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Rotorua was not like anywhere else we’d been in New Zealand. Driving into town we were struck by the motels stacked along the main strip, the hordes of coach tour groups and the numerous “massage” parlours. We had grumbled about the commercialism of Queenstown, but at least there it had been in a classy, ski-resort kind of way. Rotorua was downright tacky. If Queenstown is New Zealand’s answer to Aspen, then Rotorua is its Vegas.

Everyone goes to Rotorua, and they go for two things – Maori culture and the geothermal landscape. New Zealand’s Maori population is concentrated on the North Island, so in our five weeks on the South Island we had learned only a limited amount about the indigenous population. We were keen to learn more, and in Rotorua a whole industry exists for just such a purpose. We booked on for a hangi (traditional Maori feast) and cultural show.

Cultural shows are not generally our kind of thing. Coming as we do from a country that excels at putting on cheesy and overpriced shows of dubious quality and authenticity for gullible tourists, we expected that the same would prevail elsewhere. And we were not wrong. But in amongst the singing of that traditional Maori song, the Hokey Cokey, and the electing of our tribal chiefs, were some elements of truth.

On our group’s arrival at the recreated marae, or tribal village, we were greeted by fierce warriors with facial tattoos dancing, brandishing spears, rolling their eyes, making intimidating gestures and chanting menacingly. Strangers, whether they come in peace or in war, must not be allowed to underestimate the strength and ferocity of the tribe. Rugby fans will already be familiar with the Maori haka, and I think any team would quail before these guys.

Our elected chiefs went forth to accept the proffered leaves, thus demonstrating our peaceful intentions, and pressed noses with our hosts in the traditional fashion. The flashes and whirrs of cameras on all sides undermined any sense of seriousness, and the uncomfortable fidgeting of the chiefs had us all close to the laughter we’d been warned would offend our Maori hosts.

Perhaps Maoris traditionally eat seafood buffets of raw oysters in the shell, mussels in garlic and wine sauce and tasteless shrimps that have been frozen a bit too long, and fill up any vacant spaces at the end of the meal with chocolate mousse, pavlova and sticky toffee pudding with custard, but I can’t help feeling our hangi was less than strictly authentic. As for the historical veracity of demanding a rendition of Molly Malone from the Irish contingent once we’d sunk a few beers and let down our defences, I couldn’t possibly comment.

The next morning it was time to attend to the second item on our Rotorua agenda. New Zealand is a land of natural wonders, the majority of which are contained within the huge swathes of land that have been set aside as National Parks, Scientific Reserves and Conservation Areas, and while access is controlled in especially popular or sensitive spots, it is virtually always free. The geo-thermal attractions around Rotorua, conversely, lie on private land. After all the wonderful things we’d enjoyed for free, it galled a little to pay US$8 to do a 3.5km walk, but we’d been assured that these were three and a half of the most geothermally impressive kilometres in New Zealand.

Black boiling bubbling mud pools, slowly settling salmon pink terraces, vibrant vivid green, yellow, orange lakes, oxide oyster in amber shell, beige bronze brown striated stone, smoking steaming fissures at every turn – the Wai-o-tapu Wonderland lived up to its billing. At 10.30 sharp, Lady Knox arrives on cue. Left alone, the geyser would erupt roughly every 48 hours. Approximation is no good for Rotorua’s droves of time pressed tourists, so at 10.30 every morning, the staff arrive to help the lady along. A scoop or two of laundry detergent down the geyser mouth sets off a reaction in the chamber below. A frothy, spluttery, bubbling at the opening provides the merest hint of the buildup of pressure in the subterranean cavern beneath. The critical point reached, a plume of white foam shoots 15 metres into the air, to the admiring gasps of the crowd assembled to view the display.

But Rotorua’s most distinctive feature is the all-pervasive smell. Driving into town, you sniff the air and wrinkle your nose. A problem with the town drains, you wonder? No, in Rotorua the smell comes right from the core. The rotten-egg aroma of sulphur hangs over the town, gets in your clothes and fills up your car. They call it Rottenrua, and leaving town with the windows rolled down in an attempt to blow out the stink, the reason is all too apparent.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of a Maori Warrior Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues
Photograph of a Maori carving Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues

Maori carving

Picture of a geo-thermal pool Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues
Photograph of a geyser Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues
Steaming sulphur lake

Lady Knox Geyser, going off on cue

Picture of a geo-thermal pool Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues
Picture of a geo-thermal pool Rotorua New Zealand Travelogues
Milky green, acid yellow
Boiling mud pool