Rotorua is an absolute “must”, despite the large number of tourists here.
There is only one town in New Zealand that you can recognize even with closed eyes, and that’s Rotorua. The unmistakeable smell of sulphur gives it away. Even as you are approaching the town, vapor rises into the air from the public mud pools in Kuirau Park. Signs warn against entering the fenced-off areas. Numerous mud pools bubble all over the town.
But things aren’t quite as active as they may seem when you first arrive in Rotorua. The geothermic activity has dropped drastically since the end of the 1960s. The reason for this was an increasing number of hotels offering their guests hot thermal water. It was only after the Department of Conservation imposed restrictions on the private use of thermal water that the previous level of geothermic activity returned to the geysers and mud pools. Rotorua, “the small lake,” is still the biggest tourist resort.
Maori and Mud Pools
If you plan to follow the trails of the Maori when you visit Rotorua, you will notice that, like everybody else, the Maori have also commerzialised almost everything they have to offer. Unfortunately, many of their traditions have been lost in the process. Those seeking unspoiled Maori tradition should continue on to the east coast, for example.
If you decide to stay overnight in Rotorua, it’s best to head for Fenton Street. Make absolutely sure your motel or hotel room has a private spa pool – this is a must in Rotorua. Not only do you find numerous hotels and motels on the southern edge of the town – it is also the center of the tourist attractions.
The Assembly Hall, known as marae in the Maori language, is worth visiting. You shouldn’t miss the Maori burial ground either, since it is the only one of its kind anywhere in New Zealand. The dead must be buried at least two meters underground, according to New Zealand law. This is not the case in Whaka, however. The hot soil makes it impossible, so the dead are laid to rest above ground.
Whichever way you decide to approach the thermal region, the Pohutu Geyser is always the main attraction. It’s the largest of New Zealand’s geysers, shooting its waters 20 m up into the air from 10 to 25 times a day. The number of water eruptions is dependent on wind conditions. A northerly or easterly wind cools the geyser’s hot waters, forcing disappointed photographers to wait a while longer for the next water jet.
The paths leading to the other geysers and mud pools are cleary marked. You should allow approximately two hours for your visit to Whakarewarewa. The highlight of a visit is the concert given by the Te Amokura dance group at the Rotowhio pa. It takes place at around 12:15 p.m. every day. This performance is considered one of the most interesting of its kind anywhere in New Zealand. After the concert, you can visit the small museum on the right side. There is a hand-made Maori cloak (korowai) on exhibit at the museum made of some 20,000 feathers and only for display purposes. The characteristic grass skirts, however, are made daily and in keeping with tradition, cut with shells. The Whaka International School of Weaving gives two-week intensive courses for anyone interested in mastering the art of Maori weaving.
Sheep, Trout and a Hot Bath
If you want to continue on the path of Maori tradition in the evening, you should enjoy one of the many Maori concerts in conjunction with a traditional hangi. But take care not to get lost in the density of the cultures. Very often, tradition turns into a popular tourist show at these concerts. The THC Hotel is probably the best-known place for them. In 1990, the management was able to boast that the number of visitors had now reached one million. The food served at the hangi, an integral part of any concert, is prepared in underground ovens with steam from the hotsprings.
Rotorua not only has Maori culture. The so-called farmshows are also characteristic of the town. The best of these takes place in the Agrodome of Ngongotaha, 10 kilometers to the north of Rotorua. The highlight of the show is when one sheep from each of the 19 different New Zealand breeds takes its place on the stage. A good variety of entertainment is provided at the show, with many interesting examples of New Zealand farm life.
After a busy day of sightseeing in Rotorua, most visitors feel a little weary. It’s therefore advisable to spend the evening relaxing in the vicinity of the Bath House, also known as Tudor Towers. It is the second largest tourist center in Rotorua, after Whaka. Here you can stroll through the beautiful rose gardens in the Government Gardens, or watch the golfers playing on the adjoining golf course amid the clouds of steam and mud pools. You may want to visit the Rotorua Museum in Bath House. It is open daily until 4 p.m. Bowlers, dressed in the cream color of the British sport’s tradition, play in front of the museum’s Tudor facade. The Orchid House is situated opposite the museum, and from here it’s only a stone’s throw to the Polynesian Pools, where you can take a break in one of the 26 thermal baths to the sounds of Maori music provided by the local Maori radio station.
In this relaxed atmosphere you can think about your plans for the next days there is much to do in Rotorua. Whaka is only one of four large thermal regions. Waiotapu, 30 km farther south towards Taupo, is also well worth the visit. The best time to be there is at 10:15 a.m. when the Lady Knox Geyser is made to erupt using soap. Or you may prefer to visit the Waimangu Thermal Valley, 20 km farther south and also on the road to Taupo (turn left). It is convenient to combine a visit to Waimangu Thermal Valley with a boat trip across Lake Rotomahana and Lake Tarawera to the sunken village of Te Wairoa. Rotorua’s Pompeii came about after Mount Tarawera erupted on June 10, 1886. 153 inhabitants were killed during the eruption. Some of the houses have been excavated and can be toured today.
If you want to visit Mount Tarawera yourself, you can reach it via Rotomahana and Brett Road. Private cars are not permitted on the last section of the road leading to the summit. Visitors who wish to go the whole nine yards are requested to book space with an organized tour in a four-wheel-drive jeep for the latter part of the journey.
Organized tours can be booked from Rotorua, including a visit to Waimangu and Te Wairoa – a worthwhile day-trip.
Rotorua – Taupo
Rotorua bids an electrifying farewell to its visitors. Highway 5 heading towards Taupo (82 kilometers) not only leads to the above-mentioned thermal regions in Waimangu and Waiotapu, it also passes the Wairakei Geothermal Power Stations. This is where the underground steam, also visible above ground, is used to generate electricity. The result is a capacity of 200,000 kilowatt hours. Outdone only by Larderello in Italy, Wairakei is the second-largest power plant of this kind in the world. The power station is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, and from 1 to 4.30 p.m. daily.
The nearby Aratiatia Rapids Waterfalls suffer greatly because of the power station. Their name is only appropriate at 10, noon and 2 p.m.a.m. and 2:30 to 4 p.m. each day, when it’s time for the socalled water march. This is the only time when the fall’s water supply is not laid dry.
If you want to visit a true waterfall, the Huka Falls to the south offer a good opportunity to do so. The best approach is from the turn-off to the left beyond Wairakei, where you continue along the course of the river on Huka Road. Huka means foam, and the waterfalls certainly live up their name.