First comes the smell of ‘rotten egg’ – caused by sulphur – to signal that you’re entering the geothermal area of Rotorua, a place which I came to call the ‘Land of the Maori‘ since a large community populates this region.
As they represent over 35% of the local Rotorua area population, I got to call it “The Land of the Maori’
I arrived in Rotorua with the Stray Bus under a stormy sky, the one who’s been following us most of the time in the past days, a tail of the Cyclone Evan which hit Fiji a week before Christmas.
The city is not particularly attractive but the Kuirau Park made for a nice walk where I had my first encounter with geothermal activity.
With Maori representing over 35% of the population in Rotorua, it’s a good place to enter in contact with their culture. The Whakarewarewa Maori village is set amidst mud and water pools, which are still used for different purposes, including cooking and bathing. Clearly arranged for tourists as a sort of open-air theatre, the village is still an interesting opportunity to discover a little about the Maori culture and what is now done to preserve it. Maori seem to be so integrated that I wonder how much of their traditions are still part of their daily life. I suspect very little.
Hangi, the food cooked in earth oven, is delicious and a must-taste
Our guide showed us the ‘cooking boxes’, the earth oven where the people of the village cook any kind of food with the hot steam coming up from the hot pool beneath. This cooking method, called Hangi, enables the food to keep all its taste, making for a wonderful meal. I stopped at the local small restaurant to grab a Hangi pie. Filled with vegetables and different sorts of meat, it was one of the most delicious and tasty pie I ever had.
Another method of cooking is dipping food into the water of the hottest pools, keeping extreme caution as the temperature is unbelievably high. Although touristy, the cultural performance was a nice discovery of some beautiful Maori songs and lovely dances.
Geothermal activity in Rotorua has been a tourist attraction since mid-1800. At that time, the Pink and White Terraces near Mount Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana were called by many the eight wonder of the world and where the region’s highlight. However, when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886 the terraces and some of the nearby villages were destroyed. Impossible to imagine how the landscape may have looked like at that time.
Today, the land of the Maori is still famous for its geothermal activity, the mud and hot water pools and the shooting geysers. To be honest, I was expecting the pools to be more scenic and colourful. Some of the hot water pools may sporadically catch the eye for the blue reflection and in some cases a few spots of colour (mostly yellow and brown) created by minerals, but nothing really unforgettable. What’s interesting, though, is the many uses Maori still have from the hot water. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed looking at the boiling mud pools with the mud sprouting sometimes quite strongly, assuming ever-changing shapes.
All in all, if you have a limited time in New Zealand I guess you can skip Rotorua unless you are interested in Maori culture. Otherwise, I wouldn’t spend more than one day, saving time for more interesting and scenic spots.
Have you ever visited a place with geothermal activity? What were your impressions?
Note: Warm thanks to Tourism New Zealand, which kindly provided me with an Explore NZ Card entitling me to a number of free or discounted activities. More thanks to Stray Bus for the awesome comprehensive Stray Everywhere pass to travel across North and South Island on their hop-on-hop-off buses. Lastly, thanks to Whakarewarewa village, for the complimentary visit and cultural experience. Although blessed with all these free things, the enjoyment of the Land of the Maori was all mine.