New Zealand: North Island – Rotorua
Exploring the hot springs of Hidden Valley and the fascinating Te Puia, Maori Cultural Centre.
Orakei Karoko (the Hidden Valley)
We woke to a gloriously sunny day in Taupo and decided to head out early to make the most of the day. The plan was to make our way to Rotorua, some 40 miles away, where we would be stopping 2 nights. During our stay in Taupo, we had picked up leaflets about a place called Orakei Karoko, or the Hidden Valley. This place is a bit off the beaten track (as hidden valleys usually are) and apparently had some interesting geothermal features. During our previous travels, we had been to some volcanically active places such as Iceland, Yellowstone Park and Hawaii so we had a good idea what to expect as far as geothermal things go. What we did find was something very special.
The good thing about arriving early was that we had the place to ourselves. There is a circular path that takes you past an array of limestone terraces, hot springs, geysers and fumaroles. The visitor centre sits on the opposite side of a very pretty lake from the trail and in the early morning sun, we had a spectacular display of rising steam coming from numerous places in the dense vegetation across from us. From the visitor centre, there is a boat which ferried us across to the trailhead. We headed up the trail which took us past some fast bubbling hot springs and a glorious limestone terrace. The forest rose around us made up of an assortment of trees, including some primordial looking tree ferns. We would not have been surprised to see a tyrannosaurus rex come crashing through the undergrowth towards us. It was a magical place to be on that sunny morning and we really enjoyed meandering our way along the trail.
Te Puia, Maori Cultural Centre, Rotorua
Sadly, we had to leave the Hidden Valley and continue our journey on to Rotorua which we reached around lunchtime. It was still a lovely day and the weather in these parts can be somewhat changeable so we pulled forward our plans from the following day to visit one of the local Maori cultural centres that pepper Rotorua. We chose the most renown cultural centre, Te Puia.
Our first port of call was to watch a performance of Maori songs and dances. Our group gathered underneath a shelter where we were met by a jolly lady dressed in traditional costume. She explained the ritual of what was about to happen, and from amongst us, a chief was chosen to represent our tribe. Once these formalities had been completed a group of Maori warriors appeared from their meeting house and their chief came forward and conducted a ritual which was used to determine whether we had come in peace or were there to have a bit of a rumpus with them. They looked pretty scary and we were armed with nothing more dangerous than cameras, so we sensibly chose the peace option. Once we were all friends they invited us into the meeting house where our “chief” did the formal greeting with all the Maori warriors, touching of the nose twice over. Now it was party time and we were given a wonderful performance of traditional Maori songs and dances, ranging from love songs to the famous Haka war dance. Those Maori warriors look very frightening when they stick out their tongues and give you the open-eyed stare – we were not tempted to laugh at them however silly they looked.
After the cultural performance, we joined a guided tour of the rest of Te Puia. Our first destination was the Whakawarewatanga thermal reserve. ‘ Whararewarew’ is an abbreviated version of Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, meaning ‘The uprising of the warriors (war party) of Wahiao’, often shortened simply to ‘Whaka’ by the locals. Like Lake Taupo, Rotorua is essentially in the centre of a giant volcanic caldera. Whilst this presents an element of danger from eruptions and earthquakes, it also provides a wonderful source of hot water and heat, which the Maoris throughout their history have taken full advantage of. In the area is the spectacular Pohutu Geyser (meaning “big splash” in Maori) which erupts every hour, firing torrents of water and steam up to 30 metres in the air. These eruptions can last up to 10 to 15 minutes. There are some 500 hot pools and 65 geyser vents in the Whaka reserve and as with all thermal areas, these can change overnight as the ground below is moving and continually reorganising its plumbing system. A short distance from the Pohutu Geyser us a particularly active bubbling mud pot, which over the years has grown to be about 30 metres in diameter and is now threatening to consume the adjoining hotel complex.
It was soon time to move on and we walked through the Kiwi house (more on Kiwis later) and onto the carving and weaving schools. Sadly, over several generations, as in numerous native populations throughout the world, many traditional Maori skills have been lost under the pressure of burgeoning western influences. In an attempt to save the important heritage crafts and skills several schools have been established across New Zealand to try and preserve these aspects of Maori culture. The Maoris are a tribal nation and as a consequence different tribes have their own stories to tell through their arts and crafts. Carving, or Whakairo in Maori, was more than just decorative because it provides a written record of Maori history and folklore. Te Puia’s Te Wananga Whakairo or carving school runs three courses teaching these skills.
After checking out of Te Puia we checked into the hostel in Rotorua. This hostel is quite big and is modern, and somewhat characterless. The rooms were very steamy and the weather was not even that warm! Anyway, we quickly ate our dinner and set-out for the night market just a couple of blocks away. We wish we hadn’t eaten at the hostel as there were some yummy foods to be had, but we settled for ice cream and took a walk down to the lake. It was getting chilling by this time and we were dressed for the warmth of the day so we soon turned around and headed back for our all too toasty room at the hostel.
Where is Rotorua?