We spent four full days in Rotorua. It’s known for being New Zealand’s most dynamic thermal area. And although we did experience some of its geothermal wonders, what I will remember most about this place is hiking for hours and hours on end without another soul in sight. It was a special feeling to be surrounded by nothing but nature.
When we got into town, we stopped by the information center to get recommendations on hikes. Information centers are scattered all over New Zealand and provide a wealth of insight. The best part about them is that they are typically staffed by locals who know the area like the back of their hand and who themselves love experiencing the great outdoors.
When we talked to the guy behind the counter and described what type of hiking we like to do, his first recommendation (without any hesitation) was the Tarawera Trail. The trail is expected to become a great walk that will go all around Tarawera Lake. The first stage was just recently completed. We decided to spend our first day in Rotorua hiking it. We were looking forward to a long day of hiking (19 miles). We thought that since the trail followed a lake, it would be pretty flat, but surprisingly it was not. Most of the trail was just inland from the lake and weaved its way up and down again and again through thick forest. We walked for miles and miles under a canopy of rata, pohotukawa, and groves of giant mamaku ferns.
Sections of the forest were swarming with locusts. They were buzzing by all around us. There so many just nearly missing me, it seemed inevitable that one would make contact with me. What I didn’t expect was for one to land right on the back of my neck. As soon as it happened, I screamed. I didn’t mean to scream, but it was a gut reaction to the creepy feeling of having locust legs touch base on my neck.
The furtherest point on our hike was Hot Water Beach (same name but different place than the Hot Water Beach we visited previously). When we reached the beach, we found a spot to eat our lunch and watched beautiful black swans wade through the waters.
After lunch, we got into the lake’s geothermal waters. It was a strange sensation to have heat permeating up the bottom of the lake. If you stood in one place too long your feet would start burning. The heat coming up from the ground made the water so warm, steak was coming off it. It was pretty cool.
After relaxing for an hour, we decided it was time to head back. The trek back was harder, not so much because the trail was any harder going that direction, but because we started to get tired. On the way to Hot Water Beach, we had done a combination of walking and running. On the way back, it was all walking. The last few miles were tough. When we got back to the campervan, we realized the hike had taken more out of us than we expected. Then again, did we really think a 19 mile hike was going to be easy?
The next day, we opted for an easier hike – Tarawera Falls. It proved to be the perfect hike for a rainy day – short and under the shelter of thick forest almost the entire way. The trail mostly follows the pristine Tarawera River, which runs powerfully through the forest. At different sections, the river goes underground – disappearing below the forest and re-emerging further down. It surges along, creating unexpected waterfalls along the way.
The highlight of the hike is reaching Tarawera Falls, where water surges out of fissures in a large rock cliff face. The falls plunge nearly 200 feet down the sheer cliff face.
Our third day in Rotorua, we tackled two hikes at Lake Okataina. We started with the Eastern Okataina Walkway. The trail goes along the eastern shore of Lake Okataina to Lake Tarawera. Out and back, it’s 12 miles total and we saw no one the entire hike, with the exception two trail runners toward the start. It was so quiet in the forest, we could hear the trees creaking and cracking. It sounded like some could fall down at any moment. This was certainly a real possibility; we saw plenty of fallen trees along the trail.
In addition to the sound of the trees, we enjoyed the songs of the many birds along the trail. It all sounded like one of those nature soundtracks you can buy on CD. But this was even better because it was a live performance – perfectly engineered by nature.
The last section of the trail descends into Humphries Bay on Lake Tarawera. We enjoyed our lunch there before turning around and heading back.
The highlight of the hike was two wallaby sightings. The first one was brief – the wallaby was further off trail and we didn’t see it long. The second sighting was better. The wallaby was right on the trail and we got to watch it run/hop into the forest and along the water’s edge. It looked like a miniature kangaroo. Unfortunately, we did not capture it on camera. As a poor substitute, here is a photo I took of a wallaby at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington. There are only a few areas in New Zealand with wallabies. It was quite special to see one in the wild.
After hiking the Eastern Okataina Walkway, we did the short Te Ahuke Track. It’s a one-mile loop that goes to Cascade Falls. The falls descend roughly 30 feet, tumbling over and around rock protrusions, along a wall covered with moss and ferns. At night, thousands of glowworms can be seen. We were there during the day, so missed out on the glow worms. A local told us the glowworms are even better here than at the infamous Waitomo Caves, which almost convinced us to drive back there at night – but we never did.