AUSTRALASIA > New Zealand (North
Island) > Rotorua
Smoke on the Water
Article & Pictures © 2006 Nicolette Loizou
underground the plates flirted and danced, forcing ground level
New Zealand to brim with volcanoes, bubbling mud baths, flowering
geysers, crystalline glaciers and smoky lakes
the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates smashed together, New Zealand
and its surreal landscape were born. Deep underground the plates flirted
and danced, forcing ground level New Zealand to brim with volcanoes,
bubbling mud baths, flowering geysers, crystalline glaciers and smoky
lakes. Rotorua, right in the centre of the North Island, seethes with
so much geothermal activity (applied by cold rainwater plunging through
rock cracks towards heat sources before exploding in geysers and hot
springs) that when I first arrive I am immediately jolted by the rotten
egg sulphuric smell that regularly accompanies rising pockets of steam.
Kuirau Park, just on the edge of the town centre, is perhaps Rotorua’s
premier geothermal site hazed in a permanently sulphuric smoky cloud.
Gingerly entering the mysterious mist I am confronted with a fizzing
lake. Crossing the bridges I am hit by waves of the natural smoke. Later
that evening some Anglo visitors and I make a midnight trip to the park.
We burst into Smoke on the Water in collective unison and break into
air guitar as we breathe in the sulphur fumes.
Maori, Rotorua’s first inhabitants, also saw the theatrics in
Kuirau. According to ancient Maori legend, the lake owes its unusual
name to a beautiful woman called Kuriau. Interrupting Kuriau’s
bathing routine one day was a fearful, legendary monster called the
taniwha who seized her for his evil lair below the lake. Fuming Maori
gods caused the lake to boil so the evil taniwha would be destroyed.
Nowadays the bubbling magnetism that seeps beneath Rotorua’s earth
is being channeled into New Zealand’s renewable energy projects.
Thanks to New Zealand’s subterranean activity this relatively
small country nearer to the Antarctic than Europe is engaged in some
of the most innovative natural energy schemes in the world. Direct use
of the geothermal energy (without the need of a pump or power plant)
warms up industrial powerhouses, residential buildings, greenhouses
and public pools. Electricity is teased out from the potent earth. The
vast majority of the country’s transport relies on fossil fuels.
And in Rotorua, the dingiest hostel to the most glamorous hotel provides
an on-site thermal pool as standard. Such is the ubiquitous powers of
the waters here that travellers doing the round the world long-haul
warn of doing any washing in the town – your underwater will stink
for ages they confide. But the benefits clearly outweigh the cons. The
locals - including the more mature ones - all seem to be blessed with
amazingly clear, plump, well-hydrated skin.
I am keen to experience this beauty side-effect so I take the opportunity
to visit one of Rotorua’s natural spas. One of the most famous
is The Polynesian Spa which positioned itself comfortably in Condé
Nast Travellers’ top ten spas in both 2004 and 2005. I bounce
into the simple wooden changing rooms to the sight of a mass of hyperactive
Chinese women fiddling with each others’ swimming costumes. They
– and I – troop towards the mineral pool: the accepted first
stop in the bathing schedule. It is with some amazement that I discover
I am as excited as the babbling Chinese women as I bash my elbow on
the pool’s stairs in my haste to get in. Instead of wincing at
the pain I dip myself into the pool – elbow first – to the
immediate panacea of its soothing alkaline content.
The Maori were the first to recognise Rotorua’s therapeutic benefits
which are said to help with arthritis and rheumatism; the area is often
referred to as ‘Cureland’. When the ancient Maori first
settled in Rotorua they harnessed its waters for cooking, washing medicines,
dyes and ritual bathing. Contemporary Maori still number a large portion
of Rotorua’s demographic and see themselves as the natural kaitiaki
(guardians) of these precious geothermal treasures today. But for the
most part, the Maori and the Pakeha (the Maori term for New Zealand’s
white settler inhabitants) work together on these environmentally friendly
schemes for the benefit of their country’s clean, green, no-nukes
After bobbing up and down with the Chinese ladies I progress to the
other mineral natural rock pools that increase in heat and intensity.
Sweltering in the forty degrees of the Spa’s hottest spot there
is little to do but wallow and admire the serene aqua stretch of Lake
Rotorua. Chirping on the sidelines of the pool, hemming me in Hitchcockian
style, are gangs of native black-billed gulls.
that soaking in Rotorua’s warm, cleansing waters made me feel
a little wrinkly, but a 20 minute drive to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
reassured me I had chosen the right waters in which to take my dip.
Here lies the visual force of New Zealand’s fault-line in one
freaky landscape. Half sci-fi set, half unique eco-system – it
is a startling and seductive assault. Vast swathes of bubbling pools
in vivid colours, angrily swirling mud pools, cavernous tunnels –
this is the environment’s own representation of Hell.
Peering into the Devils’ Cauldron, my first thought is a refusal
to believe that nature can produce this colour. It looks more as if
my five year old nephew has been having fun with Dylon, when
in fact, is it one hundred per cent straight-up natural thanks to the
mineral content. Gazing at the luminescent sunshine tones of the Artist's
Palette I am immediately reminded of retro drink Lucozade.
It even gases at spots on the surface like the old fizzy favourite but
it is a considerable no-brainer to take a drop. Don’t touch signs
are planted everywhere in the park and it is even considered risky to
walk off the guided paths so fragile and strange is what lies beneath
New Zealand’s even stranger earth. One slip and you’re no
longing peering at Hell from a safe distance but totally immersed in
its 75 degree fury.
After my trip around the park I say farewell to Rotorua
with one last soak in the far more temperate and relaxing waters in
the hotel before hunkering down into a deep sleep matched only in intensity
by my now glowingly radiant skin.
See also the companion article on New
Zealand's South Island