The Craters of the Moon were just the first hint of the serious volcanic activity spread across the centre of New Zealand’s north island. Our nostrils were attacked with a bowl of rotten scrambled egg immediately upon stepping out of the van in Rotorua. The air was thick with the unescapable smell of sulphur. More than ever I was asking the question “why do people choose to live here?”
Beyond the town centre we walked through a local park, across the rugby pitch towards a path weaving between fenced off areas of varying sizes. Craters had formed here as well, filled with water, mud and who knows what else all bubbling away. In the residential areas, storm drains spewed steam. Streams, and even the river that fed nearby Lake Rotorua all simmered from the heat of the earth. Boiling rivers are meant to be a harbinger of the apocalypse, aren’t they?
Amongst some of the houses in what appeared to be a Maori village on the lakeshore we could see steam rising out of small craters. It seemed as though the ground might open up at anytime to release more heat into the surrounding town. It was hard to understand what a settlement was doing here, surely it wasn’t safe?
The campsite we were staying on had two thermal pools available for use. Apparently, the nutrient rich water is good for you, so long as you don’t put your head below the surface. The risk was not a serious scalding as you might expect but the rather more serious amoebic meningitis. If the water was infected and the bacteria got up your nose, it would invade your brain and kill you. At least in the spa pools we weren’t likely to encounter high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide gases. Rotorua seems a perfectly nice place for people to live, doesn’t it?
All good guidebooks had recommended Rotorua as the place to take in a Maori experience. Mum was keen on doing this so she’d booked us all tickets for a trip to the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village. According to the signpost outside, Whakarewarewa is an abbreviation. The full name is harder to pronounce than anything I’ve ever seen before, including the names of tiny Welsh villages. We were going to get a guided tour which would explain how the Maori came to live in the area and even the reasons why they’d decided to stay, despite the obvious safety hazards.
The main draw of the area is the not surprisingly the geothermal activity. The power of the Earth is used for heating and cooking, the former particularly beneficial in the cold months of winter. The village provided an idea of how the people have managed to continue living in the area. There’s a market in New Zealand for rental appliances as the sulphur in the air eats away at cables, so nobody is keen on a serious investment in anything from microwaves to a games consoles. Since the early 1900s, Maori women have been guiding tourists through the geothermal pools and hot springs. The information boards detailed the lives of famous guides and the people they had guided through, including most of the current British royal family.
I wasn’t exactly sold on the Maori experience so far. I would have liked to learn a little more about their history, where they came from, the kind of things I hadn’t learned in the Museum of New Zealand. It seemed nobody was sure about the answers to these questions. I wanted more, running with a claim to be proud of their ancestry gave me expectations of knowledge. Not for the first time I’ve found myself questioning whether I’m just being a spoiled, middle-class, white Western male. I can’t go back further than three generations, I haven’t the slightest inclinations to where my family came from. Why should I expect anyone else to know any better?
A long, deep inhale of the nauseating air should have made me feel better. The sulphur is apparently good for your lungs. I tried not to throw up. The water boiling at the surface of the pools was in excess of 100 degrees, much too high for a comfortable, relaxing soak. You wouldn’t find me diving in anytime soon. The cooking completed in the pools all seems to end up in the tourist cafe. Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts about whether the Maori, or anyone living in Rotorua for that matter, uses the heat for anything other than warming their homes in the depths of winter. Again I find myself under the impression that tourism is the only thing to keep people in any form of employment.
After our tour we were able to enjoy some traditional Maori singing and dancing. As you can probably tell, I was ready to finish up with the experience as soon as possible and dreaded the idea of being danced at for any excessive amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, they put on a good show. I have no idea what any of it means, but the natural rhythm and skill the people have is impressive. Swinging poi, throwing sticks, popping eyes almost out of sockets and tongues hanging as low as chins, I could see why it might have been intimidating in the past. They knew exactly how long to keep a crowd entertained for as well, in only a short time it was over.
On our way out of town we stopped at the rightly iconic Rotorua Museum. Nobody was keen on going in, I think we were all in agreement that New Zealand museums left a lot to be desired. We walked around the building, noting the dead chicks nailed to shed roofs. There’s a falcon release programme operating from the lofts. We didn’t stick around to spot it. Not one of us was anything but relieved to leave Rotorua. The smell was enough to put anyone off doing anything at all other than driving on through and coming out clean on the other side. Time and patience was wearing thin, we were running out of things we wanted to do. The road carried us to a carpark in Matamata where we would spend the night before a visit to the final destination anyone had any remaining interest in.