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New Zealand’s Steamy Side : The Spa Town of Rotorua Boils With Thermal Springs and a Renaissance of Maori Culture

<i> Pfeiff is a free-lance writer living in Westmount, Canada. </i>

Wreathed in billowing clouds of steam that part just long enough for me to spot the notorious ninth hole, I note that even the slightest hook or slice will send my ball to a fate of meltdown, either in a cluster of madly bubbling mineral lakes or an inferno of mud pools plopping like porridge on the boil. Little wonder that the pro at the Arikapakapaka Golf Course advised: “Better take a few extra balls with you.”

Golf-course hazards from hell, vents that split the ground overnight to gobble up the family car, and hot natural foot baths in the local park warrant little more than passing mention for residents of Rotorua, who call home a hotbed that is one of the world’s most active yet accessible thermal regions. As playwright George Bernard Shaw put it after his 1934 visit: “I was pleased to get so close to Hades and be able to return.”

And there is more to Rotorua than bubbling caldrons of mud and steam gushing from the earth. The city has become the epicenter of a sweeping revival in the traditional arts and culture of the Maori, the original New Zealanders whose distinct style of carving and weaving is displayed at the stylish New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. The North Island also has places to explore nature, such as Tongariro National Park, whose stunning mountains rise starkly from the surrounding plateau, and some of the best trout fishing on the planet.

Nestled at the southern end of Lake Rotorua, 135 miles southeast of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, Rotorua sits amid the central North Island’s sheep-studded pasture lands, where hedgerows and neat forests bring to mind England’s serene Lake District. But the bucolic setting, on the northernmost of New Zealand’s three main islands, only serves to make Rotorua’s eerie thermal landscapes all the more bizarre--a startling reminder that the entire country was raised from the South Pacific sea floor by cataclysmic volcanic upheavals.

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A town of 50,000, Rotorua sits squarely atop an active volcanic zone that stretches several hundred miles from smoking White Island in the Bay of Plenty, southward toward the snow-capped active volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. Although geologists say there is no danger of a volcanic eruption in the Rotorua area now, Lake Rotorua and the city on its shores are within a 10-mile-round crater, the shattered remains of a once-mighty mountain that disintegrated 140,000 years ago when it blasted out 200 cubic kilometers of ash and pumice. By comparison, Mt. St. Helens’ May, 1980, eruption in Washington state vented a mere three cubic kilometers.

Although most of Rotorua’s volcanic oddities are contained in four thermal reserves within an hour’s drive of the city, downtown Rotorua itself--despite its outward resemblance to a typical New Zealand holiday town--is not immune. As if a dragon resided beneath the pavement, road drains breathe steam and, on the lawns of the Government Gardens, Kiwis primly clad in whites play croquet, oblivious to sulfurous clouds drifting from the rose garden. The original city planners lined up the main thoroughfare, Fenton Street, with Waikite Geyser so that its regular eruptions could be viewed without obstruction from downtown--Rotorua’s version of a town fountain. Although it has been dormant since 1915, the geyser appears on Rotorua’s coat of arms.

Despite its far-flung location, Europeans have been making pilgrimages to “take the waters” of this famous South Pacific spa town since 1878 when Father Mahoney, an Irish priest, camped beside a spring now known as “Priest Pool” and declared his rheumatism cured. This was hardly news to a local group of Arawa Maoris, who had been soaking away their aches and cares in Rotorua’s hot mineral pools for more than 600 years. The government built the first bathhouse in 1908, the venerable Elizabethan-style Tudor Towers, which housed thermal pools and massage cubicles within its voluminous wings. The grand old building still dominates the shores of Lake Rotorua, but is now an art gallery and museum.

In the basement a couple of years ago, I poked among dusty vestiges of the building’s former life as the hub of a spa boom town and found contraptions more reminiscent of a chamber of horrors than a health clinic. In Dr. Schnee’s Electric Four Cell Bath, patients sat in an executioner-style chair, hands and feet submerged in warm tubs of water through which the newfangled electric current was passed. And one can only wonder at the benefits to be derived from such treatments--listed on the 1920s Rotorua Baths Schedule--as the Russian Douche Massage, the Liver Pack and a Partial Vapor Bath, featuring a choice of sulfur or geyser vapors.

