IN this post, following on from Return to Rotorua, I venture out of downtown Rotorua to explore some of the fun things that you can see further on around the shores of Lake Rotorua and outside the downtown area.
Here is a wider map showing the location of Ōrākei Kōrako, the most distant of four local thermal areas, about 35 km south-southwest of Rotorua in a straight line. It’s a little bit further by road.
In more detail, the places to visit and things to do beyond the downtown area include:
I will now go on to describe the sites that aren’t in the next two posts, starting with Ōrākei Kōrako.
Ōrākei Kōrako, meaning ‘place of adornment’, is a geothermal valley just off the Waikato River. A quote from Lonely Planet, on its website orakeikorako.co.nz, describes this site as “arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand.”
Well, it used to be even better: with more than a hundred geysers, two of them among the largest in the world, it was a major tourist attraction, in addition to being a significant cultural site for the Māori.
Unfortunately, two-thirds of the Ōrākei Kōrako valley was inundated by the construction of the Ōhakuri Dam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The local people, the Ngāti Tahu, were forced to relocate their marae, and the two giant geysers were submerged, along with some 200 hot springs and around 70 other geysers.
The Minister of Works in those days was a cheerfully philistine individual named Stan Goosman, a character straight out of a Ronald Hugh Morrieson tale: a roading contractor from Morrinsville who also owned some racehorses.
Like the fictional tourist resort mayor Bill Heslop in the 1994 Australian film Muriel’s Wedding, Goosman’s view was that ‘You Can’t Stop Progress’.
Resource consents hadn’t yet been invented, or not for this sort of government project anyway. So, Stan the man could pretty much do what he wanted with New Zealand nature and Māori cultural sites.
Fortunately, there is enough left of the valley, including 35 surviving active geysers, for it to remain a tourist attraction (though it must have been incredible in the old days).
Along with the geysers and surviving, colourful hot springs with names like ‘artist’s palette’, Ōrākei Kōrako includes massive white terraces — not as grand as the Pink and White Terraces buried by Mount Tarawera in 1886, though — and the Emerald Terrace, the third most impressive of New Zealand’s volcanic silica terraces after the Pink and White Terraces, but which was unfortunately also partly submerged by the modern dam lake as well.
According to the page about Ōrākei Kōrako on the regional tourism website Rotoruanz.com, “Scenes from the BBC’s Natural History Series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ were filmed at Orakei Korako.”
One of the main surviving attractions at Ōrākei Kōrako is Ruatapu, meaning sacred or forbidden hole. It has a beautiful, warm, emerald-coloured pool at the bottom called Waiwhakaata, meaning the mirror pool or reflecting pool.
Ruatapu is one of only two caves that are to be found in a geothermal area worldwide. Despite the name, the hole is accessible to visitors. People descend into it to admire the warm pool at the bottom.
I ventured into Ruatapu with a friend named Esther.
There was a plaque inside Ruatapu, honouring two local young men who were killed on active service overseas with the 28th Maori Batallion in 1941, one of them a guide who used to take people around Ōrākei Kōrako in its pre-dam heyday.
Here is a video I made of our descent into Ruatapu.
And here is a photo of a plan for Ōrākei Kōrako with its emergency evacuation information, an issue we have become more aware of in New Zealand since the 2019 Whakaari / White Island tragedy.
And some photos I took, showing the steam that comes out of the ground everywhere.
The next couple of photos also show part of a silica terrace, with the characteristic ‘icicles’ of thermally-deposited silica on the underlying rocks.
At the southern end of Rotorua is the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, also known as Te Puia. This is not the only thermal area in town. West of the downtown, Kuirau Park has boiling mud pools. But Te Puia is the biggest thermal area nearby.
Te Puia includes a source of boiling water that was once used to cook food. And Pōhutu Geyser, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and also one of the most active, erupting about twenty times a day, which basically puts it in the same league as Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful. And yet it is not in the middle of nowhere, but in the suburbs of a city!
Here’s a photo of Pōhutu Geyser that I took, from ground level, at a position near the top right in the photo above. I don’t think Pōhutu was at its most spectacular when I was there. The strength of geothermal activity in the area waxes and wanes, and regulations have been brought in to stop too much geothermal fluid being drawn off to heat buildings at the expense of the natural eruptions.
There’s also a memorial gateway to Te Arawa soldiers of the World Wars, complementary to the one in the Government Gardens.
Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, the name inscribed above the memorial gate, literally means the seventy twice-told (i.e., 140) warriors of Tū, the god of war. Though the units raised were much larger than 140, Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū was the Māori name that came to be applied both to the WWII 28th Māori Battalion and, before that, its First World War forerunner, known to begin with as the Native Contingent and then reconstituted, after heavy losses at Gallipoli, as the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion.
These Māori units were not products of segregation but rather what the British called ‘pals’ battalions’, enthusiastic volunteer units made up of people who all came from the same community. Pals’ battalions worked well but bore the risk that the source community, whether a Māori tribe in Aotearoa or a town in England, might lose too many of its young men if the unit was involved in hard fighting. Which is, basically, what happened to these contingents, especially the WWII 28th Māori Battalion, and the communities from which they were raised.
(There were actually two Māori Battalions in World War II, the 28th which served overseas and which is the one most New Zealanders just know as the Māori Battalion, and the ‘forgotten’ 2nd Māori Battalion, which served on the home front.)
