Whakarewarewa, Rotorua magic

Whakarewarewa geyser and mudpools
Whakarewarewa geyser and mudpools

After the Tarawera eruption had swept way the homes and livelihood of the local Tuhourangi tribe, the Nagti Wahiao people of Rotorua gifted the survivors a part of their traditional lands at Whakarewarewa, on the southern side of Rotorua.

Whakarewarewatanga o te ope taua o Wahiao (the gathering place of the army of Wahiao) was a landscape of shooting geysers, scalding thermal springs and boiling mud pools – a seemingly inhospitable wasteland. Yet Tuhourangi quickly turned it to their advantage. They built their houses astride steaming crevasses and profited from natural (if somewhat dangerous) central heating. The hot pools served as instant hangis, or earth ovens for cooking. Thermal water from some pools was channelled into baths both for hygienic and therapeutic purposes. Others were used as laundries. Before long, the famous Tuhourangi Guides were showing tourists around their new home, posing for photographs with them and entertaining them with traditional Maori concerts. Whakarewarewa, as we know it today, with its unique way of life, its many incredible attractions and its wealth of fascinating stories was born.

Whakarewarewa is a great place to linger, potter and explore, so set aside a generous amount of time. Be sure, however, to stick to the beaten track. Treading uncharted paths here is a risky business. Remember too, that these quaint little whare and tiny squares of lawn are people’s homes and backyards, so don’t intrude. But, at the same time keep your eyes peeled for amazing sights; like the angrily bubbling pools with names like “murderous ripples” and “grumpy man”, the wharepuni, or sleeping quarters, half sunk in the steaming earth, the baths, the steam box hangi, the minute churches (Anglican and Catholic) the urupa, or cemetery, with its raised stone graves, the carved houses, the carver’s workshop and the ancestral meeting house, Wahiao. Don’t miss the cultural performance or the village kids who dive for coins in the warm waters of the Te Puarenga stream, and do, definitely, sample a Hangi pie at Ned’s cafe.

To get the really good oil on Whakarewarewa, join a tour. Your guide will almost certainly be a descendant of one those great ladies who rowed tourists across Lake Tarawera to the Pink and White Terraces.

Digging up Te Wairoa

After the Tarawera eruption, Te Wairoa and the surrounding countryside lay buried under metres of mud and abandoned by those who had survived the horrors of that fateful night. Only the curious and the ghoulish rode out from Rotorua to view the devastation.

Te Wairoa Waterfall
Te Wairoa Waterfall

In time, the grass, scrub and bush grew back and covered the scarred landscape. Tarawera, with its lake, bush walks, streams and waterfall, became a favourite spot for day-trippers and picnickers. In the 1990s, Cecil Way, the grand-son of the missionary Seymour Spencer, one of earliest Pakeha settlers in the area, opened the Te Wairoa tea rooms on the site of the original village. They enjoyed great popularity for a time but when Cecil Way retired and moved away, there were no takers for the business. .

In 1931 Reg. Smith a Rotorua accountant, and his wife Violet, bought the site. With sons Dudley and Basil, they cleared the land of gorse and blackberry and developed a small farm. While Reg. cycled off to town each day, his wife Violet ran the re-opened the tearooms.

A round-trip coach tour of the Waimangu Valley thermal valley and the lakes brought the tourists back to Te Wairoa and into Violet Smith’s tearooms. When the visitors showed an interest in seeing the remains of the old settlement, the Buried Village experience began.

Although the Smiths had uncovered some of Te Wairoa’s buried buildings as they made way for their farm, formal excavations did not begin until after Dudley Smith returned from the Second World War. Professional archaeologists were employed and the village and all its treasures were brought to light. The tearooms were re-built as a replica of the old Rotomahana Hotel, with a gift-shop and a small museum of photos and artefacts.

The next generation of Smiths developed the site to include reconstructions of village buildings and a new, modern, multi-media museum.

A visit to the Buried Village makes a great day out. The village itself provides, not only an insight into the devastation caused by a volcanic eruption but also a glimpse of life in a 19th century colonial village. The surrounding bush is simply beautiful and the views across the hills to the lake are absolutely stunning. You can watch fat trout swimming lazily in the crystal clear waters of the Te Wairoa stream then follow it down through the trees as it crashes in a long cascade down the cliff face. And, of course, you really must finish your day with a Devonshire Tea.