As soon as we arrive I know we are somewhere different: Jurassic Park maybe? Steam is billowing from cracks in the ground and the air smells like very old eggs. Surely a dinosaur – a Tyrannosaurus maybe – will emerge from the billowing mists at any moment.
Despite appearances this is not the age of giant beasts in an ancient world but Rotorua, New Zealand: pungent heart of New Zealand’s geothermal activity. Tourists have been welcomed to this area for over 160 years and its raw beauty continues to enchant. Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have been using these geothermal fields for over seven hundred years as a place for healing and revitalisation.
Hells Gate Thermal Reserve is the most violent and active of all the Rotorua thermal parks and I walk through the intricately carved gate to follow in the footsteps of Maori warriors. It is eerily beautiful: it could also be dangerous for those who wander off the well-formed paths. Mud pools simmer, boil, gurgle and explode circular mud patterns that change constantly. A sense of imminent explosion hangs in the air with the sulphurous fumes and the forces of the underworld seem close. It is no surprise that the playwright George Bernard Shaw gave parts of the park expressive names – Devils Throat, Hells Gate, and Devils Cauldron – places of no return.
This is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and in Rotorua the earth’s crust seems very thin. A veil of steam hangs over a lake of boiling water while further along the track is Sulphur Bath where the Maori took water for healing wounds. The Kakahi Falls – the largest hot thermal falls in the Southern Hemisphere – were used to wash away the ‘tapu’ or sacredness of war.
After an hour walking around the source of the health-giving mud and water for the Wai Ora Spa, it’s time to experience nature’s gift – a mud bath.
The fine mud is suspended in the water and I sink slowly in its warmth. Bliss. Under a blue sky I smooth the silky mud over my face and body; it’s simply superb. Twenty minutes later I’m relaxing in a hot sulphurous geothermal pool before having the uniquely New Zealand, Maori massage. The young woman, a descendant of the local tribe, says a karakia (prayer) before beginning: it is one of the best massages I have experienced. A relaxing sulphur spa follows and then refreshed, revitalised and rejuvenated we continue our travels.
Standing on active volcanoes, seeing more boiling mud, massive craters, erupting geysers and cascading water – coupled with unearthly vistas and very smelly smells – makes this a fascinating place. Even the public park in the centre of the city has boiling pools to feed footbaths where locals and visitors can soak their feet after shopping or sightseeing.
Te Whakaweraweratanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao Village (translated as ‘the uprising of the warriors of Wahiao’) is thankfully called Whaka for ease of speech. The village has been in this harsh environment for over three hundred years. Gushing geysers, steam vents and naturally boiling water continue to provide the locals with cooking and bathing facilities. As I walk through the clouds of billowing steam, corncobs, hanging in a bag, are cooking in one of the clear bubbling pools that surround the homes.
The Centra Hotel, which overlooks Whaka, is an appropriate place to watch Rotoruas newest cultural theatrical show – ‘The Legends of Maui’. Against a backdrop of outstanding photography and film, local Maori present fascinating stories of this celebrated demi-god. As we nibble smoked eel and raw fish, Maui moves through his life; fishing up the North Island using the jawbone of his grandmother; gifting fire to humans and transforming himself into a taniwha (sea monster). After the show we enjoy our meal that has been cooked in an oven in the ground and fuelled by natures steam. Delicious.
Next day we travel thirty kilometres south to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland where the Lady Knox geyser erupts at ten fifteen each morning. To ensure that it performs on time, a guide stands beside it and bravely drops a biodegradable substance down its volcano-shaped throat: it starts bubbling and moments later spouts water from 400 metres under the earth and up into the air. We gasp in unison. This park is the most colourful volcanic area around Rotorua. Giant silica terrace formations surround the seventy-meter wide explosion crater: Champagne Pool with its effervescent bubbles and fantastic colours is unique, so bring your camera to record the stunning sights.
A little closer to “Sulphur City”, as Rotorua is sometimes called, is the Waimangu volcanic valley that was born in the violence of the 1886 Tarawera eruption. A hiking-guide leads you down the valley, identifying sights and features along the way. Frying Pan Lake, Echo Crater and Cathedral Rocks are just some of the wonderfully descriptive names. The native bush that cloaks this area has cleverly evolved ways of living in the excessive heat, acidic soils and toxic minerals.
Reaching Lake Rotomahana, a boat cruise takes you around the lake to the site of the old Pink and White Terraces. This ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ had been a tourist site from the 1870s until the Tarawera explosion, which not only buried the terraces but also killed many people.
Rotorua Museum is housed in what has been described as the most photographed building in New Zealand. It weaves the threads of history, culture and nature of the region together. Whether you visit it before, during, or after touring the area it really is a ‘must do’. It pulls everything together and helps explain this part of the Jurassic era super-continent Gondwanaland that New Zealand separated from over 85 million years ago.
I’m not surprised that Rotorua has been voted New Zealand’s ‘Most Beautiful City’ three times: with its wonderful hospitality and fantastic sights it will long continue to be a magnet for travellers. © Heather Campbell Hapeta .