Time slips soothingly away in the hot pools of Te Aroha

Words: Sue Hoffart
NZ House and Garden On Holiday – July 2005

The jukebox is belting out Gerorge Throughgood’s Bad to the Bone as we clutch warped, beer-smudged pool cues and shoot for a spot of time travel in Te Aroha. For two nights we have headed back to the BC era. That’s before children, before firday night ment home-made pizza and a rented movie in front of the fire. Definitely before friends began joking about our 8.30 pm bedtime or threatening to report us to the “nerd police”.

In long-ago child-free days they laughed at another kind of nerdiness: our penchant for escaping our frentic city lives to spend weekends in small towns that no one else thought to visit. We would relish staying in b&b’s, walking for miles, choosing between two coffee shops, gossiping with locals and shooting pool badly in some friendly little pub. These unfasionable jaunts gave us time to catch our breath away from work and deadlines, dinner dates and telephones. Besides, we couldn’t afford tickets to Barbados.

The small picturesque Waikato town of Te Aroha meets and exceeds our time-warp checklist. There are no major highways nearby, it boasts an excelent cafe and great accomadation, everything is within walking distance and the impressive, 1 km high hulk of Mt Te Aroaha offers scenic hiking and mountain biking trails. And then there are the glorious hot pools and am intriguing history as New Zealand’s premier spa resort. From the late 1800s the sodium bicarbonate-laden springs drew trainloads and boats full of tourists looking for therapeutic water treatments and a lively social scene.

According to the replica poster in the bathroom of our cottage the town was once billed as equal to the great spas of Europe. Our accommodation, in a cleverly restored gold miner’s cottage, stands testament to another slice of Te Aroha’s history. Fortunately the outdoor dunny has been superceded by a twin-headed, tile shower with under floor heating.

My younger brother Andy and his English wife Kathryn arrive late, delayed by Auckland’s end-of-week traffic. These childless talented holidaymakers are to be our weekend role models and they have dutifully complied with our packing instructions: bikes, jogging shoes, hiking boots, swimsuits, magazines, chocolate and what turns out to b an alarming quantity of red wine.

Our dream Saturday begins with a gentle jog through the deserted streets, past prettied-up old villas amid dew-soaked school grounds just as the Waikato winter fog is lifting on a brilliant blue sky day. My Grandmother was born in this town a century ago and her mother died here soon after. I wonder what they would make of this eerie effect of the mountain-top television transmitter rising above the clouds like an old church spire suspended in the sky.

We return, happily sweaty, to find Andy and Kathryn have wandered to the supermarket for a morning paper and buttery baked goods. CLearly they think there is something wrong with us as we plan mountain biking at noon followed by hiking later in the afternoon. They seem to have a knack for finding sunny spots and things to read the minute we leave them alone.

In the wide mega-store-free main street, shops close at 12.30 pm on Saturdays and piped music emanates from a series of small outdoor speakers. We continually bump into an Auckland couple entranced by the town who appear to be the only other tourists here.

But our hosts Greg and Linda Marshall swear Te Aroha is just about to boom. They have expanded their accommodation business three times in the past year and point to the rocketing real estate prices as Aucklanders shift south or buy weekend retreats here. There is much talk of Dalefords, the formalls Te Aroha-sized Australian spa town that now draws tens of thousands of tourists a year.

Back on this side of the Tasman an unmissable red painted bank is home to the eclectic Banco Cafe and its larger-than-life proprietor. Jane Anderson regales us with hilarious tales of her cleaner, a lively 82-year-old woman who drives to work on a mobility scooter. According to Jane, 70% of the town’s population is over 70 which must account for the marked absence of late-night boy racers.

Down the street, my husband Marty lusts after an old ship’s bell in the antique shop and ogles real estate ads – $220,000 will buy a kauri cottage with new kitchen and big barn on a hectare of land.

My sister-in-law decides that this is no place for idle hands after visiting an art and craft gallery, watching a felt maker who lets us try on vibrant woolly hats and seeing woman string intricate bead bracelets inside the quilt gallery. I emerge from the op shop with a used supermarket bag full of 10 cent paperback books. Kathryn’s bargain first-aid book becomes a menace as she offers cures for snakebites and boils and she warns us not to touch intestines protruding from a stomach wound.

Happily her new skills prove unnecessary when we don bike helmets and cross the Waihou River’s old train bridge to explore the wetland cycle circuit – an easy ride from town. During duck shooting season all the smart birds hide out here and we can barely talk over the earsplitting chorus of quacks and clucks.

Our assault on the mountain is less successful. We’re too early for the glow-worms, too slow to complete much of the steep, ruggedly scenic 11km mountain bike circuit before a massage appointment and too distracted by an extended food break to walk much beyond the base of the hill.

We do spot the world’s only hot soda water geyser and an ancient kauri near the start of the trail. A gaggle of sprightly seniors shame us as the bound towards the Bald Spur lookout, a 40-minute climb beneath tui and kereru, ponga and puriri. Further up were told you can see Auckland’s Sky Tower and the snowy head of Mt Ruapehu from the summit.

We opt for one of the well-marked trails that skirt the domain, dig the red wine out of the backpack and watch the beginnings of a technicolour sunset light the Thames Valled tree-tops. Around us the manicured Edwardian domain grounds are as pristine as ever, with trickling streams and flowerbeds that remain brings even in winter.

From here I show Andy where we rode strap-on roller skates on Sunday family picnic visits, back when he was shorter than me. Dad used to gather us round an old pump and propel luke-warm soda water from the ground into our cupped palms. The pump still works, though Kathryn suggested the water could do with a little gin and ice.

Years ago Mum would cook a chook and buy doughnuts from the nearby Waihou dairy and we would shriek through the band rotunda, poke fingers into the now-defunct aviaries and swim in the communal hot pool.

These days the communal pool is infinitely nicer and the spotless private pools are cedar barrels or stainless steel tubs designed to take aromatherapy oils. The water is clear, soft and silky – high in skin-soothing bicarbonate and silica – the tubs are washed and refilled between bathers.

In one pool soda bubbles emerge directly from and underground spring, rise between wooden slats and dance upwards to tickle our legs. Towards the changing rooms, a rectangle of tiles marks the spot where someone buried a piano case in the ground to form makeshift pool walls in the century before last. Time shifts a little and my great grandmother might be washing away her aches right there, just half a metre away.

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