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Steeped in Steam in Rotorua

Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos

"It reminds me too vividly of the fate theologians have promised me."
George Bernard Shaw, upon visiting the Hell's Gate thermal area.

I'm in the middle of a billowing steam cloud and my glasses are fogged. With a firm grip on a railing, I feel my way along the boardwalk in small shuffling steps. It's hot and humid and hard to maintain any sense of direction. On the positive side, the steam is rather nicely cleansing my pores. This must be the original spa facial treatment, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Emerging from the cloud, I blink in the sunlight and survey the surreal landscape. Everywhere, steam wafts from the earth, enveloping houses and walkways. Down the lane, there's a thirty meter high geyser erupting and just across the way, mud boiling in pools. We're not on some far away planet, but in Whakarewarewa Thermal Village near Rotorua, on the North Island of New Zealand. The Greater Rotorua district, pungent with the smell of sulphur, is a volcanic hotspot with geothermal features and bizarre landscapes, buried villages and beautiful lakes. Being steeped in steam is our introduction to this unusual area.

At the boardwalk's end, a Maori woman is lifting a bundle from a steaming hole. She explains that each village home has a boxed-in vent in which most foods are cooked. The Maori used to wrap their food in flax, which grows abundantly here, but modern day cheesecloth is now the material of choice. Wrapped raw ingredients are suspended in the box and left to steam -- vegetables take about twenty minutes, meats up to two hours. No need for herbs and spices as the steam carries flavours from different minerals in the earth and provides the seasoning for the food. What a healthful way to cook! We sample some corn on the cob and find it juicy with an earthy flavour.

Dodging more big blasts of steam, we arrive at a series of communal baths. The concrete pools of varying depths are filled with boiling water in the morning. By dusk, they have cooled enough for the villagers to use. Go in too early though and you'll come out like a poached red lobster!

Having no desire to be poached, we meander to the meeting house at the village centre. It's white and trimmed with elaborate red carvings; some show the fearsome Maori welcome face with wide eyes and protruding tongues. From there, we head uphill to the small, white church. It is crested with a simple cross and flanked by a graveyard filled with above ground vaults. Each vault has a pipe belching continual puffs of steam like a dragon. In the vented vaults, the dead are safely interred out of the steaming earth. We pay our respects and walk to a viewpoint overlooking the geyser, Pohutu or "Big Splash". It regularly spouts twenty-meter plumes. This village has coexisted with volcanic forces since pre-European times but the next village we visit did not fare so well.

What once was the settlement of Te Wairoa lies southeast of Rotorua. In the 1800's, it was a stopping point en route to the popular natural marvels of cascading sinter called the Pink and White Terraces. During four long hours on a night in June 1886, erupting Mt. Taruwera bombarded the area with rocks, ash, and mud. When it ended, the village was buried under two meters of volcanic debris. Miles of scenic countryside, including the Terraces, were destroyed. In the village museum, we are introduced to the brave inhabitants who cowered in their homes and waited out the destructive forces. Amazingly, the loss of life was minimal as survivors were rescued after spending days trapped inside their houses. Along a grass-lined path are partially excavated huts, earth up to their rafters, dank and dark inside. Some display ash encrusted household goods from before the eruption. The pleasant greenery and burbling stream around the huts belie the forces that so drastically affected this area. Our next stop does not have such a bucolic setting.

At the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Area, the landscape is rocky and bleak but filled with surprises. We hike along a cindery path past grey-black pits with steaming fumaroles and pools of oddly coloured waters. Steam obscures the surface of the Champagne Pool but its brilliant orange edge, from the mineral antimony, glints in the sunlight. In another crater, swallows, starlings, and mynahs have nested in the walls, relying on the heat from below to help incubate their eggs. The bright, lime green colour of the Devil's Bath is startling. At a large pool of boiling mud, globs randomly spurt half a meter in the air and make abstract, concentric patterns on the surface as they fall. Watching the pool is strangely mesmerizing.

On our return to Rotorua, we pass miles of grey pipes snaking across the countryside, harnessing volcanic forces for geothermal power. From steam used for cooking and power, to primordial boiling mud and remnants of destroyed villages, to erupting geysers, the thermal activity in Rotorua is diverse, intriguing, and bizarre.

FYI: - A luxury B&B overlooking Lake Rotorua


1 Gary in a steam cloud
2 Maori carving and New Zealand flax
3 Erupting geysers
4 Maori church
5 Steam rises from boiling Champagne Pool
6 Gary by excavated hut in the Buried Village

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