Let’s talk about the two towns I visited over the next couple of days.
Rotorua is famed throughout the world for being in the middle of some of the most spectacularly active thermal scenery on the planet. It’s got the lot: enormous orange-blue lakes of boiling water; vast, gloopy ponds of bubbling mud; geysers you can set your watch by; rising mists of steam and vapour bursting through the paper-thin crust of the earth.
All in all, then, it’s a shame that Rotorua itself is such a shithole.
When I passed through it, gawping at its unbelievable tawdriness, I was barely able to resist closing my eyes as I drove - and was silently very grateful indeed that I’d already been able to tick the ‘must see some thermal activity’ box at Tokaanu.
The other town, though, was much more fun. It was called Te Kuiti and it lay just a few miles from the campsite at Waitomo Caves. It was the sans-pareil of New Zealand sheep-farming towns and I fell in love with it at once. How can you not be enamoured of a place that acknowledges the source of its wealth and fame by erecting a statue of a sheep-shearer - complete with sheep - big enough to dwarf a double-decker bus; big enough to stand comparison to the Angel, in its own, awesomely ovine way?
The nearby information board says the sculpture is 7 metres tall and weighs 7.5 tonnes. In fact, the same panel has lots of interesting things to say about sheep and sheep-shearing hereabouts and beyond...
* There are over 48 million sheep in New Zealand..
* There were almost 71 million in 1982...
* New Zealand is the world's largest producer of strong wool - used in carpets, upholstery, furnishings, rugs, bedding, blankets and knitting yarns...
* On its own, New Zealand produces more than a quarter of the world's wool...
* There are 14 sheep to every person in New Zealand...
Every April, the New Zealand Shearing and Wool Handling Championships and Sheep Muster are held in Te Kuiti. Just imagine it - a Sheep Muster!
In the 1990s, new world records were set there: 702 ewes shorn in 9 hours; that’s almost 80 an hour.
The record set for lambs was even more impressive - presumably because they’re smaller. 831 lambs shorn in 9 hours - that’s more than 90 an hour or 3 lambs every couple of minutes or so.
I should add here that, unlikely as it sounds, I’ve shorn a sheep myself. I was intrepid enough to volunteer to make this new kind of fool of myself at the Northumberland County Show in Corbridge a few years back for the Blue Bus programme and can confirm that it’s not exactly easy to hold your sheep still and denude it of its fleece. It took me about 10 minutes, in which time a seasoned Te Kuiti champion could have done a dozen.
As the sheep hurry along the street, they probably don’t notice the other striking feature of this fascinating little town - Te Kuititanga O Nga Whakaaro; ‘the gathering of thoughts and ideas’. It’s a wooden-framed pavilion set with sparkling stained-glass. Built for the millennium, it celebrates the many influences - and the many people - that have made the town such a gem of a place.
Loggers arrive in the locality...
The extraction of minerals...
The railway arrives from Auckland and Hamilton...
The local countryside...
The pavilion roof, inspired by Maori designs
It’s been wonderfully and thoughtfully designed as a space to concentrate the mind and to reflect on Te Kuiti’s past, present and future.
* * *
I had time to explore the town fully because Hobbiton was closed.
Lord of the Rings was famously - and magnificently - filmed in New Zealand so you’d expect a few references to the films’ locations in tourist guidebooks and on road signs. And, of course, there are - though far fewer than I was expecting. I had almost certainly passed through, or at least close to, Rohan, Helm’s Deep, the Shire and Moria without realising it.
It was the fine ladies at the Taumarunui i-Site (the government’s ubiquitous and startlingly friendly tourist information offices) who told me that, on my way there from Taupo, I had looked into the fiery jaws of Mordor. I remembered the view because it was one of those endless occasions when you turn a corner and the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.
Three volcanoes are perfectly lined up to lead the eye away into a horizon of violent, geological complexity. The closest is Mt Tongariro; behind it and slightly to the right is Mt Ngauruhoe; bringing up the rear is the highest of the three - Mt Ruapehu - which Peter Jackson chose to be his Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.
The same ladies also told me about Hobbiton, constructed for the film on low hills outside Matamata, just to the north of Te Kuiti. I was looking forward to having my photo taken outside Frodo’s house - but Hobbiton was closed...
* * *
* * *
Post comments on this blog or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org