On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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28 June 2016

Rotorua, geothermal paradise

In the middle of the fumaroles, visit of the pretty town of Rotorua and immersion in the history of the region.
Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand © Claire Blumenfeld
DISPATCH

After two days in the Coromandels, I take the bus very early in the morning for a last trip with Ritchie who brings me back to Hamilton. I am going to Rotorua. Located almost in the middle of the North Island, in an area at the junction of two tectonic plates forming the volcanic area of ​​Taupo, Rotorua is built on the banks of a very large lake. The lake is located in the caldera of a ancient volcano whose last eruption dates back 240,000 years. Geothermal activity is important in the region and there are many hot springs, mud pools and geysers all bathed in hot water vapor and the smell of sulfur. It reminds me of memories of Japan and my visit to Unzen (the smell of sulfur was stronger there). Obviously, all this makes Rotorua a major tourist attraction. The Maori had already settled in the region long before the arrival of Westerners, and used the hot springs for washing, healing or heating. The first Pakeha (European settlers. The term today designates all non-Maori) arrived around 1850 and settled on the shore of Lake Rotomahana (a few kilometers from present-day Rotorua). There, were Pink and White Terraces on the slopes of the Tarawera volcano. Open air thermal springs with large amounts of calcium bicarbonate in their water. They quickly made the region famous and were considered the eighth wonder of the world. Alas on June 10, 1886, the Tarawera volcano erupted engulfing the Terraces and the surrounding villages. Despite the disaster, it did not prevent the settlers from continuing to settle in the region and Rotorua, spa town was founded in 1883. In addition to activities related to hot springs, parks, Maori shows (the place being one of the cradles of Maori culture), a visit to Hobbiton (the Lord of the Rings filming location) and full of hikes and sports activities make visitors busy.

I arrive at my hostel in the early afternoon. I put my bag down and meet Lydie, a luxembourgish and Pauline, a french, both very friendly. And start exploring the city. I go see the Kuirau geothermal park, located in the very center of the city. Hot springs and small boiling lakes on all sides with a smell of sulfur. I continue to the Maori village of Ohinemutu, now part of Rotorua. I find Lydie on the way and we arrive in the center of the neighborhood a few minutes before sunset. Some Maori style houses are still standing with a very pretty Wharenui (common house) but it is the Marae Tamatekapua and the Anglican Church of St. Faith that catch my attention. With their red roof and the warm light of the evening rays, the place is magnificent. While discussing our respective journeys, we continue the walk along the lake, admiring the sunset and the black swans on the water. We return to the hostel in the dark and I fall asleep, particularly happy with my first day at Rotorua.

I spend the next two days exploring the city and its surroundings in more detail. Lake Rotorua is a large body of water of ten kilometers of diameter. It was discovered by tribal chief Ihenga who named it Rotorua. In Maori, “Roto” means “lake” and “rua” means “two”. It would therefore be the second lake discovered by Ihenga. In the center of the lake is Mokoia Island, a magma dome which is also a sanctuary for the flora and fauna of the North Island. It is one of the breeding grounds for sea gulls, Buller’s gulls and brown gulls. Due to geothermal activity, the southeastern part of the lake is called Sulfur Bay and has murky water due to sulfur. Water is poor in oxygen and very acidic. Birds greatly appreciate the temperature of the water, but the acidity damages the webbing of their feet and the low oxygen content of the water forces them to leave the area regularly to find food. The shores of the lake were also the scene of many Maori wars. Mokoia Island was particularly coveted by the tribes of the region and was the scene of bloody battles. But it is also the site of one of New Zealand’s best-known love stories. Tutanekai, living on the island, and Hinemoa, a young woman of high birth, living on Owhata lands, had fallen in love. But their love was forbidden. Hinemoa then swam across the lake, guided by the melodies Tutanekai played with his flute carved into the bone in order to join her lover.

The Rotorua Museum is the most beautiful building in the city. It is located in the Bath House, a former spa establishment that offered therapeutic treatments. In 1878, a Catholic priest, Father Mahoney, paralyzed by arthritis was transported to Rotorua to bathe in the hot springs. He then found the use of his legs and the place was baptized “The Baths of the Priest”. In 1882 the first pavilion was built. But the structure collapsed two years later due to maintenance problems (the acidity of the water gnawing at the pipes and the wood). In 1885, a sanatorium opened, followed by the new pavilion in 1887. The Bath House built in 1908 is the only building left of the old complex. Mud baths and treatment based on different kinds of water were proposed to treat diseases, rheumatism, skin problems. Alas, the acidity of the water making maintenance difficult and the decline of interest for medicinal waters led to the closure of the Baths in 1940. Inspired by an Elizabethan architectural style with lots of small towers and a large central staircase, the building is located within the Government Gardens or Paepaekumanu Motutara, former place of Maori tribal wars. The Ngâti Whakaue tribe gave it to the colonists in 1882. The museum contains two main exhibitions. One retracing the history of the place and thermal cures with a stroll among the installations of the time and in the basements where the mud baths took place. And the second devoted to the history of the region. The different Maori tribes, the arrival of the Settlers, the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces, Rotorua today, all of this comes together in one of the most beautiful exhibitions I have seen. The scenography is magnificent and the use of typography and comics makes the whole very playful. For me who is particularly sensitive to design, it is a gift for my eyes!

