“Fannie, why do you smell of sulfur?” Bunny asked with her refined Texas accent as we walked toward the pool.
“It’s not me, it’s my bathing suit.”
“Okay, I’ll bite, why does your bathing suit smell like sulfur?”
“Because I been to Hell’s Gate,” I said with a smile, “and lived to tell about it.”
“Are you going to be cryptic or tell me the story?” Bunny asked putting her hands on her hips.
“Hell’s Gate is on the other side of the world,” I said climbing into the pool.
A warm wind pulled black clouds across Lake Rotorua. Rain drops the size of almonds bounced off the window. Steam swirled from vents in the ground. The smell of sulfur permeated the air leaving a yellow stain on whatever it touched.
A large black and blue bird with a red bill ran across the street, jumped a fence and disappeared over the hill.
Eleanor moved away from the window. “I don’t know about this weather. We aren’t going to be able to see very much.”
“El, it’s just like at home, if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes, it will change,” I said watching a small hole open in the clouds over the lake. “Well just take our rain gear with us.”
“So what do you want to try first, Buried Village or Hell’s Gate?”
“Let’s try Buried Village,” I said looking at the map, “then we can drive back in and visit Hell’s Gate in the afternoon when the weather might be better.”
“You get to drive today.”
“Not a problem.”
Packing our bathing suits in our day packs, we donned our rain gear.
“You got the car keys?” I asked looking on the table.
“Here,” she said tossing them to me.
We walked out of the hotel into the parking lot. A blue Ford Mondeo drove between us and the rental car. It turned right into oncoming traffic swerved to the left and onto the median hitting the large red and black sign saying “Keep Left”.
“I do not want to do that,” I said watching the driver reverse the car off the median pulling back into the parking lot, then turning left to join the light morning traffic.
“I’ve got your back,” Eleanor said loading her pack into the trunk. “Hey did you notice the sign is on a big spring, it doesn’t even look like anyone hit hit.”
“That tells you how often it happens then doesn’t it, if they have to put a sign on a spring.”
Turning out onto Arawa Street, we cleared the median and the sign. We drove until we saw the sign leading into the traffic circle stating “Hell’s Gate first left, Buried Village second left.” As we reached the traffic circle, the sky opened up and a large delivery truck drove around the circle ahead of us leaving a large rooster tail.
“I can’t see, can you tell which is the second left?” I asked.
“I think it’s this one,” said Eleanor pointing to the next opening. Swerving the car onto the road we drove for several minutes. The rain evaporated and the sun broke through the clouds.
“Can you see what that sign says?”
“It says ‘five point check for truckies’,” said Eleanor.
“Well I guess this will be an adventure. We’ll end up where we end up.”
Fifteen minutes later a large sign said, ‘Hell’s Gate turn left 200 meters.’
“Well I guess we’re going to Hell’s Gate. After that drive, I could really use a spa day.”
The clouds closed in. Leaving the car park we reached the entrance to Hell’s Gate.
“Kia Ora,” the woman said from behind the window. “Is this your first visit?”
“Yes,” we said in unison.
“We have guided tours, however, the next tour isn’t until 11 a.m. You can do a self-guided tour. Are you interested in the spa facilities?”
“We have massage, aroma therapy, mud baths and the sulfur spa. The next available massage session is at 2 p.m.”
We looked at each other. “The sulfur spa,” I said.
“You can go into the spa at any time, but I would recommend you do the walking tour first then the spa treatment.” She handed us a map pointing out the spa location and the entrance to the tour.
Dropping our gear off at the spa, we passed the Kaitiaki, the guardian of Hell’s Gate.
Leaving behind the lush tropical surround we entered into a moonscape of gray barren earth dotted with bubbling pools of mud and water. The sulfur so thick in the air you could taste it.
Dense greenery ran right up to the edge of the raw rock formations leaving a thin line of dead plants as its border. Steam puffed from holes in the ground leaving yellowed rings around the opening.
“Fannie, did you read this sign?” Eleanor asked.
“‘Persons who throw litter or stones into the thermal pools may be asked to retrieve them.’ At least we know they have a sense of humor.”
The clouds broke apart ahead of us.
Staying on the path we walked up the hill. A grove of giant fern trees offered shade as we ventured into the upper portion of the reserve. Steam rose from the giant hot waterfall. The bordering tree bark turned orange with a sulfur coating.
Passing the falls, we emerged from the ferns onto a bleaker visage. Bubbling cauldrons of mud dotted the landscape. A two-and-a-half meter tall mud volcano released steam as we walked by. The path wove between large gray boiling lakes.
Steaming cliffs rose ahead of us. Only a few meters beyond flowed a cold water stream which bore a giant mound of brilliant green grass. The color, a relief from the gray earth and dead vegetation.
We made our way back down to the spa.
“Kia Ora. Welcome to our facility,” said the smiling woman who greeted us. “You can change into your bathing suits in the changing room. Follow me.”
We met the attendant on the patio after changing.
“Just a few things you need to know before we get started. You can only stay in the hot pool for twenty minutes, then one of us will come get you for a cold shower. Do not put your face in the water.
Afterwards you can spend as much time as you want in either of the cooler pools. We have a shower facility to your right and when you are finished you will want to soak your suits in ammonia water otherwise the sulfur smell will be set in your suit forever. Please follow me.”
She lead us up a set of stair to a small pool surrounded by a fence. “You want to scoop the mud from the bench and rub it onto your skin. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes to check on you.”
I followed Eleanor into the pool.
“Wow this is warm,” I said wading over to the bench. “Can you feel the mud?”
“There’s a little bit over here,” Eleanor said scooping a handful from the bench.
Using the mud, we scoured each other rinsed it off and tried it again.
“This is really weird,” Eleanor said, “how does your skin feel?”
The attendant returned. Surprised, she said, “how come you’re not covered in mud? Usually everyone is completely covered in mud by this time. You have five minutes left.”
We looked at each other. We were both red and not from the heat.
“Quick, find some mud and slather it on,” I said.
“How were we supposed to know you have to cake it on? They probably think we are a couple of rubes.”
“Well at least we know now.”
Caked in mud, we emerged from the pool five minutes later ready for our shower.
“Don’t forget,” the attendant said, “as soon as you leave here, soak your suit in one cup of ammonia and water.”
“We’ll have to get some ammonia on the way back to the hotel,” I said.
Bunny looked at me. “Well didn’t you soak your suit as instructed?”
“Yes, but we were so hungry from our hike we stopped and had lunch, found another hike at Okere Falls and made it back to the hotel several hours later.”
“Why didn’t you throw out the suit?”
“I spent so much money on it I couldn’t throw it away. Other than the smell, there’s nothing wrong with it. Besides it reminds me of the adventure.”
“Would you go back?”
“In a heartbeat.”