Rotorua is one of those towns that just bubbles with energy – in every way possible. From its massive geysers and fizzing geothermal mud pools to its ziplines and high-octane outdoor sports, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the adventure.
This town of 70,000 people lies almost in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island and is a place that you might be able to identify even with your eyes closed. Rotorua is famous for its geothermal activity. In some parts you’ll notice a rotten egg-type smell. That’s the sulphur. As you drive into town it’s incredible to see the steam rising from fissures and cracks in gardens or alongside the road.
I was here in New Zealand’s winter and the single-digit Celsius temperatures added to the amount of steam. On some stretches of the dual carriageway leading into the city my view was momentarily obscured. It looked like an old-fashioned steam train was coming.
There’s a geological reason for this, obviously. “We are five and half kilometres above a molten lava lake. Every other city is around 15 to 20 km above. We have the thinnest crust,” tour guide Mels Ngatai told me at Te Puia Maori Cultural Centre and Geothermal Reserve – where you can watch the regular eruptions of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest geyser, Pōhutu.
This area has been a popular tourist attraction for centuries. In the mid-1800’s, well heeled Europeans sailed for months for an opportunity to see an incredible natural site formed by the geothermal activity – the Pink and White Terraces. Fifteen minutes drive from town, hot springs pumped mineral-rich water out of the ground. As the stream cascaded down the side of Mount Tarawera, pools and a series of steps were formed before the water reached Lake Rotomahana.
“They were the Eighth Wonder of the World,” tour guide Lyn Williams told me at nearby historic site, Te Wairoa. “The pink one glistened the colour of salmon because it had more iron oxide in the water. The white one was spectacular and spanned 2.8 hectares across the bottom. Its whiteness came from silica. There was a geyser at the top which overflowed and formed pools.” Lyn, dressed in period costume of the mid-Victorian era, flicked through old sepia and hand-coloured photographs of the terraces – all we have left of these magnificent natural structures.
Te Wairoa village is on the lake, 12km away from where the terraces once stood. European missionaries worked with the local Maori community to create a settlement here to service the travellers who came to see the terraces. “This was the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand,” Lyn explained. “There was nothing much else here at the time. A local Maori tribe would take you across the lake on a boat to see them.”
Then, on the morning of 10th June 1886, the terraces were wiped off the face of the earth. “The villagers awoke to a massive rumbling and fireballs shooting out of the mountain. At 2.30pm there was a huge earthquake and the whole mountain erupted. It was ripped apart. All the hot magma and mud were pushed to the surface and that collided with the lake, creating a massive hydrothermal explosion. It destroyed everything in its path, including the terraces. Over 120 people died in that short period,” said Lyn.
Te Wairoa is also known as ‘The Buried Village.’ It was consumed by the volcanic mud and ash – New Zealand’s own version of Pompeii. In the 1930s, the Smith family bought the land and slowly started to dig out the buildings that had been covered. Lyn’s tour tells the stories of the people who lived in the community. You can walk inside the excavated properties. They’ve cut a cross-section into the debris so you can see how much material came down after that volcanic eruption. The mud is like concrete, over 10ft deep.
At the side of the buried village there is a beautiful wooded walk along a fast-flowing stream, which leads on to an impressive waterfall. Along the walk you’ll see one of the traditional Maori canoes, used to ferry tourists across the lake. They build them in sections, usually three pieces of wood lashed together, to enable easier transport over land. You can see the holes where this watercraft was reassembled.
There are also small information panels describing the plants that grow. Many might be unfamiliar to Europeans. I found the Maori understanding of the medicinal qualities of these leaves, shrubs and herbs fascinating. The Kōhūhū, or Pittosporum tenuifolium, looks a bit like a bay leaf. Maoris chewed the resin as a breath freshener and used the leaves to relieve eczema.
The waterfall is definitely worth a visit and the power of the white water plunging vertically over the rock is impressive. You can feel it vibrating through the wooden handrails of the viewing point. It is easy to get to if you’re okay with wooden steps.
Now, imagine you have a boatload of European tourists who have spent months at sea in order to visit the terraces. But by the time they arrive, the big attraction has been completely obliterated. That’s where nearby Rotorua stepped in. “There was no app or text messaging to communicate with them and tell them that the thing they were coming to see was no longer there,” explained Sean Marsh, one of the marketing team at Te Puia. “So when they arrived, they guided them through to this geothermal valley.”
