Paul Rush visits a homely thermal village and finds it a genuine cultural experience
The War Memorial Archway is just the way I remember it from many years ago. The 'penny divers' are here too, launching themselves off the old bridge for one and two dollar coins thrown into the water by tourists.
The coins sparkle in the sunlight on their downward trajectory, plopping into the murky mineral water of Puranga Stream to be quickly retrieved by agile children with glistening bodies. Sadly, since my visit, this age old diving for pennies tradition has been temporarily halted due to water pollution upstream from the bridge.
Our guide, Powhiri, in the fine tradition of her forbears, Guides Rangi, Maggie and Bubbles, tells us about the old ways in the village.
"Before 1885 there were stepping stones across the stream and our people piggybacked visitors across. These days when I have thirty people on my back, I'm grateful for these bridges."
She jumped off the bridge hundreds of times in her youth to catch coins and has clearly thrived on the natural lifestyle, looking slim and athletic in her monogrammed, black designer uniform despite having borne seven children. Two of these were a selfless gift to a close relative who was unable to have a family of her own.
We sidle past a natural rock basin where billowing steam clouds partly obscure two traditional punga whares, the standard dwelling in pre-European times. A cluster of small colonial cottages can be glimpsed through the steam and one is a very distinctive carved structure with the appearance of a miniature meeting house.
Around twenty-five families, comprising seventy people, live in the village. Many are employed in guiding work, cultural performances and running craft shops.
Sixty years ago the population was a staggering 4500, but as Rotorua township grew, people moved out of the village. The carved house dates from 1905 and was the home of the first Maori guide, Miss Maggie Papakura.
It's fortunate that the village existed when Mount Tarawera erupted without warning on June 10, 1886. The eruption buried the villages of Moura, Te Ariki and Te Wairoa with great loss of life. The survivors were evacuated to Whakarewarewa and the current residents are their direct descendents.
There are three hangi cooking boxes in the area where we are standing. When a wooden lid is lifted off, we see bundles wrapped in tinfoil that contain chicken, pork, lamb, corned silverside and puddings cooking merrily over a roaring steam vent. With no added butter or fat, the food retains its natural flavour and steams at up to 250°C just like a pressure cooker. The hangi boxes are a very cheap and effective Maori microwave oven.
A few steps away is a furiously bubbling pool known as the 'Murderous Rippling Waters' where 95°C temperatures can cook 200 frozen corn on the cob in ten minutes. We sample the corn, which is delicious.
Powhiri explains, "We also call it the Champagne Pool but the water tastes nothing like Champagne. However, it does boil an egg in one minute and mussels in three seconds."
The pool rises and falls inexplicably every 45 minutes and overflows into one of the communal bathing areas. Periodically it becomes contrary and drops a surprising two metres, leaving the bathing cubicles dry. There's no reasoning with Mother Nature when she withdraws her cooperation.
It seems that the landscape around the village is constantly changing, which is the obvious downside of living on an earthquake fault line where the earth's crust is worryingly thin and unstable. But this doesn't faze our guide who now shows us the 'Grumpy Old Man'. This is not a Kaumatua or Tohunga but the arrestingly violent and threatening Korowhiowhio Pool, roaring away at a not so cool 155°C.
Steam is shooting out of this pool at such an alarming rate I momentarily lose sight of our group. Once more Powhiri alerts us to the therapeutic benefits of the thick waves of superheated steam.
"If you beautiful people need a facial this morning then just stand here for a while. It will unclog your nasal passages at the same time, so it's better than an expensive spa treatment."
The group consider this novel idea but decide that the sulphuric miasma is a pretty heady mix and move quickly to the geyser viewing platform. Our timing is immaculate: both Pohutu and the Prince of Wales' Feathers are blowing their tops with sound and fury and billowing steam clouds drift over the moonscape of silica terraces, bubbling mud pools and boiling mineral springs.
It's a dramatic scene straight out of Dantés Inferno but believe it or not, people greatly enjoy the privilege of living here.
Our group moves back down the hill to view the magnificent wharenui, or big meeting house, named Te Whaio after an ancient chief of the tribe.
Powhiri explains its use for tangis.
"If one of my extended family dies, we bring the body here to lie in state for three days. On the second day the bell is rung to announce the church service and we include a sing-along to give our loved one's spirit a safe journey to the other side."
Wandering up the narrow main street of the village we pass the kohanga reo, Ned's Cafe and the craft shops to reach the concert venue. We watch a family-oriented cultural performance with beautiful singing, dancing and action songs. The emotionally charged haka is a fitting finish to our tour.
The people of Whakarewarewa are not showtime performers but genuinely hospitable folk who offer a real insight into traditional Maori ways, their families and their personal experiences.
It's a joy and privilege to share their daily lives in this wonderful village.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Rotorua is just over two hours' drive from Auckland and Whakarewarewa is located three kilometres south of the city centre. There is no access to the geysers from the village, however they can be viewed from two lookout platforms.
Staying there: Rotorua accommodation caters for all budgets from backpackers to budget motels and four-star hotels. The Heritage Rotorua is well placed, being one minute's walk from Whakarewarewa Village and close to the other major cultural attractions.
Further information: See rotoruanz.co.nz.
Paul Rush was hosted by the Heritage Hotel Rotorua and Destination Rotorua.