New Zealand’s North Island is home to the country’s fascinating geothermal activity, ranging from mudpools to active volcanoes. It is also the centre of Maori culture, which makes for a compelling combination.
The smell of sulphur is overwhelming at first. It is absolutely everywhere, but I find that my nose gets used to it within a few breaths. Steam comes out of the bubbling, boiling mud pool in the center of Rotorua.
The city in the heart of New Zealand’s thermal wonderland is known for its geysers, mud pools and natural spas. But it is also home to one of the biggest Maori cultural institutions in the country and worth every minute you will spend there. And if breathing those sulphuric fumes is the price to pay, then I am happy to pay it – after all there is a lot to distract you.
Rotorua and the surrounding towns have been known for centuries thanks to the healing qualities of the thermal water. The Old Bath – now the Rotorua Museum – located in the Government Gardens was the number one location for thermal therapeutic treatments in 1908.
But unfortunately the thermal powers around Rotorua did not always do good. The village of Te Wairoa, on the shore of Lake Tarawera, became New Zealand’s Pompeii after Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886 and buried the Maori settlement which had been frequented by travellers for its proximity to the Pink and White Terraces.
The terraces were hailed as natural wonders of their time. Along with the village, they were buried by the eruption and have never been found again. Te Wairoa was partially excavated and is now an open-air museum giving insight into village life of the 1880s as well as access to the lake.
The thermal activity is evident all throughout Rotorua. Public parks contain sulphur and mud pools but the city’s most famous geothermal hotspot is located deep inside another attraction. Te Puia – formerly known as Whakarewarewa Maori Arts and Culture Institute – is the most important Maori learning institute in the country, and houses Puhuto geyser, famed for its display of smoke and steam, in its geothermal park.
Visitors to the Te Puia Marae, a traditional Maori meeting house, will be met by a warrior. The challenge he poses to his visitors looks intimidating but the principle behind the shouting, spear-weaving and eye rolling is simple: If your intentions are bad, you fight back or flee to get back up. If your intentions are good, you stay calm.
Once you have passed this challenge, you will be invited into the marae for a powhiri ceremony. Maraes are holy places, each unique to the tribe it belongs to. The wooden carvings represent the tribe’s ancestors and creation story. Out of respect, visitors have to leave their shoes at the marae’s door.
Inside, the ceremony starts with the well-known Kapa Haka “Ka Mate”, which many know as rugby team All Black’s war chant. Wahines, Maori women, sing love songs and tell the legend of Lake Rotorua’s creation. Skills are displayed during Poi dances and more kapa hakas. The ceremony is very energetic and rhythmic and everybody has a great time.
Once outside again, I take a stroll through a traditional village and the thermal wonderland that stretches behind it. I pass Puhuto geyser and am lucky enough to catch one of its eruptions. By now, I only register the sulphur smell when I walk straight through a fresh cloud.
On the other side of the thermal park is a village, called Whakarewarewa. Unlike the Maori Arts and Culture Institute, this is a real, lived-in village. Kids take baths in the hot pools, and next to traditional buildings like maraes there are also general stores, restaurants and modern houses. I learn how to dance with a poi, a small, soft ball on a string and it does look a lot easier than it actually is.
While I am in Whakarewarewa, I also try their speciality corn – fresh out of the boiling water. It tastes surprisingly nice and normal considering that it had been dipped into a sulphuric pool. Unfortunately, I don’t have the chance to also enjoy a hangi, an earth-oven dinner.
Heading south out of Rotorua towards Taupo, I pass several more Maori villages known for boiling pools and geysers. A quirky, non-thermal attraction just outside of Taupo is Huka Falls. It does not have a Maori connection, and it’s not hot water, but the fact that it is proclaimed as “World-famous in New Zealand” makes me laugh, stop and have a free look around. With the water gushing by I finally notice that I can’t smell sulphur anymore.
New Zealand’s North Island has it all. From therapeutic mud pools, to Art Deco architecture, excellent hiking trails over volcanic territory and a massive dose of Maori culture. You could lose yourself in it. It’s everywhere, maybe more than even locals sometimes realise. Places have traditional names, and many of these even tell a Maori legend.
The language Te Reo Maori can be heard everywhere, and some words have made it into everyday English. New Zealand’s own Maori name – Aotearoa – means “Land of the long white cloud.” You might get asked whether you’re a Pakeha. The literal translation is “rotten flesh”, but it is used as a common term for Europeans and is not meant as an insult.
However, the only word you will really have to remember is “Kia Ora.” It means welcome or hello, and is typically served with a smile.