We were going to be away for six days. So I put my small suitcase on the bed, opened it up and put six underpants, six pairs of socks, six shirts and a spare pair of trousers into it. I closed the suitcase.
"I've finished packing," I said to Robin. "Now it's your turn." It had taken me less than five minutes to pack so there was plenty of time left over for Robin. I was sure she'd need every second of it.
Robin chose a much larger suitcase than I had. "The weather forecast says it's going to be warm and sunny all week," she said. "I'll just pack my summer clothes."
She put the left hand side of her wardrobe into the suitcase.
"But it might rain," she said. She sounded worried at the prospect. "Perhaps I'll take some winter clothes as well, just in case."
She put the right hand side of her wardrobe into the suitcase.
She frowned thoughtfully. "Nothing in there matches my Hannah Montana shoes," she said. "I need more purple." She began opening drawers. Soon there was plenty of purple in the suitcase. "Should I take my summer nightie or my winter pyjamas?" she asked.
"Yes," I advised.
"Good idea," she said. And in they went.
"What about your new trousers?" I asked. "Did you put those in?"
"Oh no! I forgot my new trousers!"
By now she had reached the bottom row of drawers in her dressing table. Empty drawers peeked down forlornly from the top. "I think I might have finished packing," she said. "Can you sit on the suitcase so I can close it."
"You have finished packing," I said. "There isn't anything left anywhere in the bedroom. It's all in your suitcase."
"Are you sure?" She didn't sound convinced.
"I'm sure," I said.
I took the suitcases out to the car which sagged noticeably on its suspension when I heaved Robin's suitcase into its boot. Now we were ready to go on holiday...
New Zealand is a long, thin country. It has lots of up and down. It has very little left and hardly any right at all. We were going to Rotorua and so today we chose the direction of up. We set off very early in the morning. The sun was scarcely over the horizon and there was almost no traffic. Patrols of self-important pukekos policed the side of the road, pecking the verges, shaking their feathered heads sadly as we sped past them and raising peremptory feet to emphasise the road rules that they felt honour bound to enforce.
We stopped for morning tea in Taihape, home to all the gumboot fetishists in the North Island. We admired the statue of a gumboot that graces the town centre. We ate at the Brown Sugar Cafe. I had gumboot soup and Robin enjoyed some rubber sole food.
The roads were still deserted. We sped northwards for mile after empty mile. The sun shone and the countryside glowed in the freshness of the brand new day. As we drove across the central plateau the volcanic cones of the mountains stood out clear and stark, grim silhouettes against a cloudless blue sky. Ruapehu, the actor who played Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's production of Lord Of The Rings, was resplendent in his movie star sunglasses. There was a large queue waiting for his autograph. We drove on by without stopping and he hissed his disapproval at us.
Lunch in Taupo. We parked by the lake which sparkled like liquid diamonds as the sun bounced off the wavelets. Wet black rocks were dotted hither and yon close to the shore. Each and every rock was being stood upon by one, and only one, preening water bird. Birds in New Zealand are not very good at sharing.
By now we were deep into the thermal areas. Mysterious steam spouted over the trees and as we got close to Rotorua we got hellish whiffs of fire and brimstone.
"I love the smell of hydrogen sulphide in the morning," I paraphrased.
"Can I fart now?" asked Robin.
"Please do," I said.
We checked in to our hotel and were shown to our room. I unpacked my case. I put my six shirts in a drawer together with my spare trousers, and I put my six underpants and six pairs of socks in another drawer.
Robin elected to have a horizontal wardrobe. She unpacked her suitcase on to the spare bed and surveyed the results with a sceptical eye.
"I haven't got nearly enough socks," she said. "And I need new shoes to match the socks that I did bring with me."
"We can go shopping tomorrow," I reassured her.
"And the four jackets I brought are all either too thick or too thin or the wrong colour."
"We can go shopping tomorrow," I reassured her.
"Okay." She smiled. "I'm having a wonderful holiday," she said. She hooked her arm through mine. "Let's go and have dinner."
The next day we went shopping. Robin bought socks and shoes and jackets; not too large, not too small, not too thick and not too thin. All were just right. Then, satisfied and satiated with shopping, we went on a trip on the duck bus. This is a WWII vintage landing craft which has been painted bright yellow so as to resemble a bathtub rubber ducky. It takes tourists on scenic trips around and across the lakes that surround Rotorua. As we boarded the bus, we were each handed a duck call device.
"When we drive past people on the streets," said the tour guide, "I want you all to blow loudly on your duck call to give them some encouragement. Pay no attention to the sign language that they employ in return. It's just a quaint local custom."