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Although the Queen Elizabeth Hospital nearby uses the waters in hydrotherapy treatment of arthritis and rheumatism, bathers these days come to Rotorua simply for a good, relaxing soak. Public and private thermal pools dot the city, the most sumptuous being the public Polynesian Pools, which sit alongside Tudor Towers in downtown Rotorua. Three springs well up under these thermal baths--two spacious public and 20 private outdoor pools filled with the soft alkaline waters of Rachel Spring. And Priest and Radium springs bubble out of pumice to form pools of various temperatures and mineral content. A languid hot-spring soak, complemented by the Polynesian specialty of a warm coconut-oil massage, is my idea of a perfect way to spend an afternoon. I like to indulge myself each year when I go there, as I have been doing for the past 10 years.

Other pastimes worth pursuing include forays onto six-mile-wide Lake Rotorua to fish from motorboats for the five- to 10-pound trout that ply its deep crystalline waters.

For those who prefer creatures with wool to those with scales, 17 different breeds of sheep--ranging from the Romney to the comical Merino ram--and such working sheep farms as Agrodome Leisure Park near Rotorua, are another popular entertainment.

Rotoruans have found living in a suburb of Hades has advantages other than the benefits of a good soak. Backyard holes draw up steam to heat houses in winter and warm swimming pools in summer. For local industry, natural steam has played a role in everything from one of the world’s earliest geothermal power generating plants to steam-cleaning vehicles and growing orchids in hothouses.

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On the other hand, life atop a subterranean pressure cooker is littered with mysterious accounts of cold-water taps mysteriously running hot and steam drifting without warning through the floorboards of houses. When a staff member at the Rotorua Visitor’s Center noticed that his office was becoming inexplicably warmer, the floor was finally torn up to reveal a boiling mud pool. That was dealt with by capping the pool with cement--the standard remedy for mud pools--and no one gave it another thought. Similarly, according to newspaper accounts from the time, a Mr. and Mrs. R. Martin returned one afternoon in 1963 to their lakeshore home to find a pair of large craters in their garage. Caused by shifts in the earth, the craters continued to grow until one day they swallowed the family bicycle and trailer, the shed and the veranda of the house next door.

“Look at this sad sight,” moaned Rotorua Art Gallery director John Perry during my 1989 visit. Perry handed me a 19th-Century silver bowl so blue-black and pitted that the corroded silver fell off in large flakes, chipping away what was left of exquisite cherubs that once danced around its base. “You couldn’t site a museum or gallery in a worse location,” he complained, pointing out lavish gilded picture frames, copper and brass sculptures all tarnishing despite the museum’s air filtration system. Oil paintings containing lead and photographs were also suffering. “One painting went completely black in three weeks,” Perry said.

The culprit is the pervasive hydrogen sulfide gas, with its “rotten egg” smell. When you first arrive in Rotorua, you wonder how anyone can put up with the acrid odor, but after a few hours the nose ceases to take notice. The fumes, however, are corrosive. In some particularly active areas, such as around the golf course, repairmen are called in about every three months to remove corrosion from the terminals on television sets and VCRs. Cars rust quickly once the paint has been chipped, and silverware can tarnish overnight.

New Zealand Television is reluctant to bring its vulnerable video equipment to Rotorua for live broadcasts, and some extraordinary measures are needed just to carry on everyday business. The entrance to the Central Telephone Exchange is via a sophisticated air lock, with the building’s air supply filtered by activated charcoal to screen out hydrogen sulfide that would, within days, ruin millions of copper wires. “Even worse,” the Telecom spokesman told me, “the gas turns some plastics black and since our wiring is color-coded, that could be disastrous.”

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In addition to publicizing its volcanic delights, Rotorua is beginning to emphasize its Maori roots. In the early 1960s, when tribal elders sounded the alarm that their culture was in real danger of being lost, an act of Parliament created the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. With the largest population of Maori in the country, Rotorua was the obvious site.

At the arts and crafts institute at the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, about a mile from downtown, greenstone carvers coax intricate designs from New Zealand’s jade, and Maori women weave capes, mats, bags and baskets. Beneath carved wooden wall panels and canoe prows, half a dozen Maori teen-agers wield mallets and chisels to bring to life fearsome wooden faces swirling with tattoo patterns. Representing the tribes from across the country, the young carvers come to Rotorua to serve a stringent three-year apprenticeship. To watch master carver Clive Fugill patiently correct and guide his students’ woodworking techniques is to witness the handing down of ancient skills that made Maori forefathers the most celebrated carvers in the South Pacific. The institute has long been financially self-sufficient through handicraft sales and admission fees to the adjoining Maori-owned-and-operated Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, which the government returned to the native Maoris in 1963.

