'Unseasonable rain' they called it on my first visit to Taupo, as I prepared to head off for my first explorations of New Zealand. The news reader said, 'There have been strong gales throughout the North Island, ripping roofs off buildings and bringing trees down on power lines. The worst area hit is between Taupo and Rotorua, but the whole of the north can expect very heavy rain and serious wind.' I didn't need to be told: when you're trying to get to sleep in the back of a Toyota Corona parked precariously close to the edge of Lake Taupo, you know when there's a bloody great storm chucking down more water than you've ever seen, and threatening to blow your car on its side. I swear that there was so much water in the air that the fishes in the lake didn't know which side of the horizon they were supposed to be. Yes, as I've said before, New Zealand is wet, but it seems a whole lot wetter when you're outside.
But on my second visit – after returning from the South Island – Taupo proved an interesting stop, as it was the first real experience I'd had of hardcore tourism since I'd last been in the North Island: the South Island is relatively untouched by tourism, apart from Queenstown, I suppose. The caravan park I was in was full of backpackers and tourists, and I had the same sinking feeling that I felt when I finally hit the Stuart Highway after six months exploring Western Australia. As I tried to fall asleep in my tent, the sound of Saturday drinking and pumping music made me realise how far I was from the Kiwi Experience1 type of travelling. I wasn't at all sorry.
On Sunday I decided to explore the thermal areas of the centre before heading east to Napier for more school visits. My destination was Orakei Korako, apparently the most impressive thermal area, and I think the hype is probably right. Gushing geysers, boiling mud pools, beautiful caves, amazing multi-coloured lakes: I can't describe the sights, so I won't even try. Even the photographs can't do justice to the stench, the atmosphere and the noises of nature at its most hell-like. After Orakei Korako I popped in to the Craters of the Moon conservation area just north of Taupo, home to yet more impressive boiling mud craters, and after breathing in fumes of goodness only knows what, I drove east to Napier.
1 The Kiwi Experience – and its cousin the Oz Experience – is my idea of a living hell, and one of the reasons I got on so well with Delia in Tongariro was that her opinions on the Kiwi Experience tallied with mine. The Experience is a bus ticket you can buy, and you can jump on and off the bus as many times as you like, as long as you follow the route on the ticket. The buses have commentary and follow the main tourists routes, but the problem is the people: the Kiwi Experience is full of young drinkers, sex-obsessed teenagers and people whose idea of a good time is getting pissed at night and sleeping it off on the bus. No thanks: I've managed to stay away from those dickheads by avoiding hostels, and if there's one justification for spending huge amounts of cash on the likes of Zed and Oz, it's to avoid the 18-30 mentality of the Experiences. There: spleen vented, even if it makes me sound like a bitter old git.