Category Archives: New Zealand

The Pink and White Terraces, the 8th wonder of the world

Hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces on the shores of Lake Rotomahana near Tarawera, Rotorua, were, for a time, the country’s premier tourist attraction.

A view of Tarawera today
A view of Tarawera today

For over a thousand years water had been spilling from geysers above Lake Rotomahana. The water left thick pink and white silica deposits that formed terraces, enclosing pools of silky clear water that left the skin feeling soft and refreshed.

The White Terraces, known to the Maori people as Te Tarata or the tattooed rock, faced north at the end of the lake.Their white appearance was attributed to bleaching effects of the sun. With a drop of forty metres, they covered an area of 3 hectares and descended over approximately 50 layers.

Prettiest and most popular, the Pink Terraces or Otukapuarangi, the fountain of the clouded sky, were about two thirds of the way down the lake, on the western shore, facing south east.Their pink colour was said be caused by the presence of algae and by the absence of sun. The Pink and white terraces were 30 metres high. At the top the terraces covered an area of  75–100 metres, while the lowest were about 27 metres wide.

Reaching the terraces involved quite a journey. In Auckland, the travellers boarded a steamer and sailed to the port of Tauranga.  From there they took a 70 kilometre coach over the rugged hills to Rotorua. After a night’s rest they took the coach again to Te Wairoa, 17 kilometres to the south. Here they rested again. The following morning a local Maori guide led them down through the bush to Lake Tarawera where they were ferried by canoe to a narrow isthmus on the other side. The travellers crossed the isthmus on foot while the specially constructed canoe was dismantled and carried across. On the shores of Lake Rotomahana it was reassembled and its passengers re-embarked for the breathtaking trip up to the terraces. There they soaked in the pools or trudged up the hillsides for picture and even photo opportunities.

The terraces were a gold mine for the people of Te Wairoa. Pakeha businesses, particularly the hotels, boomed. The tangata whenua, the Tuhourangi people, flourished from the tourist trade, providing cultural entertainment, transport and guiding services as well as photo opportunities. Such was their prosperity, that the paua shell eyes in the carvings of the ancestral figures in their meeting house, Hinemihi, were replaced with gold sovereigns.

But the golden days of Te Wairoa were not to last.

Te Puia’s Wanaga Whakairo, dedicated to the art of carving

Carving, or whakairo, is one of the most beautiful Maori art forms.  Te Wanaga Whakairo, the carving school at Te Puia, is dedicated to passing on the art of whakairo and keeping it alive.

Carvers at work in Te Wananga Whakairo
Carvers at work in Te Wananga Whakairo

One of the most important tools that the Maori brought from their homeland in Hawaiki was the toki, or stone axe. They found, in Aotearoa, a land rich in timber and with the toki, they shaped it into houses, canoes as well as a thousand implements and weapons for use in daily life. Also with the toki, they decorated almost everything with intricate carvings or whakairo.

Over the years, other carving tools evolved and so did the art of whakairo or carving. New Materials were used, like the pounamu, or greenstone found in the South Island But its hard brittle texture proved a challenge and greenstone taonga (treasures) were rare and priceless. Then, with the arrival of the Pakeha settlers in the 19th century, a steel tools were introduced and with them a whole new range of possibilities. But still, the faithful toki played an important part in the art of whakairo or carving.

At Te Wananga Whakairo, Te Puia’s Carving School, the toki is still used as a method of blocking out heavy work.

Te Wananga Whakairo, or carving school at Te Puia was established in 1967 under the leadership of Master Carver John Taiapa. Since then, each year, the school takes in a fresh group of young apprentices for training in the prestigious art of whakairo. And although they are  trained in a variety of techniques and tools, the toki is still used as a method of blocking out heavy work.

Visitors to Te Puia can watch the carvers and photograph them as they work.

Some of the the work produced in Te Wananga Whakairo are on display and on sale in Te Puia’sTaonga Gallery and shop.


Te Rito, dedicated to the art of weaving

At Te Rito, Te Puia’s weaving school, you can watch craftspeople at work and see the skill and artistry that goes into producing traditional Maori clothing.

A waever at work at Te Puia
A weaver at work at Te Puia

When the first Maoris arrived in Aotearoa, they found a place much harsher and colder than mild, warm Hawaiki. In their homeland clothes had been mainly a matter of personal adornment. Now they were a necessity.

