1YoT: Rotorua

Our last post left us at Kawakawa Bay and from there we traveled south, away from New Zealand’s best beaches but towards some other amazing destinations. First up: Rotorua, New Zealand’s Yellowstone but with a very different visitor experience.

After Kawakawa Bay, we spent a good amount of time on New Zealand’s PCH. It was a beautiful drive, not quite California but still very nice.

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We arrived at our campground at night, where we saw this hedgehog roaming around. Hedgehogs are an invasive species in New Zealand, one that causes lots of problems (mainly eating kiwi eggs) but citizens still like them because they are so cute.

Speaking of invasive species, there are actually no land mammals native to New Zealand. Every mammal on New Zealand was brought by man; the Maori brought dogs and Europeans brought everything else.

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The following morning we took pictures of our campsite. Our location was amazing, right on Lake Rotorua.

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Our view from the campsite. Incredible.

From our campsite we went into town, but we didn’t stay long, we went solely to get tourist information.

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At the tourist center we learned about a Maorian village that adapted some of Rotorua’s hot springs and fumaroles for use in their village. The village, named Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahia (or Whakarewarewa for short, or Whaka for short for short) still has Maorians living in it, and the Maorians give tours that the visitor center highly recommended. The place sounded interesting, so that’s where we went.

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This is Whaka, a Maorian village that sits on several of Rotorua’s hot springs. The village is so on top of Rotorua that several years ago when three new fumaroles opened up, they did so under the floorboards of a resident’s home! The home was immediately condemned, at which point the village came together to build the owner a new one.

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This is the only surviving example of Whaka’s pre-European dwellings. Today, the village is much more modern, residents have cars and electricity and the children even go to school with the modern-world New Zealanders who live outside their village.

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Here is our Maorian tour guide, showing us how the town cooks corn: they lower the raw ears into a 250 degree centigrade hot spring, where they let them cook.

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Even more creative was this contraption. Underneath this wooden box is a fumarole, an opening in the earth’s crust where hot steam pours out. This box traps the steam inside, creating oven-like conditions that the Maori use to bake bread and cake.

These are Whaka’s public baths, connected through stone-cut channels to a ~30 degree centigrade hot spring . Through these channels, each bath is filled with water, where it then waits for a villager to bathe in it. Once bathing is complete, the villager drains the water through a hole in the far side of the tub, then plugs the hole so that the tub can fill up again.

Whaka villagers continue to bathe this way today. The only change they’ve made is that now they cannot bathe until after 5pm, because that is when their public tours end.

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This is Whaka’s ceremony hall, and in addition to this the town has two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant. These churches were introduced by Europeans, who converted all the Maorians they could, basically the ones they didn’t kill or who weren’t converted by the other church first.

The result of converting one town into two religions: infighting amongst the previously cooperative villagers, as each tried to prove their religion was the better one. Eventually, things got so bad the chief had to step in. He called a meeting, gathered the villagers into a crowd, and then split the crowd down the middle. He then declared one side of the crowd Catholic and the other side Protestant. Now, with everyone’s religion determined arbitrarily, no one felt the need to prove theirs was superior. As a result, infighting ceased.

The above is a true story according to our guide. But if it isn’t also a powerful parable, then I don’t know what is.

In addition to two churches, Whaka was also filled with these figurines, whose purpose was to ward away evil spirits and bad luck. Pretty sure this has nothing to do with Catholicism or Protestantism, but whatever.

As part of our tour, we were treated to a tribal song and dance show. The music was beautiful and the instruments so unique, and at one point the men showed us their War Dance, a pre-battle ritual designed to psych themselves up and their opponents out. And despite modern civilization ending warfare amongst Maorians, the Whakans told us their War Dance is still useful: today they perform it before all of their rugby matches. 

Our tour ended with the song and dance show, but we were still free to roam around the village. This gave us the opportunity to go on several short hikes, created by the town to give visitors an up-close look at the geothermal activities the village could not find a use for.

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The hikes culminated in this view, of the town and much of its surroundings. The town’s only geyser is also in this photograph, although it wasn’t spurting when this picture was taken. The town used to have more than one geyser, but the vast majority of Rotorua’s geysers have gone dry due to local spas and resorts diverting the groundwater that fed them.

Inna and I really enjoyed Rotorua. We were worried before we visited, as we didn’t want to pay for a tour of something we’d already seen on our trip. But Whaka was so different, so creative and unique; it was a completely different experience than Yellowstone, and we are really glad we went!

Up next, we still had one day left before our ferry ride to the southern island. We made this day count, spending it at what is arguably the grandest destination on New Zealand’s northern island. To find out what it is, click here.

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