Tour Day 3 was a moving day. Immediately after breakfast we boarded a chartered bus for our transfer to Rotorua, a native Maori village 236 km (about 147 mi) south and east of Auckland.
Our first rest stop was at River Haven Café in the community of Huntly. It is a café and gift shop featuring clothing made from possum fur and Merino sheep wool. You may think: Who wants clothes made from ‘possum? It isn’t what you think. It is not the rat-like opossum found in the US; this is the common bushtail possum introduced to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to establish a fur trade. It has a thick, bushy tail, thick body fur, a pointed snout and large, pointed ears. Its fur is very fine and soft. When mixed with Merino wool, it makes super soft clothing that will match the finest cashmere for warmth and wear (and expense).
A further word about possums: Before the Europeans arrived, New Zealand had no mammals except for three tiny bats (one of which is now thought to be extinct). It was a birder’s paradise with varieties to fill every knitch in every environment. When possums were introduced for fur trade, of course, some got loose. They are prolific reproducers introduced into a food rich environment, so reproduce they did. Today there are more than 30 million possums (more than six possums for every person) and are threatening to wipe out most of the bird species and some of the tree species in New Zealand.
They are opportunistic omnivores – they eat buds, flowers, fruit/berries and nectar in competition with native birds and reptiles (sometimes the birds and reptiles themselves), so they have a negative impact on those plants and animals. They can live anywhere there is food and shelter and inhabit their territory from the ground to the tops of the trees. This gives them access to bird nests where they eat both eggs and young.
Possums are heavily hunted for their valuable fur, but that doesn’t even come close to controlling the population. The government, working with universities and other research organizations, is searching for new methods of pest control. But for now, the primary method of control is the use of the biodegradable toxin known as 1080. This is very controversial, and we will not go into that here.
Also located in Huntly is one of the last operating coal-fired electrical power plants in New Zealand. All other large coal-fired plants have been closed and this one is scheduled for closure by December 2018. About 80% of New Zealand’s power is supplied by renewable sources such as hydropower, geothermal, and wind energy.
Our second rest stop was a quick one in Tirau. As was Huntly, this was a gift and snack shop, but different in that it is in three corrugated iron buildings, one shaped like a dog, the second a ewe Merino sheep, and the third a ram.
Our extended lunch stop was at Hamurana Springs, a Maori owned Recreation Reserve established to restore, enhance, and maintain the natural environment and beauty of the area surrounding the springs. After lunch, we were guided through the preserve by our Maori hostess. The path began beside the pond occupied by several varieties of ducks and black swans where we had our picnic lunch. It led through a stand of coastal redwoods from the American west coast that were planted in 1919 by early European settlers. At the end of the path, the head spring, called Te Puna-a-Hungarua, emerges from its 70-year travel through the volcanic layers that make up most of the North Island of New Zealand. The water is absolutely clear – if not for the ripples as it flows, it would be nearly invisible – and a constant 10° C (50° F).
The last stop in our long and busy day, before arriving at our hotel, was at Rainbow Springs Nature Park where we learned about and had a close-up (sorta) encounter with New Zealand’s iconic kiwi bird. Because kiwis developed without any natural predators and are totally ground dwellers/nesters, they never developed any instincts for self-preservation. And the introduction of stoats, ferrets, and possums is putting them into danger of extinction. On our tour we learned that the kiwi is a flightless bird about the size of a domestic chicken. It is the smallest living relative to the emu and ostrich. It lays the largest egg in relation to its body size of any species of bird in the world – the egg takes up about 20% of the mother’s body by weight; a human baby at full term is about 5% of the mother’s body weight!
At Rainbow Springs, they collect eggs from the wild, incubate them until they hatch, and release them into the wild (they are mature enough at hatching to survive on their own). They do have an enclosed environment which, because kiwis are nocturnal, is kept quite dark, but we were able to see an actual, living kiwi. Only being able to see a kiwi in a zoo or other captivity is not unusual; rare is the Kiwi (person) who has seen a kiwi (bird) in the wild.
Our hotel for the next two nights is WaiOra Lakeside Spa & Resort. It is a small establishment with very nice rooms, two pools, and two hot tubs, all located on the shores of Lake Rotorua.
A cloud was beginning to show on our tour horizon. Beginning this morning, Jonnie was showing signs of illness – upset stomach and diarrhea. When Tracey, our tour guide, learned about it, she revealed that she, too, was not feeling well. Several members of our group offered various remedies, and the two persevered.