Photo: Entering the steamy atmosphere of Whakarewarewa Thermal Village in Rotorua
With a long distance to cover on Saturday (January 6th), we left Napier at first light and headed north on Highway 2. After crossing the "new" land, passing the airport, and skirting part of the shore of Hawke Bay, the route took us inland on twisty, hilly, scenic roads to Wairoa. Here we turned northwest on Highway 38 which was ranked at number 9 on the list of Best Drives in New Zealand for Stunning Scenery. We had to be prepared to drive at a modest pace for much of the day because where the 258-km long road (161 miles) passes through the former Te Urewera National Park, about 40 km (25 miles) are unsealed.
It may seem odd to see the phrase "former National Park" because what nation would disestablish a National Park? This particularly isolated area of native forest was the site of long-term Maori resistance because the local Tūhoe people never signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Europeans. Resistance continued until 1916 when their leader was arrested for political reasons but local people are still proud of this heritage and many speak in the Maori language on a day-to-day basis.
In March 2013, the Tūhoe signed a deed of settlement, settling the tribe's claims at the Waitangi Tribunal. Under the deal, Tūhoe will get $170 million and more control over Te Urewera. Thus, in 2014 the 60-year-old National Park designation was withdrawn and replaced by the legal entity named Te Urewera, although the new entity still meets the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria for Category II - National Park. The area is still open to the public and is administered by the Te Urewera Board which comprises joint Tūhoe and Crown membership. The Department of Conservation will continue to work in Te Urewera to maintain the tracks and facilities in conjunction with the Board.
Given the history of Maori resistance in the area, the untamed forests, and perhaps because Te Urewera translates to "The Burnt Penis", the area has long been rather intimidating to Pakeha (non-native) New Zealanders. The name relates to the tale of a Maori chief who died after rolling over in his sleep while lying too close to a camp fire. But those reasons do not stop plenty of people from enjoying the excellent camping, hiking, and fishing opportunities in the forest. For example, along the southern side of Lake Waikaremoana (Sea of Rippling Waters), a large lake perched high-up in the hills, there is a very popular 46 km (29 mile) track with several remote huts (chalets).
The north arm of Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewera
The road follows the north shore of the lake and we stopped at the beautiful new building of the Visitor Center. Oddly, it was empty apart from a few brochures about the hiking tracks and a small group of employees deep in discussion around their laptops. In retrospect, I realized that they were probably trying to coordinate getting roads and paths cleared after the storm that passed through on Friday but at the time we had yet to see the scattered damage to trees and roads.
On the bridge over the top of Mokau Falls looking at a cascade on the other side of the valley
Mokau Falls full of water as seen from the small cascade on the other side of the valley
We also walked down a short, in places squelchy, trail to look at Aniwaniwa Falls which were absolutely thunderous with the water from the storm. We also stopped to peer over the edges of other marvelous waterfalls, such as on the Mokau Stream, or look across narrow valleys to massive cascades. As we progressed, there was also plenty of water running down the road, places where the edges of the roads were undercut, rock debris that had been washed onto the road, and quite a few trees and branches down although none were fully blocking the road.
We frequently came across rock debris on the roads in Te Urewera
A wash-out along the edge of the road through Te Urewera, a result of the recent storm
After leaving the lake, we picked-up a hitch-hiker. At first we thought that Robbie was a Park Ranger since he was dressed in the exact colors that US National Park Rangers wear, but he soon hauled his backpack out of the grass. He had been hiking across the Ikawhenua Range but had to wait at a hut for two days of torrential rain. He wanted a ride to the village of Ruatahuna where he would stay with a friend before tramping north back over the hills to the Maori community where he was doing his medical-school internship with the community doctor. That Maori community is trying to become a self-sustaining village, modern in some ways but integrated in traditional ways with the forest. It sounded pretty interesting and he seemed particularly enthusiastic about the use of native plants for healing.
After dropping Robbie off near his friend's house and stopping for a picnic lunch at a bend on the Whakatane River, we eventually ended-up in the town of Rotorua where the mild but pervasive sulphurous-(sulfurous)-odor of bad eggs announces that you are in the heart of New Zealand's most dynamic thermal area. We had seen, and smelt, the area when on the bus to Wellington two years previously but this time we wanted to see what the stink was about.
First, we walked around Kuirau Park where there are plenty of volcanically generated steaming ponds and a few mud-pots. The chief advantage of this site was that parking and admission was free and there were a couple of recently constructed pools in which one could sit and dabble one's feet in the hot water. Apparently, an eruption in 2003 covered the whole area, including the trees, in mud which drew crowds of spectators. We assume that the process was slow enough that no people were covered and cooked but the story is a sobering reminder that these are still geologically active areas.
