Monday, April 10, 2006

Day 5 - Rotorua: Revenge of the Thermals

It was our last day in Rotorua and morning revealed it had rained over night and fear struck us down as we looked out of our motel room at the damp floor outside. Somebody had warned us that the rotten egg smell associated with Rotorua doubled in its toxicity after heavy rainfall. With great trepidation we slowly opened the sliding door...only to find it wasn't actually that bad at all, in fact it was still quite bareable! Don't believe the hype, yes Rotorua stinks but the stories of the smell lingering on your clothes for weeks after you visit are completely misguiding.

Today's first stop - Whakarewarewa Thermal Area within the Te Puia Maori cultural park.

This place was very quiet when we first arrived but it always gets busier from mid-morning onwards. This is where all the tourists go who come to visit Rotorua, to get a flavour of everything Maori and it can get packed with tour buses later in the day but we got there early and for the first half of the walk around the parks geothermal area it felt like we were the only ones there.

Initially we felt slightly underwhelmed to say the least at this park compared to yesterdays sights. The mud pools appear a bit lack lustre, the bubbling pools were not so impressive and the vegetation not so lush.

However, there were some nice Maori carved sculptures dotted in the undergrowth and some listening posts recounting Maori Legends in the local area. These provide a further insight into the culture of NZ’s natives and are worth listening to as they were pretty enlightening.

We felt as though we had a long time to kill wandering around the area as we intended to stay for the Midday Maori concert at 12pm and really wondered how we could lose a few hours. Just as we were getting desparate we turned a corner both in the park and in our fortunes for gushing into the air in front of us was the parks main attraction. This spectacle was the answer as to why we'd spent so much of our time in this park alone, all the other tourists had just come straight here!

Pohutu is the parks resident geyser, and hey this one goes off for 20-25 mins an hour without the need for a little man with a bar of soap - it's all natural. In English the word Pohutu means "big splash" - and it doesn't disappoint. This spectacular geyser can shoot its steamy waters upto 30 metres into the sky.

As the overcast clouds split a glimmer of sunshine gave Kate her first truly dramatic photo series of the holiday. It was breathtaking. This is what we'd come here for.

Time slipped away and it was 12pm before we knew it. Gathering at the grassy area at the front of the Maori Meeting House within Te Puia we waited patiently to be introduced to our first taste of real Maori tradition (no not like we saw in the supermarket 2 days back!). As the crowd built so did the tension and nobody knew quite what to expect. Rumour had it that a couple of weeks prior to our visit somebody had laughed with gusto at the Maori warrior as he played out his traditional greeting on the lawn, the warrior had not taken kindly to this and had headbutted the man and knocked him out cold. We were told by our guide that no matter how funny he looks we must not laugh...not a chance of that happening!

We were informed that we were a tribe ourselves and as such our tribe needed to elect a chief to communicate with the resident tribe. She asked for volunteers and it wasn't long before some brave/stupid Brit stuck his hand up. Our guide thanked him, whispered a few etiquette pointers in his ear and then placed him up front to wait for the warrior to challenge him.

The greeting ceremony began with a warrior from the Maori tribe doing what can only be described by our uneducated eyes as a bit of a hop skip and a jump towards the crowd. Our unflinching chief had to stand and stare the warrior out as he jumped, prodded and yelled before finally accepting a leaf/branch to symbolise a peaceful visit. Once this was done we could proceed forwards, following our chief into the meeting house where we had to remove our shoes before crossing over the threshold.

A Maori meeting house is a traditional hall designed for sharing songs and stories with their new found friends. These meticulously crafted halls are carved out of wood and are sacred places for the Maori.

Here, surrounded by the carvings of ancestors, visitors are treated to perfect harmonies, the seductiveness of the Poi dance, the ferocity of the haka (war dance), and the complexity of Tititorea, the stick games. At times, batons fly from four different directions. The receiver must deftly catch and flick the batons on and do so in timing with the song. It is a dance within itself.

The songs were far more tuneful and pleasant to listen to than you might imagine after the aggressive and fierceness of the Haka. Once again we were reminded of Disney, mainly due to the fact that the songs sounded so tuneful that they could be very much at home within a Disney movie. Which came first Walt Disney or the Maori I wonder? Heck those Disney guys have to get their inspiration from somewhere.

Next stop on the list was Ohinemutu, a traditional Maori village.

The village of Ohinemutu was the region's original Ngati Whakaue settlement and still retains strong links to Maori heritage. It really is a strange but endearing place that doesn't feel like it's there for the tourists, in fact it's still a proper settlement and as such we entered it with a great feeling of respect.

A feature of Ohinemutu is St. Faiths Church, built in Tudor style in 1910. Its interior is richly decorated in woven and painted wall hangings and decorations. The main attraction here is a window looking out over the lake which shows a Maori Christ, in a traditional Maori cloak, who appears to be walking on the water.

There is also a Maori burial ground here which again looks out upon the lake, a fitting and peaceful place to be laid to rest.

Again the main feature here is another meeting house which stands tall and proud and looms protectively over the settlement.

After leaving Ohinemutu the rest of the afternoon was spent trawling the shops around the town of Rotorua. Here you find a small cluster of what is mainly tourist shops interspersed with outdoor shops. Before long one Maori souvenir shop blends into another and you are left with a feeling of being sick of the sights of carved wooded beating sticks and so on. The truth is though the further south you go in New Zealand the less likely you are to see Maori memorabilia so take the time in Rotorua and buy what you want now before moving on.

