Rotorua: Revisiting a lovers' haven

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush returns to Rotorua on a sentimental journey.

The rich mineral waters of Hinemoa's pool on Mokoia Island in Rotorua. Photo / Paul Rush
The rich mineral waters of Hinemoa's pool on Mokoia Island in Rotorua. Photo / Paul Rush

I feel a wave of nostalgia and déjà vu wash over me as I reach the mist-shrouded hollow of Hinemoa's Pool. The hot bubbling spring and shallow, rock-bound pool is just the way I remember it - warm, caressing and eminently inviting.

I fancy I can see a vision of a beautiful Maori maiden reclining in the tepid waters. She is regaining strength after her heroic swim that created a legend of single-minded devotion and forbidden love - the sort of love that overcomes all obstacles.

There's something about Rotorua and its sparkling heart-shaped lake that keeps drawing me back. It's a spirit or wairua that speaks of love and devotion on a sacred island where my own love and I once spent some precious time together.

For a brief period we had the island of Mokoia to ourselves, while on our honeymoon. In those days visitors were allowed to stay and explore the island between the morning and afternoon ferry sailings.

We lazed in Hinemoa's pool, savoured the soothing mineral waters and reflected on the romantic rendezvous of two earlier lovers, Hinemoa and Tutanekai.

Today I have boarded the catamaran Wai Ora on 'The Ultimate Island Experience', guided by Ritchie Morrison, youngest son of Te Arawa's own legend, the late Sir Howard Morrison.

It is always an emotional journey for Ritchie, visiting the tribal base of his beloved ancestors and it's a nostalgic experience for me - my first visit to the island since our honeymoon.

We pause at the carved ceremonial gateway; the pathway into the heart of Mokoia, where countless greetings and challenges have been made over the centuries. Carved figures on the gate headboard depict the two illustrious lovers that have made the island famous.

Richie bows his head and prays a karakia (blessing) to tell the spirits of Mokoia that we come in peace.

In Aotearoa's most powerful love story, Tutanekai, a brave Mokoia Island warrior of illegitimate birth and Hinemoa, an Arawa princess living on the mainland, are forbidden to marry by her parents. The couple pine for each other.

Tutanekai plays his flute every evening and the lilting sound carries across the water to Hinemoa's village. One cold, moonless night, in sheer desperation she straps buoyant calabashes around her body and swims across three kilometres of icy water guided by the haunting melody of her lover's flute.

On reaching the island cold and weary, she lies in the natural hot pool close to the shore. The couple spend the night together and so, according to Maori law, the union is consummated.

Hinemoa's father eventually forgives them and Tutanekai goes on to do great things for the Te Arawa people.

"Our confederation of eight tribes came together after this event," Ritchie explains.

Back in the historic Rotorua township I take a stroll through the Government Gardens, which also brings back a flood of memories.

The buildings, lakes and gardens have been skilfully laid out to produce a magnificent formal setting. The grand old neo-Tudor Bath House, now known as the Rotorua Museum, dominates the scene. This iconic structure is New Zealand's most photographed architectural wonder.

During my earlier sojourn the building was closed to the public. I'm intrigued by its mystery and charm and take this opportunity to go inside.

After admiring the magnificent entrance I follow a panelled hall past fine marble sculptures and museum exhibits.

Descending an old wooden staircase, I find it's deathly still in the bowels of the building. The atmosphere feels heavy and oppressive with waves of geothermal heat and is suffused with a slightly odious smell.

A maze of pipelines snake through the basement ceiling, clinging precariously onto the pumice and cement substructure.

Hydrogen sulphate seeps into the sub-floor from vents in the earth's crust, blackening the pipes that once carried hot mineral waters to sunken private baths.

Peering into the basement service rooms in the old spa, I'm amazed at the archaic mud baths and weird electrical treatment devices.

For many nights the technicians of the time were plagued by the 'Phantom of the Bath House'. The strident sounds of a woman's footsteps were heard marching through the basement corridors but the mysterious intruder could not be found.

One brave soul hid in the basement overnight and discovered the source of the weird sounds. They were caused by compressed air in the thermal water pipes bubbling along the main supply lines.

I bob down and peer under the massive beams that support the old building and see the names Eric and Joan inscribed on a crumbling wall over a heart shaped scrawl - secret lovers from a shadowy past?

Museum staff discovered a woman's red dancing shoe amongst the detritus of this earlier age, thought to relate to the earlier use of the building as the Tudor Towers Nightclub.

Nostalgia has yet to run its course.

I have a fuzzy recollection from the past of soaking at chin level in a thermal pool overlooking the lake. The Polynesian Spa is still a major draw card in Sulphur City and boasts 35 hot mineral pools.

I 'take the waters' on a balmy evening, allowing the therapeutic minerals to soak into my skin as wisps of steam rise in languid spirals into the night sky.

The shimmering beauty of Lake Rotorua, magical Mokoia Island, the Government Gardens and the Polynesian Spa are more than enough nostalgia for one weekend.

FACT FILE

Mokoia Island is in the centre of Lake Rotorua, some 5km from the lakefront wharf.

Mokoia Island Wai Ora Experiences operates daily excursions to the island, subject to weather conditions.

* For more information on visiting Rotorua see rotoruanz.com.

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