Around Rotorua: Te Puia's thermal wonderland, Ngongotahā, Railcruising, Hamurana Springs and Ōkere Falls

February 24, 2022
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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. These include:

Te Puia, also known as the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, with the living Māori village of Whakarewarewa at its northern end

Ngongotahā, including Mount Ngongotahā and the Velocity Valley thrill ride

Railcruising through Danseys Road Scenic Reserve north of Mount Mount Ngongotahā

Hamurana Springs (clear, blue, cold)

Ōkere Falls Scenic Reserve, where you can go over the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world

Te Puia and Whakarewarewa

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.

The entrance building at Te Puia

An information panel by the entrance building

Te Puia includes a source of boiling waterl that was once used to cook food. And also 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!

"Aerial view of Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, New Zealand. Pōhutu Geyser is erupting in the center, the Māori Arts & Crafts Institute (which controls access to the geothermal area) is in the bottom left; and the outskirts of Rotorua are in the top left. Taken during a seaplane ride out of Rotorua." Photo by Carl Lindberg (January 2002), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Tohutō/macrons added to the quote for this post.

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.

Here is a video I made of the Ngararatuatara Cooking Pool, most probably the same one that the woman is cooking food in 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.

There's a link to the song, with lyrics, tune and explanation, on The original Māori lyrics by Bella Papakura are about a secret lover who also wears a red scarf, so they are 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, or 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.

The railcars split up for the actual journey

The Railcruising Headquarters

How it was done in the old days, when things were more serious

Here's a video I made of my trip!

And my photos from January 2022! Riding in the railcar cost me NZ $60. I think it was on special due to Covid.

A view out the front, with the firm's number to call if anything goes wrong

Loving it!

Travelling through a narrow cutting

A selfie beside a curious monument

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.

Hamurana Springs

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.

"View on the Hangarua Spring from the top level viewing platform, in Hamurana Springs reserve, Rotorua, NZ." Photo by Frederik Vanrenterghem, 8 October 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ōkere Falls Scenic Reserve

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:

Ōkere Falls, Kaituna River. Top photo by Ronald Woan, CC BY 2.0 via DOC. Lower Photo by Macronix (28 January 2010), CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Fairy Steps, also known as Hinemoa's Steps, leading down to the Tutea Caves, near Okere Falls at Lake Rotoiti, north east of Rotorua. Photograph by Frederick George Ratcliffe, taken between 1910 and 1919, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections ID 35-R1346. No known copyright.

Wilfred Ransom and party on the Hinemoa Steps, 2 March 1914. Photographer unknown. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, via Kete Horowhenua, Wilfrid Ransom Collection, Horowhenua Historical Society Inc.

My view down the steps

In the bowels of the caves.

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, here’s another video I made:

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website


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