Kids lose sight of their family on the boardwalk over a steaming lake in Kuirau Park, Rotorua
After a wander on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua (which does not share the characteristic of crystal-clear water with the larger, more southern Lake Taupo, or at least not on this day), we visited the Rotorua Rose Garden but were unable to go into the highly-regarded museum. The huge, impressive building in a grand Tudor-style was in 1908 an elegant spa resort called the Bath House where some fairly eccentric therapies were administered. Sadly for us, the museum is currently closed (and may be for another year) for major renovations.
The magnificent (but closed) Rotorua Museum
After a pleasant night at the VR Rotorua Lake Resort (slightly confusingly on the shores of the neighboring Lake Rotiti), we returned to town the next morning "to do" the Te Whakarewarewa thermal reserve which has more than 500 geothermal springs. It might have seemed rather unfortunate that there was light drizzle at times throughout the morning but the coolness made the area extra steamy and the weather really did not detract from the almost mystical atmosphere.
A distant, steamy view of the Pohutu Geyser seen from the Thermal Village
There are several places where Rotorua's geothermal features can be explored but we had narrowed our options down to two. One was to visit Te Puia which is the more expensive, thermal theme-park combined with Maori cultural exhibitions and which includes the 30-m tall Pohutu geyser which erupts up to 20 times a day. This had been our originally intended destination but instead, for various reasons, we decided at the last-minute to go to the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village. This neighboring site is a living village where the locals (tangata whenua) reside, as they have for centuries amidst the steaming pools. The village must be doing quite well judging by the new cars, nice houses, and attractively brick-paved main road.
Food-steaming boxes and hot pools are surrounded by fences in the central part of the thermal village on land that is not stable enough for houses
Visitors are not required to take a tour but it is included in the entrance fee and is very informative. We had an excellent guide who is also a teacher at the village's Language Nest which is called Te Kohanga Reo. Such pre-schools were established throughout New Zealand after the Maori language was introduced into the national educational curriculum in 1982. Only Maori language is spoken in Kohanga Reo and many people in this village speak it on a daily basis.
The full name of the village is Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao which translates to "The Gathering Place of the Army of Wahiao". Wahiao was a Warrior Chief who gathered an army in the area 300 years ago to avenge the killing of his father. It seemed a bit surprising that the geothermal surroundings did not seem to register as worthy of including in the village's name but the importance of the Chief Wahiao was also emphasized in the name Whare Tipuna for the village's marvelously and intricately carved meeting house. Impressive on the outside, we did not get to see inside the meeting house because they were preparing for a funeral.
Whare Tipuna - the thermal village's meeting house
A Maori village has persisted in this dynamic landscape for many generations, the inhabitants taking advantage of the steam heat in their daily lives. We saw an example of a small pre-European house constructed from tree-fern trunks that was surrounded by the steaming vents. The modern wooden houses are located on the most stable areas of ground between the vents but the slightly sulphurous steam does mean that outside walls have to be repainted quite frequently.
An example of the small, pre-European style of house made from tree-fern trunks
During the outstanding tour, we were shown how villagers often use the steam to cook food in wooden frames over particular vents. It was also explained how at the beginning and end of the day, villagers use the communal baths (no clothes) to clean, heal, and thoroughly warm themselves. Geothermal methods are no longer used to heat houses, and few businesses outside the village are actually allowed to tap directly into the geothermal water, because in the 1900s overexploitation of the resource resulted in significant lowering of the water-table and cessation of the eruption of the geysers.
Our guide demonstrates how food is steamed in wooden boxes
Hot water from a thermal pool (left) is cooled to a tolerable temperature in channels that feed the communal baths (right)
Slightly disappointingly, the path to the overlook closes to the Pohutu Geyser was temporarily closed due to damage from the recent storm but we did get to see the geyser erupting from another lookout point. There was so much steam in the cool humid air that the water spout itself was difficult to see anyway. After the tour, we enjoyed walking along some of the trails around the small, steamy lakes near the village. We also obtained front-row seats for a good performance of Maori singing and dancing by one of the families from the village.
The ever-popular haka dance is part of the cultural show at the thermal village
Our visit to Rotorua had been brief and selective but we would highly recommend taking a tour at the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village. There are many other parks, spas, and adventurous activities to enjoy in the area but after just a few hours there, we felt that we had a much better appreciation of Rotorua's natural wonderland.
Steaming ponds surround the south side of the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village