New Zealand: Rotorua

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After a short visit to the home of the hobbits, we continued on to Rotorua, a city best known for its dynamic thermal activity and Maori culture.  Its location in the middle of an active Taupo Volcanic Zone, makes Rotorua a geothermal hot spot. The intense subterranean heat feeds into the numerous natural vents, hot pools, and mud pits found in and around the area.  The concentration of hydrogen sulphide emission gives it it’s nickname as the “Sulphur City”. Even with the unpleasant “rotten eggs” smell that lingers in the air, Rotorua is still one of the most popular and most frequented cities in the North Island.  

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This geothermal wonderland have been drawing visitors since the 1800s. A few points of interest include the Pohutu geyser that erupts to heights of up to 30m; the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, known for its colorful waters and the bubbling Champagne Pool; and Hells Gate – a spa renowned for its mud baths. The Māori have revered this place and lived here for centuries.  Today, 35% of the city’s population is Māori, making this the perfect place to learn about traditional Maori culture. 

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Accommodation

In Rotorua, we decided to stay at the highly rated Top 10 Rotorua Holiday Park.  This place was on the pricier side at $23 NZD pp for a non powered site, but it has nice facilities and we wanted to ease into the camping experience.  The lot was full of cars parked side by side, not leaving much room for privacy, but there was a spacious communal kitchen and clean showers and toilets.  There is also a pool and hot tub, but we were too tired to enjoy either. 

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Mud Pool Spa

Hell’s Gate is New Zealand’s most active geothermal reserve in Rotorua, home to the Ngati Rangiteaorere tribe for over 700 years. This sacred Maori site boasts 50 acres of mud pools, geysers, hot springs and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest hot waterfall. You can tour the geothermal field or spend some time soaking in the mud baths and sulphur mineral pools. The mud is rich in minerals and the sulphur lakes have healing and invigorating properties.

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Upon arrival, we were given a health and safety briefing, then asked to change into our bathing suits and wash off any lotion or make-up before entering the mud pit.  Clothes and towels are kept in a personal box nearby in the spa area.  There are three semi-private geothermal mud baths, and since it was a slow morning, we had a pool to ourselves.  Due to the increase in body temperature, it’s recommended that each person stay in the mud bath for no longer than 20 minutes. 

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Once inside the pool there are container of fresh mud that we lather on liberally to create a body mask. The mud provides detox therapy that helps to remove toxins and impurities from the body. They also contain many minerals that can soothe itchy, irritated skin, help ease joint, muscle pain and many other aliments. Bonus nutrients and vitamins are provided by the countless carcasses of bugs and other critters that had made the mud their final resting place.

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After the mud pool, we rinsed off in the cold shower before going into the sulphur spa where we could soak for as long as we liked. The spas overlook the Hells Gate reserve giving you an amazing view of the geothermal activities.  Since Hells Gate is an “acid sulphate ” geothermal system – the only one in NZ – you will end up smelling like sulphur for a few days after.   The smells will exude from your pores and permeate everything you wear, so it’s better rent a bathing suit or wear something that you don’t mind throwing out after.

Tip:  This experience is better enjoyed on a cold day or at night.  The hot mud can be uncomfortable under the blazing sun.  

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Maori Village

One of the top things on our NZ agenda was to visit a Maori village and learn about their culture.  In Rotorua, there were a lot of different Maori cultural experiences to choose from, but after a little research we settled on Whakarewarewa – The Living Village.  People in this village can trace their ancestors back to the days when Maori first moved to the islands.  For over 200 years, the Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao tribe have welcomed visitors into their backyard and shared their way of life. They lived on the land for many generations, and here we learned about the significance of the thermal pools and how it plays an integral part in the Maori life.  The best part is that what we saw is real and not a reenactment.

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Whakarewarewa reservation used to be much bigger until 1997 when a dispute tore the compound in two.   The disagreement happened when the government wanted to go in a different direction from the Tuhourangi tribe regarding tourism.  The result was a bolted gate that appeared overnight dividing Whakarewarewa  from the newly formed Te Puia village next door.  Te Puia is more tourist driven as well as more expensive, while Whakarewarewa  still retains a sense of authenticity. 

