In the center of New Zealand’s North Island, a day’s drive south from Auckland, there is a small city named Rotorua.
Rotorua straddles the south shore of a very large lake. Both the city and the lake sit, literally, inside the vast caldera of a mammoth, ancient volcano.
The entire area is bubbling with volcanic hot springs.
The first thing a visitor will notice upon arriving in Rotorua (at least we did) is a faint and vaguely unpleasant smell of sulfur.
We quickly discerned the source.
Directly across the road from our B&B, on the edge of town, was a nice, flat, expansive, grassy park.
Although it looked like an ordinary soccer or football field, with green, close-cropped grass, scattered around the park were steam vents, fenced off to keep people and other creatures out.
The hot springs emanate clouds of steam continually, day and night. The steam has a slight sulfuric aroma.
As we came to learn, the earth’s mantle is very thin in Rotorua, probably the thinnest in all the world (at least on land, as distinct from the ocean floor) . Hot magma lurks at a shallow depth. Water, as a consequence, boils up all over the place.
At its actual source, the heated water would scald or even kill, but it typically mixes quickly with colder surface water. The upshot is naturally heated streams.
Just picture, if you will, the unique, sensual pleasure of swimming and soaking in 90-degree Fahrenheit, mineral-rich, naturally-flowing pristine waters.
This is the reason why people are drawn to Rotorua.
Rotorua’s First Settlers
The first humans, the indigenous Maori people, arrived in New Zealand from the islands of Polynesia only about 1,000 years ago.
Before that, New Zealand was what one scientist has called a “toothless land,” populated exclusively by reptiles and birds. The only native mammal was a small bat.
With that one exception, there were no creatures with teeth anywhere in the land we now call New Zealand.
New Zealand was the last major habitable land mass on earth to feel the footsteps of humans.
Along with the humans came mammals of all sorts. With their teeth and claws, these invasive creatures have pushed to the brink of extinction and beyond the peaceful bird species — many of them flightless, like the Kiwi — that for eons past had enjoyed life in the absence of natural predators.
These past 1,000 years have been tumultuous for the native species.
The Maori people discovered the geothermal wonders of Rotorua within a generation or two after landing in New Zealand. They were able to use the accessible heat of the earth for cooking, bathing and home heating.
Today, the Maori village in Rotorua remains a prosperous and seemingly self-sufficient enclave. They make their living on the tourist trade.
Most of the foregoing we learned from a tour guide in a Maori thermal hot springs in Rotorua, the Whakarewarewa Village.
Our tour guide was good-natured, intelligent and well-educated. She had a remarkable speaking voice that might have made her a great stage actress.
She shared with our group a myth about the origins of the Maori people. There are 12 Maori tribes, she said, descended from the occupants of 12 boats that left the islands of Polynesia in search of new lands. They discovered and occupied the beautiful country we now call New Zealand. In turn, she said, the people of Polynesia have been shown by genetic testing to be descended from people who originated in Mongolia.
“My people,” she said frankly and without embarrassment, referring to the Maori, “were stone age people.” Their encounters with Europeans beginning in the 16th or 17th Century effected profound and not entirely welcome changes.
Nevertheless, the Maori retained land ownership and other rights and have emerged a self-respecting and independent people.
The social traditions, excellent cooking skills and handicrafts of the Maori, as well as their legendary hospitality, are practiced and shared graciously with visitors at the Whakarewarewa Village. It was a highlight of our tour of New Zealand.
Also on display at Whakarewarewa Village are amazing thermal hot springs, geysers and bubbling hot mud.
Here is a link to a video showing the geyser at Whakarewarewa as it erupts. We saw the same phenomenon during our visit.
Whakarewarewa Village also features a live Kiwi bird, our only actual sighting of New Zealand’s iconic national bird during our visit there.
The lone female is kept in a dimly lit house built especially for her as she awaits the opportunity to be bred with a captive male.
The hapless, flightless Kiwi are endangered due to the introduction of invasive predator species into New Zealand from abroad.
One day during our stay in Rotorua we drove out of town to visit a resort featuring a hot stream with a waterfall. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
It was an unforgettable experience to sit under the heated rushing water. What a great day we had!
Redwoods of Home
One more aspect of our visit to Rotorua that we cannot fail to mention was our hike in a Redwood forest.
A century ago the enterprising New Zealanders planted a huge grove of Redwoods from Northern California. It was part of an effort to test New Zealand’s capacity for growing various types of timber. The experiments of that age led to today’s thriving lumber industry in New Zealand.
Happily, from our perspective, the Redwoods were a bust for the lumber industry in New Zealand. Today, a century later, the massive trees are allowed to grow without interference in the hills above Rotorua. We enjoyed a beautiful hike through the forest. It felt so strange to be in among the Redwood trees in a place so very foreign and so far from our home in Marin County California, where the Redwoods are native.
When we emerged from the Redwood forest at the top of a hill, we had an outstanding vista of the entirety of Rotorua below, including the Whakarewarewa Village.
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New Zealand is a wonderland, and one of its wonders is the geothermal region around Rotorua. We loved being there.