Rotorua Travel Guide


Rotorua - The Sulphur City
When you say Rotorua, people roll their eyes and nod dreamily. Rotorua is a mystical and magical place where steam rises from the ground, geysers erupt, mud pool bubble and hot springs steam. Rotorua is primarily renowned for its hydrothermal activity which has drawn tourists since the 1800s. They have come to bathe in these natural therapeutic waters and gaze at these natural wonders. Queen Elizabeth was just one person who tremendously enjoyed her stay here. Nevertheless, there's no denying that Rotorua stinks to high heaven. Hydrogen sulphide is constantly being released into the air resulting in a distinctive smell of rotten eggs. George Bernard Shaw put it aptly as usual when he noted, 'an uncommonly pleasant place, although it smells like Hades....It reminds me too vividly of the fate theologians have promised me.' Although you'll catch the smell wafting through the air before you've even arrived after an hour here you'll have grown accustomed to the smell and won't even notice it.

Rotorua's geothermal activity was early noted by the Maori. They settled here early in the day availing of the hot pools for all their needs like bathing and cooking. In some areas, they were able to build their whare or meeting houses on hot ground so as to have a natural form of central heating. This was also an easy place to make a hangi or an underground oven which is dug out and filled with meat and vegetables wrapped in leaves and then covered with earth until the food is steam cooked. This is the best place for tourists to find out more about Maori life and culture and to enjoy a hangi. Inevitably, the steady influx of tourists over the years means that you're likely to get a touristy glimpse into the life, there's not much choice in the matter unless you should be so lucky as to get a personal invitation into a marae.

Land of plenty this is and Rotorua can easily brag about the network of lakes in the area. There are about 12 of these which provide idyllic surroundings to fish for trout. The lakes are surrounded by native bush dominated by an abundance of tall crown ferns which lend a tropical atmosphere to the place,.

Most people come here to relax (as well as the birds who need not bother to sit on their eggs as the ground is warm enough). Rotorua has state of the art spas where you can spoil yourself with massages, mudbaths and the like. However, if you're the more energetic type, there'll be plenty to occupy you from tramping, to zorbing, white-water sledging and rap-jumping.

The first Maori in Rotorua arrived aboard the Te Arawa canoe sometime in the 14th century. They landed in the Bay of Plenty and named themselves after the canoe that had transported them safely all the way from Hawaiki. Ngatoroirangi, a tohunga or priest was one of the leaders and the first to venture on an exploration trip south to the interior. The freezing cold at Mount Tongariro led him to beseech the gods for assistance, a request which was answered by fire. The flame spread underground emerging at the volcanic White Island and the other 3 North Island volcanoes. On Ngatoroirangi's safe return, the Te Arawa Iwi or tribe settled in Rotorua. Rotorua was named by Ihenga, the grandson of the captain of the Te Arawa. Another great explorer he named the lake 'roto' for 'lake' and 'rua' meaning second as it was the second lake he discovered. He also named various other places in the vicinity.

Over the next few hundred years, the Arawa iwi thrived and spread dividing into different iwis or tribes. Conflicts over territory inevitably arose but the great danger arrived with the fearsome Hongi Hika in 1823. He hailed from Northland, a chief of the Ngapuhi Iwi and his army had recently been reinforced with the power of the musket by the European settlers. With only traditional arms to protect them, the Te Arawa retreated in time to Mokoia Island in the centre of Lake Rotorua. This was not enough to deter the almighty Hongi who simply ordered his army to carry their canoes overland. The resulting war left heavy losses on both sides and the Ngapuhi eventually withdrew their forces. By the 1860's the Te Arawa Iwi had decided to lay their destiny in the same path as the government, a move which worked well for them. Double forces now repelled their longtime enemies in the Waikato region and they emerged victorious from the Waikato Land War (1863-1867). When Te Kooti (another ferocious chief) struck in 1870, the Te Arawa Iwi was protected from this East Coast threat by the troops.

