International travel

Te Puia and the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve

I probably shouldn’t admit to having a favorite city on New Zealand’s North Island. Every place we visited was amazing, and having a “favorite” would be like admitting to having a favorite child. (Which I don’t, by the way!)

However, if I were only able to return to one North Island city, I would choose Rotorua.

Images by RJM
Pohutu Geyser

This city is rich with natural and cultural history, and famous for its Maori hospitality as well as its geothermal activity. Revered by the Maori as a sacred place, Rotorua just “felt special” to me and I would love to return and further explore the city and surrounding area.

A little history:

While the land around Rotorua was originally settled by the Maori in 1350, it was not until 500 years later that the Europeans came and established a township there. The site was selected because of the geysers and naturally-heated bathing pools, the pure spring waters, as well as the nearby forests and lakes (there are 20 within 30kms of Rotorua, abundantly stocked with rainbow and brown trout).

The Pink and White Terraces, formed by volcanic silica deposits and at one time called the “eighth natural wonder of the world,” were once Rotorua’s most famous attraction. Unfortunately, they were destroyed in 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted. This photo, displayed at the Buried Village museum southeast of Rotorua, shows the beauty of these terraces.

Pink and White Terraces
Pink and White Terraces

Our busy schedule:

During our two full days in Rotorua, we visited the nearby Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve and Te Puia cultural center, drove to the Blue Lake, the Green Lake and Lake Tarawara, visited the Rotorua Museum and Government Gardens, enjoyed the ceremonial songs, dancing, warrior games and traditional hangi feast at Tamaki Maori Village, had a picnic lunch in a nearby redwood forest, and enjoyed the mineral baths available at our motel, the Union Victoria.


Because we did so much, I’ll have to write more than once about this wonderful city.

I’ll begin with Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve and Te Puia New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute.

And rather than quoting from brochures and travel books, I am going to quote my journal and share my personal experience.

Another amazing New Zealand day!

After breakfast in our room, we set out for Te Puia, the home of Pohutu Geyser (the “Big Splash”) and another Maori culture center. What an incredible place!

Rotorua is situated in a crater, and the skyline all around is the crater rim. We could smell the sulphur when we awoke this morning; it’s obvious, but not obtrusive.

Images by RJM
Mud pit

We were very fortunate to arrive at the thermal area / mud pits / geyser area just as the Big Splash was ready to erupt. It was a snowy white, with a blue-and-white sky backdrop. Beautiful!

Images by RJM
Pohutu Geyser

Images by RJM

Images by RJM
Thermally-heated seats!

We were also fortunate in our walk through the small kiwi enclosure, because one of these large nocturnal birds was out of its burrow and foraging. She was very easy to see, even in the darkened enclosure. We also learned (or were reminded) that the egg takes up two-thirds of the female’s body; when she lays the egg it is of a size equivalent to a human female giving birth to a 35-pound baby. Ouch!

Images by RJM
Pregnant kiwi

Our guide, “Ho,” told us many things about the Maori culture.

These things were notable to me:

(1) The carvings on the meeting house panels tell the story of the people of the tribe.

Images by RJM
Meeting House

(2) Some houses were built on stilts, keeping them off the damp ground. These were the food storage structures.

Images by RJM
Food storage; drying fish

(3) The flax fiber is liberated from the plant with the use of a mussel shell. We watched Ho score and clean the leaf, roll it to make it strong (as in braiding), cut it so it could be dyed in a pattern. It was a fascinating demonstration, and gave me a good appreciation of the high cost of woven flax goods.

Images by RJM
Liberated flax fibers
Images by RJM
Flax weaving demonstration

(As I watched Ho work the flax, I recognized that he was liberating the fiber – and the artistic possibilities – from the plant, in much the same way a sculptor liberates a statue from a piece of marble.)

Images by RJM
School of Carving

There are three schools on site, to teach Maori (only) students the arts of carving wood, carving stone, and weaving flax.

Images by RJM
Wood carver
Images by RJM
Stone carver
Images by RJM
Flax – plant and woven

A portion of the entry fees [to the museum], and a portion of gift shop sales, goes to support the schools. So when two t-shirts called out for me to buy them, I was happy to say “Charge it!” 

Images by RJMWheelchair Accessibility:

There was a paved path from the Te Puia entry down to the thermal area (a slight decline).

Images by RJM
Paved Walkway – Wheelchair accessible

The wide wooden walkways and well-packed dirt paths allowed for easy viewing of the mud pits and geysers.

Images by RJM
Wooden path at geyser viewing area – Wheelchair accessible


Images by RJM
Accessible pathway

While there were a few off-the-beaten-path areas that were not made for wheelchairs, most of the thermal area was accessible, as were the Maori village, the schools and the gift shop.

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