Rotorua is to Aotearoa New Zealand as Florence is to Italy – a centre and show case of art and culture.
Generations of Rotorua crafts people have kept the traditional arts of carving and weaving alive and brought them to the high art that they are today. A long-established and robust tourist industry has created an environment where they can flourish.
At Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa and Ohinemutu traditional Maori architecture, design and decoration are at their most beautiful and authentic. But around the city too, inside and outside buildings, on gateposts on shop fronts and churches there are beautiful, unexpected and easily overlooked examples of whakairo (carving) kowhaiwhai (scroll-pattern painting) and tukutuku (reed weaving)
To see carvers and weavers at work, be sure to visit Te Rito, the weaving school and Te Wananga Whakairo at Te Puia.
Although you can browse in Te Puia’s information galleries and wander perfectly safe pathways through the thermal park, it’s really worthwhile joining one of the free guided tours.
Guiding people around this treacherous thermal region has been a tradition among the Tuhourangi Iwi (tribe) of Whakarewarewa since the first tourists began to trickle into the country in 1880s. Many great tales lie behind the explanations and theories about the origins of the Te Arawa Iwi and the Tuhourangi people and about how, when and why they arrived in this spot, and how they have lived ever since. Although they’re brilliantly outlined on the galleries’ story boards, Te Puia’s guides have much colourful detail to add.
Similary, Te Puia’s thermal attractions are well signposted and their stories summarised on maps. But as you grope your way along, with mud-pools belching rudely on one side, a boiling geyser shooting skywards on another and your fellow travellers lost in a cloud of steam ahead, you might just be glad of the reassuring, if disembodied, voice of your guide. Again, here too, the guides have some entertaining anecdotes and some useful information about the beauty benefits of Te Puia’s thermal water and mud.
The Te Puia’s guided tour ends at the Kiwi house. The kiwi, Aotearoa’s iconic bird, is not only flightless but nocturnal, timid and endangered. So to see them means a plunge into darkness and silence. When your eyes adjust, you find yourself peering through a window into the night-time bush. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a couple of these long-beaked, hunch-backed birds, pottering about, hunting grubs or sleeping, curled up like little balls of feathers. Fascinating!