Last stop of the day was at Kuirau Park. This free entry geothermal park is situated within the junction of Ranolf Street and Lake Road, only a 5 minute walk from the city centre. Here you can see boiling mud pools, hot steaming crater lakes and sulphur vents.... if all the steam doesn't get in the way that is.

The amount of steam this place gives off is incredible, the biggest culprit being a boiling hot lake which has a walkway right across the middle of it. It was so steamy at times we couldn't even see our hands in front of our faces as we walked across the walkway.

Scarily the last time this place erupted was in 2002 when a number of houses lost their gardens forever under an eruption of mud. All that is left now is a crater and yet more steam. Freaky stuff.

So having just about done everything else in Rotorua there was only one thing left that every self-respecting tourist must do here before they move on, yes it seems tacky and "touristy" but nobody can really say they've done New Zealand without going to a traditional Hangi Feast.

We chose Mitai, one of the newer Maori feast experiences as it was recomended to us not only by the motel staff but also in the Rough Guide. According to what we'd heard Mitai was the best experiences of the 3 main Hangi feasts in that it has more of a traditional feel than the others and also it apparently had the most exciting show which included weapons displays, and we certainly weren't disappointed.

All of the main shows offer a collection service which picks you up from any hotel within Rotorua city, we can recommend this as it saves the hassle of getting there yourselves, it means you can enjoy a drink, and most importantly it means you are arriving with other people and you get assigned to a mini-tribe for the evening. Our bus driver was a nice guy named John, who not only drove us there and back he also hosted the whole evening - these guys have to work hard!

It was quite a busy venue and I would say there was probably close on 200 people there but bear in mind this is one of the smaller and more personal hangi feasts so just imagine how busy the other ones are.

When you enter and pay for the night you are allocated a table to share with like-minded people, or should I say similar nationalities. We sat with an English couple and discussed our individual NZ adventures and routes we were taking around the country, there was always something in common that we could talk about.

The evening here is split into 3 parts; firstly you watch the show, sencondly you eat the food and finally you get a tour of a glowworm forest. Cruely they sit you at the dinner table first and make you think you are going to get fed, this isn't the case and even worse they then take you to see your dinner being lifted out of the ground, telling you again that it's going to be another hour before you eat! Yes, you read it right they cook your dinner in a big hole in the ground with some hot rocks beneath it. Din-dins gets lowered into the hole on a hungi (not a hangi, that's the food itself), covered with soil and left for 4 hours before it's finally ready to be served.

So whilst the food is being dished up we were treated to a show. This was basically again the traditional Maori greating ceremony that we'd seen earlier combined with demonstrations of skill and ability.

Oh yes, I almost forgot we needed a chief to lead our tribe in the ceremony. We'd heard that volunteers for the role of chief normally come easily but when John asked for a volunteer tonight he really had to work the floor to get someone to stick their hand up for the job. He was getting awfully close to me too so I was worried that I was going to get picked by default but the relief flooded in when we finally got our chief.

Now something I was worried about was the level of participation a member of the audience might be expected to go to. We'd heard and read all kinds of things about these Maori shows and we didn't quite know what to expect. The biggest myth is the tradition that every male member of your tribe must either sing a song or tell a story for the entertainment of the other tribe as traditionally this is what would have happened. This isn't the case at all as realistically there isn't physically the time for a couple of hundred men to sing a song or tell a tale. Having said that you do have to sing a song as a group, which isn't bad and your host teaches you a Maori song and leads you in. Also you do have to shout something in Maori, I forget what it meant but you do this as an individual and the person that sounds the most ferocious gets a prize. It's fun and not too embarassing.

The show itself is spectacular and you will come out the other side of it with a smile on your face and smoke in your hair. Instead of being in a meeting house the show takes place under what looks like a reed built shack, with the audience being in a pit and the stage being at ground height. Fires crackle and sparks fly throughout the show and we were treated to some of the best entertainment we had all holiday. We got Maori songs, examples of combat, weapon displays and traditional Maori games all topped off with the now famous Haka.

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Finally it was time to eat, and here came our biggest surprise of the night - the food was actually really good, incredible really when you consider that they were cooking for so many people, and also the fact it was cooked in a hole in the ground!
Food included chicken, lamb, garlic bread, sweet potato, salad items and desert such as chocolate log... obviously not cooked in the ground, at least not to my knowledge. It was all very good, and even better there was plenty for everyone.

The last thing on the agenda was the glow worm dell adventure. Breaking us back down into our groups again and arming us with torches we followed our guide on a trek through a dark forest down to their tribes sacred Fairy/Rainbow Springs. Now I know this all sounds a bit far-fetched, and the truth is it is but who cares. We know it, they know it and they make light of some of it but they never take the mick out of their own traditions.

The walk down to the glow worm dell is a really nice end to the evening and when you see the glow worms twinkling you can't help but feel a little bit enchanted by the whole thing...but with my head also in the real world I also felt that if I'd done the same walk in the daylight the apparently dense forest would seem very thin in the cold light of day and hey you could probably see the Skyline Gondola right which is right next door. This is why they don't do this part of the evening until it really is pitch black.

Climbing back on the bus we noticed that the time was just past 11pm and we were amazed by how late it was, particularly as the Maori show had started around 7:30 we couldn't believe that so much time had gone by. It was very good value for money and something you've just got to do no matter how many reservations you have about doing it.


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