Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rotorua, NZ: Into the Volcanic Zone

We found ourselves on gravel road  for a rough 20 km out of Putaruru.  Not that we weren't warned.  A gent at the holiday park said it was a forest road, do not take it, we might get lost.  But we were looking for an alternate route to the busy main highway and to avoid backtracking an extra 5 km.  Our map showed that it was unpaved for only a short stretch, but we reached the gravel very early, after we already had invested 10 km of steep uphill. Where there was a sign that said unmaintained, enter at your own risk. But we went for it anyway.  The quiet around us was lovely as we pushed our bikes up the steep, loose grades, calming us a bit from concern about bouncing panniers.  We passed through a forest, second or third or fourth generation trees that have displaced native vegetation as a crop for timber harvesting.
Notice the orderly rows of trees in the distance.
Our goal was Rotorua, on the edge of a lake formed in the caldera of a volcano.  This town is in the northern section of the area known as the Taupo Volcanic Zone.  We came to explore the steaming landscape of geysers and hot pools.  We stashed our bikes for a day and became indistinguishable from the other tourists.

We spent a good part of the day exploring the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village.  We arrived to view thermal features, but it was more a cultural lesson of the life of this particular Maori tribe. 

Our Maori guide at taking  ten minutes to teach us how to pronounce the name of her village.
The people of this village have lived directly adjacent to the hot pools for generations.  It has been a tradition for them to conduct tours and entertain visitors with traditional Maori dances and song.  It is not a large area, but we were led along the roads of the village where we learned of the lifestyle they are struggling to maintain.

The house on the other side  of the pool is 100 years old, but had to be recently vacated due to shifting of the geothermal hot spots.

Rotorua is a holiday destination, and outside the gates of this village preserved in time is motel after motel offering spas and thermal pools, all tapping into the geothermal resource.  There are also large geothermal plants south of here supplying electricity.  All of these have altered the area so that where there used to be many active geysers, there is now only one. 

Retrieving corn steamed in a muslin bag the hot pool.
None of the homes in the village have kitchens -- all cooking is done in hot pools and boxes built into the ground to steam and roast vegetables, seafood, and meat.  The 60 residents participate in communal bathing each morning and evening (when the tourists are not there, needless to say).

The Pohutu Geyser, actually located on the adjacent, more commercial Te Puia area.
Village children are allowed to dive for coins tossed by visitors from the bridge leading into the village on weekends and holidays.  Despite hot pools all around, this creek is cold.

We walked along the shore of Lake Rotorua in the evening.  Water quality has been degraded by runoff from pastures and sewage discharge, but improvements have been made in recent years.

Rotorua Museum of Art and History
The indigenous Tuhourangi Ngati Wahiao people have lived amongst the steam for hundreds of years.  In 1908 the government funded construction of a spa and resort to attract tourism to the area, and the historic spa house now houses the Rotorua Museum of Art and History.  The contrast between these cultures, each drawn by steaming hot water, just like us, was striking.

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