Discovering the splendour that is New Zealand
It’s the Earth not the Moon, I think. We are walking the path that skirts the pool of geothermal geysers at the Whakarewarewa site in the town of Rotorua, New Zealand. The moon-grey rocks are smothered in mud and pungent smoke, with sporadic hissing that suggests the chemical fury underneath. The scene is alien. The air is calm, a kind of nervous calm because we know there will be an outburst. Once every 40 minutes or so, the subterranean pressure pushes the heated, underground water through the crack and shoots up a jet of spray up to 30m, drawing cheers from fortunate visitors who happen to be present at the moment of thermal activity.
It’s definitely the Earth, not the Moon, because as far as we know there’s no water, let alone a watery spectacle, anywhere else but here.
Nature can be angry and unkind — think volcanoes, which dot New Zealand — but it can also be an unparalleled blessing. The North Island of New Zealand has enough of such blessings to draw the crowds of admirers, and Rotorua is of the requisite stops on everyone’s itinerary. This pretty town sits by the lake of the same name, and like most lakes it was a benign product of violent volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of years ago. At the back is Mount Ngongotaha, at whose peak you can look down at the scenic basin, twinkling with little lights as night sets in.
The Maoris settled here in the 14th century, and now Rotorua, a main attraction to every domestic and international visitor to the North Island, still has a large concentration of Maori population. The geothermal site at Whakarewarewa — it’s not that hard to pronounce — is actually housed inside Te Puia Maori Culture Centre where you can look at Maori craft, taste their traditional food (steamed meat), and wander the terraced platform encircling the geysers. In short, this is a perfect setting of an earthly arrangement between man and nature: how we live, wonder and bow at the mighty mountains, forests, beasts, waterfalls and their mysterious forces, and how they in turn allow us to live in peace with them.
New Zealand plays by that arrangement wisely. Besides the lake and the geysers, Rotorua over the years has added a number of attractions that combine the purity of nature with man-made elements. You can ride the Skyline gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha, and up there you take the mountain bike path snaking along the slopes, or ride the luge in a mini-adventure downhill. At Agrodome, visitors watch the famous sheep show — this is New Zealand, where sheep outnumber humans — a cute, well-rehearsed performance by a burly shepherd and his furry flock. It doesn’t feel like a circus but a livestock demonstration: to wit, this is what New Zealand thrives on anyway, tourism and agriculture. In the past decade, New Zealand’s is-it-the-Earth-or-the-Moon natural marvel has received a major boost from Sir Peter Jackson and his movies, first the Lord Of The Rings, then the Hobbit trilogy. In fact, I join the trip to the North Island with SF Cinema and Dtac along with the lucky winners from their campaign, to visit the set of the films that has been turned, smartly, into tourist attractions. Once again, New Zealand is adept at augmenting the reality of its land with the fantasy that increases its value.
An hour from Auckland, where most planes coming to North Island have to land, and midway to Rotorua, is the town of Matamata and Alexander Farm. This rolling, picturesque landscape of eternal green — it has over 12,000 grazing sheep — is now known as Hobbiton, and the agricultural nature of the place is now fused inseparably with its role as the location for the Shire, home of the Hobbits, the small people who become the heroes in the fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. The location scouts first came here in the late 1990s, and soon a new road was paved, sets constructed and the crew arrived for an extended shoot. True, it’s the South Island that supplied most of the Middle Earth in the two trilogies, but Hobbiton, or the Shire, was where it all began: in the book and the films, this is where Gandalf first came to Frodo (and Bilbo). The memorable scene when the grey wizard, played by Ian McKellan, blows the pipe smoke into the shape of a ship while gazing at the sunset was shot here. The guide can show you the bench where they sat, and for fans, that is huge.
In the past, visitors would go straight from Auckland to Rotorua, but now Hobbiton is a tempting stop, even if you’re not familiar with the movies. Meanwhile on the way back from Rotorua to Auckland — where you’re likely to catch the plane home — one option is to first explore Taupo area, an adventure town with various attractions, from its lake to its thundering waterfalls. But to continue in the spirit of otherworldly wonders New Zealand is so good at offering, a slight detour to Waitomo Cave is recommended. Descending the steps, you find yourself in this fabled grotto whose ceilings are covered with thousands of glow worms emitting biochemical light from their bodies. On a small raft, you float silently in the dark, save for the eerie lights from the creatures above you.
That strange feeling returns: It’s the Earth, not the Moon or any other extraterrestrial planets. Or to be more precise, it’s New Zealand.
Thai Airways flies to Auckland five times a week. The flight takes around 11 hours, roughly the same as a flight to European cities.
Located in the southern hemisphere, the season in New Zealand is in reverse of Thailand. The coldest the North Island can get is around 10C, in June and July, and the warmest months are December and January, when the temperature can go up to 25-30C.
Independent travellers prefer hiring cars to travel around New Zealand. The best way is to arrange it beforehand through tour agents in Thailand, which offers consultancy and hotel reservation, as well as plans your driving route according to your wish.
Te Puia Moari Culture Centre and Whakarewarewa geyser site in Rotorua opens every day. A day pass for adult costs NZ$51 (1,275 baht), which covers exhibitions, shows and the geyser site.
Hobbiton, the set of The Lord Of The Rings movies in the town of Matamata, opens every day with no need for reservation. Ticket costs NZ$79 (1,975 baht). Farm-stay accommodation is also available.