Materials for clothing came from the forest and the land. Cloaks were fashioned from the skins of native dogs and from the feathers of birds, particularly kiwi. The hardy and abundant flax plant was an especially important resource. The fibres were separated from the leaves and the fine thread woven into warm and supple garments and into bags, nets, blankets and wall coverings. Patterns and designs of great beauty and significance evolved.

Although, with the arrival of the Pakeha, Maori embraced a range of new materials like cotton and wool, they retained traditional designs and methods of weaving.

Te Rito, the weaving school at Te Puia opened in 1969. Its first Director was Emily Schuster, daughter of a master carver and niece Rotorua’s legendary Guide Rangi. She worked at the school, teaching and promoting women’s crafts until her death in 1997.

Te Rito trains students in traditional methods of weaving, including, taniko (macramé), tukutuku (reed panels), harakeke (flax weaving) piupiu . It offers day and night courses as well as training sessions and workshops on Marae around the country.

Visitors to Te Rito can observe and photograph students as they learn and practise the ancient traditions of weaving.

Some of the works produced in Te Rito can be bought at the Taonga Gallery and Gift Shop.

Rotorua, the Florence of Aotearoa

Rotorua is to Aotearoa New Zealand as Florence is to Italy – a centre and show case of art and culture.

Rotorua Government Gardens, The Prince's Gate
Rotorua Government Gardens, The Prince’s Gate

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.


When walking Te Puia’s thermal wonderland, follow the guide

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.

A Te Puia mudpool
A Te Puia mudpool

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!

Cultural immersion at Te Puia

Te Puia, The New Zealand Institute of Maori Arts and Crafts, at Whakarewarewa, is one of Rotorua’s most visited tourist attractions. With its thermal park, Marae, (community meeting place) whare whakairo (carved meeting house), huge carved waka (canoe) stunning modern information centre, weaving school, carving school, kiwi house, Maori concerts, as well as its shop full of exquisite art, artefacts and souvenirs, there is a great deal to experience.

Maori Concert at Te Puia
Maori Concert at Te Puia

Our Te Puia experience began with a Kapa Haka (cultural performance) in the Whare Whakairo.

We joined the throng at the Marae gate and waited for the karanga, or call to the visitors, that opens any traditional powhiri, or welcome to a Marae. Under normal circumstances, we would then walk slowly through the gate, across the courtyard to the Meeting house and take our seats outside for the whaikorero (speeches of welcome) and waiata (songs) from the tangata whenua (people of the Marae) followed by the speeches and songs of response from the manuhiri (visitors) But, unfortunately, on this occasion it was raining so heavily that, after we had removed our shoes on the verandah,  our hosts took us directly into the whare whakairo.

The whare whakairo at Te Puia is a monument to the work of all the very best of Whakarewarewa’s carvers, weavers and artists. Carved figures stand along each side, interspersed with panels of tukutuku (reed weaving) Scroll-patterned and carved beams reach up from either wall to the ridgepole which runs the length of the ceiling thus joining the ancestors of one side of the house to the other. A large central beam, forms the pou tokomanawa or heart of the house. There is a distinctive smell of wood and reed and flax in every whare whakairo (carved house) that is warm, rich and absolutely unforgettable. There was, I swear, when we entered, an audible collective gasp.

Despite the break with protocol, the welcome we received inside the whare was warm and informative.

The concert at Te Puia is always excellent. The tangata whenua of Whakarewarewa are polished and experienced performers. They know their culture well and are proud to share it. They explained and then demonstrated waiata-a-ringa (action-songs) haka (posture dances) taiaha (weaponry, ti-rakau (stick-games) poi (song and dances accompanied by twirling flax balls on strings) and love songs. The explanations were accompanied by local stories, legends and anecdotes. Quite uncharacteristically, photos were permitted during the show and afterwards, the performers posed graciously for endless snaps.

Unfortunately, it was all over too soon but we lingered as long as we could with the echo of the stamp of the haka, the soft tap of the poi, the click of the piupiu and sweet smell of wood and flax.

Te Puia offers three daytime cultural performances at 10.15, 12.15 and 3.15.