Here is a video I made of the Ngararatuatara Cooking Pool, most probably the same one that the woman is cooking food in the 1960s re-enactment photo that I included in last week’s post. And also, of Te Pākira Marae and its Wahiao meeting house, which are at Whakarewarewa as well, in the living Māori village at the northern end of the reserve.
The culture of Māori villages revolves around the marae, or traditional meeting-places, of which there may be more than one per village.
The village of Whakarewarewa has also been the home of a string of famous female tourist guides from Sophia Hinerangi (‘Guide Sophia’), who died in 1911, her successors the two musically talented sisters Makareta (Maggie), who also got a degree from Oxford, and Bella Papakura; Rangitiaria Dennan (‘Guide Rangi’) who guided Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth II; and Dorothy Mihinui DCNZOM (‘Guide Bubbles’).
The guides were actually based at the village of Te Wairoa, closer to Mount Tarawera, until it was destroyed in the June 10, 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, which I am going to be talking about in a later post. After that calamity, they moved to Whakarewarewa.
The guides used to wear red scarves, and so Bella Papakura composed a song in 1905 called Pākete whero (‘red scarf’), which became something of a signature tune of the guides. Here is a video of the song, from the Māori Television channel.
There’s also a link to the song, with lyrics, tune and explanation, on folksong.org.nz. The original Māori lyrics by Bella Papakura are about a secret lover who also wears a red scarf, so they have been described as ‘racy’: certainly so by the standards of 1905. I don’t know whether many of the mostly Pākehā, that is to say ethnically European, tourists understood them.
Travelling north from Rotorua on the western side of the lake, you come to the township of Ngongotahā. There is a really good New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) campground there.
You can also use it as a base for climbing nearby Mount Ngongotahā, visiting the Velocity Valley adventure park, or any of the other things that you can see on the maps in this often-overlooked part of the Rotorua region.
One thing I did in this area was to go railcruising on an old logging railway past Mount Ngongotahā. This is called the Mamaku Express Rail Cruising Experience. It involves getting into small pods and riding the rails through what seems like wild back country, though you aren’t far from Rotorua in reality.
Here’s a video I made of my trip!
Riding in the railcar cost me NZ $60. I think it was on special due to Covid. As I shot along, I grabbed some photos as well!
Here is the YouTube documentary I mention in the course of my cruise. It’s called ‘Over Rusty Rails’, and it goes into the history of the project, including the construction of the original railway back in the day.
If you continue on round the northern side of Lake Rotorua, you go past Hamurana Springs. This spot is famous for several deep, cold-water springs with beautiful blue depths, and a shallower one, Dancing Sands Spring, in which the sand seems to boil from all the cold water coming up from below.
Carrying on east and up State Highway 33, north of Lake Rotoiti, you come to Ōkere Falls and the Ōkere Falls Scenic Reserve.
Ōkere is Māori for ‘place of drifting’, and the name is very apt because the locality is famed for its white water rafting down some gorges in the Kaituna River, also known as the Ōkere River in its lower reaches where the gorges are.
This includes going over what is said to be the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, Tutea’s Falls, which are actually higher than the Ōkere Falls shown in the following photographs:
The gorges of the lower Kaituna River are actually quite gnarly.
The price of the white-water rafting trip was was down to NZ $60 or $70 due to the impact of Covid on tourism, a real bargain. All the more so as the people who I saw running the rafting tours train people for two and half hours before hand. They walk along the river and they show them the rapids they will go down before they do it. I was really impressed with this professionalism.
The Kaituna River was also developed for hydroelectric power at one time, and you can see the old powerhouse and its vintage turbine as one of the local attractions. Rotorua was the fourth city or town to get hydroelectric power in New Zealand, and it came from the powerhouse at Ōkere Falls, which started up in 1901 and ran until 1939.
However, what really struck me as remarkable were the Fairy Steps, also known as Hinemoa’s Steps, hewn out of the side of one of the gorges more than a hundred years ago to help gain access to Tutea’s Cave.
Tutea’s Cave (or caves, depending on who wrote the sign), and the falls of the same name, both honour Tutea, a local Māori chief of bygone days. Apparently, in the past, when there were wars afoot, people would shelter in the caves. Maybe this was Tutea’s idea. Whoever thought of it first, the plan was a good one. The caves were almost inaccessible and could only be accessed by rope.
In 1907, the engineers from the power station cut steps in the cliff so that tourists could get to the caves more easily. I don’t know whether local Māori were in favour of the idea or not; it would be interesting to find out. In any case, I don’t think too many people bothered with getting consents in those days.
(As far as I know, the steps have nothing to do with Hinemoa, or fairies, apart from the names.)
The steps were popular with photographers, and soon led to a sort of mini-boom in tourism.
You can see how beautiful the area is from the next two photographs.
There is a back-country hiking trail that runs beside the gorges and looks down into them, called the Ōkere Falls Track. It’s on my list of things to do.
One thing I noticed was that just about all the signs to do with the river were oriented toward rafters and kayakers. The big sign for the Ōkere Falls Scenic Reserve says bluntly that the river is not safe for swimming anywhere in those parts. Unfortunately for the casual visitor, who would otherwise be seeking to have a dip at a scenic reserve next to so much water, it seems to be a case of look but don’t touch.
To finish this section, here’s another video I made:
For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website, a-maverick.com.
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