Steam emerged from manholes as my green Inter-city bus was rolling into the heart of Rotorua (New Zealand). I was expecting to see natural vents in some geyser not on the street. But the pungent smell of hydrogen sulfide hit my nose as soon as I got off the bus, reminding me how active and prevalent the geothermal activities were on this land.
Our group of six booked a three bed-room villa not far from the city, which overlooked cherry blossom in the front yard and offered us the home-like comfort so much needed after ten weeks of nerve-wrecking study. The first morning in Rotorua, we woke up to birds chirping and sunshine crawling all the way to our dining table. After brunch, we walked south towards Te Puia, a thermal reserve long known for dramatic geysers. Spring flowers were blooming out of every corner and the pink petals were all over the ground.
Paying 52$ each for the cheapest ticket to Te Puia, we joined another group to admire the Maori wooden sculptures that embodied the beliefs of local tribes. “We have preserved our stories through carvings long before we developed our written language”, the kiwi guide told us. There were about ten sculptures, huge and looking fierce with tattoos all over the face. They represent Gods and Goddesses overseeing different areas of the natural world from wild forests to volcanoes and earthquakes, but all sharing Rangi the father of sky and Papa the mother of earth in Maori legends. The tour continued on with a lovely performance of tribal dance which lots of people signed up for. Our tickets didn’t cover the cultural show but a sneak peek of powhirifrom the enclosure was a delight itself. From the Maori house, a warrior in tribal costume chanted and danced with his weapon, cautiously approaching the group of visitors outside the gate to ‘test the water’ and placing a fern on the ground. A representative of visitors picked up the leaf to show the friendly intent and once this was done, everyone were welcomed to the house.
We then followed the guide to explore other parts of the thermal reserve. There was a carving school where only Maori men were accepted, and were paid to learn this traditional craft. Then there was a school for weaving, where kiwi women were trained to make dresses and accessories out of their native plants. But most fascinating of all were the erupting geysers and mud pools, the reasons that brought us to this ‘smelly’ town in the first place. Just as wild as I imagined.
As we approached the Whakarewarewa geyser terrace, all eyes were on Pohutu, the ‘big splash’ as its Maori name suggests. The smell of rotten eggs was apparently stronger here but the dynamics of eruption and mesmerizing steam were such a feast to the eyes. Pohutu erupted constantly while we were there. She was born as a result of a volcanic eruption in the North Island over 240,000 years ago, and once at risk of losing her power because nearby residents tried to drill bores in the geothermal area. Now there she was alongside dozens of geyser vents in this valley, sending up spectacular jets of water and clouds of smoke into the air.
After tirelessly touring around Te Puia, we headed to Polynesian spa for a hot bathing in the wild and called it a day. We still had the geysers in sight only in a more relaxing place, watching seabirds while soaking ourselves in geothermal water. I knew then that some day I’d come back to this steamy city.