Entering “Whaka” this spring (fall in New Zealand) through a replica of a traditional Maori fortress, I kept steadfastly to the center of the pathway that negotiates a geothermal minefield of geysers and more than 500 hot springs--clear, simmering pools in a rainbow of colors and gurgling caldrons of hot mud--in an area less than a mile long and 500 yards wide. According to folklore, one of the hot ponds called “The Brainpot” was used by Maoris--who practiced ritual cannibalism up until the turn of the century--to cook the heads of enemies killed in inter-tribal wars.

Multihued terraces built up by outpourings of silica-rich water glittered in the sun as the ground trembled and all eyes turned to Geyser Flat, where mighty Pohutu, New Zealand’s largest geyser, hurls a scalding white fountain 90 feet skyward, much like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, 10 to 25 times daily. Other shooting stars such as the Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser spout almost continuously.

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Maoris still live within the reserve’s small village, where a tiny church stands amid shifting veils of steam alongside white stone caskets lying eerily in rows on the hillside. In this part of the country, “six feet under” is merely a figure of speech as gravediggers strike fire and brimstone just six inches down.

Centuries before California’s hot tub craze, the people at Whaka Village used natural hot springs for communal bathing. Even today, young and old enjoy a skinny dip get-together each morning before the reserve is opened to the public. Maori fishermen once hooked trout here, swinging their catches straight from the cold stream into a boiling pool for cooking. Maori women still wrap food in flax baskets and submerge them in natural “cooking pools” or in boxes built over steam vents.

At the THC (Tourist Hotel Corporation) Rotorua International Hotel that night, I attended a feast at a hangi , a Maui celebration featuring wild pork, smoked eel, venison, delicious Maori bread and sweet potatoes prepared in the traditional manner--slow-cooked in an outdoor pit by superheated thermal steam. After dinner, a troupe of two dozen Maori men and women wearing handmade flax skirts danced to melodic songs sung by the women while they twirled poi balls (made from a kind of fiber, not the Hawaiian food) on a long string. The all-male haka dance , a fierce battle warm-up, was done with much stomping, slapping, shouting and sticking out of tongues in a display designed to intimidate foes. The New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks, perform the haka before each match.

Besides Whaka, there is frenzied thermal activity at three other reserves. Tikitere or “Hell’s Gate” is a 15-minute drive northeast of the city and features the steaming 60-foot cascade of Kakahi Falls, plus such aptly named attractions as the Devil’s Frying Pan and Satan’s Claret Cup. Believers in the curative powers of Rotorua’s mineral waters fill bottles from the fern-lined banks of various sulfur and mineral pools.

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Just south of Rotorua is Waiotapu--which translates to “Sacred Waters"--where the Champagne Pool becomes a giant pond of bubbly when a handful of sand is tossed into its crystal-clear waters.

Nearby lies the Artist’s Palette, a series of huge silica terraces tinged all colors of the spectrum. At the turn of the century, prisoners were brought from a nearby jail to wash their clothes in a hot pool at Waiotapu. They were surprised to discover that laundry soap triggered the pool to erupt in a geyser. In 1906, the warden had prisoners build a rock spout to drive the geyser higher, and now--every morning at 10:15 sharp--Lady Knox Geyser is “soaped” into action.

Brooding Waimangu Valley, 16 miles from Rotorua, is the eeriest of Rotorua’s thermal areas and was a favorite retreat of European dukes and princes in the 1800s. Until a volcanic eruption destroyed them, a pair of enormous silica terraces, one sculpted in delicate pink and the other a snowy white, rose 750 feet above the shoreline of Lake Rotomahana and were hailed by travelers and writers of the past century as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

En route to the terraces in 1886, two boatloads of tourists glimpsed an ancient Maori war canoe--with a high, carved stern and a dozen paddlers aboard--glide halfway across the lake and vanish. Local Maoris, who also saw the phantom canoe, knew it as an omen of disaster. Just over a week later in the early hours of June 10, 1886, the terraces and surrounding countryside were obliterated in the eruption of Mt. Tarawera. The volcanic explosion was heard as far away as Auckland, and debris from the mountain that was split in two was scattered over 6,000 square miles. It destroyed several Maori and European settlements, with the death toll reaching 155.

