Rotarua isn’t like anywhere else. The first thing you notice is the strong smell of sulphur everywhere. And then you spot steam puffing out of the most unlikely places. By the side of the road, or in people’s front gardens. The locals take it for granted, but all this geothermal activity has shaped the history of the area.
The Hot Springs of Rotarua
The whole place is an assault on the senses. It’s not just the sights and the smells, although these are extraordinary enough, with the bubbling mud pools and sulphur yellow water. But there are the sounds too: hissing, puffing and sizzling. And breathing in the air and bathing in the hot water is supposed to have health properties, curing arthritis and other ailments. It’s not just humans who feel the benefit. The nature reserve by the lake attracts thousands of birds, even though there is nothing for them to eat here and they have to fly off each day to find food.
Tourists flock to the area too, attracted by the natural spectacle and by the possibility of a health cure. European settlers introduced bathing, tourism and hotels to Rotarua in the 19th century. However this had an effect upon the local Maori population who had lived there since they arrived in New Zealand five hundred years earlier. Development was a threat to traditional Maori sites and there were even fears that new buildings could change the nature of the landscape.
Whakarewarewa, the Living Maori Village
One particular place of conflict was Whakarewarewa, a Maori village a few kilometres from Rotarua. This is a site with more than 500 springs, numerous mud pools, a large sulphurous lake and views of nearby geysers. In an attempt to preserve its essential characteristics, Whakarewarewa became a government reserve in the early 20th century. Tourists were encouraged, and were shown round by traditional Maori guides. However increased commercialisation led to criticisms that the area was being “Disneyfied”, and the Maori residents pushed for greater control of their village.
Today Whakarewarewa is a place where around twenty Maori families live and work. There is a purpose built meeting hall, as well as two churches, a restaurant and shops. Visitors can take a guided tour or explore on their own. Walking around the village you see mud pools and boiling water, and the hangi pit where food is cooked using underground heat. Then there is the raised cemetery (trapped heat prevents burial below the ground). For many visitors a highlight of the visit is the Maori cultural show, a thirty minute performance of war dances, action songs and stick games.
For the people of Whakarewarewa geothermal energy is both enemy and friend. It can be destructive, with the ever present possibility of volcanic eruption, and the potential hazard of falling into a boiling hot pool. But the good health of the residents is attributed to the steam and the sulphur. And the springs provide the means for heating, cooking and bathing, as well as drawing in the tourists. Ultimately the landscape continues to be a part of the way of life for those who live here.