Rotorua is a geothermal area. Water under the ground is heated by the decay of radioactive elements and it rises to the surface as steam, hot springs, bubbling mud and geysers. In our holiday park all heating comes from this geothermal energy. Areas of the ground are hot beneath your feet – Nikki commented on yesterday’s blog post that when she tented here a few years ago the hot ground was great for her back but one of the tent poles buckled from the heat!
Definitely not your typical holiday park! And really, it’s the natural beauty of the Rotorua area in combination with the geothermal activity that attracts people. The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand tells us the following: New Zealand’s geothermal features are world famous. In particular, the Taupō Volcanic Zone has one of the greatest concentrations of geothermal activity in the world, and is rivalled only by Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
Before Europeans arrived, Māori used hot springs for heating, cooking and preserving food, and for their medicinal and therapeutic properties. These traditional uses did not affect or modify geothermal features greatly. European settlers soon discovered the scenic charms and healing benefits of thermal springs, and spa bathing became the basis of a rapidly growing tourism industry. Bathhouses and treatment centres were set up in Rotorua from about 1870. Between 1891 and 1904 the number of spa baths taken each year by visitors increased from 10,000 to 100,000. At first this demand could be met by the natural springs, but eventually shallow wells had to be drilled to increase the hot-water supply.
Geothermal waters have been used for many years in Rotorua, and to a lesser extent in Taupō, to heat homes, businesses and institutions. It would have been efficient to develop municipal heating systems, but this was hindered by a lack of capital and political will. Instead, individuals and organisations drilled their own shallow bores, using small-scale, primitive heating systems that wasted a lot of the heat.
There were severe electricity shortages in the 1950s and restrictions were imposed. This encouraged people in Rotorua to drill wells to heat their homes. By the 1970s it became apparent that drawing off hot water was depleting the Rotorua reservoir and damaging local geysers and springs. Since 1991 geothermal extraction has been managed to protect surface geothermal activity. Recent trends have been towards communal systems, with 10 or more households typically sharing a well. A major use of geothermal energy in Rotorua is pool heating. Swimming pools can contain clean, fresh water warmed by heat exchangers. Mineral pools use the geothermal waters.
My husband says that he’s had a lifelong dream to see bubbling mud. We were lucky enough to have some right there in our holiday park! But we knew that there was plenty more to see – there are a number of geothermal parks in the area. Even as you drive along the streets you can see steam rising in what appear to be random locations. Kuirau Park Geothermal Reserve near the centre of town is free. It has beautiful gardens, a duck pond and a playground as well as boiling pools of mud, sputtering vents, huffing steam and a crater lake. We decided to spend the day at Te Puia. The Te Puia complex contains bubbling mud pools, geysers, hot rocks, recreated Maori villages, kiwis, and houses a school for master carver and weavers.
We began our day examining the recreation of an old village, which demonstrated the ways that the Maori people lived hundreds of years ago. Then we began a tour of the site, led by our guide Carol, from the local tribe. She told us that since our ancestors migrated here from Polynesia, people have played a central role in our culture. When someone visits, you are expected to show hospitality and respect. At Te Puia, it’s part of our culture to welcome, guide, feed and entertain you, and treat you like part of the family. Te Arawa (‘Teh–a–rah–wah’) are the local tribe of this area. Carol referred to us as family throughout the tour, and interwove explanations of the physical attractions of the area with explanations about traditional and modern Maori culture.
Pōhutu (‘poor-hoo-too’) is the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. She erupts once or twice every hour and sometimes reaches heights of 30 metres. Pōhutu means ‘constant splashing’ in Māori. Pōhutu is the most reliable geyser on Earth. Eruptions can last from a few minutes to much longer. Ngā mōkai-ā-Koko is named after Koko, who was a notable chief of the Rotowhio pā (fortified village) in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. Koko noticed that each time he visited the mud pool it reminded him of playful children – hence the name, which translates as ‘the cherished ones of Koko’. In more recent times Ngā mōkai-ā-Koko has also been called ‘frog pool’, as it is thought that the plopping mud resembles leaping frogs. Te Tohu was also named ‘Prince of Wales Feathers’ geyser in 1901, in honour of a British royal visit to Whakarewarewa. The royal guests noticed a resemblance between Te Tohu’s plume and the feathers on the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales. Te Tohu is called an ‘indicator’ geyser – it usually erupts just before Pōhutu, it’s neighbour. Te Tohu first sprang to life in 1886 following the eruption of Mount Tarawera. It has played almost continuously since 1992 – erupting to heights of up to 7 metres (21 feet).
Rotorua does have a distinctive smell, similar to rotten eggs. It’s due to the hydrogen sulphide released by the geothermal activity. We’ve haven’t found the smell problematic – actually, we’ve become used to it quite quickly. As well as the sulfur compounds released by the geothermal activity there is silica, which creates many of the mineral crusts around the areas where they are released as the very hot water quickly evaporates.
Although there is a kiwi enclosure at Te Puia, the two birds were snuggled up together in their nesting box and did not want to come out for us to take a look at them. Nature doesn’t perform to order!
We observed a welcoming ceremony outside the marae, a large, beautifully carved building. A marae is a traditional gathering place. Here, visitors are welcomed and entertained. From the Te Puia website: Te Aronui-ā-rua is our carved meeting house. This is where ceremonies and concerts are held. It features stunning carvings, intricately decorated panels and impressive weaving. It was built between 1967 and 1981 by students and graduates of our carving school. This was a great honour for those involved, as carving a sacred meeting house is considered the pinnacle of your career. Meeting houses are usually named after a tribal ancestor but because our carving school embraces all New Zealand tribes, it is named after a ‘basket of knowledge’ in Māori belief. The storehouse beside it is extensively carved.
Te Puia houses the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, established in the 1920s to foster all aspects of Māori culture. At Te Puia, national schools of carving, weaving and other traditional arts train talented students from around New Zealand under the guidance of master craftspersons. Because the Maori originally had no written language, the designs in the carvings contain special meaning and pass on stories of ancestors and of the people who carve them.
Unsurprisingly, I was particularly keen to see the women at work producing textiles. The plant commonly known as New Zealand flax – harakere – is actually not related to the plant that provides linen flax. The leaves are used for weaving, and the fibre from within the leaves for clothing, in combination with feathers for special garments.
We spent around five hours at Te Puia. While we were there the weather changed from sunny enough to give Stella a sunburned shoulder to steadily raining. Things are quite changeable! We headed back to the cabin to chill for a little while before heading out again – this time to a dinner and performance at the Mitai Maori village.
The village was set in a particularly stunning location on the side of a hill overlooking the lake. We were led down to a clear cool stream set among the tree ferns and taller trees. It was incredibly beautiful. We spotted trout swimming upstream. After a short while we heard warriors canoeing up the river – it really was quite magical.
From there we saw the unveiling of the hangi – the steam cooked meal that we would be eating after the cultural performance that was to come.
Once again we were treated to a very talented group of singers and dancers, singing in beautiful harmonies and showing off their skills with weapons and the poi. There were explanations – often quite humorous – of the dances and songs, and the patterns of the face tattoos (moko) were described.
After dinner (very tasty!) we went on a night walk through the surrounding area, past recreated Maori buildings, and through the trees. Our guide pointed out the silver fern, the symbol of New Zealand. With the light shining up onto it it really did glow silver! We also went past the bubbling Fairy Spring, the source of the crystal clear stream that had been paddled on earlier. And for me the highlight was walking beside the stream with glow worms providing sparkle of light all in the bushes all around us. Something that I couldn’t photograph, but certainly remember. It was like being in an enchanted forest. Very special.