We quacked our way through Rotorua until we reached a big blue lake.
"This is called the Blue Lake," said the guide. "There's a green lake further over that way. It's called the Green Lake. But we aren't allowed to explore that because it is a sacred lake and we don't want to desecrate it."
We drove out into the Blue Lake. A group of young men were playing with a small radio controlled speed boat. A stately swan swam past and the speedboat veered towards it. Suddenly all trace of dignity vanished as the swan, wings flapping and feet spiralling in a mad, splashing panic, ran away from the roaring monster. I began to feel as if I was starring in a Disney cartoon.
The water in the lake was clear and clean. We could see all the way to the bottom where weeds waved in the current. I might have seen a fish.
"The lake is stocked with trout," said the driver of the duck. "I often come fishing here and I've caught some wonderful fish. Nothing tastes quite as good as a freshly caught trout. Some of them grow very large six pounds or more. Once I caught a nine pounder."
Someone quacked derisively.
"No really," said the driver. "I did. I've got photoshopped pictures to prove it."
There were holiday houses on the lake shore. "That one," said the guide, pointing out a special house, "is one of the most luxurious lodges in the world. It costs $10,000 a night to stay there and the minimum period you can book it for is three days. Stephen Spielberg stays there quite regularly and so does Peter Jackson. But you never find out they've been there until after they've gone. They value their privacy, and $10,000 a night buys you a lot of privacy."
The duck bus resounded with quacks of amazement and quacks of jealousy as we all tried to imagine being rich enough to afford a lot of privacy. We drove back across the lake and up on to the shore. Then we quacked back into town just in time for afternoon tea.
The next day seemed to be ideally designed for getting lost in a maze and so that's exactly what we did.
"There are two entrances," explained the maze lady. "The first one is harder than the second one. But whichever one you choose, the rules require you to exit the maze from the same gate that you went in by."
"I see," said Robin.
"There are four interconnected mazes," said the lady, "and in the far corner of each one there is a chamber with a coloured roof. There's a red one, a green one, a blue one and a yellow one. You have to reach all of them before you are allowed to leave the maze."
"I see," said Robin.
"Don't worry if it takes you a long time or if you get thoroughly lost," said the maze lady. "We turn the lights on when it gets dark, so you'll always be able to see where you are going."
"I see," said Robin.
We chose an entrance. Mazes are Robin's speciality and so she led our little expedition. She chose a modified left hand rule strategy and it didn't take us long to find the red corner and the blue corner. I took photographs to prove that we were there. However the yellow and green corners proved particularly elusive and it took quite a while before Robin's rigidly adhered to strategy finally succeeded in tracking them down. I took more photographs.
"Now all we have to do is find our way out," I said.
"I see," said Robin.
After much back tracking and track backing, we finally emerged from the maze. But catastrophe struck! We exited from the wrong gate!
"You broke the rules," shrieked the maze lady. "You'll have to buy an ice cream."
We soon discovered that this wasn't the only maze in Rotorua. The city itself is a maze; the streets are laid out in a sensible, regular rectangular grid, which is very confusing to those of us who come from cities where the streets meander on a whim through multiple dimensions (I'll swear the centre of Wellington is a perfect Klein bottle). But in addition to this grid of maze-like city streets, there is also a much more traditional hedge maze growing on the outskirts of the town.
"Your goal is to reach the centre of the maze," said the maze man. "If you get scared or lost or if you just want to come out for a rest, there's a series of red doors that lead straight out."
"Can we cheat and use the red doors to reach the centre?" I asked.
"Certainly not," he said. "They only open from the side you aren't on."
That seemed clear enough. So we set off to explore. Having used the left hand rule on our first maze, we decided to use the right hand rule on this one. The strategy worked perfectly except for the occasions when we had to turn left. Soon, after lots and lots of walking around gently curving hedgerows, we made it to the centre where we were rewarded by the sight of a genuine pirate boat flying the skull and crossbones.
After a rest, we left the maze through the red doors. There was one per hedge circle and I counted them on the way out. I was astonished to find that we had travelled through a dozen hedgerows to reach the centre. It hadn't felt like nearly that many.
Close by the hedge maze was the Paradise Springs Trout Hatchery and Lion Park. Here both trout and lions are bred and possibly even interbred (the shaggy manes on the larger trout were a dead giveaway).
