GEORGE TOWN, April 3 ― O hurry hurry home love / Hurry back to Rotorua … / To the mountains and the valleys / Hurry home to me.
Like Rolf Harris’s famous 1960s version of the Maori folk song exhorted us to do, we were hurrying to Rotorua, heartland of Maori culture in New Zealand.
Situated in the Taopo Volcanic Region in the middle of North Island, the city of Rotorua is sited on the enormous lake of the same name.
When the first Maori settlers arrived here a thousand years ago after their perilous journey across the Pacific Ocean from Polynesia in massive waka (canoes), this was the second mass of water they came upon, hence the name: “Roto” lake and “Rua” two.
As we approached the small city, a slightly acrid, sulphurous smell filled the air. It is clean, spacious and well laid out, and there is a surprising number of things to do.
When I visit a new place, I usually like to find out more about its history, and where better to go for this than the museum.
The beautifully restored Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens, which opened in 1969, is a mine of information and ancient treasures. A free tour with one of the guides gives a good overview of the district and building.
Once a famous spa that offered therapeutic hot water treatments to visitors from all over the world, some of the rooms have been preserved to give people an idea of what it used to look like.
With a population of approximately 70,000, of which 35 per cent is Maori, we had to visit a traditional village to experience this ancient culture, so we chose the award-winning Tamaki Maori settlement situated 20 minutes from the city. At NZ$110 (RM283) per person, it’s a bit pricy but hey, we had come all the way from Penang.
Transport by coach is included during which we were given a quick lesson in the culture: apart from the formal hongi, when you press your forehead and nose against the other person’s, Kia Ora is used as a “hi”, “goodbye”, or “thank you.”
A leader from our group is then chosen to take part in the powhiri, a formal welcoming ceremony, after which elders of the village come out to welcome the manuhiri (guests) who are treated to various arts and crafts demonstrated by Maori dressed in traditional costume.
A short concert ensues then everyone troops into the large dining hall to tuck into food cooked hangi-style –chicken, lamb and root vegetables are wrapped in hessian sacks then buried in hot sand where it steams for four hours, so an earthy smell permeates the meat.
Dessert isn’t exactly Maori: sweet and creamy Kiwi Pavlova, but delicious nevertheless. The evening ends with the ceremonial haka war dance, made famous, of course, by the country’s All Blacks Rugby Team. The whole experience is a bit Disneyland-ish, but interesting and entertaining.
New Zealand is apparently one of the few countries in the world where one can witness natural geothermal activity; just walking around town, we came across steam rising from boiling grey mud pools and hot springs by the side of the road.
At the world-famous Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was fascinating to see active craters filled with steaming vividly coloured waters and bubbling mud pools.
Formed 900 years ago by hydrothermal eruption, the Champagne Pool, so-called because the bubbles which break on the surface resemble a glass of champagne, is stunning, its edges coloured in bright hues created by natural mineral and silicate interference over the centuries.
A five-minute drive away, the Lady Knox Geyser is induced (with the addition of a surfactant) to erupt at about 10.15 every morning, sometimes shooting as high as 20 metres, although it didn’t go quite that high when we were there.
The geyser, discovered in the early 20th century by a team of convicts who added soap to the hot water when they were washing their clothes, is named after Lady Constance Knox, daughter of a former Governor of New Zealand.
The hot alkaline water (from 36˚C to 42˚C) is reputed to be good for health so people can swim in public lakes or luxuriate in the Polynesian Day Spa situated next to the museum.
Oruawhata Drive, Government Gardens
Tel: +64 7 350 1814 rotoruamuseum.co.nz
Tamaki Maori Village
1220 Hinemaru Street, Rotorua
Tel: +64 7-349 2999 tamakimaorivillage.co.nz
Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
201 Waiotapu Loop Road
RD 3 Rotorua 3073
Tel: +64 7 366 6333 waiotapu.co.nz
Lakeside, Hinemoa Street, Rotorua
Tel: +64 7348 1328 polynesianspa.co.nz