Slap bang in the middle of the Bay of Plenty lies Rotorua, a fascinating little city with more than enough to keep even the most restless itchy-footed backpacker happy for a few days. This geothermal, heavily Maori influenced hot spot (literally) is only 2.5hrs from Auckland, an hour from the Mt Manganui beach and 2.5hrs from the Tongariro ski fields to the south.
Having lived and worked here for six months on a working holiday visa, I’ve had a great insight into life in a volcanically active area, learnt heaps about ‘Maoridom’ and identified which streets to avoid due to the sulphuric eggy aroma! The locals say its rain followed by hot weather that transforms Rotorua to Rottenrua. Ok, so it might be nicknamed Sulphur City or Eggville but at least it’s natural! Have you ever been to smog-ridden London on a hot sticky day?
Unsurprisingly then, one of the main attractions of Rotorua are its geothermal wonders. There’s bubbling mud pools, steaming crater lakes, natural spa baths and, not to be confused with dodgy cockney gentlemen, geysers, the biggest of which ‘Pohutu’ (Maori for Big Explosion) throws up water 30m in the air continuously for well over 10 minutes.
Another geezer, sorry geyser, at the nearby Wai-o-Tapu geothermal Park goes by the name of Lady Knox, which thanks to the cheeky introduction of washing powder blows her top at without fail at 10.15am daily. The rest of the park contains some awesome volcanic scenery, just don’t wander of the path or you’ll christen a new crater the ‘Bubbling Backpacker’ if your not careful!
For those of you hard up, the good news is most of Rotorua’s natural attractions are absolutely free and within easy walking distance from the city centre. Bordering Ranolf Street to the west of the city centre is Kuirau Park; featuring a huge bubbling Crater Lake and ‘interactive’ mineral foot baths set amongst beautifully well kept gardens. To the east of the city centre, behind Government Gardens, you’ll find Sulphur Point; several wooden walkways lead you through the bubbling mud pits and steaming fumaroles, there are also information boards for those intrigued by the volcanic goings on!
The Maori community have been utilising the areas geothermal healing properties as a cure for aches and pains ever since they arrived here way back in the 14th century. Nowadays, instead of making a fatal error and sitting in the wrong mud pool, most of the hostels and motels have their own spa baths or you could indulge in an appropriately named AIX massage, utter pampering – you lie under hot jets of spring water whilst being massaged at the same time.
There’s Maori culture on tap in Rotorua, in fact traditions and customs of the Maori are very much alive, it’s not uncommon to see the ‘hongi’ on the city streets (the symbolic sharing of breath by pressing noses together). True, the average Maori bloke may look like an All Black prop forward but I have been astounded by the genuine friendliness of these gentle giants. You’re more likely to be greeted with a ‘kia ora’ or a ‘howzit bro’ and a big smile rather than something resembling the haka!
If you’re short on time but still want to immerse yourself in ‘Maoridom’ attend a Maori ‘hangi’ and concert. Throughout the evening you are taught Maori beliefs and customs, you can watch an authentic Maori concert, see a haka and pig-out on the ‘hangi’ – a delicious, large portioned feast cooked under the ground in an earth oven, far nicer tucker than your average backpacker cuisine of 2 minute noodles!
For those on an even tighter time budget Te Whakarewarewa Experience at the southern end of Fenton Street (I’ve counted 45 motels dotted along Fenton Street, no wonder locals call it Roto-vegas!), is an excellent microcosm of all things Maori and its Thermal Reserve has an abundance of bubbling mud and spurting geysers, all set amongst magnificent dense forest.
If tours aren’t your bag, stroll down to Ohinemutu Village on the lake front, where you’ll find a superbly carved Maori marae (called Tamatekapua) that was built in 1887. Directly opposite is the equally as impressive St Faiths Anglican church. On one of the stained glass windows there’s an image of Christ adorned in a Maori cloak, which eerily gives the impression, he’s walking on Lake Rotorua!
Surrounding Rotorua are many more worthwhile attractions. Just five minutes out of the centre are the ‘Redwoods’, part of the tongue twisting Whakarewarewa Forest Park. There are six walking trails criss-crossing the park, ranging from a leisurely 2km’s to a 34km 8hr ‘big loop’. The longer trails provide some excellent views over the city. If walking is too much like hard work, take a gondola to the top of Mt Ngongotaha, soak up the view of Mokoia Island in the middle of the lake and whizz back down in a luge!
With 11 picturesque lakes and several thunderous rivers surrounding Rotorua it’s rude not to participate in some kind of aqua based adventure. Several rafting companies take those brave/crazy enough over Tutea Falls on the mighty grade 5 Kaituna River, it’s apparently the highest raftable waterfall in the southern hemisphere. Something to tell the grandkids if you survive!
To the north of the city is the Agrodome, an adrenalin haven where you can Bungy (of course it is NZ!), Swoop (hurtle towards terra-firma at 130kmph in a sleeping bag), Zorb (cure nasty hangovers, rolling downhill inside a water filled gigantic bubble), scoot about in the nippy Agrojet or, errr, feed the farm animals.
For a small city, Rotorua has a surprisingly buzzing nightlife. Refuel yourself in one of the classy yet competitively priced restaurants that line Tutanekai Street before hitting a late night bar to completely finish you off!
I’d strongly urge those travellers who dismiss Rotorua as a smelly egg-fest to give the place a chance; it has kept me entertained for five months! Let’s think logically, there are not many places in the world where geothermal activity is so easily accessible or traditional indigenous customs are so commonly upheld and accepted throughout the whole community. Rotorua is a uniquely intriguing place with plenty to offer everyone, especially students of geology, culture vultures and even adrenalin junkies!