The river running through the grounds had a fiercely strong current. Ducks paddled madly against it, trying hard to stay in place and seldom succeeding. As they got tired, the current would whisk them away out of sight and out of mind. One duck was pretending it was a Pooh Stick. It allowed the current to sweep it under the bridge that Robin and I were standing on and then it struggled back upstream to do it all over again. We dashed from side to side of the bridge so as to join in the game properly. The duck gave us an exhausted quack of appreciation as it finally gave up and drifted away downstream.
Beneath the struggling ducks, gigantic trout all faced upstream, mouths wide open, letting the water flow past them and nibbling on any goodies that it was carrying past them. They were obviously completely full of yummy food because none of them showed any real interest in the trout treats that Robin and I tossed into the water ahead of them. But the ducks seemed very partial to the trout treats. They came racing in from all corners of the universe and squabbled loudly and fiercely over the manna that rained down from heaven. Ducks are partial to anything that will fit into their bills. I never met a duck that wasn't hungry.
Past the trout hatchery were some fenced in paddocks with goats and miniature horses, an alpaca, several pigs and the cutest wallabies you ever saw in your life. Robin fed the goats and the wallabies from the palm of her hand. The wallabies were beautiful, gentle creatures with soulful eyes and wistful faces. Robin immediately fell in love.
"Can we take them home with us?"
She went to feed the alpaca but was warned off by someone who seemed to know what they were talking about.
"Don't get too near the alpaca. They spit green slime at you."
Wishing to avoid green slime, we gave the alpaca a wide berth as we headed for the lion enclosure where we met two eight week old lion cubs. They were, of course, utterly delightful and completely irresistible animals. One was absolutely convinced that her right front paw was incapable of exploring by itself, and so she carried it around in her mouth to make sure that it wouldn't miss out on anything as she staggered around her enclosure on her other three legs. At first I thought that perhaps she had hurt her paw, but the keepers reassured me that this was perfectly normal behaviour for her.
The keepers picked up the cubs and cuddled them close and then we were allowed to stroke them. Their coats were quite rough and the fur was much coarser than I had expected it to be. But nevertheless I felt immensely privileged to be so close to such magnificent animals.
Everywhere in Rotorua is thermal but some bits are more thermal than others. The best of them, according to the Lonely Planet Guide, is Orakei Korako. As you drive up to it, the first thing you see is a huge toilet block labelled "Guysers" and "Galsers". Once you have finished splitting your sides with laughter at the multi-level puns, you wander down to a jetty where a ferry takes you over the lake to a boardwalk that winds through the thermal area.
Hot water cascades down silica terraces, depositing more stuff as it goes. These are the largest terraces still in existence in New Zealand. The famous Pink and White terraces were larger, but they were destroyed when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886.
"It's the same principle that causes fur to build up in kettles," I explained to Robin, "only on a much larger scale."
"So what we are seeing here is really Nature's Own tea kettle," she observed.
"Yes," I said. "But I'm not sure I want to drink a cup of whatever brew it is that She is mashing."
Unexpected steam was everywhere. It rose in great clouds from the silica terraces and in small wisps from the side of the boardwalk. Rather to my surprise, there was life everywhere. Not only were plants growing right to the edges of the terraces, there were large green patches of algae on the terraces themselves. Dragonflies zipped and hovered through the clouds of steam and spider webs glistened in the foliage.
There was one large patch of sulphur gleaming bright yellow against the white silica. From a lookout point perched high above it we could see that it was ringed with green and brown and orange. This section is known as the Artist's Palette, for obvious reasons.
Pools of boiling mud played Bach Cantatas for us but the two major geysers in the area remained sullenly silent as we walked past them.
The boardwalk twists and turns and rises and falls for almost 3 kilometres. When you get back to the ferry landing you press a button and the ferryman in the cafe on the other side of the lake puts down his cup of tea and comes and picks you up. When we got back to the shore we had lunch on the verandah that overlooked the lake. We could still see steam drifting into the sky from the thermal region.
Suddenly, without any warning at all, a huge plume of steam and water roared into the air high above the treetops.
"Look," said the ferryman who was drinking tea at the next table. "Geyser!"
He was a man of few words but every word was important. One of the geysers that had ignored us so thoroughly just a few minutes before had now decided to blow its top. I was sorry to have missed seeing it close to, but even at a distance it was magnificently impressive.
Robin and I drove back to Rotorua in silent amazement. The Lonely Planet Guide was absolutely right. Surely this thermal area must be one of the most stunning sights in the world.
Our holiday gave us six days of blue skies and sunshine. The weather gods were definitely on our side. They proved this by sending us torrential rain on the day we returned home. Rotorua was sad to see us go - even the skies were crying.