Spend time in New Zealand and it became apparent that many of the best things for tourists to do are free. Most of the gems are too enticing to be kept under raps forever, and locals have started sharing information about the places on websites. All the places described in this article have free entry. Nobody is going to charge you to walk to the top of Rangitoto Island for an incredible view of Auckland.
1. Kerosene Creek
Walking alongside a dirt track beside a steaming creek of geothermally heated water is a natural spa bath, where thousands of bubbles forced down a rockface jet up to the surface. A little further along the fern-lined path in the forest is a small waterfall with a swimming area below, all warmed by Mother Nature to allow bathing during even the coolest months.
Many people who travel to Rotorua sit in concrete pits of heated mud, or swim in artificially heated hot springs that smell like a burnt match. They miss what I consider the true showpiece – Kerosene Creek. Don’t ask the locals too much about it. You will hear a litany of reasons why you absolutely must avoid the place.
“You will catch meningitis if you bathe there” is often told.
In fact health authorities say no-one has ever caught meningitis at the stream, and only two people in New Zealand’s history have ever caught the rare form of amoebic meningitis that can be washed into hot pools from soil.
“The crime rate for people who leave their cars there is incredibly high” is another.
But police in Rotorua say crimes around the creek are not the norm, and certainly not happening on a daily or even weekly basis. Patrol cars are sent to the area regularly just in case.
I was also told it is nearly impossible to find, not worth the effort and dangerous to drive there. It does seem the street signs that help you find the place are regularly pulled down, so it can be tricky to locate the first time, and it is off a dirt road, where public transport will not take you. Even the name Kerosene Creek makes it sound like a toxic waste dump.
Once I made the effort the first time to find it I was a convert. For a place the locals demonise I must say there were a lot of them down there. The water level and temperature changes day to day, but mostly it is possible to walk into the waters and have a swim, or even move behind the cascading flow for an unforgettable memory of Rotorua.
To get there drive south along the highway towards Taupo from Rotorua and after about 30 kilometres turn into the Old Waiotapu Road, which is just after Rainbow Mountain. Drive down the road about two kilometres where there is a strip of grass and walk to the hot springs.
There are no changing rooms.
2. Waitomo Glow Worm Walk
A path that allows you to view the larvae of the fungus gnat may not sound like a tourist magnet, yet the sight of tens of thousands of the organisms, better known as glow worms, is incredible.
Most people who travel to Waitomo, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Auckland, pay to go into caves and see the unforgettable sight. Some pay substantially more to go blackwater rafting, which involves floating in tyre tubes through the underground caves where the glow worms live. Both the paid walk and the blackwater rafting are a great way to see the creatures, yet for the budget conscious traveller there is an alternative.
Known officially as the Ruakuri Natural Tunnel Walk, the path that snakes alongside the Waitomo Stream is one of my favourite activities in New Zealand. It is only four kilometres from the Waitomo village, and begins at a car park just off the Tumutumu Road.
During the day it is a fun nature walk, but once night hits it comes into its own. In the pitch black glow worms pack the moist, fern-lined walls. The walk itself takes about 40 minutes to loop around back to the car park, and the centrepiece is the sight of glow worms coating a high-roofed cave.
If you go on the walk remember to take the correct path from the car park, as taking a wrong turn can lead you a short way to a dead-end. Torches are essential. Photographers will welcome the Ruakuri walk because they can spend some time trying to take snaps of the creatures, which is not allowed by most of the commercial operators.
3. Rangitoto Island
Many people in New Zealand for business or in transit find themselves in the nation’s biggest city, Auckland. There is lots to do if you have the cash but there is one option that only costs you the price of a ferry ride. Rangitoto is an island not far from the city, and was created by a volcanic eruption about 600 years ago.
A Maori term meaning “Bloody Sky”, Rangitoto offers breathtaking views of Auckland.
After exiting the ferry into a largely forested wilderness people usually attempt to walk to the top of the volcanic cone. Along the way you can check out the lava caves or even try to spot a bit of New Zealand’s floral emblem, the silver fern, growing. Tourists are told it is an “easy 45-minute walk” to the summit at Rangitoto, but despite walking at a brisk pace along the tough scoria paths it took me more than an hour to reach the top.
If you go remember to pack a picnic lunch, as there are no shops on Rangitoto. There are no rubbish bins either, so what you lug in you have to take out. The island is off-limits to dogs and bicycles and there is no accommodation open to the public. It is important not to miss the last city-bound ferry which departs in the afternoon. Return tickets to the island cost $25 ($A21) for an adult and $12.50 ($A11) for a child.
4. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
New Zealand’s national museum, located in Wellington, is a portal to lost worlds. The natural history section is undoubtedly the best in the country. Te Papa, as it is usually called, boasts displays including a full 21-metre skeleton of a pygmy blue whale, and the world’s largest known squid.
There are replicas of the giant moa, a bird species that roamed New Zealand until they were hunted to extinction when humans arrived, and Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle ever to have lived. Other memorable exhibits include Phar Lap’s skeleton, a piece of possum roadkill used to explain how fossils are formed, and an opportunity to touch a cast of a moa bone.
Te Papa is a good place to gain some knowledge of New Zealand’s indigenous people too. The Mana Whenua exhibition explains the important relationship between Maori and their whenua (land). The museum is open from 10am-6pm daily, and until 9pm on Thursdays. Nearly all viewing is free, but you may be charged to visit some short-term exhibitions.
5. Tongariro Crossing
New Zealanders love a good nature walk, or tramp, as they call it. While the 53-kilometre Milford Track is probably the best known, people looking for a tramping adventure may prefer the Tongariro Crossing. Stretching 19 kilometres most people complete the walk in a single day, although there are Department of Conservation huts along the route for those who want to break up the journey.
Scenery changes dramatically, from the relatively flat lowlands at the beginning to a dusty moonscape, an icy alpine section, and finally a rainforest. The volcanic mountain range is visually stunning with white snowfalls lying atop red and black soil. Bright green lakes set against the dark volcanic sands are eye-catching and during parts of the walk geothermally heated water steams out from cracks in the ground. The backdrop for much of the walk is the striking Lake Taupo.
Tongariro can be done in the winter but it becomes much more dangerous and during this period a guide and ice axes become essential. You have to be reasonably fit to do the crossing and medical help is a long way if you get into trouble, so make sure you set off prepared. Most people who attempt the crossing stay overnight at the Whakapapa Village and catch a bus in the morning to the start of the walking track. Buses cost about $NZ30 ($A25) including a pick up from the end of the track. Driving to Whakapapa Village from Auckland takes about five hours.
Kerosene Creek is close to Rotorua. You can learn about the town and book accommodation at www.rotoruanz.com. To learn about Kerosene Creek, and other hotpools in New Zealand visit www.nzhotpools.co.nz/hot-pools. There is lots of information about Waitomo at www.waitomo.com. You can book ferry tickets to Rangitoto Island at www.fullers.co.nz. Te Papa’s official website is www.tepapa.govt.nz. Visit www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz for more information.
Photo credit: my yummy-mummy.com.