Rotorua: A playground town

By Sue Baxalle, Elisabeth Easther

Sue Baxalle and Elisabeth Easther dip into the varied delights of New Zealand's top tourist town, Rotorua, and find there's a lot more than geysers and hot mud pools to interest their families.

Agrojet at Agroventures Rotorua. Photo / Supplied
Agrojet at Agroventures Rotorua. Photo / Supplied

Being a cynical journalist, as we headed into the Mitai Maori Village, I half expected an over-the-top touristy show. Wrong.

In fact, it was a well-presented and informative show, from the warriors' arrival by waka, through to the performance weaving legend and history, the significance of carvings and moko, use of weapons, music and the poi. After the hangi dinner (good and filling, even for growing boys) we were led through the bush to the neighbouring Rainbow Springs, for the night life encounter. This was our second trip to Rainbow Springs and a chance to see it - literally - in a different light.

The stars of the show, of course, were the kiwi. This rare opportunity to get close to our national icon without a glass barrier was definitely a highlight - and a subsequent visit to Auckland Zoo's kiwi enclosure served only to underline how Rainbow Springs has got it right.

Already well-known as a haven for both native and exotic wildlife, the park allows visitors to get close to birds, reptiles and trout and walk through native forest of more than 90 species of native plants as well as the giant Californian redwoods, planted as fast-growing protection for the forest floor.

We hear from manager Michelle Caldwell about the planned January 2012 launch of a multimillion-dollar high-tech water ride that will take boatloads of passengers through the ecological evolution of New Zealand.

Also under construction is an outdoor free-flight bird show auditorium. We even met some of the stars-in-training, including macaws Richie and MJ, African grey parrot Mandela and sulphur-crested cockatoo Charlie, who dances for us (bribed with a peanut).

Rainbow Springs are also seeking Department of Conservation permission to include native birds such as the kea. Wildlife manager Mark Paterson takes us to meet Bugsy the tuatara, a star of the park.

Estimated at about 50 years old, he recently became a father. The 10 babies hatched in April and are being carefully reared in a warmed enclosure, hand-fed a diet of locusts, flies and larvae. They will soon be on public show in an enclosure opposite their dad.

Mark takes us to visit the eels, enticing them right up to us - cool for townie boys.

In full tourist mode now, we stop off at the Agrodome for a farm tour - in which we could feed ostriches and llamas and meet more common farm animals - and to see the sheep show, a well-rehearsed production, though aimed mostly at the overseas tourist, we felt.

When the lake fog lifted each morning , we'd pack the snacks, cameras and enough gear to last a week in the wild (Bear Grylls has nothing on us mothers for preparedness) and set off in search of wacky activities.

Our first was found at The Ogo on Ngongotaha Rd where one can careen down a grassy slope in a warm water filled ball, better known as the H2Ogo.

Two of us needed little persuading to sample this thrill, while one mum thought it prudent one of the grown-ups stay on dry land with the children. Or so she said.

Dolphin-diving head first into the three-metre high giant transparent rubber sphere, we were launched into a rock 'n' roll spin cycle. Imagine, if you can, a sort of back-to-the-womb, extreme sport, re-birthing, with a generous helping of laughter therapy thrown in for good measure.

The kids, at 5, were too young to do the full immersion (you need to be six), but Andrew, the gregarious co-inventor of the bouncing bath, popped the sprogs in the Ogo en masse, allowing them to enjoy a dry run on the low slopes, which was more than enough to leave them breathless with giggles.

The following day called for something equally vital to get the blood flowing, so we visited Agroventures on the aptly named Paradise Valley Rd. Agroventures offer Shweebing, jet-boating, a freefall, a Swoop and a bungy.

We started with the jet boat, three heart-pumping loops of a shallow circuit where spray flies in the face of monotony. It is so exhilarating, when we stepped back on land, we had sore cheek muscles from grinning.

Then to the Shweeb, which sounds silly but is actually German for "float" or "suspend". Picture a recumbent cycle inside a perspex pod that hangs from a monorail, like flying a bike.

Google have given the project a generous quantity of seed money to see if it's feasible to use as a real-life solution to big-city transport woes. Hopefully this'll take off, because it's fabulous fun.

Finally, because the friendly staff at Agro didn't think we'd had enough fun, they convinced me to have a crack at the Swoop, a modified hang-gliding harness that releases its occupants from a 40m-high crane, swooping them down in a pendulum-like motion. Both the other mothers insisted they were required on Earth to look after the children, so I was partnered with the delightful Jared.

The more weight one carries in the sack, I was told, the further and faster one flies. Whether or not it's necessary to have a co-pilot, I rather liked having someone to chat to while soaring through the air like an eagle. It wasn't frightening either, just liberating and lovely.

Our final day in the region demanded something more sedate, to bring us back to Earth, so we visited the recently refurbished Rotorua Museum. Built in 1908 for wealthy tourists to take the waters, the historic bathhouse building has enjoyed a varied history from spa to nightclub, to its current incarnation as a museum.

For the best view, trek up several flights of stairs to the observation tower where you can survey the lake in all its glory. You can see how Rotorua is nestled in the crater of a volcano, a fact both magnificent and daunting to contemplate. Then descend to the bowels of the building and examine the workings of the original bath pipes.

Along the way, Temuera Morrison, Rotorua's most famous export, popped up on video screens to warn of ghosts and lurking danger. "He's been in Star Wars", the boys gasped incredulously. Tem also stars in a film presentation that includes historic and volcanic activity. We could happily have watched it several times over.

Even without the pink and white terraces, Rotorua is still one of the wonders of the world.

Rotorua in Auckland: Get a taste of Rotorua with a pop up Destination Rotorua centre at 1 Queen St, Auckland, opening September 8. Booking facilities on site, plus a taste of the Ogo (Sept 16-17 and 23-24), luxury spa treatments (Sept 25-Oct 1), a petting zoo (Oct 11 and 12) and Rainbow Springs school holiday experience and giveaways (Oct 8-23).

Travellers' tips:

The Agrodome is on Western Rd, Ngongotaha. Ph (07) 357 1050. Sheep shows are daily at 9.30am, 11.00am and 2.30pm; Farm Tours are daily at 10.40am, 12.10pm, 1.30pm and 3.40pm.

Agroventures is on Paradise Valley Rd. Ph (07) 357 4747. Open daily 9am-5pm.

Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park is on Fairy Springs Rd. Ph (07) 350 0440, freephone (from within New Zealand) 0800 RAINBOW (0800 724 626). Open daily, to 10pm (summer to 11pm). Kiwi Encounter guided tours are on the hour between 10am and 4pm.

Ogo is at 525 Ngongotaha Rd. Ph (07) 343 7676. Open daily 9am-6pm.

Rotorua Museum of Art and History is on Queens Drive, Government Gardens, Rotorua. Open daily (except Christmas Day). Summer: 9am-8pm, winter: 9am-5pm.

Sue Baxalle visited Rotorua with assistance from Rainbow Springs and Novotel Rotorua; Elisabeth Easther was hosted by Destination Rotorua.

- NZ Herald

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