Psycho Chicken Crosses the Road

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New Zealand; The Longest Possible Journey - Part Eight

Rotorua - Volcano Central

Bizarrely I came to love my rent-a-wreck. The lack of functional air conditioning meant that the windows had to be permanently down; and the duff radio, which was as capable of holding a station as it was of stereo imaging, gave it a real character and I really felt like this car could add to the trip. It wasn't up to stratospheric speeds either, but the limits in New Zealand are slightly lower than at home anyway and most people seem to stick to them due to the fact that the cops are red-hot on speeding drivers. On the back roads it was fun to see what I could get out of third gear before having to change up to fifth (I didn't find fourth in the end) and strangely it actually didn't handle too badly on the bends all things considered. The perma-open windows only caused a problem when I started to get close to my first destination - Rotorua, New Zealand's volcanic central.

Rotorua stinks. Literally. They say you get used to it, but I doubt it. From the moment you crest the hill beyond which is the crater of Lake Rotorua the sulphurous stink hits you and infects everything. I tried closing the windows, but the smell still came in through the vents, and the heat was unbearable, so I just got on with it.

Once parked, I wandered through the town, where steam comes out of the pavement grates like London fog and bubbling mudpools are marked out with plastic fencing at the roadsides. Truly, this is the most surreal place I've ever been in my life.

The Thing To Do™ in Rotorua is volcanoes and there is a wide variety of volcanic activities. You can go and see a real live actual active volcano at White Island, where any number of tour companies will take you by helicopter or seaplane (which take off and land on Rotorua's impressive lake); you can hike up a slightly less alive, and therefore slightly less dangerous volcano at Mount Tarawera; or if you're feeling slightly less energetic relax and be pampered at one of the many volcanic health spas in the area. The volcano trips are expensive, especially those that involve air travel, but it seemed a shame to come all the way to Rotorua and not see a volcano - I liked the sound of hiking in Mount Tarawera anyway; getting a more 'hands on' volcano experience than simply flying over White Island (which the nice lady in the tourist office says is 'like flying through a 1950's sci-fi movie') but unfortunately the afternoon's trip was full up, and the next day wasn't looking any better. I needed to be out of Rotorua and on the road to Raglan by teatime Friday, which meant that today and tomorrow was all I had. It was time to trust my trip to fate.

I left the tourist office without having booked anything and unsure whether or not I was going to even see a volcano up close and personal on my short visit to Rotorua. I had, however, secured a good motel room in town, which had its own volcanic spring (they all do, I now know this) and was within stumbling distance of town.

The Pig and Whistle is a bit like the Loaded Hog in Auckland (they like their pigs here obviously) in that it's a pseudo microbrewery with half-decent food. What it gains in nice beer and a mean Maori stew, it looses out on in atmosphere and activity, which seemed strictly restricted to a private function on the terrace out back, so it served only as a food stop. Hennessey's around the corner, however, was more like it drinking wise.

Hennessey's is an Oirish pub with a capital 'Oi'. The plastic paddy tack is the same as you find anywhere else, but the welcome was genuine enough and the Kiwi-staple brews flowed nicely. I'd been warned that beer was a regional thing in New Zealand but I wasn't expecting to be confronted by a rack of pumps bearing names I hadn't seen either in Auckland or in Paihia. I picked one, more or less at random.

'You don't know what you're ordering, really, do you mate?' said the barman. It was clear I wasn't going to get anything past this chap. 'No', I confessed. 'Beer's kind of different in Scotland.'

'That's a red', he told me. What you want is a draught.'

'But aren't all these taps draught?' I asked, naively.

'Huh? Nah, mate. Only this one's a draught. That's a red. That's a dark, and these two are blondes.'

'In Scotland, if it comes out of a tap, it's draught. Otherwise it's, well, not.'

'That's dumb! How do you know what kind of beer it is??'

I went with his recommendation, which was local brew Waikato Draught; a brew he described as 'Mother's milk to me, mate. Mother's milk...' He watched as I drank the first sip, smiled and thanked him for his advice. It wasn't bad - not unlike a Boddington's or something back home. Enough to keep the heat and the smell from my mind for an hour or so anyway. It also stopped me thinking about the fact that I had completely failed to secure a volcanic activity for tomorrow, which I have to admit was worrying me, despite my trust in the trip's spirit. I gave the barman a lesson in identifying Scottish beer varieties by ancient customs charges, and he gave me a lesson in keeping a ruly bar by throwing out Rotorua's resident alkie no fewer than four times.

I got up early and checked out of the Red Rocks Inn (yes, it's THAT cheesy) and headed for the tourist office. I had rather hoped to catch the early bus to Mount Tarawera and blag my way onto a tour, but the bus didn't show. I headed for the Landings for a coffee and breakfast. The 'Big Kiwi' satisfied my hunger for the day, and the coffee flowed well. As I tucked in to my hearty fry-up, four backpackers came in and ordered two cups of herbal tea, toast, beans, a bagel and a single-serve sachet of marmite between them.

Then it was on the mobile, which amazingly worked without question as soon as I arrived. There was a place no problem on the afternoon trip up and into the crater of Mount Tarawera.

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