Rotorua - a geothermal wonderland


The natural thermal activity throughout New Zealand's Rotorua makes it a place that needs to be seen to be believed.

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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"To preserve and protect what you have - nothing could be more important to us. We look at what has been provided to us through the land, and we use it and respect it completely. We live as one with the natural world."

My crash course in New Zealand's Maori culture comes courtesy of a fellow passenger on my flight to Rotorua, in the country's North Island. She tells her tale of deep respect and oneness while the locals around us slumber gently in their seats. The scene would be the picture of serenity, if it weren't for me.

Sitting a couple of rows from the front of the plane, which also happens to be just a couple of rows from the back, my knuckles are white as my nails dig into the armrest. My breath hitches as we bump through the cloud.

My thoughtful seat buddy tries again to distract me with tales of her culture, but as the clouds part she needn't worry. We're flying over some of the most gorgeous scenery now, and my breath catches for an entirely different reason.

If this is what nature has provided, no wonder the people are so keen to safeguard it.

Rolling green hills, beautiful lakes, majestic mountains, lush forests and pretty much every other wonders-of-the-world cliche you can think of - Rotorua has it all, and all within a stones throw of each other.

And protect it they do. You'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in New Zealand where sustainability is so seriously considered.

Rotorua was the country's first region to set up a Sustainable Tourism Charter, a now 80-odd-member strong grassroots initiative that has local businesses working towards a greener future.

"The Charter actually began as just a research project," says Eldad Collins, one of the faces behind the idea.

"We wanted to look at what was already happening out there, and, in theory, the feasibility of setting out on a mission like this, the things a Charter might address. From there it became, 'Hey, this is a really great idea. Let's do it!'"

Today, the charter members - each of whom are assessed before they sign up, and inspected throughout their membership - commit to the continuous improvement of their eco-credentials.

"They each have their own checklists of things they can do to boost their sustainability. Everyone is taking their own approach to reach that green Nirvana," says Collins, who is the go-to guy for group members needing support, advice and practical assistance.

For their efforts, as well as the knowledge that they are helping to protect the environment, and in addition to the savings that naturally come with efficiently using resources, charter group members get to bear the membership crest.

If you're headed to Rotorua, this green badge of honour is one to look out for as you choose from the many touristy activities on offer.

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."

Another world

The beauty of geothermal systems can also be appreciated with a visit to the multi-eco-award-winning Waimangu Volcanic Valley, whose CEO, Harvey James, was one of the Sustainability Charter's founding members.

While Whaka village may be an up close and personal, getting-to-know-you experience, Waimangu offers up a completely different vibe. Though just a short drive from the main city area, here you feel as though you may very well be the last - or very first - person on Earth.

Taking a leisurely 45-minute walk (or more challenging 4-hour hike) through the valley is like trekking through another time and place. And indeed, it practically is - this area represents the world's newest geothermal system, and the only to be formed within written history.

It was violently birthed during the 1886 erruption of Mount Tarawera, with springs, lakes, craters and steaming cliffs springing forth to form this utterly mystical, untouched landscape.

The wonders here are numerous, though the startling azure blue Inferno Crater Lake is a particularly stunning sight to behold (its colour changes as the crater fills and overflows in a regular cycle, so to see it at its highest and bluest is a treat), as is Frying Pan Lake, the world's largest hot spring at 38,000 square metres in area.

If you can bear to close your eyes, the sounds to be heard here are just as amazing. From the call of native birds like the tui and fantail, to the drumming rhythm of the bubbling springs, the percussion of nature in the area is a wonder in itself.

After your walk, take a relaxing boat trip on an old fishing vessel, where churning springs, steaming mountains and pristine water all butt up against each other.

"It's like heaven and hell come together," breathes the man next to me as we drift past one particularly active vent. "I feel like I'm getting a glimpse of the afterlife."

But lets not be so hasty - there's still plenty to see and do before we go there!

The mouth to Hell is surprisingly heavenly

A trip to the Hell's Gate Spa, for example, is pretty high on the list.

Located on Rotorua's most active geothermal field, formed around 10,000 years ago, Hell's Gate (or "Tikitere") offers visitors the opportunity to explore the 2.5-kilometre expanse of walking paths on their own or with a tour guide.

After checking out the highest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere and taking a gander at an active mud volcano (which is preparing to make its regular, bi-monthly blow as I wander past), you'll be forgiven for thinking you've stepped onto a movie set as you take in the further reaches of the grounds, where boiling mud plops away, water hisses in massive pools and - if you're lucky - spontaneous, purple-coloured sulphur fires ignite on the hot ground of Sulphur Crystal Valley.

Then, when the excitement's all over, you can return to the Spa complex for a relaxing private mud bath, warm sulphur spa and traditional Maori massage. As this journalists' happy muscles will attest, you won't regret it.

While geothermal activity is at the heart of Rotorua - both physically and metaphorically speaking - there's plenty else to do aside from being stupefied by the natural wonders of the place.

From exploring the history of the Maori culture and Rotorua's past at the local museum, to hurtling your way along the Kaituna River, white water rafting down the world's highest commercially-rafted drop, there's something here for everyone.

It's a place I'm loathe to leave, and not just because it means boarding that little plane again...

Kia ora! Lauren travelled to Rotorua courtesy of Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com.au), and was hosted by Destination Rotorua Tourism Marketing.