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The steaming Waimangu Valley, born in that eruption, remains a haunting place. Te Wairoa, a Maori village buried in a blanket of ash, has been partially excavated like a mini-Pompeii, but Maoris employed as guides told me that they would not overnight in the place--some of their ancestors’ bodies have never been recovered and they believe their restless spirits roam the valley. The largest boiling lake in the world, 11.9-acre Waimangu Cauldron, is one of several spectacular formations created by the Tarawera eruption. Steaming cliffs loom over its misty shoreline, which sizzles like frying bacon.

As vigorous as the thermal activity at Rotorua seems to the casual eye, scientists and many residents over the last decade have expressed concern that Rotorua may literally be “running out of steam.” On Rotorua’s 50,000-year-old geothermal field, mineral springs and geysers routinely pop up and die off. But when two major geysers in the Whaka Reserve suddenly fell silent in March of 1979, experts saw it as part of a disturbing reduction in activity, perhaps linked to the exploitation of a resource that was thought to be inexhaustible. Anxious to protect the unique Whaka Thermal Reserve (Rotorua is the country’s premier tourist destination), the Rotorua District Council banned the drilling of new bores within a one-mile radius of Pohutu Geyser. And existing bores within that circle had to be capped.

In the forefront of geothermal conservation worldwide, New Zealand scientists are convinced that Rotorua’s wonders will remain indefinitely at their present vigorous levels if the underground reservoir is left to recover. Peter Wood, a geologist with the New Zealand government, is adamant: “We have several world-class geysers here, the last remaining geyser field in New Zealand. We have a duty to preserve this rare and wonderful natural phenomena for future generations.”

GUIDEBOOK: Rotorua, New Zealand

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Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand, Qantas and United nonstop from Los Angeles to Auckland. With 21-day advance purchase, the fare is about $1,500-$1,600, now through February (must be booked on Qantas before next Sunday). From Auckland, take Highway 1 south to Hamilton (about 80 miles), continuing on Highway 1 for 35 miles to Tirau. From there, take Highway 5 east 33 miles to Rotorua.

Where to stay: THC Rotorua is the government- run hotel overlooking the Whaka Thermal Reserve. Nightly Maori hangi is held at 6:30 p.m. Double rates: $90. Hotel is at the corner of Tryon and Fronde streets. Local telephone: (073) 481-189. The Sheraton Rotorua on Fenton Street has doubles from $145; (073) 488-378. A dozen or more motels along Fenton Street charge $35-$50 for a double.

Information on luxury sporting lodges in the surrounding countryside, small bed and breakfast inns and farm stays can be obtained from the New Zealand Tourist Board.

Where to eat: In New Zealand, BYO--bring your own wine--is common at all levels of restaurants. When making a reservation, ask if the establishment is licensed, otherwise pick a locally made wine to take along.

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--Aorangi Peak Restaurant, on top of Mt. Ngongotaha; (073) 470-046. An award-winning restaurant with a fantastic view of the area. Specializes in New Zealand cuisine such as Bay of Plenty scallops. Licensed.

--Lewishams Restaurant, 115 Tutanekai St.; (073) 481-786. Set in an old house. Cozy and relaxing, with two fireplaces and a backyard garden for summer lunches. Specializes in such New Zealand dishes as rack of lamb, venison and South Island baby salmon. BYO.

--Poppy’s Villa Restaurant, 4 Marguerita St.; (073) 471-700. In a beautifully restored Edwardian villa. Casual intimate, candlelight dining on New Zealand specialties such as mussel chowder, South Island whitebait, Kapiti crab and award-winning lamb. Licensed.

Attractions:

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--Whakarewaewa Thermal Reserve, 1.5 miles from city center, open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Maori concerts, 12:15 p.m. daily, November-April.

--Hell’s Gate, 10 miles from downtown. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

--Waimangu Valley, 16 miles from city. Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

--Waiotapu, 20 miles from downtown Rotorua. Open 8:30 a.m. to dusk.

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--Polynesian Pools. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

--Rotorua District Museum and Gallery, Government Gardens. Open 1-4 p.m. weekdays, 1-4:30 p.m. weekends. Admission is free.

--Arikapakapaka Golf, 18 holes, par 69, all equipment including electric carts available.

--Agrodome Leisure Park, a working farm, Riversale Park, Western Road, Ngongotaha, about 10 minutes from city center. Admission: about $3.50 per person. Shows at 9:15 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily.

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--Fishing packages and guides. Information available from the New Zealand Tourist Board.

For more information: Contact the New Zealand Tourist Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300, Santa Monica 90401; (800) 388-5494 or (301) 395-7480.


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