In November of 2003 we were aboard the cruise ship Star Princess on a lovely Australia & New Zealand cruise from Los Angeles to Sydney. We had enjoyed stops at Hawaii, Bora Bora, Tahiti, American Samoa and Fiji and were pulling into the harbor at Tauranga, New Zealand, when I noticed crowds of people on shore. There was a ferry boat docked there and I assumed that the people were waiting to board the ferry. I would later find out I was wrong.
Our Te Puia Thermal Reserve, Maori Arts & Agrodome tour that day took us first to the city of Rotorua which is a very active volcanic area. The ride was long but interesting, and we were again impressed by the cleanliness and “greenness” of New Zealand.
We passed through several small towns and saw Kiwi fruit farms, sheep (of course), lumber forests and more cows than we expected. We also stopped at “The Agrodome,” which puts on a show featuring examples of various types of sheep, and a demonstration of how the dogs work the sheep. Best of all, I got to feed some lambs.
When we arrived at Rotorua we first did a quick city tour which featured their hot spring bathhouses, some very old and some very new. Almost every motel or lodge had a sign that said they had hot springs available.
After lunch, a troop of Maori singers and dancers performed for us. They seemed so very proud of their heritage that it was contagious. We all enjoyed their show very much and I bought a CD of their music. There is something very haunting about the Maori music.
As we toured the town, we noticed that everywhere you looked there was steam coming out of the ground. Interestingly, there was a small river running down the middle of the town. On one side of the river there was extensive volcanic action, on the other side, nothing. Our guide told us that they are unable to dig a hole anywhere without steam coming out of it. Not even a grave.
He then showed us a place where six months before a 300’ geyser had sprung out of the ground where none ever existed before. He also told us about a lady who came home and found steam coming out of her garage floor and within days the house was a complete ruin. They have up to 200 earthquakes a day, most so minor they cannot be felt. Thankfully, we didn’t feel any during our visit.
Next up was the highlight of the day, Te Puia, a combination Maori Cultural Park and geo-thermal area. A Maori man showed us their typical architecture and how they made the clothing they wore. There were also numerous cultural displays and a traditional Marae (temple).
On the way down to the most active volcanic area, we stopped at a Kiwi Bird House which was kept dark for these nocturnal birds. We then passed a mud pool that was “burping” up spurts of mud. It was interesting, but not terribly awe inspiring.
But then we walked a few hundred feet further and saw an amazing sight. A geyser was spurting many feet up out of the ground, and steam and mud was blowing up everywhere. There was an intense sulfur odor in the air.
We arrived back at Tauranga to a massive traffic jam. Our bus driver commented that he had never seen it so bad. We barely crawled along from the outskirts of the city all the way to the port.
When we arrived at Tauranga I noticed a large crowd of people on the pier next to where we were docked. I remembered the sign for the ferryboat, figured the people were waiting for the ferry and didn’t think anything more about it.
We boarded the cruise ship and went out on our balcony and looked around. There were literally thousands of people standing on the docks surrounding our berth. People were also on the roof tops, on the top decks of all the boats surrounding us, and on the hillsides in the distance.
There was an announcement that virtually everyone in the city and surrounding area had gathered to thank us for coming and to wave goodbye. Not only were we the largest ship to ever dock in Tauranga, we were the first cruise ship to return after 9/11 and the people were there to express their appreciation.
Even now as I type this, tears have come to my eyes. It was one of the most moving things I have ever experienced and at the time, I just couldn’t stop crying. As the ship left the port, the cheering and waving were non-stop. Boats followed us out of the harbor, blowing their horns. All the way to the open water you could see people up on the hillsides, among the ever-present sheep.
The people we had seen on the dock that morning were apparently the early welcoming committee, not people just waiting to board the ferry.
That night, we went to dinner, still emotional from the outpouring of appreciation from the people of Tauranga. We sat down at our regular table and saw that we had a different waiter. We wondered what had happened. Was he sick? Had he been reassigned? Promoted? His assistant told us that because of the traffic, HE HAD MISSED THE SHIP.
Fortunately, our next stop was in Auckland, New Zealand, so he was able to get ground transportation instead of having to fly. We teased him about it for the rest of the cruise.
I will never forget this experience. I tell other passengers about it on virtually every cruise vacation we have been on since. And every time I tell it, I still get emotional.