We phoned ahead to our hosts and were told, “it’s only a few more kilometers”. Our excitement was building. We had been corresponding from the States with these friends-of-friends who had kindly offered their hospitality without ever meeting us. We couldn't have guessed but we were about to meet a family who would fast become friends.
Lake Rotoma was easy to find off the main highway – it's a charming lakeside hamlet with a small community of homes, a cafe, a few shops and our host's art gallery. Surprise! Marc is a talented trompe l'oeil muralist who's work can be seen around the world and his wife, Deb, is a multitalented art framer and runs their gallery. They made us feel at home instantly. Within minutes of pulling into their driveway, our bags were stowed in their oldest daughter's room and Marc suggested a plan for the afternoon. It included a boat tour of nearby Lake Okataina but with a few surprises.
We piled into the family van, boat in tow, and proceeded down a steep, narrow winding road flanked by dense, tropical forests to Lake Okataina several miles away from Lake Rotoma. I took a long look at my surroundings as I waited for the guys to launch and I was in awe. It's early afternoon and we were the only boat in sight. This is clearly a volcanic lake, cliffs projecting upward and forested with a mixture of pine and tree fern. This is a magical place and we have it all to ourselves.
Marc tells us that the lakes in the Rotorua region are filled with monolithic rainbow trout and we're equipped with fishing poles for later – we can only hope. But now, our boat careens across glassy smooth water toward Te Kouka point that, we are told, holds secrets. We round the point and beach the boat in white sand. I jump off into chilly water and follow two men into the 'Bush' land. There are no people, no sounds - not even bird sound - and it is surreal as we enter the canopy and the sky darkens. Conversation is slim as Marc tells us that we are in sacred (and taboo by some) Maori land. We arrive at a fence to find a notice that warns visitors, and as we climb the shrouded, winding bush trail, we see history carved into the hillside. There are many caves referred to as 'storage' caves. Out of respect to the Maori people the rest of this story is best left untold. Our visit here was brief and one I'll never forget.
As the boat sped away from the dense forest, Marc continued to share stories about this lake and his home, captivating us until we reached the far shore and beached the boat once more. From here we walked through tree fern forests - up and over a saddle - to the shores of Lake Tarawera. Along the trail, we were followed for while by a bird called the Fan Tail. This little fellow definitely wanted to speak his mind and show his stuff and had me giggling with his persistent antics.
Descending the jungle trail to Lake Tarawera conjured up many memories for Marc growing up in the area. We emerged in a clearing and on the far shore we could see a topped mountain - a volcano that recently blew it's top sometime in the 1890's. On our way back, we tried to catch a monster trout in Lake Okataina, but the fishing Gods had made other arrangements. So instead, Deb and Marc cooked up a delectable lamb roast and we ate until our eyes could stay open no longer. A perfect ending to our very first day 'down under' in New Zealand.