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A guided tour runs every hour and is a great way to learn about the Maori lifestyle and traditions. There is also a cultural show at 11:15 am and 2:15 pm where we learned a few songs and got to participate in the haka, a powerful warrior chant.  As we walked around the village, we learned about the geothermal vents that have provided the villagers with a life-giving energy resource for centuries.  The geysers  and boiling hot pools are used by the residents for cooking, bathing, and everyday living.  We got to see and enjoy a hangi meal, prepared the traditional way by placing it over a geyser to steam or in a thermal pool to cook. In the village, you can find authentic arts and crafts, and learn about other Maori traditions such as flax weaving, carving, and ta moko (tattooing). The tour ended at the marae, where all the important functions in the village are held. This sacred meeting house in the center of the village is where people gather for all occasions from formal meetings to weddings and funerals.

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Wai –O–Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Wai-O-Tapu is an area of extreme geothermal activity located about 30 km outside of Rotorua, along the diagonal rift known as the Taupo Volcanic Zone. This volcanic zone is home to hundreds of volcanoes, colorful hot springs, craters, geysers and bubbling mud pits. Waiotapu, the Maori word for “sacred waters”, is the largest area of thermal activity in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, thousands of years in the making.

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The park opens every day at 8.30 am. Admission costs $32.50 NZD for adults and $11 NZD for children.  Visitors can choose between the various walks which take between 30 and 75 minutes. This place was named “One of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World” and it’s not hard to see why.  The paths cover the reserve and wind around the geothermal wonders.  The rising steams and the distinctive colors give the place a post-apocalyptic feel. 

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The famous Champagne Pool is the crowning glory of the wonderland. It got its name from the abundant flow of carbon dioxide that gives the appearance of bubbling champagne. Formed more than 700 years ago, it is 200 feet wide and 200 feet deep, making it the largest natural hot spring in the area. The pool is fed from a system of underground streams at an incredibly high temperature of 230°C. The water gradually cools as it rises and the surface temperature hovers around 75°C to 100° where it then evaporates into air above. As the wind blows the newly evaporated steam rolls across the water, leaving behind a pungent smell that lingers in your nostrils and on your clothes.

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The high temperatures at the depth encourage the transfer of minerals from the rock to the water giving the pool Dali-esq colors so vivid you wouldn’t believe your eyes. Contrasted against the sulfuric green water of the spring is the bright orange ledge that is caused by the oversaturation of metalloid compounds such as gold, silver, thallium, and mercury.

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Other photo worthy stops include the Devil’s Bath which changes colors from green to yellow depending  on the weather. The crater was bright fluorescent green when we were there, reminding me of an alien landscape in the movies. 

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The collapsed craters scattered around the park depict the unstable nature of the volcanic environment.  The aptly named Devil’s Ink Pots are a boiling cauldron of black mud created by particles of crude oil and graphite brought to the surface from the escaping steam.

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Zorbing

New Zealand is famous for all sorts of crazy, adventure-filled activities.  It’s no surprise that 19 years ago, two Kiwis came up with the idea of rolling down a hill inside a large inflatable ball! They named it ‘Zorbing’, a sport that became quite popular around the world.  Being in New Zealand, we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the original ZORB based in Rotorua.

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The Zorb park opens from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm every day.  There are 3 different track choices with both WET and DRY options.   Since the dry option was not available on that day, but we were given the option to either go solo or with a companion.   For our first attempt, we choose to go together on the straight track.

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After paying $29 NZD per person and signing our forms, we went to change into our bathing suits before getting into a jeep that took us up to the starting point at the top of the hill. Once at the top, the guide fills the zorb with warm water before we can jump in. The opening was zipped up and before I knew it, we started rolling.  It was disorienting at first, a bit like being in a giant washing machine, swishing from one side to the other.  We were completely soaked and water even shot up my nose and into my eyes. The ride only lasts about a minute, but while inside the ball, it felt a lot longer.  The sphere came to a complete stop at the bottom where we had to untangle our arms and legs and heave ourselves out of the slippery ball. 

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It was so much fun we decided to go for a second round, this time individually down the zigzag track.  The awesome thing is that for second ride, it only cost $19 NZD per person.  While we waited for our ride to go back to the top, we soaked in the nearby hot tub.  The zig zag track was longer and way more intense.

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Information Round-up:

  • Distance: 70 km from Hobbiton
  • Accommodation: Top 10 Rotorua Park – $23 NZD per person
  • Number of Nights: 1
  • Activities:
    • Zorbing: $29 NZD per person per ride
    • Waiotapu: $32.50 NZD per adult
    • Maori Village: $ 38 NZD per person
    • Mud Spa: $ 75 NZD per person
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