It was October here in New Zealand, a time when the weather was just starting to turn, the grey rainy skies giving way to the occasional glimpse of sun. I had been living in the country for a total of six weeks by this point and had barely left Auckland. It was time for a road trip! The Labour Day Bank Holiday meant that we had three days of freedom and the opportunity for a little exploring so we hired a campervan and set off for Rotorua and Taupo, located right in the heart of New Zealand’s most active geothermal area.
Of all the breathtaking places I have visited in New Zealand, most people might be surprised to know that Rotorua and Taupo remain firmly at the top of my favourites list. Maybe its because this was the first trip I took in New Zealand. Or maybe its because I had never seen anywhere quite like the otherworldly landscapes that we stumbled across in Rotorua and had never spent an afternoon relaxing in hot springs like the ones we found in Taupo. Whatever the reason, if you are in New Zealand’s North Island and have a few days spare then you absolutely have to head for Rotorua and Taupo.
Exploring Geothermal Wonders in Rotorua
Rotorua is kind of an amazing place. Yes, it does smell of eggs. But that seems to matter a lot less when you look around at the environment surrounding you. I had wrongly assumed that all the geothermal activity took place outside the city. And yet, right there in the centre, is Kuirau Park, where you are greeted by boiling lakes and bubbling mud pools. A place where the ground seems to have been cracked wide open allowing sulphurous steam to seep through.
But all that paled in comparison to the absolute wonders we saw the next day at Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This was hands down one of my all time favourite experiences in New Zealand. I went into it feeling a bit skeptical, expecting it to be an overrated tourist attraction and not sure I was even that interested in all this weird geothermal stuff anyway. Once you’ve seen one boiling lake then you’ve seen them all right?
But, Wai-o-Tapu blew my mind. When they call it a ‘wonderland’ they are not lying – it’s a huge area, packed full of all sorts of mind-boggling geothermal phenomenon.
We arrived at 10.15am for the daily eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser. I had spent some time wondering beforehand how on earth it came to happen that the geyser erupted at the same time everyday. It turns out that they pour carbonic acid into it to encourage a reaction. Regardless, it was still impressive. Once the substance had been poured into the geyser it started to bubble away, water spilling over the edges until suddenly it shot 20 metres into the air and continued to erupt like that for the entire time we remained there.
The main part of the ‘wonderland’ itself was very busy, with the crowds who had just been to watch the geyser eruption heading straight there afterwards. But it was still mind blowing. We spent a good couple of hours wandering around, admiring the stark, otherworldly scenery and generally marvelling at how weird it all was. Think huge collapsed craters in the ground, steaming vents, bright neon-coloured pools and bubbling mud pools. And that’s before even getting to the main attraction – the champagne pool – a steamy turquoise pool with a bright orange ledge running around the outside. The pool itself is actually inside a big volcanic crater. The orange sediment caused by mineral deposits and the steam and bubbles for which the pool is named caused by CO2 escaping from the ground.
An Afternoon of Relaxation in Taupo
Taupo was another small city, focused around its main centrepiece, Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Australasia. The views are breath taking – a sparkling blue lake stretching out in front of you, framed against a backdrop of snow capped mountains.
But for me, Taupo wasn’t about the views. For me it was all about the Wairakei Hot Springs, a series of terraced thermal pools located on the outskirts of Taupo. I have tried out countless hot springs, thermal baths and hot tubs during my travels around New Zealand but the Wairakei Hot Springs were my favourite.
The springs contain three pools of varying temperatures which originate from a geyser located close by (you can pay a bit extra and go on a walk which takes you to the geyser and a model Maori village). One of the pools was too hot for most people to spend any time in, although there were a few, clearly insane, people who bathed in there for ages. I would run in, challenging myself to stay in long enough to dip my shoulders under before running immediately back out again when it started to feel as though my skin may peel off. But the other two pools were nicer, more manageable temperatures. I can’t even begin to tell you how relaxing this place was. We spent a long time in there, emerging hours later with wrinkled, glowing skin.
We rounded off our visit with a trip to the dramatic Huka Falls – a shallow, fast flowing waterfall of bright turquoise water, caused by a narrowing in the Waikato River – and a huge Indian meal in a city centre restaurant.
This was my first ever camping experience. Well, some people tell me that staying in a campervan doesn’t count as camping, but I’m sticking to it. In fact, it was on this trip that I was fully bitten by the road trip bug and the reason that we ended up doing most of our travels around New Zealand in a campervan.
We hired our van from Lucky Campers, which is owned by Jucy Rentals, and is one of the cheapest camper rental companies I have seen around Auckland. All vans are ex-Jucy campers, just a bit older and rundown (but clean). Our van, the Lucky Rookie, was basically a large converted car, with wood panels that pulled into place to make the bed and a camping stoke and dedicated cooking area at the back. This is a godsend for anyone on a budget because dining out in New Zealand is a sure fire way to eat a hole in your wallet.
Drive from Auckland to Rotorua. The whole 230km journey should take you just under 3 hours. GPS will probably try to take you all the way down on Highway 1, driving past Hamilton and carrying on to Rotorua from there. Unless you love highways and aren’t interested in admiring any scenery along the way (if you’re planning a New Zealand road trip then I strongly suspect this is not the case) I would not recommend this route.
Instead, take Exit 477 for State Highway 2 signposted Coromandel Peninsula/Tauranga. It adds on barely any time, and instead of driving down a long grey highway, you will instead be driving through rolling green countryside and small villages. And if you have a few spare hours then you can even stop off in Matamata to visit the Hobbiton Movie Set.
Fill up on a good pub lunch in the historic Pig and Whistle pub and spend the afternoon exploring Rotorua and Kuirau Park.
Wake early and head to the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in time for the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser at 10.15am. Spend a couple of hours exploring the ‘wonderland’ before starting on the one hour drive along the Thermal Explorers Highway towards Taupo. Eat lunch in one of the bars and cafes near the waterfront before heading to the Wairakei Hot Springs for an afternoon of relaxation. Eat dinner in one of Taupo’s many great restaurants or, if you’re on a budget, head straight to your campsite and cook dinner there.
Head to the dramatic Huka Falls to see the bright turquoise water rushing through its gorge (you can also get jet boats to take you to the foot of these falls if you would prefer). Afterwards spend an hour wandering around the Craters of the Moon, a stark geothermal area where in parts you actually do feel as though you could be on the moon, before hopping in your camper and heading back to Auckland.
Where to Camp
In Rotorua we stayed in the Lake Okareka campsite, a small site located about a 15-20 minute drive from of the city centre on the edge of a picturesque lake. Lake Okareka is a DOC campsite meaning that it is cheaper than the full service campsites which provide all the facilities you need. Lake Okareka instead had a small toilet block, a picnic bench and that was about it. But what it lacked in facilities it more than made up for in location.
For Taupo I recommend the Reid’s Farm Reserve, another small campsite located alongside a scenic river. Not only is it completely free (something of a rarity in New Zealand) and located relatively close to the centre, but it was also alongside a clear picturesque river and surrounded by countryside.
If you liked this post then stay tuned for more New Zealand road trips including the epic bucket list road trip around the South Island.
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