Te Puia is located at Hemo Road Tihiotonga, Rotorua, New Zealand, Phone (07) 348 9047


Rotorua is often jokingly called Rotovegas, because, like Los Vegas USA, Rotorua is a show town.

The click of the piupiu
The click of the piupiu

Many of the country’s stars, like the great, now departed, Sir Howard Morrison, got their start playing the summer concerts down at the Soundshell on the lake front, in the old Tama dance hall at Ohinemsutu or the city’s many tourist hotels.

Some of the country’s greatest Kapa Haka, or Maori Concert Parties, call Rotorua home.

A Maori concert is a not-to-be-missed Rotorua experience. You’ll quake at the force and energy of the haka, or posture dance, marvel at the skill and beauty of the twirling pois, at the dexterity of the waiata-a-ringa or action songs and at the magical harmonies of a mass of golden voices. Then there’s the rhythmic click of the swinging piupiu, or flax skirts.

You can catch some the of best Kapa Haka performances nightly at any one of the hotels around the city and at lunch time at Te Puia Village.

The lake, the centre of Rotorua

Lake Rotorua! As a child returning from holidays it was my first glimpse of home. Later, leaving for supposedly greener pastures, it was my last. Still, now hen I think of Rotorua, I see the lake, with Mokoia at its centre, silver and smooth on a clear fine day, dark and crimped with waves under a cloudy sky.

Lake Rotorua and Mokoia Island
Lake Rotorua and Mokoia Island

It gave the town its name which means second lake. It also gave it,  its reason for being. The first Te Arawa settlers built their villages on the lake shores. The British colonists founded the town, which has now grown to a city and which spreads in an ever widening circle around its edge.

The lake and Mokoia Island form the backdrop to some of the most important moments in Rotorua’s history

They form the setting for the romantic tale of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s greatest love stories. On the eastern shores of the lake lived the beautiful Hinemoa, the daughter of a paramount chief. Many young hopefuls sought her hand in marriage but none was deemed worthy by her family. Across the water on Mokoia Island lived Tutanekai, the youngest, but cleverest, bravest and best looking, of a large family of brothers. The two crossed paths at a hui or tribal gathering, where Tutanekai and the other young warriors of the district had come to display their skills in weaponry. All the chiefs of Te Arawa and their families had come to watch. When Tutanekai spotted the beautiful Hinemoa in the crowd it was love at first sight. When Hinemoa saw Tutanekai’s handsome face and skill with the taiaha, she too was smitten. When Hinemoa’s parents intercepted the longing looks between the two, they were horrified. The lowly-born Tutanekai was no match for their daughter.  They kept her under close guard in the whare and for good measure, secured all the family canoes high up on the shore-line.   The love-lorn Tutanekai returned to Mokoia where he spent hours at the lake’s edge playing mournful tunes on his flute. On the other shore, Hinemoa heard the faint strains of Tuatnekai’s love songs and knew that he was thinking of her. One night, unable to bear the separation any longer, she tied two empty gourds around her waist to keep her afloat and swam across the lake.

When she arrived at the island, chilled to the bone and exhausted, she headed to the warm pool Waikimihia to recover.  Before long, Tutanekai’s slave arrived to fetch water for his master. Disguising her voice as a man’s, Hinemoa called ‘Mo wai te wai?’ (For whom is the water?).  When the slave answered ‘Mo Tutanekai’ (For Tutanekai), Hinemoa seized the calabash he was carrying and dashed it on the rocks. When the slave returned to Tutanekai without the water, Tutanekai went to confront the villain who had smashed his calabash. When he saw Hinemoa, he was overcome with joy. The two lovers were together at last and Hinemoa’s family had no choice but to accept Tutanekai as her husband. From the union of Hinemoa and Tutanekai comes one of the great Te Arawa dynasties.

Mokoia was also the scene of one Te Arawa’s darkest moments.

Hearing that their arch enemy, the Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika, was on his way down the coast with a large war party, the people of Te Arawa retreated to Mokoia. As there was no navigable waterway from the coast and therefore no way that Hongi could bring his canoes to Rotorua, they believed that they were safe on the island. But they didn’t count on Hongi’s cunning. He had his people drag the canoes overland through the dense up steep hills and down gullies until he reached the shores of lake Rotorua. On Mokoia, the Te Arawa could only watch in terror as the lake churned with the thousand paddles that brought their inevitable death closer and closer.

