars of the 1800s. Mt Tongariro was visible across Lake Rotoaira and flax provided a perfect frame for my photo.
On impulse, I continued along the highway as it was a perfect day for my guest to view the three volcanoes. My whim extended further, and we arrived at Whakapapa, a ski field in the winter and a central point for starting hikes in either direction round the mountain. I wanted to show her the Chateau, a grand hotel perched incongruously in the barren landscape. As soon as it came into view, she recognised the building. Another host had recommended it to her, advising her it served High Tea, an activity she treated herself to when travelling. She was enthused! I wasn’t hungry and took some persuading, but relented. We shared a three tier selection of delicate sandwiches, scones and fancy cakes courteously served to us by an immaculately dressed waiter with a distinct Scottish accent. Sitting at a table by the window which framed the perfect cone of Mt Ngauruhoe wearing a cloud cap, we indulged ourselves. Of epic proportions, the room was grand, adorned with chandeliers and burgundy drapery. It was a decadent treat, and one I would not have experienced without encouragement. (I noted my lesson in flexibility!)
We eventually reached our destination at 3pm. Strolling through the bush around the lake was a cool and welcome break after sitting in the car in the hot sun. There were few other people, and it was an easy 2 hour loop walk. At the beach half way round we sat and absorbed the serene atmosphere before wading through the warm water to the other end of the bay and onto the track back to the car.
Returning along the Western side of the lake, I stopped at a viewpoint and detoured to the holiday villages of Pukawa, Omori and Kuratau, the latter two being more populated than I envisaged. It was after 7pm by the time we arrived home after an unexpected and most enjoyable day.