Rotorua is a rite of passage for visitors to the North Island, in the same way Milford Sound or Queenstown is to the south. But as much as it might rely on the tourism industry for local business, it is far from a tourist trap. The geothermal landscape, when pressed to draw a comparison leads me to childhood memories of watching Jurassic Park (which happens to be filmed in Hawaii, one of the Polynesian Islands from which the very first settlers to New Zealand descended). It isn’t just the prehistoric aesthetic. It’s the mood; an eerie calm before the storm sort of still that usually precedes what would be an epic stampede on film. Perhaps it has to do with the bubbling volcanic activity beneath the surface, perhaps it is the steam which rises from swamp green rivers like a ghostly fog. Whatever it is, it’s morosely enchanting and if nothing else unforgettable.
Rotorua Taupo: 2 Days 2 Destinations
I spent two days around Rotorua and Taupo, and learned more about geothermal activity and Maori culture in that time than I did in a whole year in New Zealand (shamefully so.) I could wax lyrical about this part of the North Island for pages, but you look like you have a short attention span so I’ll revert to photographs instead.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
This is Waimangu Volcanic Valley, a surreal walkway that takes you through geothermal pools, swamp, mud and mountain past the Frying Pan Lake and Cathedral Rocks.The walkway is short and easy. It’s not often you see so many natural wonders within such a short space of each other and call me lazy but I was very grateful for this. There is an option to extend the walk another 20 minutes, climbing higher to obtain an aerial view of the craters below. It is definitely worth it for the exercise, but if you’re short on time or have difficulty walking, you wont lose out much by skipping it. The best views are along the main walkway.
The first geothermal hot pool we saw in Rotorua at the Inferno Crater at Waimangu Volcanic Valley, and it was a beaut. Locals are often asked if there is a dye or powder added to the water to produce this radioactive shade of blue. But this is not the case.
Te Puia Geothermal Area, Rotorua
These mud pools we actually found in the living Maori village of Whakewarewa at Te Puia Geothermal Area. To the left you can grasp the heat of this mud in the mini volcano-shaped formation rising up as though through a kiln. I wouldn’t attempt a Ghost re-enactment if you like your hands.
Hells Gate Geothermal Area, Rotorua
A safer, and more bareable experience of Rotorua mud would be a relaxing dip at Hell’s Gate, pictured rather blurrily, below.
Don’t go in with makeup. You’ll miss the opportunity to slather this valuable mud all over your face (mud facials go for $100 a pop.). Once you’ve had your fill of mud, you can shower off and dip into the hot pools a few metres away and relaxunder the stars if you wish as a twilight package is available. It’s a great way to skip the crowds (we were the only people there at the time) and the night chill makes the 37 degree temperature that bit more inviting.
Wairakei Thermal Terraces, Taupo
After the walk through Waimangu Valley, we ventured on to Wairakei Thermal Terraces at Taupo. The moment you step onto the terraces, you feel you are on holiday. The walkway showcases impressive geysers some interesting Maori art and sculpture.
The arches here represent arms, the hinge of the roof its spine and the woven roof its ribs. The facial expression, Pukana, is an exhibit of strength like that you’ll see on the faces of Haka dancers.
The pools in the terraces are between 37-40 degrees. The hottest 40 degree pool feels like dipping into a bath that is slightly too hot, and my pasty Irish skin could only handle it for around 4 minutes. It’s also a good idea to bring a big bottle of water as you may feel lightheaded as relaxing this hard is thirsty work.
This is steam from a geyser, and not clouds in the sky. Hold your nose as you walk by (or better yet, run) as the smell of rotten eggs/wet coal is particularly pungent in the steam.
This is what’s known as a Hangi, and it’s where Maori tradititionally cooked their food.
Whakarewarewa Maori Village at Te Puia, Rotorua
When we came to the living Maori village of Whakarewarewa, I had a slice of poppyseed and orange cake, and a cob of corn from the cafe, which cooks all of its food in a hangi. The result? Delicious. The cake is moist, almost to the point of being soggy in texture for want of a better word. But don’t let my poor vocabulary put you off. All the flavour is soaked into the food. There are meat and vegetarian pies on offer as well, which I’m sad I didn’t try.
This is the retail centre of the Maori village. The shop sells local products, including skincare products made from Rotorua mud and wood carvings handmade by the owner of the store.
No New Zealand trip is complete without seeing a Maori cultural performance. Angelic voices, skillful poi-poi playing (those are the white fur-topped sticks you can see flying in the air below) and very impressive, inimitable Pukana (I’ve tried.)