Since ancient times, Rotorua's thermal activity has been the primary appeal of the region initially providing practical assistance to Maori settlers in their day to day activities
Maori legend tells us that thermal activity was brought to the region through the plight of the famed Arawa tohunga (high priest), Ngatoroirangi, who was in danger of freezing to death at the summit of Mt Tongariro south of Lake Taupo. He sent prayers to the gods in his original homeland of Hawaiki, to give him warmth which they did by sending fire travelling deep underground. This fire surfaced first at White Island off the coast of the Bay of Plenty and then at various points between Rotorua and Taupo before finally arriving at Tongariro in time to save Ngatoroirangi (pronounced Na-toe-roy-rang-i). At every point on this route where fire surfaced, thermal and volcanic activity remains, the areas of most concentrated activity being Whakarewarewa, Waimangu, Waiotapu and Tikitere (Hell's Gate).
Dramatic reminders of this legend are shown by the volcanic activities of White Island, Mt Ngaruahoe and Mt Ruapehu which gave the country a scare in the winter of 1995 sending skiers from its two ski resorts back to a safer distance.
Throughout their history local Maori tribes, descendants from the original Te Arawa tribe, have harnessed the heat provided from the earth by their gods, to cook, clean, bath and heat. Known as Te Wai a-Ariki (Water of the Gods) the Maori have always been mindful of the blessing these resources have been throughout their history to the present day, and pay respect to their gods for these great gifts.
There are many places in and around Rotorua where you are able to see an amazingly diverse selection of thermal activities ranging from powerful geysers, bubbling mud pools, fumaroles, colourful sulphur pools and many thermal swimming pools. The following are particularly easy to access.
Whakarewarewa is perhaps the focal point of thermal activity in Rotorua which is mainly due to its proximity to the central city. It is here that the mighty Pohutu Geyser plays regularly throughout the day to heights of around 30 metres alongside the smaller, though no less active, Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser. There are many other geysers in "Whaka" although these are the two most notable.
Also of interest are the many mud pools. One is affectionately named the frog pool as the spurts of mud, thrown up due to the heat of the mud, often resemble jumping frogs.
Whaka is also a good place to observe the traditional methods employed by residents in cooking and to see other ways they have utilised thermal activity such as for bathing and for heating their homes.
Waiotapu (meaning "Sacred Waters") is famed for its colourful variety of pools each subtly tinted giving rise to such names as "Artists Palette" and "Champagne Pool". Many of these pools have formed in craters which were created when a subterranean stream eroded away the earth underneath. Another notable attraction at Waiotapu is the Lady Knox Geyser which is manipulated daily through the use of soap to cause more dramatic and regular eruptions.
In moody contrast to the colourful pools of Waiotapu, Waimangu provides a stark reminder to the power of the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. Prior to this eruption the stunning Pink and White Terraces provided the area with a unique beauty in the form of silica terraces with subtle hues and textures. After the widespread destruction caused by Tarawera, the entire landscape of the region was changed forever.
Today the main attractions at Waimangu include the Cauldron, a huge boiling lake of over 4 hectares and the sizzling, crackling Fryingpan Lake.
Tikitere (Hell's Gate)
To the north of Rotorua Tikitere (also known as Hell's Gate) is renowned as being the most active thermal area in the region. The pools here bubble away fiercely reinforcing the image of a most appropriately named place. Visitors to Tikitere are able to shower under the warm waters of Kakahi Falls and treat themselves to the therapeutic waters of the Sulphur Bath known for its healing properties.
A visit to Tikitere can be easily combined with a visit to nearby Lake Rotoiti, an extremely picturesque spot en route to Whakatane and Kawerau.
Behind Pukeroa Hill, on the outskirts of the central city area, lies a public reserve known as Kuirau Park. Legend tells us that a beautiful young woman by the name of Kuirau was bathing here in her private pool where she came to each day. One day a Taniwha (water serpent) who dwelt deep in the pool seized her and dragged her to his lair. The Gods, upon witnessing this, caused the waters to boil thus killing the taniwha. The waters have boiled ever since making the area now too hot for bathing although there are several foot pools for public use.
The Government Bath House
Under government control in the later part of the 19th century, Rotorua developed as a health spa. The government quickly recognised the potential of the warm waters as a therapeutic cure for ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism and were quick to capitalise on the European fashion for health spas. They leased an area from the Ngati Whakaue of Ohinemutu to develop as a spa town with the first building being the Government Bath House opening in 1882. This Tudor -styled building was created with a mind to recreating the ambience of a European spa resort and it now appropriately houses the Rotorua Museum.
This commercial complex is only 24 years old, although visitors have been coming to this lakeside site for over 100 years. A wide variety of pools of varying temperatures including adult pools, private pools and a luxury lake spa are set amongst most pleasant surroundings.
These are some of the better known areas of thermal activity in Rotorua. There are many others including the Soda Springs at Rotoiti and Kerosene Creek which are freely available to visit. In some cases it may pay to have a guide to help you locate them.
Other areas of interest include the buried village where the eruption of Mt Tarawera buried the small village of Te Wairoa and other lakeside settlements on June 10, 1886. Its also possible to take a four wheel drive tour up the "broken" mountain. Julia Rika, a decendent of the Ngati Rangitihi and Tohourangi tribes who resided in the area prior to the eruption, operates "Mountain Magic". As well as a tour of the mountain aboard a 4WD vehicle, you'll get to hear accounts of the horrific night of the eruption which have been passed down through several generations.
In this day of modern appliances and convenience living, you may be surprised to learn that many families in Rotorua still rely on thermal activity in their daily
activities of cooking and bathing. Indeed many homes do not have a stove or oven and families steam all of their meat and vegetables. Steam heating in the form of a pit oven known as a hangi is the traditional method of Maori cooking and in this case the heat is provided by superheated stones.
Local Maori have always espoused traditional values in the use of any resource and this applies as much to thermal resources as to forests, fishing grounds and rivers. The emphasis is to use the land's bounty conservatively only taking as much as is required so as not to exhaust what nature has provided.
This was demonstrated a few years ago when it was discovered that the number of bores in and around Whakarewarewa was affecting the performance of the geysers within the thermal reserve. Concern was such that bores were shut in order to maintain the force with which the geysers spouted. Thankfully the force has been fully restored, and a trip to geothermal Rotorua remains one of the main highlights of a visit to New Zealand