Rotorua: A rich tapestry of taonga

Elisabeth Easther delves into a true national treasure - Rotorua

Rotorua Museum. Photo / Supplied
Rotorua Museum. Photo / Supplied

Ever since the Arawa people first guided European visitors around Rotorua's thermal treasures, the region has been a magnet for tourists. In 1886, despite the Tarawera eruption changing the landscape and destroying the Pink and White Terraces, the region continued to thrive. Visitors were as keen then as they are today to take the waters, experience Maori culture and marvel at the region's natural wonders.

After numerous adrenalin-filled treks around Roto-vegas, we decided it was time to remind ourselves of the town's tourism roots.

The best place to begin exploring Rotorua's heritage is at the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa, a majestic presence on the shores of Lake Rotorua. The focal point of the impressive Government Gardens, this grade one historic building, opened in 1908, beginning life as a bathhouse. It was one of the New Zealand Government's first major investments in tourism.

For the finest view of the town, we trekked up several flights of stairs to the observation tower to survey the lake in all its glory and see, first hand, how Rotorua is nestled in the crater of a volcano.

A fact both magnificent and daunting to contemplate. We then descended to the bowels of the building to examine the workings of the original bath pipes. Balneology, we learned, is the science of baths and bathing. One popular treatment, back in the day, involved passing a small electric current through the water, the notion of which I found just a little shocking.

The entire museum is amazing, and on this visit two new exhibitions stood out.

Norm Heke's OMGs: Maori Gods in the 21st Century uses lenticular photograph to simultaneously depict traditional legends and heroes in the present and past. They act like holograms, and are terribly stirring.

Other Stories, by greenstone artist Joe Sheehan, is also impressive, a clever twist on traditional carving. Sheehan has crafted everyday objects such as light bulbs, batteries and cassette tapes that all actually work. He has also carved a selection of remote controls and given them an archaeological twist. So clever on so many levels.

Or, if you prefer your history a touch gory (I know a certain 7-year-old who does) the story behind Tutanekai's koauau (flute) is sure to delight. Carved from the arm bone of one of his father's enemies, Tutanekai played the instrument to woo Hinemoa. The flute has been on quite an adventurous journey during its long life, and famously was once hidden down a dead man's throat. But the wildest thing is Tutanekai's flute, which we found breathtaking, now rests in a glass case in the museum.

Our next stop for an authentic taste of Maori culture is the recently refurbished Te Puia Springs, nestled in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. The cultural performance featured fighting demonstrations, haka, waiata and my personal favourite, poi dancing. The clicking of the women's piupiu combined with the rhythm of poi on flesh gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Te Puia's main objective is to preserve Maori culture, as well as provide a school and showcase for traditional arts and crafts. Home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Te Rito (the weaving school) and Te Wananga Whakairo (the carving school) welcome visitors.

The work being done to preserve the artistic heritage, and create jobs and exquisite objects, has to be seen to be appreciated. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for the mere five carving students accepted each year into the course.

The kai at Te Puia is amazing, too. Our tama had clocked up quite an appetite after a full morning at the museum and, when lunch was served, he ate his way through it with gusto, including a large amount of chicken, a pile of hangi-roasted stuffing, corn cobs and perfectly cooked cabbage and kumara. The tomato chutney the chef had seasoned with horopito was exquisite. Between mouthfuls, the young chap was heard to say, "This kai is so awesome, even better than yum cha," which is high praise indeed.

Sated, it was time to admire the silica terraces, bubbling mud pools and world-renowned geyser, Pohutu. Famously, Pohutu reaches heights of 30m up to 20 times a day and has been tickling tourists' fancies since the early 1900s. It really is the most eerie landscape with its terraces of rock and plumes of steam, forced up out of the earth, jetting into the sky.

If that's not enough to keep visitors occupied, Te Puia also has a kiwi enclosure, where a breeding pair will, it's hoped, feel the love before long.

Rotorua is an impressive destination made all the more special by the wonderful people working to educate the manuhiri (visitors), preserve the culture and keep the traditions alive.


• Rotorua Museum. Government Gardens, Rotorua

• Te Puia - NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Hemo Rd, Rotorua. Rotorua Museum of Art and History is home to a number of significant taonga.

Elisabeth Easther was a guest of Destination Rotorua

- NZ Herald

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