Rainbow Springs is a nine hectare natural park bordering Rotorua. It is home to many species of native flora and fauna, including Kiwis! By paying extra at the park entrance, it is even possible to observe baby kiwis thanks to the National Kiwi Trust Conservation Center located in the park. Determined to see with my eyes these little treasures, I go to the park ready to pay the price. Huge disappointment ! To be able to see little ones you have to come in summer! Anyway, I still pay the entrance to the park to see the adult kiwis in their enclosure. Rainbow Springs, whose name comes from the stream flowing within the park where 300 to 400 wild rainbow trout bask, is at the same time a natural park, a zoo and an amusement park with activities and bird shows. However during my visit it was really quiet. It must be said that it was raining a little and that it was already almost night. I go to the Kiwi enclosure, permanently in darkness (kiwis are nocturnal animals) and sheltering 3-4 kiwis behind dirty glass panes. I see one foraging in the ground with its long beak and seeming to sneeze / sniff every ten seconds. Oulala, he must be sick! I observe the animals for several minutes but since nothing special is happening, I go out a little disappointed.

By dwelling on the very interesting explanations I learn a lot about Kiwis. These are nocturnal animals unique to New Zealand, unable to fly and now endangered. Before the arrival of the Maori and the settlers, the kiwis were not threatened by any predator. But with the arrival of the men, came cats, dogs, rats, weasels, possums. Who attacked the flightless bird. Today, only 5% of chicks survive in the wild. In an attempt to save the species, many conservation programs are in place, including the National Kiwi Trust Conservation Center. It recovers eggs from the wild in order to raise them until the age of six months when the little Kiwi is then released into the wild been then being able to defend himself against predators. There are five types of Kiwis in New Zealand but one species is completely extinct. I also learn that the female lays one of the biggest eggs in the world compared to her weight. The egg is even so large that it fills her entire stomach and that three days before laying she stops feeding, having no more room in  her belly! I also learn the answer to my question earlier. No, the Kiwi I saw was not sick! As he has very sensitive nostrils at the end of his beak, he is constantly forced to remove the earth from his holes and therefore sneezes permanently. It is the only way to spot his presence in the wild at night.

I continue my walk in the park through the aviary of exotic animals. There are superb parrots and parakeets who greet me in a concert of cries. The more I observe them, the more I realize that I like to observe the behavior of birds, it is fascinating! At nightfall I go to see the reptiles and the Tuataras. They are a cold-blooded reptile unique to New Zealand and older than the dinosaurs! They have a very long cycle: They reach their adult size of 600mm after 35 years, breathe only once an hour and can live up to at least 100 years! Alas it is winter and being cold the adults have buried themselves in the ground. I can only notice two juveniles behind the dirty windows of the cage. I also see a beautiful Eastern Bearded Dragon. I continue in the dark through the forest of the park filled with Kauris (very large trees up to 4000 years old), Manukas and Rimus to go see New Zealand birds: a look at the Morepork (an owl) very similar to its Maori name: “ruru” which means “big eyes”, stop in front of the Weka enclosure (curious bird unable to fly), discuss with Jenny, the Kea (endangered alpine parrot) and I end with a walk in the enclosure of Kâkâs. These are large parrots with red tail feathers which behave somewhat like monkeys. They use their large, sharp beak to climb or swing from branch to branch! Fascinating. While I am in the enclosure, a slightly too curious Kâka approaches a few inches from me! I don’t know if he takes me for the guardian or the guy who gives him food but he waves his long beak a little too close to my leg, for my taste. I try to make him move back by waving the brochure in front of his beak but here he catches it with his beak and gets even closer to my leg! I don’t know if he’s just curious, but I am slightly worried about the shape of his sharp beak. I rush to the exit door, the parrot on my heels. Pfiou! To be chased by a parrot, what a funny adventure!

My last visit in Rotorua is at the Wai-o-Tapu geothermal park whose Maori name means “sacred waters”. About 18 km2 of collapsed craters, pools of boiling mud, lakes with magnificent colors, steam, smoke and smell of sulfur. Half an hour in a special shuttle (only way to access the park if you don’t have a car), where I meet Julie, a French woman on vacation for a month in Aotearoa (New Zealand in Maori language) ). The shuttle drops us off first at the Lady Knox geyser, which starts every day at 10:15 am! One of the park staff walks up to the geyser and tells us in a well-pronounced kiwi accent that a century ago this place was used as a prison. One of the convicts washing his clothes accidentally dropped his soap in the waters of a thermal spring. This had the effect of triggering a jet from a height of 20m. The trick is used today to trigger Lady Knox but beware, the soap used today is designed so as not to degrade nature. The employee pours the soap, bubbles start to form and the spray finally rises, much less powerful than I had imagined. Nice but a bit too touristy for my taste…

The shuttle picks us up and drops us off five minutes further outside the park entrance. Several trails wander through the park passing through all the “attractions”. Julie and I take the longest route, marveling at the colors and the structures. Some lakes (notably the Devil’s Bath) are of an apple green color indicating the presence of arsenic! The main attraction is the Champagne Pool, a large pool of 65m in diameter, whose name comes from gas bubbles rising to its surface. The center of the lake is at 75 °C and its orange edges show deposits of antimony. Alas, the sun hides behind the clouds which slightly minimizes the beauty of the place. But the walk is no less pleasant.

No Maori theme park, shows or Maori meeting for me during this stay in Rotorua. The prices are much too expensive, it is very touristy and I find it a little strange to transform the ancestral Maori culture into a spectacle for tourists. However Lydie and Pauline attended and they told me they liked it very much. War dances, traditional costume and Haka are very good. And the meal cooked in Hângi (cooking food in an oven built in the ground where the food simmers for hours using hot stones and steam) is worth its weight in gold. Ideally, I would like to see that in reality, but since most Maori people live today the same way as New Zealanders, this is unlikely to happen.

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