Australians have always felt a close affinity with our New Zealand cousins. As a travel destination, New Zealand is one of the world’s most inviting destinations – dominated by extraordinary scenery of glorious mountain ranges, untouched forests, stellar national parks and sparkling oceans and complemented with a vibrant and deeply respected Maori culture (a lesson for the world) and an easy-going, unrushed population.
While Christchurch has started to rebuild from a devastating earthquake that caused untold damage, took over 150 lives and shredded the fundamental infrastructure of the city, travellers assumed that all of New Zealand was a disaster zone and closed down. Nothing could be further from the truth. An initiative of a group of Kiwi travel bloggers under the banner of Blog4NZ (twitter: #blog4nz) have encouraged over 100 bloggers worldwide to publish favourite stories of this vibrant country to encourage the world to visit. Tourism comprises around 10% of the New Zealand economy and so each visitor can help in a small way to help rebuild the South Island’s largest city and the impact on the country in general. Note that the Christchurch Airport continues to operate normally and is the perfect gateway to the South Island and its incredible natural beauty.
This article describes the unusual thermal region of Rotorua (visited in September, 2010) but readers can find other New Zealand stories on the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the steepest street in the world and the thunderous Huka Falls.
The odorous rotten-egg gas hits me first. Within a few miles of Rotorua, the rich sulphurous air gives a taste of a remarkable landscape. Revered by the Maoris, the highlight of the area is Te Whakarewarewa which everyone confidently and loudly calls fa-ka (wh is pronounced f in Maori).
Presented almost as a mini-New Zealand, the area’s highlights are undoubtedly the spurting geysers, bubbling mud pools and steaming springs. Just past the symbolic entrance of raised wooden poles is the Kiwi House. New Zealand’s iconic bird forages in the semi-darkness, its plump body, matted feathers and strange long beak difficult to spot in the nocturnal conditions that Kiwis prefer. Sadly, there is little chance of seeing them in the wild so this is the best way to see this endangered fellow. Mating for life, the male Kiwi incubates the egg in one of nature’s more evenly shared breeding partnerships.
From the Kiwi House, the inhospitable primeval landscape lays in front of my eyes. Geysers spurt and steam billows erratically from several spots rebelling against the chilly wintry air. Several pools of mud on permanent simmer bubble, gurgle and froth under a veil of steam, belching their foul-smelling gases into the air like the worst of house guests.
Most of the geysers spurt from a multi-coloured lunar-like area called Geyser Flat. In a kind of thermal warm-up act, the grandly named Prince of Feathers geyser spurts before launching the most impressive Pohutu Geyser. Super-heated by molten rock under increasing pressure as steam builds underground, the boiling rainwater spurts many meters into the air with an impressive blast, before commencing the cycle over again. The active landscape is a reminder that geologically, New Zealand is one of the world’s youngest countries.
Strange holes seemingly lead to Middle Earth, the grey fringes giving a sense of foreboding about whether a geyser is about to shoot. Various activities utilising warming bore water for spas in the Rotorua area resulted in some geysers in the area stopping.
As an indicator of Maori reverence for this site, a Maori cemetery overlooks the main geyser area, plain white headstones and carved wooden statues marking the buried ancestors. Homage is appropriately paid to the Maori God of Fire.
Nearby, a permanently boiling water hole was used for centuries by the Maoris as a cooking area and currently highlights the innovative cooking methods with woven baskets making ideal “pots” for dunking the eggs and vegetables.A boiled egg with such little fuss.
The remainder of the site is a Maori cultural centre. With an area of pre-European Maori housing, a more modern marae or Maori meeting house and national schools for the Maori arts of weaving and carving, the Maori culture is well enshrined ensuring that their heritage and practices are not lost in modern society.
In the Maori weaving school, small clumps of the strands of the flax plant are expertly rolled across the leg forming long strings that are dyed and woven into clothing, baskets and other goods. Feathers and skins are often added for warmth or ceremonial appeal.
Around the area, I can strongly recommend completing a Rotorua day with a visit to one of several thermal pools (lose the silver jewellery first unless you want them all tarnished) for an incredibly therapeutic and relaxing experience.
Despite the odours, New Zealand’s Sulphur City is a great place to visit, with the popular Whaka offering a chance to liven all the senses with the Earth’s natural power in its rawest form across a thermal wonderland of geysers, boiling mud and venting steam. And to add the Kiwi flavour, a chance to experience two of the country’s most identifiable images – to peer through the murkiness to witness a Kiwi scratching amongst the undergrowth and to watch a thriving Maori culture that harnesses the thermal area so harmoniously.