Te Puia Maori Cultural Centre and Geothermal Reserve is just outside Rotorua and it’s a fascinating place. It offers both a chance to get close to the geothermal activity as well as an insight into the culture of Maori people, who view this site as a special place. Its actual Maori name is Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahio. I was pleased that it has been shortened for everyday use!
Te Puia is set out as large park with footpaths that you can take on a self-guided trip of the bubbling mud pools and steaming hot springs. Sean explained that their massive geyser is a big draw. “It goes up about every 80 minutes. It’s the highest vertical eruption of any geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. It usually goes for 15 to 25 minutes but I have seen it go for four hours and that freaked me out!” he laughed.
Or you can take a guided walk through the site, as I did with Mels. We stood at a viewing platform overlooking the field of steaming, bubbling mud and water as the geezer sprayed upwards, as if a massive fire hydrant had been toppled. “The bubbles are actually acid gases and steam being released from the molten lava below,” Mels shouted to the party, above the noise. “Over the years, nicknames have been given by our visitors. The most popular ones include ‘leaping fire pool’, ‘porridge pot’ and the favourite is ‘politician pool.’ It’s not as if we want to throw them in there. It just resembles a lot of hot air – like most of our politicians!”
Mel’s family has a strong connection to the park. She spoke fondly of her childhood playing in the hot pools with friends and relatives. “The cemetery is the beginning of our village. This is where my mum was born and my grandfather grew up. This is why I say this was my playground,” she explained.
As she led our party she shared anecdotes on how the first New Zealanders, the Maoris, harnessed this wonder of nature. We stopped to look at the bright colours formed by the different minerals bubbling up through the rock. “You get the reds from the iron oxide and the yellows from the sulphur. Our people learned they could harvest the red clay and make it into a fine powder. By adding oils from shark livers it could be used to preserve wood.” It’s the vivid red colour that can still be seen on many Maori structures and carvings across New Zealand.
Visitors can also benefit from all that natural heat coming to the surface. Your lunch can be cooked by geothermal activity. “It’s our steam box lunch,” Sean explained. “Guests arrive around 11 o’clock each day. When the tour starts, they choose their ingredients and make up their own lunch bag. Our guys then put the food into a steam vent inside a basket. Whilst it’s cooking the visitors go on a guided tour through the geothermal valley. Then we bring out the food and serve it. It is usually chicken, sweet corn, potato, as well as cabbage and watercress blended together. And there’s kumara, which is like our sweet potato. The food has a unique tang but it doesn’t taste of sulphur,” he assured me.
When you see the power of the geothermal activity and realise how unpredictable it is it’s easy to understand why Maori people have such a high respect for nature and the environment. You learn more about Maori ingenuity because the site is also home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, which offers demonstrations in weaving and carving. There are plenty of examples to see.
There is a school on site too and the centre is connected with the project to teach traditional seafaring navigation using the stars. “We’re holding on to those pillars of our knowledge,” Sean added, “Especially the navigation because that’s how we arrived here from Polynesia. There’s so much wisdom about the world around you passed on within Maori culture.”
Earlier on the guided walk Mels had picked up a silver fern leaf and explained how it can be flipped over to mark your return route when walking in the thick-forested overgrowth – what is known locally as ‘The Bush.’ “You just lay a little trail and if something happens, such as you get lost, injured, your cellphone goes flat or your beacon doesn’t go off, then if somebody is out looking for you they will see the overturned fern trail and they’ll know how to find you.”
On site you can walk around a reconstruction of a traditional Maori settlement including a marae. You’ll find these buildings at the hub of local life within Maori communities. It’s a collection of buildings adorned with beautiful, red-painted wooden carvings. “The marae is the whole space the house sits on and you find them throughout Polynesia,” Sean told me. “They are the place where all the discussions take place and conflicts are resolved. The buildings are very important. They are the embodiment of former ancestors. All of the carvings maintain our connection with our forefathers,” he added.
Each day there is a cultural performance that mixes music with dance and movement. Traditionally these performances weren’t for entertainment or show. The actions were to improve agility and coordination in Maori warriors. And even though I was in New Zealand during the British Lions rugby tour, the performance of the haka went down particularly well!
Rotorua has been built for tourism but it’s relatively well established for a New Zealand town. It was a spa town and definitely has that grand air. There are beautiful parks surrounding impressive mock Tudor-style, half-timbered buildings, which hail from the Edwardian period. The former bathhouse is particularly impressive, with its gables and towers. It now houses the museum. When I walked past, people were playing croquet on the lawns. Very grand!
