Okay, I’ll be really honest here, I’ve never been that keen on the landscape around Rotorua – or Roto-Vegas as it’s also known. It doesn’t have the rolling green hills and pastoral gorgeousness of other parts of the island or the drop-dead breathtaking awesomeness of (much of) the South Island. The landscape aside, there’s also the “interesting” smell to deal with – sulphuric gas that wafts across when you’re close to a spring or step on a wobbly pavement. Even when the sun is shining the light feels a lot duller here than it does an hour or so down the road at Taupo. I suspect that’s to do with the gases in the air.
Despite this, there’s an undeniable attraction to Rotorua. A primitive watching the world get built sort of feel to it. It’s not traditionally beautiful, but it’s awe-inspiring in other ways. The things that you see and learn about here can’t be seen or learnt about anywhere else – and it’s stuff that you should see and should learn about. For that reason, if you’re in this part of the world Rotorua is absolutely and unquestioningly a fascinating must-see. Don’t even think about by-passing it. Besides, you actually get used to the smell. Settle in – there’s a lot to get through.
This is an easy town to walk around – and there’s plenty of history to absorb while you’re doing it.
Government Gardens is on land gifted by the resident Maori tribe to the British Crown in the late 1800s. The timber “gates” at the entrance to the garden are shaped in the form of a crown and were built in honour of a visit in 1901 by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (who would become King George V and Queen Mary). They are, however, impossible to photograph – the gates, that is.
Aside from actual gardens and roses that I shared with you the other day, there are sports facilities, a bowling green, croquet lawn, and bandstand. The Rotorua Museum is housed in the old Bath House – but this is closed at the moment following an earthquake assessment.
The Polynesian Spa is also close by – on the lake. I couldn’t be faffed this trip, but on previous visits, I have done the whole bathing in the thermal waters and then having a spa treatment thing. It’s quite surreal (and seriously relaxing and stimulating at the same time) to be sitting in an outdoor pool in the middle of winter, but there you have it. I did, however, visit and stock up on some mud masks (side note – my dog hates it when I put this on).
As you walk around, pay attention to the random springs and read some of the plaques. Many that had significance as places of burial – and battle – have been long closed up, but others bubble away. Like Rachel Pool – where the alkaline silica-laden water – is still piped across to the Polynesian Spa. It was named after Madam Rachel, an English cosmetician, who promised that these waters could deliver a soft and youthful complexion.
Whakarewarewa – The Living Maori Village
There are plenty of options to get your geothermal on, and heaps where you can find out a bit more about Maori culture. At Whakarewarewa (Whaka for short) you’re visiting a real operational village. The guides live in the village, the people who put on the culture show live in the village, they cook in the village and bathe in the village. It really is a living village – and guiding has been their business for over 200 years.
Don’t even think about visiting here without joining a guided tour. You’ll learn so much about Maori culture – from language (in case you’re interested, there are just 15 letters – including 2 digraphs: A E H I K M N O P R T U W NG and WH) to tattoos (and their meaning as a family tree of sorts) to cooking methods. You won’t be surprised to hear that the latter interested me.
Cooking – and bathing – with thermal…
This is the oven…
Pretty well anything that can be cooked in a conventional or steam oven can be cooked in here. In this box, if packed properly, the food for 45 families or up to 200 people can be cooked. The cooking time for a chicken from frozen to done? About an hour. The thermal power is tasteless – so the taste of the food is not impacted – and the result is meat that’s tender and falls away from the bones. You can taste it for yourself in the cafe. Apparently, they also have a pretty good repertoire of steamed puddings too.
Vegetables, root vegetables, leafy veg and seafood are cooked in cheesecloth bags (traditionally in flax baskets) in Parekohru – which means “murderous ripples”. As an aside, the corn that came out of here tasted flipping amazing.
This pool has no discernable bottom and surface temperatures between 96-200C. As the pressure builds the water rises and spills over to fill the baths – where the villagers bathe. Naturally, the actual bathing takes place when the village is closed to tourists lol. The waters are full of silica and natural oils and are absolutely clean.
Pohutu geyser (“Big Splash”) is officially on the grounds of the neighbouring attraction – Te Puia – but it wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago the 2 attractions were one but were split into 2 with a fence erected between them and the village trust managing Whakarewarewa. You can still see Pohutu – the largest active geyser in the Southern hemisphere – from Whaka.
