Tuesday, June 6, 2023

48 Hours In Rotorua: Autumn Trees, Secret Night Tours & Geothermal Activity

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There’s no better place to experience geothermal activity and autumn leaves than beautiful Rotorua. Here’s how to spend a weekend enjoying the best of both of those things!

“Welcome to Jurassic Park,” our tour guide Patrick says, grinning as he unlocks the ‘No Entry Please’ emergency exit door that backs onto the Te Puia geothermal reserve. It’s 8pm, the sun is set and it really does feel like we’re getting behind the scenes access to a natural wonder, because, well, we are. There’s 10 of us – two guides, eight tourists – taking part in the Geyser By Night tour at Te Puia, a relatively recent new tour as part of the Te Puia geothermal reserve, where guests are taken, by torch light, around the park.

The reserve is alive and well at night – mud pools gurgling, geysers going off, the wildlife out and about as our group of wide-eyed adults shuffle through the park. For my husband Shahab and I, the weekend is about geothermal activity and the joys of Autumn and there is simply no better place in this beautiful country to appreciate both of those things.

Hell's Gate mud pools in NZ

Our lava appreciation weekend – aka ‘Nerds on Tour’ – started earlier that morning, with a morning soak and wander at Hell’s Gate, Aotearoa’s first ever destination spa (started in 1897) and one of the  Māori owned and operated spots in the area. The potent smell of sulphur in the Tikitere geothermal reserve is replaced by a more delicious one as we walk past the Hell’s Gate café on the way out where the cook is hand-making the pies and frying the bacon to go in them. If there’s a better morning than a mud soak, a volcanic walk and then a bacon and egg pie, I don’t know it.

The effects of the pandemic have been felt keenly in Rotorua – like Queenstown, it’s a city that banks on tourism and our borders being shut means that numbers have been dramatically down for two years. But if you’re a city famous for geothermal activity, you’re also well-versed in adapting (volcanoes make for tricky neighbours) and the local industry is slowly bouncing back.

On our morning in Hell’s Gate, the crowds are quiet but the nature is as loud as ever, so we make the most of the peace by heading straight to the hot pools to slather ourselves in warm mud and then bask in the sun. When I explain this concept to Shahab before we arrive, he asks “Like hippos do?” and yes, that is exactly the visuals I get as we roll around in the pool. Filled with supposed skin-calming nutrients, the warm mud has long been heralded for its healing properties and it is also a real treat as a grown adult to get absolutely filthy for WELLNESS and then emerge like a silken butterfly from a claggy cocoon.

Once showered and dressed, us healthily soaked hippos humans then get to walk around the very active geothermal reserve that makes up the rest of the Hell’s Gate experience. There are three walks, ranging in length, all very easy and all very ‘stay-on-the-path-please’ in attitude, because you really are getting relatively up close and personal to the various geothermal wonders that make up this walk.

Redwoods forest in Rotorua

The mud pools vary in name and temperature from a frankly adorable sounding Baby Adam at 68°C to the less cute Devil’s Cauldron at 110°C. We walk through a Redwoods forest that overlooks a rushing waterfall and then there’s more mud pools, lined by pine trees, and the kind of patchwork earth colours you get in seismic areas (and, of course, the smell). Walking along the paths, Shahab remarks that “The land feels alive” and there is the definite feeling that you’re a guest on someone else’s property and be polite, because this geothermal activity is to be respected.

That’s the feeling that returns to us in our Geyser by Night tour and it’s a caveat that the Te Puia kaiārahi drop very early into the night, as they start to guide us around the 3km walking route. One of only two geyser fields in the world that exists in its natural state, Te Puia is visible from far away thanks to the world famous Pōhutu geyser, which billows high above the reserve as we drive in.

But while the natural beauty of Pōhutu may have made this a stand-out feature of Rotorua, it’s the values of manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga that have filtered through every decision at Te Puia – keeping both the idea of hospitality to the guest but also guardianship of the land and of the indigenous wisdom as well.

Te Puia Geyser By Night Tour In Aotearoa

When you buy a ticket for Te Puia, you’re helping fund New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, the creative arts schools on the property, which provides training for those wanting to keep the taonga of carving and weaving alive.  And you’re also getting the opportunity to see this seismically active land in all its glory.

There’s a point where our brilliant kaiārahi, Patrick and Maunganui, pause our group round a steaming pool and, from a flax bag that’s been submerged into the 90°C water for 45 minutes, produce steamed puddings of kūmara, butterscotch and wheatmeal to eat. Sitting under the stars and around the ngāwhā, eating this (extremely delicious!) pudding while Patrick tells us the legends of the area, it feels like we’ve gone back in time.

There’s also the high-pitched chirps of the Kiwis in the forest, the clear Autumn sky and the lit-up geysers that fill the horizon, while we lie down on the naturally heated stone slabs and look at the stars. The tagline for Te Puia is “a place that changes you” and it really does give you a greater appreciation that if you take away the distractions of modern life, you’re left with the awe of a very raw, very seismically active country.

After another lovely night at the beautiful boutique hotel Regent on Rotorua and a walk around the seriously bustling Eat Streat food hub in the CBD, it’s time for our final geothermal activity. There’s no torches required for our daytime walk around Waimangu Volcanic Valley – a protected scenic reserve and the world’s youngest geothermal valley, which is very much still a natural work-in-progress and often changing. The valley was formed after an eruption in 1886 and is some of the most stunning landscape I’ve ever seen, including Emerald Lake, which is something of a volcanic mood ring of colours.

The day we’re there, it’s a rich forest green but it can also be brown, bright blue as the mood (plant life, actually) of the area changes. There’s also the Inferno Crater Lake, a pale milky blue, that rises and falls over the month. Ringed by trees in Autumn hues, Waimangu is a sunny and spectacular walk before you can catch a boat to take you around the equally stunning Lake Rotomahana.

There’s a final beautiful drive along Lake Rotoiti as we visit Okere Falls Store, a local favourite that’s a deli, café and general store, putting the spotlight on organic and artisan products. The store is also a founding member of the Rotorua Sustainable Business Charter and runs composting toilets, a worm farm and its own garden to keep things as sustainable as possible.

It’s important for the sake of journalism to try their locally made rosé, bratwurst, kimchi and sourdough and sitting in the beer garden, with the lake on one side and the autumnal trees on another, it’s the perfect end to the weekend and another good reminder to pay attention to where you spend your tourist dollars – supporting locally owned companies that are dedicated to keeping the area thriving. And if you can do that while soaking in mud, looking at star-lit geysers and eating a kimchi hot dog, why wouldn’t you?

Emma & Shahab were guests of RotoruaNZ

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