“Lizzie, don’t forget about our austerity programme,” my husband Sam reminds me when we arrive in Rotorua. “That means we can’t do anything that costs money.”
Right. That means no luge, no zorb, no gondola and definitely no Skyline Restaurant, Whakarewarewa, Rainbow Springs, or white-water rafting.
But I soon discovered that the good old cliché still stands true: all the best things in life are free.
Free things to see and do in Rotorua...
The first gorgeous free thing we notice that Rotorua offers in abundance, are rhododendrons.
Many suburban streets are lined with lollipop-shaped ‘rhodos’ in full scarlet flower, and the pavements beneath them are also carpeted in scarlet. We drive around a few of Rotorua’s best ‘rhodo’ roads, then treat our Apollo motorhome to a photoshoot surrounded by flowers.
Government Gardens covers 20 lake-side hectares in central Rotorua which are a treat whatever the season, but especially in late October when tulips are brilliantly blooming. There are many aspects to the gardens but central to it is the splendid mock-Tudor building. There are also bowling greens and croquet courts in front of it and, another impressive period building – the 1930’s Mediterranean-style Blue Baths.
The gardens are an interesting combination of colonial English formality and weird geothermal activity. The area around Sulphur Lake, which is an opaque creamy green and smells like rotten eggs, has been recently revamped to become a serene walk that weaves between trees and includes a sculpture trail with 17 artworks.
The next stop, on our free self-guided tour, is Sulphur Point Wildlife Sanctuary, in the south-eastern corner of this vast park. The path winds along steaming ditches, hot springs and silica flats, the lake water is warm and has a milky sulphurous patina, and the area is busy with birds.
We drive Apollo to the northern end of the Government Gardens and park near the yacht club. The Maori village at Ohinemutu squeezes between the lake, Lake Road and Hutuhina Stream, and the marae is hidden down a quiet lane. This is not a tourist village but the real thing.
The meeting house is ornately carved and immaculately maintained and it faces St Faith’s Church across a large paved courtyard. A tall white angel stands outside the church and equally impressive, but totally different, Maori carvings stand near the meeting house.
The 1915 mock-Tudor church has a sweetly English exterior but the inside is magnificently Maori. The walls are made of intricately woven tukutuku panels; the pews have beautifully carved ends, as does the pulpit and altar.
It is an exquisite little church and I love its reverent Maori ambiance, even before I discover the Galilee Chapel that was added to its right side in 1960. In this chapel there is a famous glass window etched with a Maori Christ, wearing a traditional feathered cloak, ‘walking’ on water.
A wonderful thing about a campervan is that it has a kitchen and a fridge, so we stroll back to it and, mindful of the austerity programme, build sandwiches which we munch in comfort while having a cup of tea looking over Lake Rotorua.
Though a lie-down is tempting we devote the next part of the afternoon to a forest walk. Okere Scenic Reserve, 15 minutes out of town on the road to Te Puke, follows the Kaituna River. The walk takes up to an hour but is linear so we happily do it both ways.
The reserve is world famous as a white-water rafting river and the Okere Falls, with a drop of three meters, is reputed to be the highest rafted waterfall on the planet. Then there are two lesser waterfalls for rafters to navigate over.
The views of this bush-surrounded river and its waterfalls and the trout pools between them make the walk exceptional and, if one is lucky, views include hapless rafters zooming down, shrieking with fear and delight, and often tipping out on the big one.