There is one big reason why people like to visit a city like Rotorua. They want to experience the amazing geothermal activity that is so close to the surface. The sights in cities like Rotorua are spectacular and quite exclusive. Few other places will be able to wow you with geysers, bubbling mud pools and mineral-rich water.
In short, Rotorua is a special place. The whole city smells of rotten eggs and is covered in lichens and mosses that look alien and quite strange. It is clear that the powers of the earth are a defining feature of the city that begs further exploration.
One of the highlights in Rotorua is the forceful Pohutu geyser just to the south of the city centre, located in the Te Puia geothermal valley.
Pohutu is a sight to behold, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. Thanks to its reliability and willingness to spurt water several meters up in the air for days on end, it makes for a perfect tourist attraction. It something like the landmark of Rotorua and should be part of any itinerary.
So we planned a visit of Te Puia, or at least we thought that we would. But an error in the Google Maps navigation led us to a neighbouring attraction instead, and I am glad that it did. After just a couple of minutes drive we arrived at a parking lot and a traditionally carved gate with a no access sign in front. This was the end of the road for us, even though Google encouraged us to continue through the gate to get to Te Puia. Which is silly of course, the sign made it quite clear that this was a private road.
And anyway, it looked like we had arrived, so we parked and went to the gate. From the person working at the gate we were directed to a large visitor centre just across the parking lot. This is when it dawned on us that we hadn’t actually arrived at the right attraction. However, when you travel with a massive camper van you are happy that you could park the vehicle safely and with enough room to manoeuvre, and so we decided on the spot to swap Te Puia with whatever was right in front of us.
At the visitor centre we were given a map of what lies behind the gate – Whakarewarewa village. A Maori village right in the centre of Rotorua. Whakarewarewa is a living village complete with shops, churches, a cemetery and lots of geothermal activity. The map that we got together with our tickets made it quite clear that there was a lot to discover around the village. We got immediately excited and put our explorer hats on (not literally!). Plus, performances of traditional Maori dances and the famous haka were part of the deal, too. So let’s do this!
Whakarewarewa – the name is quite a mouthful. If you want to know how to pronounce the name, remember that the wh- letter combination in the Maori language represents a sound similar to the English f sound. So it is something closer to Fakarewarewa. This is not the full name of the village, just a short form which is difficult enough to remember for English ears. The full name of the village is Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, but locals prefer simply Whaka.
The village has been in existence for hundreds of years and has been looking back at more than 200 years of tourism. The locals are taking pride in showing visitors their traditional way of life. And this is even more remarkable, as their ancestors had settled in a very active geothermal area. Whakarewarewa is perfect if you want to see how people are living in complete harmony with this highly active geothermal area.
Whakarewarewa combines a famous geothermal site like Te Puia with the local Maori culture, saving you time and money
Through the gate and across a bridge we arrived at the village centre. The forked main street was lined with some small businesses and residential houses, a church and a performance centre. There was a traditional village square with communal hall for gatherings, and a number of traditional Maori statues. This added some Maori culture to the otherwise quite modern feel of the village.
Despite the clear-cut looks this was not a Disneyland. People were indeed living in these houses, and they have been doing so for centuries. A walk behind the back of these houses revealed why this place is so special and has been occupied by the Maoris for such a long time. Steam was rising from the earth everywhere, spreading warmth and fogging our lenses. There were pools and small lakes filled with boiling water. Colourful silicate formations, frozen in time, flowing into the bubbling pools. On first sight, a place straight from hell, devilish, dangerous and unforgiving. A toddler, making one wrong step, would face instant death.
Yet, the Maoris have learned to cope with the conditions. Indeed, just like the first people to master the fire, these people have managed to not just cope but make use of the special qualities of a place like this. There was a pool where you can see nets dropped in the boiling water, the smell of cooked corn rising to our noses. An intricate and complex system of pipes and drains directed some water along the flats and terraces to man-constructed tubs. The long journey of the water allowed the water just enough time to cool down for a relaxing and enjoyable communal bath.
From here we walked up the main street to a viewing platform of the large geyser which we had wanted to see in the first place. Past more houses, a small wooden church, a graveyard. I love graveyards, so this was one of my personal highlights. As it turned out, the locals cannot bury their dead in the ground or they would be cooked in no time at all. They need to entomb them above the ground. Gardening causes similar issues, so raised garden beds can be seen everywhere.
The viewing platform proved to be fantastic, offering wide views of the geothermal valley and the fierce Pohutu geyser.
We ended our visit with the performance centre, just in time as the heavens opened and rain started to fall. We were seated under cover in front of a stage and enjoyed a fantastic show by the villagers. The performers were all dressed in traditional costume, entertaining the crowd with a mix of local history, folklore, performing arts and of course the legendary haka. Popping eyes, stomping feet, tongues sticking out – it’s an impressive display of courage and strength.
A well-rounded experience, perfect for the whole family. We loved that the village was not just a tourism attraction, a prop to generate tourist dollars, but indeed a place where people live and work. We felt welcomed and not just visitors but guests. A fascinating glimpse into the Maori culture and the complex, respectful relationship locals have with the land.
Now over to you – did you ever visit an attraction by accident, for example because your navigation system failed you? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to check out the additional photos on the bottom of this post!