This was a very special place indeed! Those who have been there will know what I mean. Rotorua is famous for its unique geothermal environment, as well as being a very accessible place to learn about Maori history, culture and beliefs. I was really intrigued about visiting the area and was certainly not disappointed. The first impression I received of Rotorua as I drove us in was the increasingly strong stench of sulphur! I suggested Tim open the air vents on our van to experience this initiation! This was not as unpleasant as I had expected, and I found the stronger it was, the less unpleasant it became bizarrely! We also started to observe steam escaping from the ground in the valleys or by the roadside.
Tim and I were not able to stay in Rotorua itself as it was too expensive, so we made daily trips to the Department of Conservation campsite at the Rerewhakaaitu Recreation Reserve. This was a pretty field beside Lake Rerewhakaaitu where Tim enjoyed wading in for a fish each day. I am very relieved that Tim enjoys fishing so much, because it means we both get some precious time to ourselves. Not easy otherwise when we spend 24 hours per day together and share a tiny living space!!!
The highlight of visiting Rotorua for me has to be the famous Te Puia, situated in the Whakarewarewa valley. This geothermal valley saw us strolling around numerous pools of boiling and farting mud of various consistencies (the mud is formed by acid gases and steam decomposing minerals to form a clay called kaolin. It can be bought expensively in tubes to smear all over the skin for purifying and deep cleansing properties!) For Tim and me, it was rather humorous seeing these pools of mud, which reminded me of the Bog of the Eternal Stench in the brilliant film Labyrinth.
We also saw the world famous Pohutu Geyser. This geyser erupts regularly throughout the day, and it was very exciting watching the hot water being violently spat out of the ground and reaching high up into the sky - it can reach up to 30 metres - amidst a cloud of hot steam. It was fascinating to observe. The rock around the geyser was stained burnt orange and a lurid yellow due to mineral deposits in the water and steam.
Te Puia is home to a Maori meeting house, or marae, which we were invited to enter. The meeting houses are central to Maori cultural life, and are the centre of the community, hosting important meetings and events. This meeting house had been carved by students trained at Te Pauia, where Maori trainees can learn the art of carvingat their prestigious carving school - Te Wananga Whakairo. We were greeted by a representative of the Maori community, who demonstrated his warrior moves as he walked towards us. He then placed a silver fern leaf on the ground, which was picked up by our volunteer representative to show we came in peace. We were then invited inside, where we enjoyed observing Maori songs, stories, and dance, including the famous haka, or war dance. This was suitably impressive, with the men beating their chests, slapping their biceps, uttering guttural sounds, staring with wide open eyes and poking their tongues out as far as they would go. Enough to deter any prospective enemy! The women also demonstrated the art of poi, and I was impressed to see them spin 2 poi going in opposite directions in one hand! Clever stuff!
After a much-needed ice cream (all that geothermal rock and steam was making us very hot!!) we went to visit Te Puia's resident kiwi. This bizarre creature was there to educate the public about this fascinating bird and the reasons why it is so endangered, and was part of a programme of breeding kiwis to release in specially made reserves. The kiwi was much larger than I expected - the size of a large chicken - and seemed very happy rooting around in the leaves for tasty morsels. Kiwis are nocturnal, so this one was behind one-way glass to mimic a night time environment.
I was fascinated to learn that kiwis can live for upto 40 years. Sadly, 95% are killed by the time they reach 6 months old, because they are killed by animals such as cats, dogs, and the eggs are eaten by possums. Kiwis cannot fly, and actually bear surprisingly close resemblance to mammals in that they cannot fly, their bones are filled with marrow rather than air, they have an excellent sense of smell, and their feathers are very hair-like.They also nest on the ground rather than in trees. I have been impressed by the seriousness with which the Department of Conservation and various independent projects are trying to protect this fascinating creature and save it from extinction.
Aside from enjoying the geothermal nature of the area, Tim and I went on a beautiful stroll to see Okere Falls, set in a very lush and picturesque river valley. The river was not very wide, but was immensely powerful, and in 3 places, we saw torrents of water squeezing through narrow outlets, creating a force that was spectacularly impressive! We saw 2 stunt canoeists 'playing' in the white water at the base of the least powerful one. It was interesting watching their moves, but I felt quite happy to be safe on dry land watching from the bank! The river was powerful enough to generate electricity for New Zealand's 4th ever power station in 1901.
Another day, Tim and I climbed to the top of Rainbow Mountain to enjoy the views across Rotorua. We were led to believe this would be an arduous 3 hour hike, but when we arrived, there was a group of very sweet looking school children wearing sunhats and nibbling food from their lunch boxes, who appeared to have just returned from the trail. We realized if they had just come down the mountain, it would not be that taxing!! The Maori call the mountain Maungakakaramea (or Mountain of Coloured Earth) as it is stained with mineral deposits from the thermal waters that rise from within the ground. We saw 2 beautiful crater lakes, one a deep turquoise and the other a kind of duck egg green. They were backed by bare, coloured and steaming ridges. The walk saw us hike through unique and rare organic regrowth since the mountain has been cooling down, including an array of lichens, and moss that thrive in the acidic soils, as well as the beautiful and very hardy manuka trees. The last 20 minutes or so was a pretty tough climb, but the views once we reached the top rewarded our efforts. We could see a 360 degree view that included Mount Tarawera, the Paeroa Range, the volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park,Lake Taupo (backed by still snowy mountains), Lakes Tarawera, Rotomahana and Rerewhakaaitu, the Urewera Ranges and Kaimanawa Forest, and Mount Tauhara. Stunning! The very top of the mountain was called Tihi-o-Rua, or The Owl's Perch. I could see why!