Rotorua, one of the major stop off points in the North Island is also known as Rotovegas by some kiwis as it does have plenty to offer due to its geothermal activity sourced from the Rotorua caldera. Like many of the smaller towns and villages that we had passed on our journey south, it had a very compact centre with all sorts of shops and restaurants as well as a couple of hostels and information centres. Not too big with none of the buildings being taller than a couple of stories meant it was a nice town that wasn’t too hectic and had everything that is needed.
With an endless number of things to do there, we visited the local I-site for a bit of advice on which attractions were worthwhile doing as we were on both a limited timescale and budget. With a visit to a Maori village being a must, we then had to decide between the expensive evening experience (NZ$110) at Te Puia and Tamaki or the daytime saver (NZ$30) to Whakarewarewa village which is still inhabited by the Tuhourangi/ Ngati Wahiao people. This particular tribe, the only living Maori village left in Rotorua, is one of the sub-tribes which descended from the 7 original tribes that landed in New Zealand. Unknown as to where they actually arrived from, Maori beliefs are that they came from Hawaiki, the mythical homeland in tropical Polynesia which translates to “a breath on the ocean”.
At Whakarewarewa we were able to experience the sights, smells and observe first-hand a unique cultural way of living in one of the few untapped natural geothermal fields in New Zealand. Despite most of the locals being out at school and work, we were still able to see how they live, as well as being taught about some of their traditions.
Close to the entrance of the village is the main central building which is used for many of their gatherings such as celebrations as well as funerals. The building is apparently always designed in the same manner with each component having a meaning. To name a few of the significant ones, the front door and window are meant to represent the mouth and eye, respectively, which sit below the main ancestral statue which sits on the tip of the roof.
Located on top of these geothermal fields, the Tuhourangi/ Ngati Wahiao people make the most of the boiling mineral springs by using them for bathing and cooking. The springs within the village are all said to be bottomless by scientists and are found to be at temperatures of 98-100*C at the surface and 300*C at around 17m deep. Surrounding the springs, where the water has dried up, there are a number of colours which are the different minerals which are found in these waters. Colours such as yellow, white, brown and orange were quite common due to significant amounts of sulphur, calcium and iron. From the springs, they channel the water to a corner of the village where they collect the water in pools which they then use to wash themselves inside. Unlike the western world, this “bathroom” is an outdoor communal bathing area which the entire community use together and is the only place in the world to live on and utilize geothermal baths…naked. Aswell as for bathing they will use this boiling water to cook a number of foods by dropping them in small flax bags where they will only leave them for a couple of minutes if that. To give us an idea as to how hot the waters were, they would apparently cook mussels in 45 seconds and a lobster in just under 3minutes.
Due to the geothermal activity below the ground surface, the Tuhourangi/ Ngati Wahiao people will also use the heat to cook most of their food. Scattered around the village are six “steam/hot boxes” which are wooden boxes sunken in the ground reaching temperatures of 200 – 250*C. Despite the strong smell of sulphur, all food made in the village is cooked in these boxes as it is a natural source of energy and will not burn or dry out the food.
Just outside the village are the Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers Geysers which are an example of the levels of geothermal activity below Whakarewarewa and as to how powerful the forces are within the earths core. These Gysers erupt on a regular basis ejecting water to heights of approximately 30m. Unfortunately we were unable to experience this wonder as it is an act of nature which is unable to be predetermined, however it is supposedly quite impressive.
One of the steam cooking boxes
Mud pool Local Maori children at a nursery
As part of our tour we were also invited to enjoy a cultural display from one of the families, where we witnessed a number of their traditional songs and dances including the famous Haka. For this display they wore their traditional Maori clothing which were all made out of natural materials, aswell as their superstitious green stone necklaces which each have a significant individual meaning. Prior to the performance we were also given a short demonstration as to how a Maori women’s skirt is made, using nothing more than leaves that are shaved into a set pattern specific to the tribe and then left to dry.
Demonstration on skirt making A traditional skirt