Monday, March 15, 2010

Pt 15 - Rapids Jet; Waimangu Valley; Gondola & Luge; Mitai

Saturday 27 February –, Rapids Jet, Waimangu Thermal Valley, Gondola and luge and finally Mitai

It’s just as well our booking for the Rapids Jet doesn’t require us to be out and about until after 9:30. We are supposed to rock up at 9:45 am. The trip is supposed to start at 10am, but we are a little late departing as we wait for some people to show up. We have supplied our own waterproof jackets, but others take advantage of the longer, black rapids jet coats which were being washed when we were here yesterday. Noone seems anxious to leave to see the rush of water when the flow from the dam arrives.

We don our life jackets, sign our “yes we understand we might die” forms then it’s photo time before jumping on the jetboat. We speed upstream with the wind in our faces to check out the wall of the power station and do a few 360 degree spins. The ride starts out with a few manouvres and then our skipper checks everyone is doing OK and the thrills gradually increase, jumps and such downstream across some mild rapids. It’s great fun. Similar to what Dad used to do in his speed boat on Pittwater/Broken Bay when I was a little thing of 6 or 7. Back before Pittwater was too congested. I spend a goodly amount of the time thinking about my Dad and the fun we used to have in his speed boat when I was little, as I grin into the wind which sends my hair streaming back and whipping up a mass of minor tangles.

The rapids jet photographers are standing on the banks of the river during the fun. We take a jump through the rapids and land with waves of spray enveloping the boat.

We head back up stream and make multiple passes through the rapids, narrow passes to obstacles and last minute swerves to avoid trees or rocks. It’s awesome fun. Hubby’s loving it! When we come off the boat we go and look at all the photos they’ve taken. There’s some pretty awesome shots. You can have the whole set on disk for $35. A nice little earner there though most on the boat leave without buying today. The jet boat ride was $90 pp. What a great start to the day. We are wet of course but the day is warm and fine and we’ll be dry in no time.

From the jetboat we head straight on to Waimangu Thermal Valley. It’s midday by the time we arrive, so first things first we grab some lunch at the café. A bacon and egg pie with an accompanying organic cola drink for hubby and a zucchini slice for me. Hubby wins yet again! His was probably the healthier option and was quite nice. Mine was a bit dry.. the zucchini slice I make is way better!

It’s 12:35 by the time we are setting off down the path. Paved at the start, the path as you move down the slope is level but rough. Loose stones make it a little slippery if you aren’t careful. Good walking shoes are recommended and I would agree with that. I'm glad I'm not wearing the flimsy footwear many others seem to have chosen today.

We have been booked onto the 2:50 cruise and advised that we have oodles of time. Oodles of time. The later cruise departure will make sure we don’t have to rush the last bit. Working on this advice we take our time over the features.

The path is consistently downhill except for some mild short inclines. The main features are located from 1 to 18 on the provided map which also serves as our ticket. Our route starts with views over frying pan lake.

Frying pan lake is awesome with the vapours rising from the surface and drifting about in eddies that morph and dance. Down the hill closer to the water you pause to listen to the sound of the gurgling and chuffing which sounds like a steam train. Plumes of steam consistently emanate from a striking rock feature. It’s quite fascinating.
We spend a fair bit of time pausing at the various stops on the map. Reading the information on the guide and on interpretive signs along the way. There are many features pointed out that relate to the famous volcanic eruptions, a small silica terrace, gurgling and spurting hot springs with intense colours, profiles of volcanic deposits that are cut away near paths.

Other than the frying pan lake much of it seems quite small, and while there are some intense colours here and there it’s not on the scale you might expect from the colours on the websites for various thermal features.

As suggested we go as far as location 21 then back track slightly to head up the stairs to the inferno crater and the longer Mt Haszard Hiking Trail. The inferno crater here at Waimangu Valley is a similar colour to Lake Tekapo, just way way smaller. It’s very pretty, but nowhere near the visual impact of the awesome eyeful Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki provide.

We have been warned that once we get to a one of the features along the hiking trail there will be 200 stairs to get back to the bus route. Odd that there should have been no mention of the large number of stairs and steep incline to reach this point where the stairs then take you back down the slope. Features along the way aren’t too thrilling really. Old craters that are now forested bowls in the landscape, or a view over a thermal feature that used to be huge, until it just stopped… LOL reminds me of the story my mum keeps teasing me about.. when I gave her directions “get out at the red building that isn’t there any more”… along the Mt Haszard Hiking trail and indeed along the Waimangu Valley trail and cruise you spend a fair bit of time in the appreciation of things that aren’t there any more LOL.