Today, fittingly, Mokoia is home to a Taiaha school where young men learn the traditional arts of weaponry. Tourists can take a launch across the lake to enjoy bush walks, see some native birds and soak in Waikimihia.

The lake has always been a great place for boats; canoes gave way to dinghies and yachts and speed boats and more recently peddle boats and kayaks have joined the flotilla. It used once to be great place for swimming to but for many years now it has been infested with a thick, slimy and virulent weed, which makes it unpleasant if not impossible for swinmming. The search for a way of ridding the lake of weed has continued for years now.

Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa

The Polynesian Spa, in Rotorua’s Government Gardens, has soothed the weary bones of tourists and locals alike for almost a century and a half.

Looking across the lake from a private pool at the Polynesian Spa
Looking across the lake from a private pool at the Polynesian Spa

The miraculous power of the thermal spring water that feeds the Polynesian Spa were first discovered 1878 by Catholic priest, Father Mahoney. A few months of daily dips so visibly alleviated his crippling arthritis that other suffering clergy and parishioners followed suit. Soon the word was out and visitors from all over the world began to make the pilgrimage to the healing pools.

In 1882 the Pavilion Bath House was built. It served until 1931 when it was replaced by the Ward Baths. In 1972, Polynesian Pools Ltd took over the lease of the old, and somewhat run down  baths and over the last 50 years has developed them into the luxurious, state-of-the art spa that exists today.

Counted among the top 10 world spas, the Polynesian Spa offers a wide range of fabulous therapies. It also offers thermal bathing in 26 different kinds of pools, including deluxe, adult-only, private and family pools as well as a large freshwater chlorinated pool for those who simply want to splash about.

The Government Gardens, Rotorua’s answer to the spas of Europe

The Rotorua Government Gardens are unique among world parks.

The Blue Baths
The Blue Baths

In the Rotorua Government Gardens, you can belt a ball around a golf course fringed with bubbling mud pools, play a game of croquet or bowls, stroll among beds of roses, perch on the edge of lily pond, browse in a museum or soak in a spa.

You’ll find the Rotorua Government Gardens on the edge of the lake, just a stone’s throw from the CBD and on the doorstep of some of the city’s best hotels. They’re a mecca for tourists and a favourite spot for locals.

Originally known as Papaekumana, the Rotorua Government Gardens’ site has always been of great significance to the Tangata Whenua, or local people. Many important battles were fought here and many great chiefs and warriors came to bathe in the hot currents at the edge of the lake or in the healing pools hidden in the scrub. The place is rich with legends and stories.

Towards the end of the 1800s, the Tangata Whenua gifted 50 acres of Papaekumana to the crown “for the benefit of the people of the world”.  The land was cleared and formal gardens were laid out  with the Japanese firs and the Californian Redwood that remain today.

Before long, the Government saw the opportunity to develop the gardens as the South Pacific’s answer to the spas of Europe. In 1908, the magnificent Tudor bath house welcomed the first tourists seeking to “take the waters”.

In 1901, the ornate arch made of local totara wood and representing a stylized crown, was installed at the entrance to the gardens.  It was built in honour of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary), but has always been known as the Prince’s gate.

In the early 1930s the Blue Baths were opened. The ornate Mediterranean style building was inspired by the swimming pools of Hollywood and the people who came to bathe there were seeking pleasure and fun rather than cures. The Blue Baths enjoy the singular fame of being the first public swimming pool to allow mixed bathing – men and women, that is.

The Rotorua Government Gardens remain a piece of Victorian England parkland, albeit on the fringe of a uniquely Aotearoa landscape. The gardens themselves have changed little and the grand old Tudor Bath House and Blue Baths buildings have been beautifully maintained and restored despite a number of different lives . The  Bath House, after a turn as a restaurant/nightclub, is now home to Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (the Rotorua Museum) The Blue Baths, closed to bathers for many years, during which it operated as a  restaurant,  functions centre and nightclub, now houses a cabaret and swimming pool. People still come to “take the waters” in the Rotorua Government Gardens, but they take them now in re-vamped state-of-the-art pools at the Polynesian Spa.

Read about  the Polynesian Spa in the next post.