"Clean Steam - Smell Hell - Culture Capital" Top 5 Page for this destination Rotorua by Kakapo2

Rotorua Travel Guide: 501 reviews and 1,294 photos

New Zealand's First Spa Town

You would think Maori land should look a little more exotic. But the hills around Rotorua are as green as the pine-covered Black Forest. Ok, not all trees are pines, and the bush is dotted with old rimu and beeches, huge gum trees and those majestic tree ferns that are so typical for New Zealand. But the landscape around Rotorua looks European at first glance and has nothing of the spectacular scenery of the South Island or the tropical magic of the Far North. But thanks to its geothermal wonders the region is unique in its own way.

Rotorua was New Zealand's first spa town. The beautiful Tudoresque architecture of the marvellous old Bath House and other prominent buildings is a legacy of an attempt to capture the atmosphere of the traditional European spa.

The earth is boiling in the central North Island, thanks to volcanic activity. At every street corner steam is rising from cracks and pipes, rotten egg smell is hanging in the air. It is the typical odour of hot sulphur springs, exactly: of hydrogen sulphide. The Maori name of the Government Gardens is Whangapiro - which means: an evil smelling place. But exactly this had made the town rich.

The sulphur is not only good for the skin of the 1.6 million visitors Rotorua attracts every year but also for the coffers of New Zealand's number one tourist town. They save millions, as they are heating their houses and hotels with it at nearly no cost. Every hotel and motel has a heated swimming pool or at least a spa and mineral pool. Even seven per cent of the power results from the heat of the earth.

The Maori who make up 38% of Rotorua's population (compared to 14% nationwide), traditionally used the 200 to 300C hot springs for cooking, washing and bathing. Only in a wide area around the famous Pohutu geyser it is forbidden to drill, so the water pressure of the geyser does not diminish, as the geothermal wonders in and around town and the features that attract visitors to the 68,000 people town.

They are trying hard to make visitors stay longer than a night in Rotorua. And admittedly, they have a lot more to offer than erupting geysers, stinking steam, bubbling mud pools and Maori shows as the tourist side of blooming Maori culture. The area boasts of 15 lakes for fishing, and about 70 kilometres of fabulous mountainbike tracks around town, in the Whakarewarewa Forest and on Mount Ngongotaha, where the MTB world championships took place in August 2006.

Getting up to Mt. Ngongotaha by gondola you have spectacular views over Lake Rotorua with its thousands of black swans and picturesque Mokoia Island. Nearby are newer tourist attractions like the Agrodome and the Zorb.

Fight against Dog Droppings and Criminals

Although the town is stinking more on some and less on other days, depending on the direction of the wind, Rotorua is a very clean town. Not only because washing and bathing is so cheap ;-) At some point the City Council had enough of dog owners who did not clean up after their dogs, and the droppings on the footpaths would turn visitors off. So they imposed a ban on walking dogs in the town centre.

When a man named Brett Marvelly broke this rule in April 2006 by going for an early morning walk with his three-legged labrador and - silly him - left one of those doggy time-bombs behind, the district court sentenced him to a NZ$ 260 fine. A neighbour had informed the council about Mr. Marvelly's walks at dawn, and an animal control officer, hiding behind the shrubs, had been waiting for him.

But with the punishment of this non-compliant dog owner the action "Our City Must Become Cleaner" is not over. City Council and Police have imposed a ban on criminal elements in the city centre. Main targets were citizens like the Tonihi family who used to commit small thefts and snatch handbags from tourists - and probably still do... Anyway, this five women household was in front of the courts 111 times by July 2006 when I researched on this subject. So in August 2006 even Maori leaders agreed that it would be best to keep such criminal elements out of the city.

Like anywhere else in New Zealand, Maori are the main target of the action, as they commit about 50 per cent of all crime in the country, and guess how it is in a town where they make up 38% of the population. Also, Rotorua is infamous for gang related crime and drug wars. But don't be afraid - under normal circumstances you will not get aware of those crimes while just travelling in town. However, you will notice crime watchers on the public carparks at the geothermal attractions in the area, as far too many tourist cars have been targeted by criminals. Those places have clearly become safer, thanks to this private initiative.

Tricks and Loyalty of the Arawa Tribe

Rotorua is the centre of the Arawa tribe. In its history you will find some very interesting points. First, the trick used to gain control over the land at the lakeshore. Second its role in the Maori Wars, staying loyal to the government.

When the Arawa canoe had reached the Bay of Plenty in the 14th century, some parties moved to explore the inland. When a warrior named Ihenga reached Rotorua (which means: second lake), he saw smoke and realised that other people were already living there. Secretly he replaced his own nets and posts by some he found at a tauhu (sacred shrine) by the lake, and when he met the inhabitants he claimed that they were on his land. When they challenged his claim he said they should compare their tauhu to his to see which one was older. His trick worked. The inhabitants made way and the Rotorua area was claimed for the Arawa tribe.

The Arawa people stood out for their support of the government in the Land Wars of the 1800s. This role was recognised by presenting them a bust of Queen Victoria that is still standing at the Maori village of Ohinemutu.

After the end of the wars, increasing numbers of visitors were drawn to the attractions of geothermal activitiy. The main settlement by the lake was Ohinemutu. To take advantage of the thermal waters, the Government developped Rotorua as a spa town and tourist centre.

Geothermal Wonders Created by High Pressure

Rotorua forms part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The activity is the result of molten rock cooling slightly and solidifying to trap steam and other gases, so this rises pressures until the steam and gases force their way out and up to the earth's surface. The hot springs at the Government Gardens are fed by water heated under pressure to more than 200C. A geyser erupts when an underground column of water is heated beyond boiling point and flashes into steam, expelling the water held above the flash point. As pressure plays such a big role, geysers normally are most active when the air pressure is low.

The most famous thermal areas of the region are Whakarewarewa ("Whaka"), Waiotapu, Waimangu and Tikitere, also known as Hell's Gate. Whakarewarewa Maori Village, BTW, is the place where the sub-tribe moved to after the eruption of Mt. Tarawera. A visit to Te Wairoa - now "The Buried Village" - is an incredibly interesting experience. You can have a close look at how destructive the power of nature can be. A fact that is valid until today, and a threat with which this highly active region has to live every day.

Around Lake Rotorua you find more springs for fishing than you can imagine. As mentioned earlier, the region features 15 lakes, Lakes Rotoiti, Okataina and Tarawera being the most beautiful ones. But they have one thing in common: Like Lake Rotorua, they look cleaner than they are. They are heavily polluted from dairy-farming and sewerage.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:An impressive mixture of the power of nature and culture
  • Cons:The rotten egg odour and the Europeanised forests
  • In a nutshell:See the positive side of the stink LOL
  • Last visit to Rotorua: Aug 2006
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (18)

Comments (2)

  • Yaqui's Profile Photo
    May 3, 2009 at 4:04 PM

    Adore the Tudoresque architecture so beautiful. I can simpathize with the Maori, but it does sound unfair to charge so much for the tours and with not in keeping of protecting the lands. The teddy bear is adorable. Great tips!

  • lynnehamman's Profile Photo
    Feb 28, 2009 at 1:54 AM

    Sissi-Great page and excellent info on Rotorua.Well researched. I would love those mud baths, but give that big rolling ball a wide berth! Watching the Haka at rugby games- the Maoris could frighten me a lot lol!Good about the doggy-poo rules.


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