Saturday, August 15, 2009

New Zealand: Rotorua

Like most of the tourist areas of NZ, Rotorua is rather slow in the wintertime; the geothermal springs and hot spots, however, were active as ever. The first thing we noticed on arrival in Rotorua was the pong--someone told us the best thing about the place is that "you can fart and get away with it." The intensity of the sulphur smell varies somewhat, though, according to location--on certain street corners, the stuff flows up from the storm sewer grates.

We visited three main attractions: Whakarewarewa, the living thermal village, which is still occupied by Maoris; Rotorua Domain, the city park, which has steam vents, pools, and gardens about a block from the hostel we stayed at; and the Rotorua Museum, which makes its home in the old therapeutic baths which drew Europeans to the area until the 1940s.


Our tour began at 9 AM, and the weather was chilly--however, a billow of sulphury steam was never far away:

Our tour guide told us that the Maori had no religion until white people arrived, "just beliefs". Here is the Catholic church of Whaka, which only holds Mass once a month. The white boxes are tombs--you can't bury people six feet under, it would be too much like cremation.

These guys are loading pudding into a steam hole for cooking; we're actually going to be eating this food, a so-called Hangi meal, for lunch later at Ned's Cafe.

But before lunch, we headed to the lookout to see the geyser ...

... then circled the big hot spring lake, where the walkway was studded with little signposts celebrating visitors from various countries. Here is Korea:

Rotorua Domain: The city park, just a block from our hostel, is an active geothermal area with gardens, hot spots and a spa.

This is a geologically active area, and the government surely struggles to keep up with Mother Nature. Here are a couple of new spots, cordoned off in a temporary manner until the the work crews put up proper fencing:

Rotorua Therapeutic Baths:

The Bath House building, which today houses the Rotorua Museum, was built at the height of Edwardian splendor, the turn of the last century. Europeans traveled to the area to "take the waters" beginning in the 1850s, and according to the brochure, the baths represent the NZ government's "first major investment in the tourism industry."

The baths were used by the elite who could afford the trip from Europe, but were also put into service for convalescent veterans of the Great War. However, the difficulties of transporting the corrosive, scalding water from the pools a half-mile away and controlling their temperature proved to beyond the technology of the time. The Baths were nearly dismantled, but received a second chance as a nightclub called Tudor Towers in the sixties and seventies. The coolest part of the museum is the subterranean (well, ground level) tour of the workings:

Rotorua seems to be a bustling tourist town, at least juding by the storefronts and restaurants--during the summer. It was slow during our visit, except at the gaming rooms located inside every bar in town. The bars were never busy, which suited us just fine, but the gambling rooms--video poker, blackjack, etc--hummed with activity morning, noon and night; we soon understood why many people call the town Roto-Vegas.

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