The town sits at the head of Lake Rotorua and there’s a small area of open parkland, rather like a common, between the water and the shopping street. It’s a good place to sit and watch the pleasure boats head out to the island in the lake or watch the flying planes land on the water. Rotorua centre is small and compact with four or five main streets of canopied shops.
There are some interesting food choices. The city recently built a pedestrianized foodie zone. “It’s called Eat Street,” Jeff Percival from The Springwaters Lodge explained. “It has been designed for tourists and locals. Those twenty or so restaurants offer all different types of food.” It’s also possible to visit a Maori cultural evening in town and some of those prepare a traditional feast known as a hangi. That’s where the food is cooked underground. It’s said to create delicious and succulent meat.
If you’re in Rotorua on Thursday evening, they close off a town centre road and fill it with food carts and trucks offering a huge selection of menu options. I found a Cornish pasty store with a sign reading ‘Cornish Grandmother Approved.’ There’s live music too.
Rotorua can get quite busy in the New Zealand summertime. This lakeside city is a popular stop with backpackers and has earned the nickname ‘Roto Vegas.’ There’s a large choice of entertainment and attractions but I wouldn’t say that they are tacky. I reckon the name has stuck because there are just so many things to do in close proximity. Whether you fancy crazy golf, escape rooms, climbing walls, a 3D maze or a cable car ride, you’ll find it here.
Many of the Rotorua’s experiences make the most of the stunning New Zealand landscape. “There’s white water rafting. The Kaituna River is the nearest one to us,” said Jeff, adding, “It is a grade-5 river and there’s a 7m waterfall that you go over!” As the city sits within New Zealand’s Lake District, these beautiful stretches of water running between the mountains offer great sightseeing, photo snapping or watersport opportunities. “You can go kayaking on the lakes and some of the companies operate evening trips, which include seeing glow-worm caves,” said Jeff. Some of the lakes have hot pools or hot springs like Lake Tarawera. Just a short drive from my guesthouse is the Blue Lake. It’s a couple of hundred yards from the Green Lake and yet they both have distinctive colours.
My accommodation, The Springwaters Lodge, was a beautiful and comfortable guesthouse with five rooms located in a small village called Hamurana, alongside Lake Rotorua. It’s close enough to reach all of the attractions conveniently but far enough from Rotorua for you to avoid the sulphury pong!
I was amazed to see dozens of black swans bobbing about on the water next to the shoreline. “I don’t think I’ve seen a white swan down here,” Janice Percival from Springwaters Lodge told me. “Apparently they are a New Zealand native because they’ve been here more than a hundred years.”
Jeff and Janice really looked after me. Guests can roam freely around their large property. All their spacious, comfortable and very clean rooms are ensuite. There’s also a guest area where you can make drinks, help yourself to home baked cakes or grab a complimentary glass of wine or beer. The couple also offer a lavish breakfast. I was delighted to be served a personal favourite, crumpets! “We have a beautiful garden too,” Janice told me. Sadly, my visit in New Zealand’s winter meant that I wasn’t able to enjoy that space fully.
“One big thing that people want to see when they come over here from Europe is nature,” Jeff told me. “There’s an island in the middle of the lake called Mokoia, which you can catch a jet boat to. When you walk around, the birds will come up to you because they’ve not had a great deal of human contact.”
Just a few minutes walk from the guesthouse is Hamurana Spring, the deepest natural freshwater spring on the North Island. It’s a lovely stroll through the tall, densely packed redwood trees. You literally bounce along on a surface of spongy, bouncy twigs and needles.
You soon reach a wooden deck, which leads down to the spring and you can then peer into the 50-foot deep cavern. Many people had thrown in coins. Next-door is the Dancing Sand spring, so called because the water dislodges sand at the bottom. It’s very peaceful although the ducks were making a bit of a racket.
I headed to another forest where the quiet birdsong is occasionally punctuated by screams and laughter! Rotorua Canopy Tours are located twenty minutes from Springwaters Lodge and just fifteen minutes from the town. Visitors whizz along 1.2 km of zip lines stretched between wooden platforms high in the trees.
I walked into the forest with marketing manager Nicki Dent. “The trees are all native to New Zealand so you won’t find them anywhere else. The majority are tawa trees and the bigger ones, which host our platforms at up to 23m off the ground, are rimu trees. They are thousands of years old,” Nicki explained in her English accent. She fell in love with Rotorua whilst visiting New Zealand and decided to stay.