For a while there, the power in this geyser was substantially diminished. The village successfully lobbied to have the laws changed to stop residents and hotels from boring into the underground springs etc to use the thermal power to heat their homes. As a result, Pohutu is now active again and “erupts” once or twice an hour again.
On the day we visited the Marae – or meeting house – was out of bounds due to a funeral. This gave our guide the opportunity to talk to us about funerals – the grieving process, the importance of each of the 3 mourning days (we were there on day 3), and even the all too real challenges of catering for the occasion.
We also learnt about how the structure of the Marae is likened to an ancestor:
- The point of the gable is the head
- The diagonal beams signify arms and the ends are fingers
- The ridge beam is the backbone
- The rafters are ribs
- and the central column inside is the heart.
The Cultural Show
Of course there’s a cultural show and of course it includes the Haka.
Want to know more?
Check out the website. The link is here. As an aside, Te Puia, the neighbouring attraction, is an entirely different experience for the visitor to Whakarewarewa. It’s run by a government body so is a tad slicker. It’s probably better than Whaka for handicrafts and views of the geyser, but I happen to love the concept of the living village and the amount of information we learnt not just from our guide, but from talking to shop owners etc in the village. I’ll leave that decision with you.
Oh, one last thing – despite these pools being seriously hot, our guide told us there’s no record of any “accidents” – and that includes all the years before they put up the fences. I’m not entirely what that says about common sense and how it’s changed over the years.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
If you were bored in geography or geology class, check this place, just 20 minutes or so out of Rotorua, out instead. The tagline is “How the world began…the world’s youngest geothermal system.” It’s so true – this landscape is evolving literally before your eyes. Rather than talking like scientists usually do in terms of millions of years, what you’re seeing here is a landscape that was formed at a specific point in time. And that point in time is the eruption of Mt Tarawera on June 10, 1886.
Before this date visitors flocked to see the 8th wonder of the natural world – the Pink and White Terraces. After the mountain split open the terraces were no more, the landscape was significantly altered, and all life extinguished. The pic below is an artists impression of what it would have looked like from that exact spot.
You have to walk for your information here. The walk takes about 1 3/4 hours but is mostly downhill (steep in parts) or flat. Don’t worry though – there’s a bus at the bottom to take you back up to the top. Except for the blue crater – you have to walk up a heap of stairs to see that – but as you can see below, it’s worth it. (Spoiler alert – I was lazy and got Grant to climb the stars and take these pics.)
We spent almost a whole afternoon at Waimangu – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Here’s just some of what you’ll see…
We also opted for the additional 45-minute boat trip out onto the lake to see some of the craters formed by the eruption and check out the activity on the lakefront.
Duck over to the website. the link is here.
Okay, I ran out of my word allocation in this post about 800 words ago. So all I’ll say about this is if you like a good forest come here. If you like a good forest walk (or run) come here. If you want to walk in the treetops come here.
I happen to like all of these things – except the running part – so could have spent much more time than we had available here. Head here for more information.
Okay, there’s heaps to do in Rotorua – what I’ve shown you here is just the tip of the iceberg. In previous trips I’ve also visited Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and also done some of the Maori Cultural Nights – Tamaki Maori Village was a great one. There’s also the Skyline Gondola and Luge – again something I’ve done on a previous visit – sheepdog and shearing shows, zorbing, and much more.
Just like castle overload in Europe, there are also only so many cultural shows and geothermal sites you can visit before your eyes glaze over. My advice is to keep it fresh and still fascinating, by choosing just one show and maybe a couple of geothermal attractions.
Rotorua is around 228kms or 2.5-3hr drive from Auckland. Plenty of people come in via a day trip from Auckland or from one of the cruises that dock at Auckland.
There are plenty of accommodation options here for all budgets. This time we stayed at the Quest Apartments in Hinemoa Street – which were really well located for everything, but I’ve previously stayed down at the lake.
Head straight for Eat Street at the lake end of Tutanekai Street. There’s a great selection of restaurants and bars serving everything from bar snacks to Italian, Asian, Indian, and even something a little more special.