You smell Rotorua long before you see it. Hydrogen sulphide drifting up from natural vents in the region’s thin crust means that a whiff of rotten eggs lingers in the air, but after a few hours you barely notice it. The odour certainly doesn’t stop any one from visiting this small city on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua. Indeed, this is the North Island’s tourist destination par excellence – so much so that locals refer to the place (only half-jokingly) as Roto-Vegas.

A big part of the appeal is that Rotorua is one of the world’s most concentrated and accessible geothermal areas, where 15m geysers spout among kaleidoscopic mineral pools, steam wafts over cauldrons of boiling mud and terraces of encrusted silicates drip like stalactites. Everywhere you look there’s evidence of volcanism: birds on the lakeshore are relieved of the chore of nest-sitting by the warmth of the ground; in churchyards tombs are built topside as digging graves is likely to unearth a hot spring; and hotels are equipped with geothermally fed hot tubs, perfect after a hard day’s sightseeing. Throughout the region, sulphur and heat combine to form barren landscapes where only hardy plants brave the trickling hot streams, sputtering vents and seething fumaroles. There’s no shortage of colour, however, from iridescent mineral deposits lining the pools: bright oranges juxtaposed with emerald greens and rust reds. The underworld looms large in Rotorua’s lexicon: there’s no end of “The Devil’s” this and “Hell’s” that, prompting George Bernard Shaw to quip that the Hell’s Gate thermal area “reminds me too vividly of the fate theologians have promised me”.

But constant hydrothermal activity is only part of the area’s appeal. The naturally hot water lured Maori to settle here, using the hottest pools for cooking and bathing, and building their whare (houses) on warm ground to drive away the winter chill. Despite the inevitably diluting effects of tourism, there’s no better place to get an introduction to Maori values, traditions, dance and song than at a concert and hangi evening.

The lake’s northern and southern boundaries are marked by two ancient villages of the Arawa sub-tribe, Ngati Whakaue: lakeshore Ohinemutu and inland Whakarewarewa. The original Bath House is now part of Rotorua Museum, set in the grounds of the oh-so-English Government Gardens, which successfully and entertainingly puts these early enterprises into context. Half a day is well spent on foot visiting the museum’s fine collection of Maori artefacts and bathhouse relics, and strolling around the lakeshores to Ohinemutu, the city’s original Maori village with its neatly carved church. Afterwards, you can ease your bones with a soak in the hot pools set in a native bird sanctuary by catching a boat out to Mokoia Island.

At the southern end of town, Maori residents still go about their daily lives amid the steam and boiling pools at Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, while the adjacent Te Puia offers the region’s only natural geysers, plopping mud and a nationally renowned Maori carving school.

Where Rotorua’s northwestern suburbs peter out, Mount Ngongotaha rises up, providing the necessary slope for a number of gravity-driven activities at the Skyline Skyrides. In its shadow, Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park, provides a window into the life cycle of trout, and an excellent Kiwi Encounter, while the nearby Agrodome fills the prescription for adrenaline junkies.

Some of the region’s finest geothermal areas lie outside the city – For more information, see Around Rotorua.

Brief history

The Rotorua region is the traditional home of the Arawa people. According to Maori history, one of the first parties to explore the interior was led by the tohunga (priest), Ngatoroirangi, who made it as far as the freezing summit of Mount Tongariro, where he feared he might die from cold. His prayers to the gods of Hawaiki were answered with fire that journeyed underground, surfacing at White Island in the Bay of Plenty, then at several more points in a line between there and the three central North Island volcanoes. Ngatoroirangi was saved, and he and his followers established themselves around Lake Rotoiti (“small lake”) and Lake Rotorua (“second lake”).

Battles and bloodshed

In revenge for an earlier raid, the Northland Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika, led a war party here in 1823, complete with muskets traded with Europeans in the Bay of Islands. The Arawa retreated to Mokoia Island, in the middle of Lake Rotorua; undaunted, Hongi Hika and his warriors carried their canoes overland between lakes (the track between Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoehu still bears the name Hongi’s Track) and defeated the traditionally armed Arawa. In the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s the Arawa supported the government. In return, colonial troops helped repulse Te Kooti (see box, p.383) and his people a decade later.

The birth of tourism

A few Europeans had already lived for some years in the Maori villages of Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa, but it wasn’t until Te Kooti had been driven off that Rotorua came into existence. Tourists began to arrive in the district to view the Pink and White Terraces, and the Arawa, who up to this point had been relatively isolated from European influence, quickly grasped the possibilities of tourism, helping make Rotorua what it is today. Set up as a spa town on land leased from the Ngati Whakaue, by 1885 the fledgling city boasted the Government Sanatorium Complex, a spa designed to administer the rigorous treatments deemed beneficial to the “invalids” who came to take the waters.

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