Sunday, March 18th was warm, overcast and humid. There was a hint of rain in the air, but it never materialised. Our route on the second day of walking took us through the suburbs and parks of Rotorua city, along the shores of Lake Rotorua and through the city centre.
As always, the unassuming demeanour of our walking companions hid stories that might fill a library. As the comfortable houses of suburban Rotorua slid past I fell in with a small feisty woman, well into her sixties. She had a remarkable story to tell. Born in Amsterdam she had worked for a time in England where she met her husband, a polynesian from the island of Rotuma in the Fijian archipelago. They married and migrated to New Zealand where they ran a small convenience store in a hospital in the Bay of Plenty region. The business was a great success.
One day she asked her husband to steady a chair she was standing on while she reached for something on a high shelf in the shop. Somehow her husband’s foot got pinched under a leg of the chair while she was standing on it. He didn’t cry out and the incident lasted no more than a few moments. But its consequences were devastating. Her husband was a stoic gentleman, she told me. He thought the pain in his foot would be momentary, but it persisted, though he never complained. Months later the pain had become unbearable and he had his foot x-rayed. A bone was broken. It had become infected and had “gone all black” (probably it was gangrenous). Like many polynesians, her husband was “large” and he had developed diabetes. The circulation in his leg was not good, the problem worsened and medication didn’t solve it. Eventually the leg had to be amputated at the knee.
He became immobile. The couple had to abandon their shop and the lady became a full-time carer for her husband. She managed to get him into a respite care centre for a couple of days a week, and, to help make ends meet, she worked as a cleaner at a tourist resort on those days. Her work required her to clean 54 bedrooms plus a dining room in one day. In the course of a year, Rotorua’s two-day walking weekend was her only opportunity to have a holiday. To participate in the walk she had persuaded her daughter to drive down from Auckland and take over caring duties for two days. That’s why she was walking with such a surprising spring in her step.
Rotorua’s thermal underground breaks the surface at many points in and around the city. Steam billows over some city parks (see for example Google Earth at: 38° 7’47.99″S, 176°14’39.22″E), there are pools filled with infusions of hot milky-green water, steam gurgles up from porridge-pots of hot mud. In some places fumes kill the vegetation, creating blasted mini-landscapes of grey and white (Google Earth: 38° 8’26.90″S, 176°15’35.91″E). Many houses tap into the heat beneath them for hot water and warmth in winter.
The downside, of course, is the sulphuric smell. It was already wrinkling our noses on the highway as we drove towards the edge of town two days earlier. In Wellington, my brother had praised Rotorua’s aroma. Thoughtfully eyeing my grey hair and wrinkled face he told me that Rotorua was great place for the elderly. It had a caring community, a fantastic environment and excellent health care services.
“And best of all, when you fart no-one notices the smell, so it’s perfect for old people.”
Around 2.00 pm Emmy and I limped into the Control Centre and were handed a congratulatory lollipop. An informal closing ceremony followed. Mr Kim received a special IML award for his walking achievements across the world. There was a “lucky draw” of prizes from local businesses, one of them being free entry to a sheep shearing exhibition. And to close, we sang “Auld lang syne” and the beautiful Maori song “Now is the hour”, both to the accompaniment of a solo ocarina.
It was all charmingly amateur but organised with warmth and efficiency. Somehow it left a small lump in my throat. Rotorua… we will be back.