Getting into hot water

One of the strangest things about North Island is suddenly coming across a patch of ground that’s smoking –

or hearing a glooping and plopping noise coming from a muddy puddle, which is bubbling away happily all by itself.

The volcanic hot springs are wonderful.  You can either pay to go to the pools –

– where every pool is at a slightly different temperature, ranging from 36-40 degrees, and it’s a good idea to work your way up from warm to hot, rather than leap enthusiastically into the hot pool first.

Or if you want a freebie, just ask the locals where the nearest hot spring is.  We found this one –

just off the main road between Taupo and Rotorua – a waterfall of wonderfully warm water in the middle of the bush … bliss.

And – even better – the geothermal water from these volcanic springs has a lot of health benefits.  The Polynesian Pools in Rotorua are fed from two separate springs – the Priest Spring works wonders on your muscles and joints, and the Rachel Spring offers ageless beauty.  I made sure that I spent an equal amount of time in both sets of pools as I couldn’t decide which benefit was most important to me.

And there’s also hot mud on offer at Hell’s Gate.  The clay in the mud purifies and detoxifies the body, neutralises free radicals and stops ageing, according to the blurb – and so, of course I had to have a go.  You clamber into the pool and scoop up the mud from the bottom and smear it all over you –

and then sit and wait for it to dry and draw all your impurities out –

then you wash all your impurities down the drain, and immerse your newly purified body in the sulphur water to keep the ageless beauty theme going.  The only drawback to all these geothermal springs is the eggy whiff you get from all the sulphur, but that’s a small price to pay for ageless beauty in my book.

Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula is another freebie – unless you count the $5 spade rental, which is essential to get the most out of the experience.  There are a couple of hot water springs on the beach, and for two hours either side of low tide you can dig yourself a spa bath and wallow away to your heart’s content.

It’s a very strange sight; the beach is empty apart from the middle section where the springs are, which is full of people digging frantically.  And there’s a skill to the digging too – you have to find a source of hot water to run into your hole, and a source of cold water too, as the spring water is too hot on its own.  One group I spoke to were already on their third hole – rather like the three bears, the first hole had been too hot, and the second one too cold, so they were hoping that the third one would be just right.

Of course you don’t have to do the digging yourself –

– you can always bring your digging bitch with you.

And once your hole is at the correct temperature, you can lounge, wallow, chill, or catch up on your emails –

I’d never seen a geyser before either.  I do remember learning about them in geography, but I don’t think I’d realised that the water that shoots out is hot – yet another example of my failing to pay attention in class.

We saw the tallest geyser in New Zealand, Pohutu, which gets to 100 feet high, and the one called the Prince of Wales because the shape it makes looks like the Prince of Wales’ Feather, apparently –

That’s the two of them behind me, with the Prince of Wales Feather growing out of my head.  When they erupt there’s gurgling, hissing and sulphurous odours in spades.

Another by-product of geothermal activity is the silica terraces –

– the shape is so regular it looks like amphiteatre seating.

The pink and white silica terraces near Rotorua were considered the eighth wonder of the world, and were NZ’s biggest tourist attraction, until they were destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886.

And that’s really the biggest drawback of living on a fault line – the smell of sulphur and the risk of third-degree burns in a spa pool are nothing compared to the risk of an earthquake or a volcano flattening you, your home and your family at a moment’s notice.  Perhaps there’s something to be said for hot water out of the hot tap in a country that’s well away from any earthquake zones.



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Hobbiton was at the top of my list for NZ North Island.

Having seen lots of countryside locations where Lord of the Rings had been filmed, I was now keen to see something that had been built especially for the film.

Hobbiton is big business, with 3,000 people a day visiting in peak season.  Although, bafflingly, our tour guide told us that 40% of visitors have no idea what Lord of the Rings is, so why they fork out $80 each to do the tour is a mystery.

We’d already been told about Peter Jackson’s obsessive attention to detail, but it was really brought home when we walked around the set and saw the level of detail involved.

There are two sets of hobbit homes.  The first set are built to 90% human scale –

– so the hobbit actors look the right size for their homes.

The second set are built to 60% human scale –

– so that Gandalf looks enormous when he stands next to them.

Every hobbit hole has a functioning chimney, and during filming one member of the crew had to run around and light each chimney with special beeswax lighters just before it was needed for a shot.

The clothing on washing lines was also in either 60% or 90% scale –

– and someone was employed to hang out the clothes every day, so that they looked like a load of washing put out to dry, and not like costumes that had been left on a washing line for the duration of filming.

There was also the problem of nature not doing its stuff properly.  The story required a plum tree, but it was the wrong season for plums, so Peter Jackson ordered plums to be wired onto an apple tree – and then the tree was never seen in any of the films anyway.

And there was another tree whose leaves, according to PJ, were ‘the wrong shade of green’.  So he employed people to strip all the leaves off the tree, and then wire on fake ones in the right shade, instead.  All that trouble and expense for just one tree among many in Hobbiton.

And the most expensive tree of all is the tree above Bilbo’s house, Bag End –

The story required a large oak tree over Bag End, and there wasn’t one.  So they cut down a tree in nearby Matamata, sawing off and numbering all the branches.  They transported it to Hobbiton, bolted the branches back on, fixed it in place in the ground, and wired 376,000 silk leaves onto it, imported from Taiwan … and you thought people went to a lot of trouble for the Chelsea Flower Show.

Every hobbit home had a clue to the owner’s trade –

– except for Bag End, and I seem to recall that Bilbo was a gentleman of leisure, so no beehives, cheese or freshly-baked loaves there.

All the wood you can see in the photos was aged with vinegar, and then coated in yogurt to encourage lichen to grow, and all the gardens were planted a year before filming began, to make them look mature and established.  Everything was done that could be done to make Hobbiton look like a real, lived-in village.

Such is the  popularity of the tour, that groups walking around the set are just five minutes apart and can easily bunch up if one group has a lot of narcissistic selfie-takers, who slow the whole group up.  Sadly, I was just too late to photograph a woman in the group in front of us who toppled headlong into the shrubbery while attempting a selfie perched on a very small bench.  Needless to say, I managed to sit on the bench very successfully, without upending myself in the bushes –

Finally …

…time for a ginger beer at the Green Dragon –

Unashamedly touristy – and I loved every minute of it!

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