Small groups complete the aerial journey through the forest together, as one party. It was interesting watching the body language of our participants. Some were very much ‘up for it’ and confident. Others became ashen faced before the first ‘zip’ between platforms. That was until they reached the opposite platform and their relief became palpable, as they started grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s a circuit,” explained Nicki. “There are six zip lines and two swing bridges so we explore the forest from all different layers of the canopy. We fly over the top, we walk on the ground so they get to see a little bit of everything.” During this three-hour experience you will learn all about conservation efforts to remove introduced species, which are creating problems for indigenous wildlife. “We are trapping any introduced predators, such as possums, rats and stoats, because they endanger our native birds,” said Nicki. “We have a trapping program in this forest and customers learn about that on their way around.”
For centuries New Zealand birds lived without being targeted as food and that’s why they’re so tame. As we stood on a platform waiting for our group safety briefing, a little Robin that had been watching us from a branch above flew down to eat out of the instructor’s hand. You can learn more about the zip lining and conservation activities at CanopyTours.co.nz.
If you don’t fancy launching yourself along a zip line, there are other options to explore the forest. The Redwoods Treewalk is a half kilometre-long walkway of interconnected wooden bridges. They are suspended from the trees in a way that does not damage the trunks. “The redwoods were planted in around 1901. They were brought here by the New Zealand government because they realised that native trees didn’t grow quickly enough for forestry,” Karen Mather explained to me, in another English accent. “You start six metres up and the tree walk goes on for a total of 553m. As long as you can walk that distance on the ground then you’re fit enough to go on the walkway,” Karen said, adding, “You just need to walk up two wooden flights of stairs to reach the first platform.”
You don’t need harnesses or protective gear. You just need to make sure that nobody is purposely bouncing in order to scare you, because the bridge does swing! The walkway gives you a chance to see the forest from a different perspective. “You get a bird’s eye view,” said Karen.
Although you won’t get the forest views after dark, a nighttime visit is recommended. “We offer the redwood nightlights in the evening, when we turn on lanterns on the tree walk and spotlights on the ground. It is a completely different experience at night.”
If you’re more of an adrenaline junky, there’s Ogo. Owner Andrew Akres invented the zorbing craze here in New Zealand back in the 1990s. That’s when you climb into a giant, transparent, inflatable ball and roll down a hill. “A buddy and I came up with the idea, thinking that we’d like to walk on water and a big ball would be the way to do it. So we found some plastic and glued it together and hoped that it was spherical and water-tight,” Andy explained. “We quickly realised that operating on the water was not going to work. We had to find another way. That’s where the idea of rolling down hills came from.”
Now Andy has taken the idea to another level. Ogo is when you climb into one of the plastic bubbles and zigzag down a hill, changing direction five times. Or you can go directly down the steep incline of 35m. “It’s steeper than a car can drive up,” Andy explained. “It’s about 20° in terms of slope. You get up a fair amount of speed. People don’t seem to realise that the Ogo balls are over 3m in diameter, so it’s like looking at an elephant. From a distance elephants don’t appear to be going very fast. When you’re up close to one, they are really hoofing it. It’s the same with Ogo. When you’re inside it feels way faster than it appears from the outside.” You can do it in the dry or have your plastic orb filled with warm water, which sloshes around as you make your descent – like a moving, bouncing water slide.
If you’re travelling to New Zealand, it’s a big trip and you’re probably going to plan ahead. Rotorua should be part of your plans. It’s so central, it makes an excellent North Island touring base. You’re just 50 minutes from the beach, too! There’s so much business competition in town, I found prices cheaper here. Meals cost at least 10% less than in other Kiwi towns of similar size and there are many more options for cheap, filling food.
Rotorua offers enough entertainment for the most diverse group of travellers with its beautiful lake-filled landscape, incredible geothermal sites and rich Maori cultural experiences. Rotorua originally developed around the needs of tourists and today you’ll still notice how well visitors are treated in this town. They call it ‘New Zealand’s coolest hotspot.’ You’re bound to experience a warm welcome.
Rotorua is around three-hours drive from Auckland or you can take a half-hour domestic flight. I was kindly accommodated by Jeff and Janice. Look them up online at SpringWatersLodge.co.nz. Visit Rotorua helped me plan my trip. Their website offers masses of useful information on activities and itineraries at RotoruaNZ.com.