Back to the trail.. the only site we figured could even vaguely justify the hiking was some views across lake rotomahana… but they are just average views. Nice enough, but perhaps I’ve done the South Island too recently! The scenery there simply ruins you for average lake views! On the downhill stretch the stairs are not designed to be easy. The risers are very tall, and the path is a bit rough. After a while my knee decides it’s not well pleased with the effort required with these downhill steps. Uh oh. How I wish I had managed the mental energy to keep up the physio in amongst all the house stress and hassle over the last months! I manage OK but it’s clear my time on slopes is really going have to be of short duration from here on in. Knee aside I probably would have enjoyed the walk a vast deal better if we’d come at a cooler time of year!

Hubby has been pushing the pace some as we've been heading up the hiking trail. He’s paid closer attention to the information about the time various walks might take. He’s right to be concerned.

By the time we regain the bus route, we’ve missed the bus down to jetty at Lake Rotomahana, not that we had planned to take it. However we are now obliged to take a very quick walk along the nature trail section of the walk. I didn’t realize there is a bird watching spot by the lake. There’s heaps of water fowl. Plenty of black swans among them too.. but that is for other’s to appreciate. We’re in a mad tearing rush for the boat.
Luckily we do make it in time for the cruise.

There’s a reasonable number of people aboard a very small and, frankly, inadequate vessel for the purpose of a well populated sight seeing cruise. Plenty of seats inside windows that don’t open and aren’t very clean. It’s hot inside too. Out the back is pretty much a shade free zone. Commentary is piped through the boat, but It’s far from easy to hear and we find ourselves needing to refer to the site guide we were provided when we paid our money. We cruise across the crater lake to take a spin in a tiny crater bay….ho hum.. we pass the sites of the famous pink and white terraces that aren’t there anymore but would have been many metres below us. Oh. There’s trout in the lake and their isolation keeps the breed very pure. OK. On the way back to the jetty we make a lengthy pause at some pretty nifty fumaroles which chug and puff and splutter water in a most amusing fashion.

Everyone aboard is photographing like crazy and videoing, but the fumaroles are pretty small individually and collectively. Before going we had really expected things on a larger scale.

The steaming cliffs put on a good show as we make the final run to the jetty. Finally getting a few moments to capture the lake scenery.

I toy with the idea of heading around to the bird watching spot and sitting there until time for the next bus, but hubby is over it and wants to go. Not much argument from me, or rather not much argument from my knee at any rate. It’s really rather sore now. The bus is hot and not air conditioned. It’ll do for the short ride up the hill.

We have enjoyed our time wandering through Waimangu, but we did feel it was pretty expensive for what is provided and much of the place relies on an appreciation of the history; imagination; and comparison of the bush clad hills and craters with photographs of the post apocalyptic landscape shown in historical photographs taken not long after the 1886 eruption.

By now it’s 3:30. We need to congregate at Mitai about 6pm to avoid the crush from the arrival of tour buses and the Mitai courtesy bus that collects folk staying in Rotorua. Not enough time to go back to Taupo and we’re too early to head over to Mitai. So we decide to find where we have to go before deciding on how to entertain ourselves. It’s ever so convenient that Mitai is just a couple of doors up from the Rotorua Gondalo and Luge.

There is a lot of cars in the car park but we have no difficulty finding a spot, changing our clothes discretely and wandering into the foyer. The whole installation looks fairly new and imposing and there’s a steady flow of visitors arriving and paying their fares. We browse the board of prices and discover there is an array of packages and options, so we step aside to consider what to do. Everything is pretty expensive. We ask how long it would take to get up to the top and to take a luge ride. The luge ride is estimated at about 40 minutes once you get down to the bottom and then take the chair lift back up. If memory serves the Gondala was about 20 minutes. Only time for one luge ride just now.. hmm. We end up opting for the annual pass which also gives us luge rides for $5 instead of the normal $9 plus of course as many trips on the Gondala as we like. We’re pretty confident we’ll get time across the week’s activities to come back for more rides

The view from the Gondala is pleasant and expansive taking in Lake Rotorua, the town and countryside round about. It’s quite relaxing just sitting slowly rising up the mountain. It doesn’t feel like long before we are alighting at the upper terminal and getting our bearings. To the left as we emerge there is an interesting contraption that we gather is the “Swing” for which we saw price options. Business on the swing is pretty slow by the looks. Around to the right we approach a large gift store which has closed for the day and through a set of glass doors there are crowds of people who must surely be taking luge rides.

First things first we grab ourselves a helmet (hoping like hell that whoever has worn it before us doesn’t have head lice) and take our place in the queue. It is an indication of how rusty we are at using amusement rides that we fail to realize the two queues are to direct people onto the various luge tracks which are graded in three speed tiers: scenic, intermediate and advanced. We chill in the queue doing a bit of people watching. There’s clearly folk from all over the world and a good smattering of young local men. One little girl who can’t be more than 6 or 7 has either done this before or has been watching and learning. She expertly gets her sled, hops on and demonstrates the brakes for the attendant and takes off down the scenic track.

