Feature

Rotorua - a geothermal wonderland

Steam near lake

Steam swirls up from all kinds of places throughout Rotorua.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Hangi box

Hangi boxes at Whakka Village provide delicious and eco-friendly meals.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Steaming cliffs and Frying Pan Lake at Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is full of natural wonders.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Inferno Crater Lake

Inferno Crater Lake at Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Boiling mud

Be captured by the plopping mud making mesmerising patterns at Hell's Gate Spa.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Steaming cliffs

No, it's not a fire! Just Rotorua's active geothermal landscape at work.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

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The hills are alive

One of these must-see attractions is the living geothermal village, Whakarewarewa (or 'Whaka' for short).

Much of Rotorua city itself sits atop an active geothermal field. If the gentle scent of sulphur wafting on the breeze hasn't given this away yet, then the vents of steam swirling out from random cracks in the earth should tip you off.

Whaka is just one of the many places where you can see the surface activity of the field up close and personal, but the setting is what makes it so incredibly unique.

The village is 'living' in more ways than one. With boiling and steaming sulphur pools, bubbling mud pits and spurting geysers, the earth here is clearly active. But, as well as being a popular tourist destination, the village is also alive with the people who still call it home.

"What makes this place so different is that it's real. People were living here this way long before the tourists, and this is why the whole area of sustainability is so important," says Grace Neilson, chief executive of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village tours.

"We get people who come through here and say, 'Gee, this is like walking through someone's backyard.' Well it is - you are!"

The village is open for visitors between 8:30am and 5pm, but outside these hours, those who still live here go about their business.

And what fascinating business it is.

Cooking here is a particularly interesting - and delicious - task. One of the largest bubbling, thermal hot pools in the village is reserved for the cooking of freshly grown vegies, including mouth-wateringly sweet corn on the cob, while another steaming pool is used to prepare meats, de-feathering chickens and de-hairing pigs with ease.

The natural underground steam is also harnessed to prepare meals, with everything from meats and vegetables to rice and incredibly moist chocolate mud cakes being cooked in traditional 'hangi boxes'.

Simple pits dug into the ground, the locals plonk their food into the 'slow cooking' hangi at the start of the day, put a rock on top of the box to indicate it's in use, then return at meal-time to collect their bounty. They've also got 'fast' and 'medium' versions of the geothermal cooking boxes available, dug in different areas of the field.

As I did, you can try the results at the village café, where chef Liz combines the slightly-smoky tasting and perfectly tender foods into unique 'hangi pies'.

Usually the residents would also be able to use the natural thermal resources here to bathe and wash their clothes freely (due to the hot ground and sulphurous conditions, installing piping isn't really an option).

When times are good, the vegie-cooking pool overflow is channelled into a series of baths. For months now, however, the main baths have remained dry, leaving just one bath in the village still functional.

"The pool stopped overflowing in February because the water just got too low," Neilson recalls. With people drawing on the natural geothermal system things are cooling down, she says ("if we don't have respect for what we have, we get burnt"), and many of the springs and geysers are turning dormant. There are also cracks in the earth that naturally drain the waters.

"We don't know whether we'll get the baths back. We're at the mercy of nature, but the system is constantly changing, so we can hope."

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