The protection which had been sought from the government brought more rewards in the form of advertising. The resplendent beauty of the place and its capacity for healing led to a word-of-mouth ad campaign and soon tourists were flocking to see the natural springs and seek remedies for everything from alcoholism to arthritis in the Government Sanatorium Complex, a spa completed in 1885. Rotorua's Pink and White Terraces of multilevel pools were dubbed the eight natural wonder of the world. They were created by volcanic activity which fed the water that dripped over the rocks leaving deposits of silica which resulted in the pink and white effect. The terraces were destroyed one fine day on 10 June 1886. Three auspicious events heralded the disaster. An unusual wave surged on Lake Tarawera. The ominous event was followed by a waka wairua or a phantom canoe which gracefully seemed to glide out of nowhere across the water. The ceremonial phantom canoe was watched by a boat of amazed Pakeha and Maori tourists. A tohunga or priest, Tuhoto Ariki, later interpreted the occurrence as an impending tragedy. 10 days later, Mount Tarawera (dormant for the previous 500 years) erupted shooting fire from 3 separate vents. The damage? Three Maori villages; Te Wairoa, Te Ariki and Moura were buried by the 1500 square kilometres of lava and mud that followed in the wake of the eruption. All in all 153 people died, the landscape was rearranged and the Pink and White terraces forever relegated to their glory days remembered only by a few photographs and the history books.

What to do

Government Gardens Rotorua
Most things in Rotorua come at a price so the Government Gardens come as a welcome surprise. They're worth seeing whether you're on a budget or not. They gardens are a surprising place set on a little peninsula. You'll pass rose gardens and flower beds and emerge on a path which will lead you to a pit of steaming sulphur. The colonial aspect of the place is interesting enough in itself and you'll see feverishly keen players of croquet and petanque on the lawns, (sshhhh! it's serious business!).

Museum of Art and History
Within the grounds of the Governments Gardens you'll find the Museum of Art and History (entry $10) which has 3 areas of interest. Built in 1908, the building was originally a state of the art spa with 84 baths in all. It belonged to the by-gone era of bathing house which were therapeutically rather than hedonistically orientated. This spa was really an outpatient hospital and in its later years included some less than pleasant treatments using electricity as well as the bathing pools. The complex was finally shut down in 1963. You can relive the era by visiting the baths in the museum which have since been restored although still retain a 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' feel to them. The next section is dedicated to the Te Arawa Iwi and the museum houses some of their incredible carving craftsmanship which dates to pre-European settlement. On display you'll see the flute played by Tutanekai, a celebrated and legendary lover who drew his beloved across the water by the sound of his flute. Also of note are the pounamu or greenstone weaponry, cloaks and photos revealing the traditional mokos or facial tattoos that were literally carved into the skin. The final display is dedicated to the eruption of Mount Tarawera with extensive displays which include eyewitness accounts, photos and maps.

The Polynesian Spa is centrally located in Rotorua on Hinemoa Street. This spa offers bathing in natural waters in luxurious surrounds. The complex offers a range of massage, spa, body & skin therapies with 8 therapy rooms and three relaxation lounges. Temperatures range between 33C and 43C and you can choose between 9 outdoor pools for adults and 17 private pools where you can adjust the temperature yourself. If you really want to spoil yourself the Lake Spa Retreat is the most exclusive section.

Orchid Gardens, Hinemaru Street, a pleasure for orchid enthusiasts with 2 hothouses, a waterorgan timed to sprouting water emitted from some 700 jets and music. A bit of Kitsch but oh well.

Thermal Pools, Spas and Reserves
Te Whakarewarewawatanga o te Ope Taua a Wahiao or more simply Whakarewarewa (say f for wh) While you can simply call the place 'Whaka' say 'faka' most people are a little put off by the connotations and opt for the longer version. The oldest (1875) and possibly best known of Rotorua's reserves Whaka lies 3km south of town. The area is a major Maori cultural centre where Maori still live today. The reserve also includes a replica of a traditional Maori Village and the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute where you can watch professional artisans at their trade. However it's the geysers which will really get you gasping. They're probably the best in New Zealand. Prince of Wales' is a 10 metre geyser which normally erupts before grand dame Pohutu which means big explosion. Pohutu's eruptions shoot water 20m-30m in the air and they normally occur at least once an hour and last between 5 and 10 minutes.

Kerosene Creek
This is one of the few places where you swim in hot water without being charged for the pleasure. To get there, take the SH5 and turn off on to old Waiotapu Road for 3km then follow the signs.

Hell's Gate - Waiora Spa and Wellness Centre
To get to Hell's Gate is a 15 minute drive. First follow the SH30 for 10km and then turn off on the right toward Whakatane for 4km. The complex has 10 hectares of land throbbing with thermal activity. Highlights include the largest hot thermal waterfall in the southern hemisphere, chemical free bathing in mineral-laden therapeutic waters, a furious fumarole and 2 hot springs, the Devil's Bath and the Hurutini Pool. In all there are 3 large pools, private mud baths as well as spa treatments on offer. The place is special for Maori who recognised the healing and revitalising agents in the mud and water years ago. In fact the area is looked after by Wai Ora a guardian warrior.