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Rotorua: Sulphur, Geothermals, and Te Po

Friday:  Rotorua

Rotorua stinks…  But that’s a great thing when you are visiting one of the most active geothermal areas on the planet.  The smell is sulfur and it is everywhere in this town.  As volcanic steam is released through the surface via geysers, steam vents, and boiling mud, it also contains sulfur, among a number of elements and minerals, including silica, that is released as super heated steam and water that is brought to the surface.  Takes a little getting used to, but this geothermal area provided some amazing sights from good old Mother Nature, in the form of Te Puia, Waiotapu, and Waimangu.

As we started our day Friday, we walked into the downtown area, passing through Government Gardens, a beautiful park area that is in the northeast corner of the town and is bordered on two sides by Lake Rotorua.  Here we were introduced to the first of the geothermal sights in the region as the local park has several volcanic hot springs and sulfur vents, amongst the manicured lawns and the local bowling club!  A bonus to this though is that a lot of this super heated water also feeds a huge number of hot springs and spas everywhere in this region, with spa after spa offering a special to try out a therapeutic soak.

We spent the morning walking around town, seeing the sights, and making our way to the waterfront for a picnic lunch.  It was a beautiful day, with blue skies, some clouds, and the wind wasn’t too bad.  Kids were out playing at the lakefront park and black swans swam along the water’s edge.

In the afternoon, we were picked up at our hotel by a local shuttle and driven to Te Puia, a Maori cultural center and geothermal area.  Here we were met by Mel, our guide for the afternoon.  She shared the next 90 minutes introducing the Maori culture as well as how the geothermal aspects of the local region permitted her ancestors to cook food, resolve medical ailments, and warm their homes.  In addition, we were introduced to the Te Puia Carving and Weaving Schools, two special schools designed to provide scholarship to teach young people the ancient skills of Maori carving and weaving and to pass them along to future generations.  The craftsmanship of these men and women is amazing and we were fortunate enough to see active projects being worked in each of the respective studios.

From here, we were met by our evening host for a special cultural performance and dinner, called Te Po.  Though the facilities accommodated a group up to 100 people, on this cool, but beautiful Friday evening, we would share this special evening of food, Maori singing, dancing, and performing with a group of 16.  Adam, a good sport from Florida, was named our group’s “chief” and he carried out the traditional Maori welcoming ceremony as we approaching the Meeting House for the Te Puia village.  A large contingent of Maori (approx. 10) came out of the meeting house and a lone warrior approached our group.  Displaying a number of combat skills and generally attempting to intimidate the visitors with a show of weapons, defensive posture, and the protective demeanor over his tribe, he places a leaf on the ground as a sign of “friend or foe”.  If Adam picks up the leaf and backs away slowly, he comes in peace.  If he tramples the leaf…  Well, Adam is in for a world of hurt…

Adam followed the instructions of our Maori evening host to the letter and we were welcomed into the Meeting house (after removing our shoes as a sign of respect) and treated to a 45 minute performance of singing, dancing, combat showmanship, and the opportunity to learn the Maori traditions from the performers.  At the end of the brilliant show, we all had a chance to take pictures with the cast as a traditional Maori instrument was played and we were called to partake in a huge welcoming feast.

Feast is not the right word for what we had for dinner this evening.  The meal was a non-stop event of soups (Seafood Chowder and the most amazing Kumara (Sweet Potato) soup we’ve ever had), no less than a dozen salads, cold appetizers, and seafood offerings were presented, along with bread, freshly steamed corn on the cob, and mussels in garlic sauce.  From here, we moved onto the main courses prepared in the traditional Maori Hangi style of cooking (burying the food underground as it is cooked for hours with hot rocks from the geothermal activity).  Our host delivered roast pork, lamb, chicken, stuffing, pumpkin, potatoes, and kumara.  Everything was all you could eat, and though you wanted to try a little of everything, the food was so well prepared, most people found one thing they liked the most and had as much of that as possible.  After all of that, believe it or not, there was a dessert spread with traditional Kiwi Pavlova, chocolate mousse, cream puffs, fresh fruit salad, ice cream, and blackberry sauce.  Lets just say that we were not going to need to eat for a while.

