Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Whakarewarewa; Rotorua's living thermal village

When we last visited Rotorua, several years ago, we spent an evening at a cultural show and hangi, which I really enjoyed. In spite of a few Kiwi’s telling me that it’s ‘just for tourists’ and ‘once you’ve been to one, there’s no point going to another‘, I was keen to experience it again, and in particular to let the Littlest Hobo see the singing and dancing, which I knew she would love. We were a bit wary, however, about taking her to an evening performance, where she would be up late at night and potentially unwilling to sit still and behave well if she got overtired . When we booked the Rotorua mystery hotel deal on lastminute.com and it turned out to be the Holiday Inn, I was excited to discover that it was right in front of Whakarewarewa Village, which Lonely Planet tout as one of the main draw cards to Rotorua.

Whakarewarewa Village, or to give it it’s full name Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, is a living thermal village; living in the sense that a Maori tribe still live there today. The wharepuni - homes, sit amongst the thermal pools, swirling steam and geysers that are synonymous to Rotorua, and it’s essentially a tourist attraction by day and a Maori village once the gates shut to their paying visitors at 5pm every day.

Out visit started with a guided tour, where we were welcomed by our guide Ropetahonekihimitataupopoki iharaira piripi; Robert to you and I. He talked us through a short history of the village, explained that the tribe is all one family, and inside the complex should be thought of as their home, so once we stepped through the gates we became guests in their home. Although he now lives on a farm beyond the village boundaries, Robert grew up in the complex and his face lit up as he told us stories of a happy childhood playing amongst the hot water and mud pools, finding ways to make pocket money and running around plastered in mud, scaring tourists. He explained that many of the houses these days house the older members of their community, who had lived there all their lives, and were accustomed to living with the steam, so wouldn’t adapt well to a life with everyday mod cons like ovens and showers.

Immediately after passing through the gates, we crossed a bridge with a river and a cool water pool beneath it. Looking down from the bridge, in and around the pool were Maori children of varying ages. Robert explained that they were penny diving; many years ago, when the first tourists visited Whakarewarewa before the bridge was built, they would pay a penny to be piggybacked across the river. When the bridge was built and piggybacking no longer required, the tourists began to toss coins into the river for luck, and the villagers, not understanding why the money was being thrown in their river, would go down and fetch the money from the river and keep it. It became custom for the children to do this, and the activity has continued to this day.

Diving for pennies

Immediately upon entering the village, you can feel the warmth emanating from beneath your feet, and bending down to touch the ground, a few seconds is long enough, before your fingers start to feel the wrong side of warm.

We continued through the village and Robert showed us the oil baths - the outdoor bathing area where villagers go to wash, made up of several concrete baths which are filled via small channels running from the hot geothermal pools and derive their name from the oily texture and mineral deposits within the water that is used to fill them. The mineral rich water in Rotorua is said to have healing properties, and can be used to treat arthritis and eczema amongst other things - it's certainly very believable; Mr T suffers with eczema and found that it improved dramatically after a couple of dips in the Rotorua water.

One of the baths, with the water channel filling it from the hot pools

We were shown a couple of steam box hangi - wooden boxes built into the ground to trap steam so that it can be used to cook food. Again, these are still used today; villagers often put their dinner in the hangi at the start of the day and return to collect it, cooked, at the end of the day. In the pool next to the hangi, some corn cobs were cooking using traditional methods - wrapped in a linen cloth, tied with a long rope with a brick at the end of it, and lowered into the pool, which is just below boiling point at the surface. Robert explained that meat couldn't cook in this way as the fat would react with the water with explosive consequences!

Robert showing us the corn cobbs

One of the highlights of the tour is the view of the Pohutu and Prince of Wales Feathers geysers. The Pohutu (meaning big splash) is the largest geyser in New Zealand, rising at times to 40 metres, and the Prince of Wales feathers is the most active geyser. It is left completely to nature when they will erupt (some places add washing powder to make their geysers erupt at set times, as washing powder contains animal fat) and generally the longer they lie dormant the higher they will rise. On average, these two geysers erupt at least once an hour and you can get a feeling of how frequently they are to erupt by the weather - on a hot clear day they will erupt less frequently but shoot higher into the sky, whereas on an overcast or rainy day, they will erupt more frequently but to a lesser extent. For the duration of our visit they erupted constantly, and the sky was overcast. The bright blue pools directly in front of the geysers make good barometers for the villagers.

The geysers were erupting throughout our visit

After our tour, we headed to the cultural performance area for a thoroughly enjoyable 30 minute show that included dancing, singing, the haka, stick games and even a little bit of audience participation. I really love the melodious music and the short performance was just the right length to keep the Littlest Hobo’s attention so that we all had a fantastic time. Whakarewarewa had a really laid back, friendly and approachable attitude which made me feel very comfortable, particularly with a young child in tow. Although they requested that everyone remain seated, I think this was purely so that those seated at the back could still see, and they smiled down from the stage when our youngest family member got up on the grassy area to the side of the seating to copy their dancing.

I can’t recommend Whakarewarewa village highly enough if you are visiting Rotorua, and especially if you have young children with you - being in a living village made for a unique cultural experience, and the tour was incredibly interesting and educational. Robert was an excellent tour guide, peppering our visit with little tidbits of information which added to the overall experience and really left us feeling like we’d had an insight into life in the thermal village. With the show included in general entry, the visit was excellent value at $30 each for the adults and two year olds go free. Most of the other cultural performances that I looked into were topping the $100 per person mark (including dinner) and would probably have been a bit too long and late to suit our needs with a toddler in tow.


  1. That looks like so much fun, and educational at the same time!
    Love the idea of cooking the corn and the kids diving/looking for the coins in the water! I so would love the baths with healing oils :)

    1. It was great fun, and I felt like we all learnt a lot too. The mineral pools are amazing - I fear that we're going to be spa junkies by the time we leave NZ!