In good time it is our turn. I’m in front and head off down the intermediate track just to get the feel for the layout here. Changing tracks is apparently not something you’re supposed to do and hubby is firmly directed down the scenic track, though it doesn’t cramp his style too drastically as he hardly meets anyone else on his way down. The sleds are capable of going very quickly but the track is concrete and there is a massive amount of vibration coming through into our arms. In this respect it is not at all like the luge at Jamberoo near home. Jamberoo’s luge ride is on a smooth stainless steel curved track. The sleds don’t go as quick, but it’s a silken ride down and you can lean into the corners as you slide up the wall of the track.. anyway the vibration on this concrete tracked luge detracts from the ride experience quite substantially for us both. Aside from the distraction of adjusting expectations, the vibration is not good for hubby’s arms at all due to a chronic condition he manages so I spend most of the trip worrying about what it’s doing to him. Arriving within close succession at the bottom we chat about the experience.. hubby’s arms are OK so far but he’s not planning to ride again. We place our sleds as directed by the signs and jump on the chairlift.

Chairlifts are such fun! As we glide and bounce up the hill, I observe some unfamiliar conifers of some sort. The orange of old leaves evenly hanging on all over the tree are a great mimic for a flowering silky oak. Interesting. Someone has dropped their helmet. No wonder there are signs saying to keep helmet on until you return to the top. We watch the riders on the tracks below and try to identify which tracks we took. All too soon we are scooting off the chair and out of the way of getting belted by it. Fun, but we wonder if we actually will get our money’s worth from our annual pass after all...

It’s time we left but I am keen to do a reccie (reconnoitre) of the café and the bistro. A sign invites us to wander in and check out the bistro so we go ahead. Now setting up for dinner there seems to be a good array of mains and deserts. Above average for a bistro we think. .. but it’s time for Mitai.

It’s a bit after 6 by the time we arrive. Hmm, buses are plentiful in the drive, but we manage to park and make our way to the queue of people being received. Turns out there are 300 people seeing the show tonight. The queue moves very slowly and we take our seats in a large marquee. A couple already seated don’t show any interest in us, so I choose a seat at the far end of the table so that others coming in don’t have to climb around us. Soon another couple rock up look friendly, so I introduce myself. They are from Switzerland. We have a bit of a chat as hubby wanders off to the bar and is successful at last in his quest to try the local tui’s …..

Pretty soon another couple come up and ask if the seats opposite us are taken. He’s clearly a kiwi so I acknowledge this as we exchange introductions. Turns out his wife is an American. The couple down the end are Canadian. Our kiwi companion is a turf farmer who lives just out of Christchurch. He seems really pleased to find we are Aussies and is keen to chat to us throughout the evening… as we are with him too. He’s had a fabulous afternoon at the Caterpillar Experience. I had thought you must ride on a tracked vehicle around the displays, but this confusion is cleared up as our kiwi friend tells us it’s a series of static displays of all sorts of vintage caterpillars (earth moving machinery) and he’s found it fascinating. Apparently his missus didn’t find the idea so thrilling, so she amused herself elsewhere.

It’s almost an intrusion as the evening’s formalities get underway. Our marquee host goes through a long process of identifying all the “tribes” from which we have come. Anyone from the US? Yay….everyone welcome our guests from the US! Thankyou United States, we got our trout in our spring from the US, but they are ours now and you can’t have them back.. everyone thank the US for our trout….. We mutter to our kiwi friend … “Where’s our thanks for the possums?” He cracks up and says.. “and to the Brits for gorse and broom?” Hehehe .. so nice to share a joke and know it will be understood LOL How about the UK? (Thank you to the UK for teaching us to make stuffing…) Yay… Japan Yay, Aussie? Yay…. The list grows and grows.. Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Georgia, South Africa, East Africa, South Korea... We have people from 18 different countries in our Marquee alone.

The inevitable safety briefing, location of amenities, agenda for the evening and now, an important item of business. A volunteer is requested for a chief for the evening to represent us all. There is a studied silence as men all around the tent try to look as invisible as possible. Finally a gent from the UK sticks his hand up…yaay! The enthusiasm of support from the other men folk is palpable! LOL.
Time has come to head out for the waka viewing… past the hangi pit for a look at dinner being unveiled. With so many people we’ve got buckley’s (ie no chance) unless we wait for the crowd to thin so we hang back to see dozens of chickens and legs of lamb, trays of kumara and potato and stuffing….

