I am a serial over planner. I read reviews on TripAdvisor, scour through blog posts, flip through Lonely Planets, and sometimes even venture onto the second page of Google to troll through even MORE information. That is true research dedication right there. If Googling travel destinations was a legitimate hobby, I would be the president of the club. Come to think of it, it would be less of a club and more of a rehabilitation clinic.
Me: “ I just need to read one more review. PLEASE. Just one. I need to know why this person gave the llama trekking experience four stars instead of five..I’ll stop after one, I promise”
On various points whilst trekking in Nepal last year, I recognised various views and vistas from Instagrams and Youtube Videos that I had trawled through. Basically I had done the trip already, just through somebody else’s lens.
People say that sometimes the anticipation of the trip is the best part. Whilst preparing for a trip, you gloss over the lengthy bus trips where the air-con is set to arctic-doom, or that one time you woke up and found the guy in the bunk next to you watching you sleep (just me…okay). That’s kind of sad though, isn’t it? Why bother going anywhere if we can have adventures whilst being safely ensconced in our beds or armchairs?
ANYWAYS, after that extremely long and entirely unnecessary introduction, let’s get to the point.The point is ‘wonder’. Yes, this little word gets splashed across over-filtered Instagrams and badly printed onto cheap plasticky pillowcases but it’s a concept that so often gets lost as we highlight things in our Lonely Planets, and read through 35 narrative blog posts. When did we loose our ability to stumble, explore and be surprised? Instead we plot and plan and are secretly disappointed when the waterfall looked smaller than it did in the brochure or the view wasn’t quite as vast and spectacular as in that Vimeo video you watched. It’s in the act of stumbling onto something, be it a gorgeous desolate beach or a cafe where the coffee is just right, that makes the memories and brings about the wonder that we travel across the world to find. And you can’t get that whilst staring double-chinned down at your computer screen.
Which brings me to the actual point (tricked ya’). When I rolled into Rotorua, a small town about four hours from Auckland in New Zealand, I had done a pitiful amount of research. When I decided to backpack NZ, I looked briefly into getting a bus pass and decided to opt for the Naked Bus 10-trip passport. Offering a completely stripped backed service (none of those flouncy, expensive extras) the Naked Bus goes to almost every main town/city in the country. This meant that I could hoppity-hop on and off the bus at my own whim and this gave me complete freedom to go anywhere. For some reason, this transport freedom translated into me doing ZERO research. If it sucked (ahem..sorry Auckland), I could just jump on the next bus out of there.
So when I cruised into Rotorua after weaving through green fields and fluffy sheep, I was shocked to see steam,white and puffy, rolling from the ground. Bigger puffs spiralled upwards and joined the cumulus in the sky whilst wispy strands shimmered across the ground like the last strands of spinning cotton candy. The ground was like a teapot set for too long on the hob: steaming, hissing, and spluttering. Suddenly the molten core of the earth seemed a lot more real than that perfect orange sphere in my primary school geography textbook. Mud bubbled and the strong smell of sulphur burned the back of my nose and throat. It was exhilarating and wonderful.
How did I manage to walk into one of the world’s most active geothermal areas and not know about it?
I did a degree in Geography for goodness sake- I should know these things!
Even if you’re not a Geography nerd (which is probably pretty likely), then Rotorua is not all steam and sulphur. In fact, Rotorua is set on a gorgeous lake, is located very close to Hobbiton, has world famous mountain bike tracks, and a wealth of Maori culture. Lots of people visiting Rotorua go and see Maori cultural shows; picture lots of traditional tattoos, dancing, and eating out of a traditional Maori hang (a pit in the ground for cooking food).
I was a little alarmed at how popular these cultural shows were because although I love the idea of people learning more about Maori culture, it just seemed a little bit like cultural appropriation. Sensing my bewilderment with all the brochures promising ‘genuine experiences’, the lovely receptionist at Hot Rocks Base hostel suggested I take a walk down by the lake where two genuine functioning Maori villages welcome in visitors to take pictures and stroll through the community. With rusty red Pouwhenua, a stately red wharenui (communal house), and a pair of little girls that were humming traditional Maori songs, I was glad I had eschewed the disney-esk cultural shows for something a bit more real.
Another big draw of the Rotorua area is the redwood forest, or the Whakarewarewa forest. If you’re not like me and love long leisurely walks then the forest is perfect place. If long leisurely walks are something you would like to save until you’re 80 and can happily croon over every little patch of moss or frilly fern, then a faster and infinitely cooler way of seeing the forest is by luge.
A mixture of the death trap called a go-cart and that thing they used in ‘Cool Runnings’, a luge is a little cart, that because of its low centre of gravity can pick up some serious speed and take some super tight corners. Skyline, a weird pseudo-theme park thing, is just outside of the centre of Rotorua and has three very cool luge tracks and a chairlift so that you don’t have to lug your cart back to the top à la every time you went go-carting when you were a kid #RIPbackofankles. You can imagine how fun it is to fly through a redwood forest on one of these little luge carts; so fun that I went back five times.
In short, Rotorua was such a fun place to visit and the perfect first stop on my two month backpacking trip around New Zealand. Before I rolled into the smelly little city, I had no idea about the fun and delight that I would experience there. I’m so glad I had tossed the guidebook to the wind and stopped my googling fingers because a little bit of wonder in my wanderings is an awesome thing.
Have you been to Rotorua or New Zealand? Have you ever been surprised at something that you probably should have known when travelling? Let me know! Leave me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.