East Cape Escape – Part 2: Hot water hunting

October 2021

From the Waimangu Volcanic Area, I had about 30 minutes to race back towards town to Te Puia, just on the outskirts of the city to visit some more hot water!  In my rush, I parked in the wrong car park (it seems that they have two and I had parked in the overflow one for when they are busy … they were not busy🤦🏻‍♀️), thankfully it was only a few minutes’ walk to the entrance.  In fact, they were so quiet, I was greeted ‘Kia Ora Elaine’ as I walked in the door ❤️.

Straight off their website “Te Puia is home to the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, Pōhutu, as well as the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute – training the next generation of young artists for over 54 years.”   I chose to join one of their guided experiences which took me through the park including the New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute and the Kiwi Conservation Centre.

I was joined by 3 others from Wellington, and we started in the Marae (Māori meeting house & courtyard) where Kahu, our local guide explained the intricacies and of the meanings of parts of the marae and the beautiful carvings inside it.  Kahu also told us of the hardships Covid has caused on tourist attractions such as this – pre-covid, Te Puia was averaging 7,000 visitors a day (their record was 100,000 visitors in one day)!  Today, they had around 30!  As much as I am enjoying the New Zealand tourist attractions in peace and quiet, it’s hard to imagine the impact the lack of tourists has had on tourism operators and their staff.

Light rain started just as we got inside the meeting house (it had been threatening most of the morning) which was perfect timing and Kahu took the time to tell us stories of the local’s iwi or tribes.  He also explained how the building represents the body of an ancestor e.g., the rafters are the rib cage.  This particular marae was built in 1970 and student carvers from around the country carved an ancestor from their area so each part of the building has a different design.  The building took 10 years to complete as the carvers had to keep going out to get additional work to pay for it!

From here we walked up towards the Arts & Crafts Institute, through a pathway flanked by 8 carved figures.  All important in the Māori legends of creation.  The most famous, or perhaps now world ‘infamous’ thanks to the movie Moana, is Maui- the trickster who is credited with the creation of New Zealand (the South Island being his canoe and the North Island the fish he caught with his infamous hook taken from his grandmother’s jawbone)!

The New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute is the home of the national school of carving (bone, pounamu (green stone) and wood) and weaving and is tasked with preserving, promoting and perpetuating Māori.  Young Māori from all around the country apply (or are normally nominated by their Iwi) to train at the Institute and can spend 2-3 years training. 

We started in the carving area and the tutors explained to us the process of the training and the carving itself.  There was a lot of information but some particular notes that stuck with me were:

  • Bone carvers start training on stone before moving on to whale bone (gifted by local Iwi or tribes from stranded whales) and green stone.  7.5 out of 10 on the ‘most hardness scale’ 😂 is greenstone.
  • The Hei Tiki, which is a common site on Maraes and in tourist shops represent the first man 
  • The wood they were carving was a 1,700 year old Totara log found in a swamp!! 
  • The Carving school follows the old traditions and admits men only … other carving schools accept women but not this one
  • The students in the weaving school spend their first months learning about the patterns and the stories they tell as well as the products they use to weave e.g., flax before starting to weave.   They also learn how to harvest the flax and collect feathers.
  • As with the carving school, the weaving school try to do things as traditionally as possible, even down to scrapping the flax with muscle shells.

The final stop on this part of the tour was the Āhua Gallery – where some of the works made in the schools are on display and for sale.  Many beautiful and very, very, very expensive items.

From here we headed down to the Kiwi Conservation Centre nocturnal house where they have 3 resident kiwis.  The conservation centre is part of the national breeding for release programme but unfortunately the Kiwi ‘keeper’ was not availability to tell us about them, and Kahu, who I had told previously I had worked at another Kiwi conservation centre in a previous life, asked me to tell the others a bit about the kiwi and the conservation programme – sadly he did not offer me a discount for the work I did lol

And finally, we reached the main attraction – the geothermal area.   Te Puia has 60 hectares of native bush, geyser and mud pools and is home to the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere – the Pōhutu geyser.  Apparently when they are not many people in the grounds, the children from the local village swim in the warm streams (not the 140C parts of course) but they can not do it when people are around as there are signs everywhere saying don’t go near the water lol. Kahu had to call ahead to say we were coming!

The landscape here was crazy, just how I would imagine the moon looks like but with steam everywhere.  Bubbling mud and water exploding from the ground.  To round off the tour, we got to enjoy delicious steam pudding which had been cooked in an ‘oven’ in the steam. 

Unfortunately, my free time exploring the area was cut short as the rain that had been threatening all day finally arrived and it arrived hard just as the tour ended!  Despite the abrupt ending, the tour was so worth it and Kahu our guide was awesome.  Highly recommended.

To make up for getting soaked running back to the far away carpark to my car, I drove a short distance out of town to the “Secret Spot” (a woman I had chatted with on the morning boat tour, told me about it).  It turned out it was no secret lol but was a lovely Spa with private hot tubs for hire.  They also have small tubs to soak your feet for free – well, the price of a drink, and after the almost 20,000 steps 😂 I had walked during the day it was lovely place to enjoy a drink.  The rain has eased up, but the thunder was still rolling in the distance.

My final stop on my whistle stop tour of Rotorua was the Redwood Treetop walk in the Whakarewarewa Forest, just outside of the city.  You can do this during the day, but I choose to go at night (I believe you can get a combined ticket if you have the time to do both).   Given the very few people I had seen at the sites during the day, I was surprised by how busy it was, but I managed to weave my way around some of the slower people on the narrow swing bridges.  I was not wowed by it, but it was nice, and the lights/lanterns were cool (designed by world-renowned designer and sustainability champion David Trubridge).  Perhaps it would be better to go during the day when you can read the signs and learn more about the area. 

Next stop …. the coast.