The Road To Rotorua

Story by staff writer JM Merchant. Photos Copyright © Joanna Abram.

After the thrills and spills of Kayaking in Mercury Bay, New Zealand, we were grateful for a soft bed at the hostel in Whitianga. The next morning it was clear that autumn was trying to assert itself. Rain in the early hours had drenched the swim wear I’d left out to dry overnight, leaving a nice soggy bundle to stuff into my rucksack before jumping back on the bus.

The overcast and dreary weather stayed with us as we headed south to the Karangahake Gorge. Carved out by the Ohinemuri River over the millennia, the local flora has done a lot to reclaim this land from the gold mining operations that consumed it from the 1880s to the 1950s.

A pictoresque autumn snapshot

A picturesque autumn snapshot

Our driver dropped us off by the Crown Battery (where the mined ore was crushed) and Western Portal bridge, telling us to follow the 45-minute loop trail only—that anyone not back at the bus in an hour would be left behind to walk the rest of the way to Rotorua. The casual Kiwi nature can leave you a little uncertain as to how genuine these threats are.

Crossing the Western Portal Bridge

Crossing the Western Portal Bridge

So we headed over the cable bridge to the other side of the river. A few members of our party were a little wary of crossing the bridge, even though it didn’t move, so of course the lads taunted them by dashing past them in large groups.

Looking out from one trail to another

Looking out from one trail to another

Even in the grey light the environment around the river was too beautiful to leave my camera idle.

Stairs leading to the mining railtracks.

Stairs leading to the mining rail tracks

A well-worn dirt trail led us upwards, past big chunks of old concrete and abandoned mining equipment, via bright new wooden stairways, to the old mining rail tracks. These we followed into tunnels bored into the mountain.

Following the tracks into the darkness

Following the tracks into the darkness

There was enough room to stand if you’re of average height. But even though there are daylight gaps in the tunnel (looking out over the river), it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in total darkness, without any torches.

I have no real problem with the dark, but I was curious to know where I was walking. So I, along with a few others, killed two birds with one stone, using my camera flash to assure us we weren’t about to disappear down a crevice. Of course, there was no such danger.

Using the camera flash to see where I'm going!

Using the camera flash to see where I’m going!

The tunnel trail took us about 15 minutes, before we looped back over another cable bridge onto a path on the other side of the river. I took the 20 minute walk back solo, happy to just enjoy the scenery, my fascination with water being slaked by the running river beside me.

Fascinated by the river

Fascinated by the river

When I eventually return to New Zealand, I fully intend to walk the entire trail.

Part of the trail by the river

Part of the trail by the river

Getting back to the car park the sun made a weak attempt to break through the clouds, making the water sparkle as we hopped back on the big green bus.

Sun starting to break through the clouds as we get back to the bus

Sun starting to break through the clouds
just as we’re getting back to the bus

Matamata was our lunch stop. This town became known as Hobbiton around 1999, being the location for the Shire from The Lord of the Rings films. Tourists can get tours of the sets—but at the time of our visit they were closed to the public due to pre-production of The Hobbit (although it was another couple of years before those sets got used for filming again due to issues getting the film off the ground).

Gollum ready to welcome tourists to town

Gollum ready to welcome tourists to town

We rocked into Rotorua by mid-afternoon. It was raining and very steamy. It also stank. Affectionately known as Rotten-rua, Roto-Vegas or Sulphur City, Rotorua is a hub of geo-thermal activity, geysers, boiling mud pools and sulphur dioxide gas spewing everywhere, giving the town a distinctly eggy smell. The Rotorua Government Gardens is appropriately known as Whangapipiro in Maori. It means evil-smelling place.

Geothermal steam over Rotorua

Geothermal steam over Rotorua

With the bad weather, those on our bus who had booked to go gondola and luge riding had to be confined to the hostel with the rest of us. So we went and made good use of the naturally heated swimming pool in the yard.

The smell doesn’t take long to get used to unless you’ve got a weak stomach. Besides Auckland and Raglan, Rotorua was one of the places I ended up spending the most time in, and I grew quite fond of the place.


Guest blogger JM Merchant

JM Merchant

JM Merchant (or Jo Abram to most) lives in the North End of London, although she aspires to the West End. An occasionally employed sound engineer and stage manager, most of her time is currently spent reading pirate tales as she works on her first novel. She tweets as @JMMerchant86.



  1. Thanks for sharing your adventure…between camera flashes and iPhones, light is never far away! The geothermal pools sound wonderful (even if a little stinky).

  2. Wonderful description of Rotorua, I was back there with the sights and could smell the geysers immediately! Definitely inspires one to return to that beautiful land.

  3. What an amazing experience! Can’t wait to visit one of these days…

  4. Ann Mc says:

    I can see why you couldn’t put your camera down! I would have been a chicken with a 45 minute time-limit, tho! Getting left behind is a fear of mine! Thank you for braving it and taking us along!

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