Detail from Volcanic Plateau painting by Juliet Peter
Detail from Volcanic Plateau painting by Juliet Peter.

I went to Rotorua earlier this year. It was during the drought, where the sky was always blue and the landscape was always brown and everything was hot and dry. I took The Shell Guide to New Zealand (of course), where Juliet Peter’s artwork depicting the Volcanic Plateau chapter includes trout, Maori carvings, state houses, bulldozers, pine trees, a volcano, a power pylon and a butterfly.

1. Hell’s Gate

The Volcanic Plateau chapter begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, who visited the area in 1934: “Tikitere, I think, is the most damnable place I have ever visited and I would willingly have paid ten pounds not to see it.” So obviously I had to find this place and go there.

It turns out Tikitere is the tourist attraction otherwise known as Hell’s Gate, a thermal wonderland of sulphur, steam, mud and other delights. But here’s the weird thing – Hell’s Gate is hot for George Bernard Shaw.

I went to Rotorua and all I got was this giant cloud of steam.
I went to Rotorua and all I got was this giant cloud of steam.

The place takes its name from a comment he made, and indeed many of the hot pools were named by him. Like the two erupting pools named Sodom and Gomorrah.

Was he actually walking around like a 1930s Jeremy Clarkson slagging the place off? But because he was George Bernard Shaw, internationally renowned playwright and wit, the locals were like “Lolz! That’s an awesome name, GBS! We will call it that!”

I’m willing to cut GBS some slack. While the blooping mudpools and clouds of sulphurous steam are quite fun, there’s a lot of walking involved and some pretty bleak landscapes.

And in Shaw’s day, there wasn’t a mud foot spa to relax in. Maybe if he’d been able to do that, then participate in the fun Maori carving activity, he wouldn’t have been so miserable.

2. Maori Jesus

“At opposite ends of [the] city,” writes Maurice, “are [the] Maori villages of Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa. I’d been to Whakarewarewa many times before, but somehow Ohinemutu had never been on my radar. Ohinemutu also features in Steve Braunias’ book Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World, so I figured it was time to make a visit. Literary men tell me so.

The star of Ohinemutu village is Saint Faith’s church, a 19th century church on thermal ground down by the lake shore. It’s a splendid old building, but the best thing about it is the Maori Jesus window.

I was slowly walking around the chapel when suddenly there it was. A large picture window overlooking the lake, with a magnificent Maori Jesus etched into the glaze, making it look like he’s walking on the lake. If I was religious I’d have probably felt closer to God. Instead I got my architecture buzz – the same feeling I got when I saw the Beehive for the first time. It was like the scene in North by Northwest where Roger and Eve are running through a forest when they suddenly realise – OMG! – they’re on top of Mount Rushmore.

The Maori Jesus window is amazing for many reasons, but I really like that it’s a giant picture window in a church. Churches are usually very inwardly focused, with either small or stained glass windows obscuring any view of the outside world. But this window acknowledges that there’s a big lake out the window. Maybe the church figured it couldn’t compete with the lake (which, after all, God made) and so make it part of the experience. So if you want to attend a church service but stare out the window all the time, then that’s probably ok with God.


3. Tudor Towers

Admission to Rotorua Museum is $20 for out-of-towners, which is by far the highest public museum admission charge I’ve come across in this fair country. So it had better not be a rubbish museum, yeah?

Well, they’ve put the money to good use, with an extensive section dedicated to the history and culture of Rotorua, as well as the old bathhouse section (which now seems really grotty but still fascinating ). But the part I enjoyed the most was hidden away on the mezzanine level – a tale of the previous incarnation of that part of the building, as the Tudor Towers restaurant and cabaret in the 1970s and ’80s.

It was the '80s - everyone wore raspberry berets.
It was the ’80s – everyone wore raspberry berets.

At one point Tudor Towers was the only venue in town that could open late, so there’d be a nightly stream of pissed locals and tourists staggering through the gardens to dance the rest of the night away up the Tower.

In the ’80s the house band was Kairo (or Cairo, depending on who’s telling the story), and they did quite well for themselves. Te Ara has a video profile of the band from the 1980s. It just makes everything seem magical – classic Rotorua entertainment crossed with modern pop.

Downstairs there’s a exhibition devoted to Te Arawa, including a hall of fame. Sure, Sir Howard and Temuera Morrison are showbiz legends, but there’s just something so much more romantic about a funk-pop house band playing in the improvised upper level of an old bathhouse in the middle of a scenic garden in the mid-1980s.

4 thoughts on “Rotorua”

  1. Gee – brings back a lot of memories underage drinking during my youth living in Rotorua. The place to hang out was at the Towers!

  2. I went to a conference in Rotorua five years ago and found the service culture very touching. Walking late at night up a main street with a group of my colleagues, we were a little anxious as a car did a U-turn, slowed then drew to a halt in front of us.

    “Are youse okay?” said a friendly voice. It was a local taxi driver, making sure we weren’t lost and in need of a (paying) ride as we ambulated about the city.

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