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Cute Birds and Giant Hamster Balls


We got up and out of the holiday park in pretty good time the next morning and hunted through the Waitomo Caves township for a cafe. All of them seemed to be closed, however, so we plugged the next coordinates into Garmin and headed up the road.

We stopped about twenty minutes later at a cafe in Otorohanga, where we got a nice hot breakfast, coffee and tea. After breakfast, we were just about to blow out of town, when I saw a sign for the kiwi house. A little light went off in my head, and I jerked around the turn like a madman, startling Dore more than a little bit, I think.

“Aaron [the father of the Australian family at the B&B] told me about this kiwi house!” I said by way of explanation, “It’s supposed to be pretty good.”

Dore grunted something I took as agreement, and a few minutes later we found ourselves outside the building. There weren’t any other cars in the parking lot. The house itself looked pretty small and no-frills, but we were there, so we figured that it was worth going in and checking it out. The tickets ended up being NZ$16 each, which seemed a bit steep to see a bird, but at that point I’d gotten it into my head to see the silly thing. Dore just shrugged, “Okay, if you want to.”

We paid for our tickets, then headed into the dark room that housed the kiwis. (Kiwis are nocturnal, so the kiwi houses all keep the enclosure on an artificial night/day cycle.) We stared into the dim enclosure for a few seconds, wondering where the kiwi was.

Oh crud, it’s probably sleeping or something.

But then we saw movement, and there it was: an enormous and very much live kiwi. I was instantly grinning from ear to ear. The bird was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and words definitely don’t do it justice. Dore summed it up quite well, saying: “It’s like seeing a living fossil.” I have to agree.

The bird is a most peculiar thing. They are flightless, for one thing, and have such small wings as to be almost nonexistent. They are roughly pear-shaped, and have medium-length, muscular legs with wide, reptile-like feet. The beak is long and slender, and is used to poke into the leaves and dirt of the forest floor searching for bugs. The kiwi we saw was happily running around its enclosure, which was really fun to see. They way they run is sort of a bobbing jogging motion, and is very entertaining.

There was another type of kiwi in the other enclosure, but it was sitting very still in a shadow, and was not nearly as interesting to watch.

After a while, we headed out of the kiwi enclosure, and found ourselves in a very large aviary, which we spent almost and hour walking through. We saw tons of different birds, but the most interesting ones we saw were some very cute owls, several falcons, and a really cheeky parrot called the kea. I have to say, before this trip I didn’t know very much about birds. Now I feel like I know quite a bit, and Dore and I have happily been identifying birds in the various parks and on the roadside.

We headed out of the kiwi house very pleasantly surprised with our stop and continued along our journey toward Rotorua. The roads were nice, and we made good time, getting in to town around one (which was much earlier than we’d expected). On the way in to town we saw one of the activities on both of our must-do lists, and that we’d been lamenting as one we’d probably not be able to do: zorbing.

If you haven’t heard of zorbing, I would not be surprised. It is another of those particularly Kiwi inventions that I’ve yet to encounter anywhere else except, strangely enough, once in an old Jackie Chan movie. In essence, you sit inside a giant rubber hamster ball suspended inside another rubber ball (the space between is filled with air, and the inner ball is held in place by a ton of little ropes). So basically you’re on the inside of a meter-thick air cushion. You then strap yourself to the inside, find a nice long hill, and roll down it like a grinning idiot.

I’m probably not describing this very well, but it’s fun as hell.

We didn’t immediately stop on our way in, however, because we wanted to get the lay of the land first. We continued to the town center, where we immediately headed for the i-Site visitor center. We’d learned our lesson in previous towns, and knew that the info center was a one-stop shop for everything we needed to take care of.

True to form, we were able to get reservations for zorbing, a hangi (which is a traditional Maori feast — more on that tomorrow), a geothermal reserve, and a holiday park, all with no fuss. Just hand over the credit card, and everything is magically taken care of.

We had scheduled zorbing for the current afternoon, but there was no specific time we needed to be there. Since we hadn’t eaten yet, we popped by a local cafe to get a bite to eat. We had a nice satay chicken salad and a great passion fruit milkshake, then walked around the town a bit. The entire town smells of sulfur due to the geothermal vents that come up all over the place. Everyone always says that sulfur smells like rotting eggs, but I’ve always thought it smelled more like split pea soup. Maybe I’m just weird. After a while we got bored of looking at the steaming pools, and headed out to the zorbing hill.

As soon as we got there, we saw a ball roll slowly out of the loading bay at the top of the hill, then slowly, then with ever increasing speed, roll down the mountain until it came to a bouncing stop at the base. We were incredibly excited. The formalities of getting set up and up to the top of the hill took a few minutes, but then we found ourselves looking down the long hill toward the base station. The zorb balls were huge, towering over us. Dore went first. It was really fun to watch her roll down the hill, bouncing and spinning away to the bottom. Then it was my turn.

Climbing into the ball was a bit tough. There really isn’t any graceful way of doing it other than simply jumping in through the hole and flopping around until you’re in. Then you strap in to a seat with a harness, and away you go. I started out backwards, which seemed to me like it would be the more fun way to go.

The feeling of rolling down the hill is somewhat like going on a roller coaster, except less jerky. The ball is translucent, and it was fascinating to see the ground, then sky, then the ground again as I whizzed down the hill. As I rolled the ball took some odd little bounces, and I started to rotate to the side. I loved it. At the bottom the ball bounced around the catch berms, then came to a slightly bouncy stop. I unstrapped and flopped out, grinning. All in all a very fun experience.

Dore and I looked at the photos, and actually liked them enough (for a change) to buy a CD. We also bought an ice cream bar, since it sounded tasty. It was.

Adventures done for the day, we headed back in to town, where we checked in to the holiday park, soaked in the hot pool, took showers, and then set out to get some dinner. We walked the fifteen minutes or so to the city center, where we found a Japanese restaurant. It was pretty nice, in contrast to the previous one we’d tried in New Plymouth, and we had a nice dinner. The sushi selection was quite a bit smaller than we are used to in Santa Barbara, however, which I find somewhat surprising, considering that New Zealand has plenty of fish around. I don’t think the idea of eating raw things has really taken off here yet.

We stopped briefly on our way home to grab a drink at the Pig and Whistle pub, then headed back and went to bed. We were both exhausted from what had turned out to be quite a busy day, but Dore insisted I update the blog, and I managed to get two more nights finished before I crashed and went to sleep.

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