Then we head off down the track. It’s a bit like a circus as people try to find a pozzie (position) along the stream where the warriors in their waka will soon be appearing. The warriors duly appear and seem skilled and in deadly earnest as they chant and tap the sides of their oars on the waka. They do a couple of passes, we take some video. .. It’s pretty cool and interesting, but looking at the gawping crowds I’m thinking perhaps Mitai has become a victim of their own success.

The waka viewing over we file as part of a long snaking procession and head back to our marquee. Past the other smaller marquee… $100 bucks or so a head.. not a bad annual turnover by the looks, though I guess numbers vary day by day. They have to have grossed 30K or more tonight alone.

It’s a slow amble back up and before we have our dinner we move into the performance area where there are chairs laid out in front of a stage with what looks rather like a set made to resemble a village. We take a couple of unoccupied chairs and discover why they are still unoccupied. The view is partially obstructed from them.

Around the village maidens and warriors are hanging out. Our chief and the chief representing the other marquee (the “other chief”) head on up to the side of the stage accompanied by our host guy and are duly confronted by the challenge from a sprightly and intimidating young warrior. First to front the challenge is the other chief. He calmly stands his ground but when time comes to pick up the verbage dropped he looks aside to another warrior and then as he reaches for the greenery he looks at the ground. Oops. Our chief takes his turn as another young warrior struts his stuff. The herbage is dropped and our chief, of whom we are duly proud, steps forward and collects the greenery appropriately eyeballing the challenging warrior the entire time. We are pleased with his performance. Our chief also gave a very satisfactory speech in response to the greeting from the Mitai chief and this is pronounced to be overwhelming and deeply appreciated by the Mitai chief later in the course of our dinner. In my head I’m putting together info provided by a combination of prior tours .. thanks Maurice … thanks Kena!! I don’t know about other people, but I find the repetition really helps me remember as well as understand!

The show proceeds and is lead/MC’d by the Mitai Chief. There are the usual songs and explanations of cultural significance, introduction of the traditional “drum” constructed from a wooden log. A young pregnant woman demonstrates some cool percussive use of the poi, including horses galloping and other recognizable rhythms. She was truly mesmorising. Beautiful and highly skilled. My favourite item of the night.. and indeed of all the Maori performances we have seen, was a song that used the drum and percussive poi along with the singing. It was totally awesome.

As things proceed and the Mitai chief explains stuff relating to the combat skills the young warriors are drilled to demonstrate how training would proceed. There is a fairly detailed explanation of moko telling us more to refresh our memory and add to the detail of what we heard at the Auckland Museum. The facial moko is patterned to represent four birds and these birds in turn represent the various areas of knowledge.. genealogy and so on. Areas of knowledge in which Maori were expected to obtain proficiency, as we were previously informed. The three birds I can recall were owl (on the forehead), parrot (on the nose); kiwi (on the lower cheeks).. at least I think this is what he said. He told us more about what each bird represented I think, but that knowledge has long since departed my skull! Blowed if I can recall the fourth bird! .. maybe a falcon???

Throughout the course of the show the audience is taught to say some things in maori with regular jokes being made. At all times the mood is light hearted. The Mitai chief is extremely charismatic and funny. Our concern at the high volume of attendees tonight has long vanished. The Mitai chief has worked the crowd in expert fashion. The young women and warriors are extremely proficient at all that they demonstrate. The show was totally awesome and we left feeling not like one of 300 nameless faces but as privileged guests. Honoured to have the opportunity to share some cultural learning with these beautiful and hospitable people.

We head on back to the marquee and collect our hangi meal from the bistro. It was nice, but I’m not sure how wonderful I would have found it if they didn’t have some pretty creamy potato bake included. Without that it would have been pretty much steamed meat and steamed vege! We’re talking too much with our kiwi friend and almost miss dessert! No huge loss, it’s ok but hardly gourmet. Not like we’ll be fading away to a shadow any time soon!

Some of the audience have opted to pay for discounted entry to Rainbow Springs next door, and these people depart when dinner is concluded, our kiwi friend among them. We stay put at Mitai and head off on a guided walk around the property. Small groups are lead by various warriors while we, being the last group out, stick with our marquee host. By torchlight we learn the uses of various plants. At times having to wait on the path for the previous group to finish that stop. The final stop is at the sacred spring from which we have been drinking tonight. Absolutely pure cold water pours forth from this spring and it is extremely important in the identity and good fortune of this Maori family.

With the end of the guided walk the evening is at an end and we hop back in our car and head off. It’s been an awesome show.. but I do still feel that Mitai are verging on being too much of a circus act at times during the evening. They really need to draw a line in the sand on numbers, assuming they haven’t already of course. At the moment the show itself is so good that it makes up for the numbers present, but it would be better with a good deal fewer attendees. We have no regrets about choosing to come to Mitai, but we are now so curious to see the competition! It’s a tough life but someone’s got to do it!

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