All the while, as we were eating and getting to now our fellow participants, one of the performers from earlier in the evening played guitar and sang traditional Maori songs to accompany the meal.  It was beyond impressive and given the small group made the evening so much more enjoyable and intimate for all of us.

Just when we thought things couldn’t be topped, a covered transport vehicle (think a golf cart style mini train) arrived.  We all boarded it, were each provided with a bright red wool blanket, and were driven back into the valley to see the natural geysers from earlier lit up as we sat under the stars drinking hot chocolate.  Our amazing Maori host for the evening then proceeded to sing a traditional Maori song as we sat on the heated rocks, under the warm blankets, and just took it all in.

To say that Te Po is for the tourists — it certainly is.  However, the people that make up Te Po, from our generous host, to the performers, to the chef in the kitchen preparing the meal and the traditional Hangi, everyone is immensely proud of their heritage and it was evident in every moment of the evening that they were proud to share their culture, their traditions, and themselves with us.  Whether it be for 100 or just 16, we received only the very best that there was to offer, and this was a night we will not soon forget.

Saturday — Waiotapu and Waimangu

Saturday morning was a relatively late start as we didn’t need to be out of the hotel until 9am.  Once we got started we grabbed the Mazda3 and headed south about 20 minutes outside of town to our first of two stops for the day, Waiotapu.  Waiotapu covers almost 18 square kilometers and provides for a 3km walk into and out of the valley seeing an impressive number of geothermal geysers, caves, pools, and craters.

Arriving just before 10am, we found our seats to see the Lady Knox Geyser erupt at 10:15.  Now, true geysers do not have this level of regularly, so the kind park personnel identified that this geyser is in fact, coaxed into its state of violent eruption with the help of soap.  Seriously, think back to science fair days with baking soda and vinegar.  Same concept, and the soap (or surfactant) helps to break up the surface tension of the extremely hot water pooled up under the surface of the geyser and basically acts like dropping Mentos into a two liter of Diet Coke.  A few minutes later — its showtime and the geyser is blowing its top off.  Hard to say if I like this method as much as the natural geysers, however knowing that the Lady Knox normally erupts every 24 to 72 hours on no set schedule, it might have gotten old to wait around for it…

Once this was complete, we made our way back into the park itself and began the 3km loop visiting 25 different geothermal sights.  Some were as small as a Frisbee, while others were the size of a football field.  Huge plumes of sulfur steam were rising from craters, sulfur caves, and large pools of superheated water that interact with minerals below the surface bringing about the most impressive array of colors (reds, purples, yellows, oranges, greens, and blues).  Danger signs are everywhere in the park and kids must be carefully supervised as just a slight deviation from the path and the ground is almost immediately over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some of the notables at Waiotapu included (and just plain cool names):  Ink Pots, Artist’s Palette, Opal Pool, Oyster Pool, Champagne Pool, and Devil’s Bath (it really is that green!)

Following the scenic walk through the park, we made our way back out towards the main road, but before we headed to our next spot, we made a stop at the Boiling Mud Pools, a violent lake of silver/gray mud that seems to be having a violent attitude, with mud being tossed upwards and outwards a few feet in every direction.  While some mud pools form concentric rings of mud due to controlled and measured pressure, this one was about sheer size and force of movement.  It was neat to see and must have really invoked our appetites as the next stop for us was lunch…

Following another great picnic lunch, we headed back north to Waimangu, another geothermal site, but with a slightly different focus.  While Waiotapu seemed to be mostly about dry caves and craters and standing water, Waimangu was very much about moving water — streams, waterfalls, and lakes.  Here we encountered steaming lakes and cliffs at Echo Crater and huge plumes of sulfur steam in the milky white and grey stained silica waters of Inferno Crater. Spouting and shooting boiling hot water at Birds Nest Terrace and the Marble Terraces and and number of super hot streams making their way to the cold water of Lake Rotormahana.  We hiked 4kms into the valley and fortunately there was a bus to bring us back out to the top at the end of the trip.  Waimangu was a wonderful day hike and one that we’re certainly glad we had a chance to take.

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