If there is one word that sums up Rotorua in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty region it is “hospitable”. Sure, the town is a bit of a tourist trap, but in the nicest possible way. Its friendliness reaches out at once, its laid back style is disarming, its Maori culture and thermal environment are a unique and winning combination.
The annual Rotorua Weekend of Walks is part of a week-long walking festival (see http://www.rotoruawalkingfestival.org.nz/ ). The weekend walks qualify for awards under the auspices of the International Marching League (IML) see www.imlwalking.org/. The IML offers walkers medals for completing its walks in 26 different countries across the globe. Walkers are required to complete at least 20 kilometres on each day of a two-day event, and this achievement is recorded in an IML “passport”. Rotorua’s two-day walk is also affiliated with the Internationaler Volkssportverband (IVV) see www.ivv-web.org/english/.
In the early evening of Friday, March 16th Emmy and I arrived at the Walking Festival headquarters in Rotorua’s Neill Hunt Park for an appetiser: a one-hour guided excursion at night into nearby Whakarewarewa Forest on Rotorua’s outskirts (check the location on Google Earth at: 38° 9’17.81″S, 176°16’50.70″E).
This turned out to be a memorable event, in fact the cliché “magical” is almost appropriate. It was memorable for the deliciously spooky experience of walking in pitch darkness along narrow dirt paths illuminated only by flashes of torchlight and glimpses of the moon sailing among black trees in a starlit sky. The haunting calls of New Zealand’s ruru native owl kept us company. Glow worms gleamed under pathside bushes and we looked up into dark green fans of mamaku ferns far above us.
Our guide – a professional ecologist – provided interesting and occasionally disturbing commentary. (Sorry, I’ve forgotten his name… but he was top value.) For example, he told us that New Zealand’s 2,500 species of native plants were matched by 2,500 species of introduced plants. There was now almost no place in the country where original vegetation could be seen untainted by invasive species. Some 60 million Australian possums were devastating the environment and nothing much could be done about it. Biological controls (like the species-specific calicivirus disease that has dramatically reduced rabbit numbers) could not be developed for possums because of the danger that it would spread to Australia and devastate possum populations in their native habitat. Right on cue, our guide’s flashlight picked up a possum clinging to the trunk of a nearby tree. The size of a cat, but with a bushy tail and a pink, pointed snout, it calmly looked down at us, its eyes bright with curiosity.
The following day we saw the Whakarewarewa forest in bright sunshine. The walk took us on a meandering path twenty kilometres through its various sections. Much of it is a working commercial forest producing radiata pine logs for sawn boards and paper chips. There is also an extensive and beautiful plantation of tall California redwood trees. The forest lies over a geothermal area with thermal pools and plumes of steam rising here and there. It is popular with mountain-bike riders who crunch the gravel paths at high speed, no doubt getting an exhilarating lift from the wind in their faces but missing the forest’s bird calls.
Ahead of us I saw the unmistakable figures of Mr and Mrs Kim from Korea. They walked under the flag of their country and the flag of Mr Kim’s company (he supplies tailor-made inner soles that correct problems in the gait of walkers). Crammed on their backpacks were colourful badges and patches gathered from walks all over the world. They propelled themselves forward with nordic walking poles, taking care to wield them in the technically correct fashion. Less spectacularly clad, but no less memorable, was the Dutch-New Zealand ocarina player. He piped us on to the track with “When the saints going marching in” and pushed us along with “Tulips from Amsterdam” and many other tunes.
It was our ocarina virtuoso who also piped us into the Walk Centre after four and a half hours and twenty kilometres of bushland beauty. The warmth of the day had sapped our strength and we gratefully bit into the freshly picked, very juicy apples that local volunteers (some of them children) handed to walkers as they checked in.