Tuesday, February 25, 2014


It is the unmistakable smell of rotten eggs.

“Ughhhhhhhhh!” I think, eyeing my fellow passengers wondering which one of them is the backpacker with tummy trouble. 

Hoping to catch a breath of fresh air I pop my nose out of the window only to find the smell becoming worse. Nagesh, fellow-wanderer for some years now, grins, “We are there!”

We have arrived at Rotorua – the smelly, smoky hot-spot on every New Zealand tourism itinerary. It sits on the most volatile section of the Taupo Volcanic Zone and on good (or should that be -- bad) days can give off a curious sulphuric-rotten-egg smell. Geo-thermal activity is everywhere. Pits steam, holes smoke and water boils wherever you look – inside hotels, behind bushes even in people’s backyards!

There just beside the humdrum road is a pit belching out inky smoke. I have only heard of the Earth’s molten, fiery center. I stare, mesmerized, at the evidence.

After checking into our hotel room (sadly, no steaming flushes), we walk towards the lakefront. The most accessible spots in hell for a newly-arrived soul are around the Government Gardens near Lake Rotorua. Stunning roses nod and evil-looking pits burp up smoke on seeing us. In and around the gardens is the interesting Rotorua Museum of Art and History and for those feeling like a ‘mineral-water’ soak, there are the thermally-heated Blue Baths and the Polynesian Spa. Some distance away, Kuirau Park offers more flower-beds and some shallow thermal pools that do to your feet what no pedicure can hope to.

After soaking in the sights and smells (literally) we go for ‘hangi’, the traditional meal of the Maoris, a large number of whom Rotorua is home to. In fact, the Whakarewarewa Maori reserve is right next to our hotel and we can see that most houses have their personal smoking pits.

Our Maori hosts greet us by rubbing noses! And then they perform, among other things, the ‘Haka,’ a fierce war dance interspersed with much chest thumping and murderous gestures. Meanwhile our food has been cooking slowly in earthen ovens over (what else) steaming holes in the ground. When the food is laid, I am in heaven. There’s slow-cooked chicken, meat, kumara (sweet potatoes), crab, shrimp, vegetables…I do not make it to dessert. 

The next day, we head for Waiotapu which, depending on how many sights you wander off to, is about half an hour to a whole day away from the city. Soon we see the earth’s fiery interior, her chemicals and her minerals come together in a histrionic display of colour and fire-water-works. A Hollywood set that Hollywood could never have imagined unfolds before us.

The aptly named Devil’s Ink Pots is a spectacular sea of mud – where steaming whirls and whorls plop, hiss and spit eternally. Even more enchanting is the Champagne Pool. Gold-rimmed and bubbling seductively, it looks inviting until you realize it has more chemicals than your car battery. Having admired all the wicked looking craters blowing smoke rings around the pool, we walk across it on a narrow path (fall and you will be boiled!) on our way to more sights.

The electric blue of one pool is sure to haunt me forever; or at least every time I order a Blue Curacao. But for the tell-tale steam rising around the edges, the pool looks as icy cool as the cocktail. Before we reach a jade green pool, we come across a wonderful green stream flecked with yellow. Like a good tourist, I can’t resist dipping my hand in it – “Owwwww!” It is hot! Even the rock-face on the side of the path is hot. Far in the distance is a hillside with magnificent plumes of smoke, too many to count. I note that if I get lost here, sending smoke signals will just not work.

In all this we also keep our 10.15 a.m. date with Lady Knox Geyser (pronounced guy-zer never gee-zer in New Zealand). It erupts every day at that precise time to ooohhs, aaaahs and the flash of cameras. This is achieved by pouring detergent into its vent! The surface tension reduces, the boiling water bubbles, spurts and finally gushes up in a tall, sizzling fountain. That it is man-made takes nothing away from the spectacle.

Waiotapu, we realize later is a weird, wonderful sampler of the fantasy landscaping all around the area. Near the Blue and Green Lakes, you can picnic or live in your trailer-camper home. And though the Green Lake is far too dangerous, you can even go for a swim in the Blue Lake. At Hell’s Gate mud pools boil all day long. This thermal area has the sensational Kaikahi Falls, said to be the largest hot waterfall in the Southern hemisphere.

And yes, there are volcanoes. Even in the nineteenth century, Mount Tarawera’s hillsides had much-visited, mineral-laden baths that contributed to Rotorua’s fashionable reputation as a spa. In 1886, when Tarawera erupted, the sound was heard as far away as Auckland. The baths along with Te Wairoa, meaning ‘Buried Village’ (now excavated and a tourist spot), were buried under lava and ash. The eruption carved out Waimangu, the valley that lies before me, brilliant green, full of vegetation and home to the magnificent boiling Inferno Crater.

I look at Mount Tarawera, now a lush green, peaceful looking fixture on the landscape with new respect. And suddenly fun thermal activity acquires a mean edge.

That evening, we discover a buzzing pub fashioned out of an old police station. Some of the food is typical – a mountain of wonderfully-done spare ribs – and some of it is New Zealand style seafood, the like of which I have never had before – green-lipped mussel, walnut encrusted halibut...

By the time we are through, it’s six ‘o clock and the shops are all closed! The bright sunshiny day will continue for a long time though. I window-shop and peer at the jade jewellery displays. Rotorua is also one of the centres for jade, the stone prized by the Maoris as ‘pounamu’. I mentally tick the shops I will visit tomorrow as we head towards the lake.

Lake Rotorua looks so beautiful that we sit there a long while staring at the plumes of smoke on its other end. Swans squawk and swim to where tourists are feeding them. Far away jet-boats are terrifying passengers with sudden sharp turns at terrific speeds. A helicopter buzzes reminding you that you are in New Zealand, adventure capital of the world.

As we sit volcanoes, geysers and boiling mud seem not at all unusual. As for bad smells, they seem barely noticeable and pretty usual too.

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