Rotorua is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand. This smelly city is home to what is glamorously known as, um, a lot of geothermal activity.
New Zealand rests on what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is basically a string of volcanos and earthquakes around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. Due to all of this volcanic and seismic activity, New Zealand is pretty unique, and has a lot going on under the earth as well as above. In and around Rotorua there is a lot of geothermal activity, which means there is a lot going on for anyone remotely interested in geography, geology and natural history to see. Here you can see geysers, enjoy hot springs, see bubbling mud pools, and also witness some stunning natural beauty. All the geothermal activity is also what gives Rotorua its unpleasant eggy smell – there is a lot of sulphur in the air and it really is unpleasant. The nearer you are to any bubbling hot mud pools the more you will smell it.
On top of this, Rotorua is also the culture capital when it comes to Maori culture and here you can experience true Maori culture in actual Maori villages. It’s also home to gorgeous lakes and there are some pretty good hikes around too.
Wai – O – Tapu.
One of the main reasons we visited Rotorua was of course because of the geothermal activity. After all, this was the reason Rotorua was on the tourist map. There are quite a few parks you can go to but we chose Wai-O-Tapu, which is known as the ‘thermal wonderland’. Instead of being a cultural experience, this would allow us to walk around in our own time and see some of the incredible geothermal activity. There is no right or wrong experience to choose and if you are after seeing more of Maori culture instead, then you may want to go for something different such as going to Te Puia, where you can see the Pohutu Geyser as well as participate in and learn about Maori arts, or you could go to somewhere such as the Tamaki Maori Village and witness a Maori Haka performance and participate in a traditional Maori feast. If I had money or time, I would have probably done both.
If you are road tripping from Rotorua to Taupo like Chris and I did, I would recommend going to Wai-O-Tapu on your last day, because it is about 20 minutes out of town and is en route to Taupo, so geographically this makes the most sense.
We got there at about 10am so that we could see the Lady Knox Geyser go off. This went off daily. Chris and I thought it was pretty incredible that they knew what time it went off, and that it went off at the same time every day! As we learnt though, this wasn’t actually the case. In order for it to go off when they want it to, they pour bicarbonate soda into the Geyser. Pretty interesting but not quite what I had expected! Whilst seeing the Geyser go off was quite impressive, I have to admit it was not exactly the awe-astounding experience I expected. There were a LOT of people there, and many of these people, I have to admit, were pretty self entitled parents who thought that them and their precious children had more of a right to see what was going on than everyone else. They were really rude to Chris and I, even though we were paying customers and turned up on time. It was just, bad vibes everywhere.
I did however, enjoy the rest of the park. Seeing all the colours was just amazing. Whilst I’m the first to admit I don’t know the exact science behind it, all the different colours are basically caused by chemical reactions. Despite the unglamorous reality, and the smell, it was really pretty.
However, just like how people get ‘templed out’ in South East-Asia, I started to get a bit ‘geothermal activity’-ied out!
It’s not all about the thermal activity…
After we left Wai-O-Tapu, we went back on ourselves towards Rotorua for about 5 minutes, to what is known as ‘Rainbow Mountain’. This 3 hour round trip hike is such a great little hike to do if you’re craving some exercise and want to do something a bit different around this area. It’s also a great warm-up for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing if you’re heading that way.
The hike was hard. At first I thought the guidebook was exaggerating, but as it went on it got pretty steep! But it is short enough that you don’t feel too overwhelmed. On a clear day from the top you can see Lake Taupo and Mount Tongariro.
The reason Rainbow Mountain is called Rainbow Mountain? Because of the insanely varied beautiful colours of the rock face! Also, we stumbled upon this lake, which was so insanely blue. Again, most likely to do with all the sulphur or other chemical reactions.
After we completed our decent of Rainbow Mountain, we were sweaty messes. Thankfully, just that morning at our campsite, I had heard a camp ranger telling other campers about a little known secret in the area – Kerosene Creek. Kerosene Creek was about 2 minutes driving away from Rainbow Mountain, with a tiny signpost that usually no one would pay attention to. Kerosene Creek is in fact, a hot spring. And after the hike, it was glorious to get into our swim wear and go for a dip in a boiling hot natural creek.
We weren’t alone and it’s clear that this is a popular spot amongst those in the know, but it’s still tucked away enough that you don’t get hoards of tourists coming here, and it’s completely free of charge.
Getting to experience these things is once again one of the reasons why I’m so glad we travelled New Zealand in a van, on our own terms, instead of doing a tour or bussing it. Whilst those experiences definitely have their merits, the major perk about doing it your own way is you can literally stop anywhere! You will never get to stop at a random hot springs or climb a random mountain on the Kiwi Experience or a Stray Bus.
Where We Stayed.
Speaking of which, another favourite part of my time in Rotorua was where we camped! We camped in a DOC campsite right by a beautiful lake called Lake Okareka which was about a 10 minute drive outside of Rotorua. It was seriously stunning and even though it was cold, you could swim in the lake. Theres a little nature walk to the right of the campsite and if you walk along there for about 10 minutes, you even get to a point where you can cliff jump into the lake. It’s so gorgeous and allowed us to experience the natural beauty on the outskirts of Rotorua, rather than being confined to the city.
Want to make the most of Rotorua?
– If you’re on a budget or a time-tight schedule, pick ONE thing you most want to see whilst here. Is it the geothermal activity you’re interested in, or are you more fascinated by Maori culture? Pick an excursion to suit your interests. If you have more time and money on your hands however, do both. It’s good to do at least one excursion though, so that you can see what Rotorua is all about.
– Enjoy the surrounding areas. As well as Lake Rotorua, there are plenty of other lakes to explore nearby.
– If you are able to, enjoy the hot springs and other natural wonders that the area around Rotorua can offer.