Today it was finally time to say goodbye to Rotorua and the Hot Rocks Base Backpackers; although it was never somewhere I'd planned to go (in fact, I'd never heard of the city until I got to New Zealand and talked to the guys on the Stray Travel desk, aaaaaall the way back in Auckland) it has fast become one of my favourite places to explore. As much as I adored (read: cried my eyes out) over finally making it to Hobbiton, Rotorua is so much more than that; a beautiful blend of tradition, history and modernisation that you could ever hope to find on the Northern Island!
Plus, between all the sulphur pools and mud spa's I've encountered over the last few days, I swear my skin is leaving feeling ten years younger than it did before we arrived.

Any who, the good thing about the Stray bus pick-ups from Rotorua is that they tend to come in the afternoon as opposed to the usual crack-o-dawn o'clock start times, so it was a nice change to make a leisurely descent down to the bus stop, instead of the normal 'crash-bang-oh I'm going to be late' fall out the door approach.

Lesson Number 28: No matter how good your intentions are, no matter how much you convince yourself  you'll wake up early enough in the morning to do so - PACK UP YOUR STUFF THE NIGHT BEFORE! You'll either wake up your entire dorm room trying to pack in the dark (they'll kill you for turning the lights on at 5am) or you'll be the scrub in the hallway trying to cram that last t-shirt in your bag five minutes before the bus is about to pull away!
I needn't have worried either way, because I turned up to the bus stop a good fifteen minutes early to meet my new bus mates for the next leg of my trip... but no bus. "Ok, it's fine, maybe the driver's gone to get some lunch" I thought. 1pm (aka pick up o'clock) came... still no bus. By 1.10pm we were all looking at each other until someone finally piped up "Have we come to the right bus stop?" and by 1.30pm we were all sitting on the pavement discussing how we were all planning on getting to our next destination - hitchhiking, car hire or walking 'Wild' style. Big old maps were pulled out and everything; Cheryl Strayed would've been proud.

But before we could lace up our boots a familiar, bright orange van appeared in the distance; it's our new driver, Yogi, with tales of break downs and middle-of-nowhere rescues. Major respect to the Stray Travel company - if your drivers are willing to drive half way across the island to rescue another driver, you know you've got good people working for you. Assured that our new bus definitely had a working clutch, we all bundled on board and finally make our way down to our next destination: Murupara.

Before we hit Murupara we stopped about 10km way at the edge of the Kaingaroa Plains, and were taken to see the Maori carvings in the caves a little ways into the forest. According to our guide, the carvings were suspected to be from before the Great Migration, predating even the local iwi (Maori community) Ngati Manawa, and are truly a sight to behold! Faces with tongues poking out, beautiful swirl patterns, and up to sixteen canoes embedded into the sheer vertical rock wall with an overhanging roof sheltering them from the elements... if you ever get the opportunity to go see them, go! Sadly, due to vandalism, there is a big metal grate over the hole to protect them from being destroyed, but for the continued chance to see a stunning side of Maori history it is well worth it.

Onwards to Murupara, and to Kohutapu Lodge for our final Maori culture evening; each one I've had the good fortune to experience has had it's own particular charms and experiences, but for me this was the perfect amalgramation of the last two and my personal favourite of the three. They've somehow managed for their accommodations to blend in with the surrounding landscape, whilst still being modern, comfortable and warm to stay in. Plus the views of Lake Aniwhenua, where the Lodge is located, aren't half bad either! If you are into kayaking or fishing there are activities there for you, but if not, there's just something so serenely calming about walking down to the water and watching the sun set.

We are greeted right off the bus by the lovely Nads (and by 'right off' I mean she bounded onto the bus smiling as bright as the sunniest New Zealand day) and she is probably the happiest, most welcoming person I have ever had the pleasure to meet. She's full of stories about the Ngati Manawa tribe, which are awesome to listen to, and her family are truly the personification of manaakitanga (hospitality) doing as much as they can to help their local community, such as packing up all the leftover hangi from the night before to take to the school children for their lunch.

Unfortunately at this point of the trip I'm super skint (nice to see my excellent money management skills followed me around the world) so I can't afford to join in on any of the evening activities - which range from bracelet and basket weaving to making your own fried bread - but the beauty of this place is that there's absolutely no pressure to join in if you can't. I soon found myself playing an invigorating game of volleyball with the Nad's daughter (after spending all afternoon in the bus, it's just what my legs needed) before having drinks at the bar with Lisa, one of my new bus mates, and Alex the American Barman. We then all go over to see the hangi being lowered into the ground and covered with potato sacks and soil to cook; it still astounds me that our entire meal can be cooked completely underground, and how lucky we are that we're experiencing a centuries old tradition.

Taste it. Love it. Respect the hard work kids, because it's all entirely incredible. Especially the fried bread; think doughnuts but without the sugar. American dinner rolls have got nothing on these bad boys!

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