Danielle Wright finds out why Rotorua’s geothermal water and active mud is so healing.
Rotorua's European spa history is said to have started in 1878 when an Irish priest with arthritic pain was carried from Tauranga to bathe in the waters of what is now Government Gardens. Able to return home on foot, Father Mahoney declared himself cured and Rotorua's healing reputation grew.
Soldiers returning from war also made use of the restorative powers of the geothermal waters here and an area, now known as Hell's Gate or Wai Ora ("healing waters") Spa, claims its mud bath and sulphur spa will leave skin clean and soft to touch for up to six weeks.
"We have bubbling mud and exploding hot water pools in excess of 100C, a large hot waterfall, land coral formations, a mud volcano, three different types of geothermal mud and a medicine lake, used by local Maori for healing for over 700 years," says Wai Ora Group's Kerry Pearson.
Mud from Rotorua is deemed to be much finer than from other areas and the Hell's Gate mud is said to leave your skin so soft due to its "strong affinity to moisture in the skin". It's claimed the clay surfaces of the mud absorb excess oils and impurities while detoxifying and purifying.
Tracey Friend, from Rotorua's Beauty Spa, says: "All thermal mud contains different trace elements and that found in Rotorua has sulphur, calcium, sodium and silicon, to name a few."
The mud has an antiseptic nature as well as mineral cleansers. Native plants, such as manuka trees growing around the mud pools, are added to some of the thermal mud potions and the organic silicon in the mud is said to neutralise free radicals and retard the oxidative process of the cells - in layman's terms, help stop skin ageing.
"Thermal mud is created when underground steam and gas mix with a barrier of surface mineral water and soil, and native debris. That found in Rotorua is different to clay-based masks, which generally have no active content," says Friend.
Polynesian Spa's Priest Spa pool, named after the arthritic Irish priest healed more than a hundred years ago, is also renowned for its therapeutic properties.
"Millions of visitors to Polynesian Spa over the last 125 years have received relief from this water for their tired muscles, aches and pains, arthritis and rheumatism," says Polynesian Spa's Emi Hooper.
"Our other hot mineral pools are filled with slightly alkaline water from the Rachel Springs. This water is characterised by its normal clarity and soft feel. It comes from a deep boiling spring and is cooled to bathing temperature by the addition of town supply cold water. The bland, soothing, antiseptic action of sodium silicate makes this water very pleasing on the skin," says Hooper.
As well as the spa experiences, there are quite a few natural hot springs in Rotorua, some accessible only by boat, for a free soak. The thermal waters and bubbling mud seem to be a perfect melting pot for the natural foliage and herbs growing nearby, allowing mother nature to create a special place of healing.
There are many myths about the curative powers of the region. One, an old local belief, is that those who swim in the Rachel Springs water will receive ageless beauty. Even if that's not the case, it's bound to be a worthwhile experience testing the theory.
For more on the history of spas in Rotorua, it's worth visiting the Bath House, which houses the Rotorua Museum of Art and History. The building was once a famous geothermal spa offering therapeutic treatments to visitors from all over the world. You can see the story of the Bath House told in the Taking the Cure exhibition in the north wing of the museum, including stories of patients encouraged to bathe in electrifying currents.