Rotorua: Whakarewarewa

Ever since purchasing The Penguin History of New Zealand from Audible (that’s Penguin the publisher, not a history of New Zealand penguins as I first thought it to be!) I was desperate to know more about Māori culture and customs. Written by Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand is an epic tome full of dates, names and facts and which has accompanied me in audiobook format on my regular long walks up and down the Waikanae river.

Prior to starting this heavy historical volume, I had just finished listening to Christina Thompson’s Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, a memoire that tells the story of the authors romance with and eventual marriage to a Māori man, interspersed with a narrative history of the cultural collision between Europeans and Māori. Both books contained the same story of the first contact between Europeans and Māori and I want to share it with you despite it having nothing to do with Whakarewarewa because it does, in part, explain why cultural experiences like this are so important.

You might want to get a cup of tea: it’s a bit of a long read.

The first meeting between Europeans and Māori was not (as most people believe) when James Cook landed in Poverty Bay in 1769 but was actually when Abel Tasman (of Tasmania fame) reached New Zealand in December 1642. Tasman and his crew had sailed to the northern tip of the South Island on the ships Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. When they arrived, they could see fires lit on the shore, most likely signal fires lit by the Māori to warn settlements ahead of the approaching strange vessels.

The next morning, Tasman and his crew looked out across the bay and saw two waka (canoes) full of Māori speeding across the water to them. According to one of Tasman’s crew, the Māori were blowing on some kind of trumpet (it would have actually been a conch shell instrument called a pūtātara) and shouting. In true European fashion, Tasman took this fanfare to be a welcoming gesture and ordered one his crew to play a tune on his trumpet in response.

Unbeknownst to Tasman, he had just accepted a challenge.

It was likely that the Māori thought the strange fair skinned people who had appeared in the night were Patupaiarehe (fairy folk). According to Māori legend, Patupaiarehe have white skin and red hair and are thought to take away women and children so it was very likely, given how much these mythical beings were feared, that the Māori were trying to scare Tasman and his crew away rather than welcome them.

The Māori paddled furiously towards a pilot boat which was passing between the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, and rammed it so hard it that three of the four crew fell overboard. The Māori then set about the men with their patu and killed them.

Patu were usually made of either wood, greenstone or whalebone and were mostly used like clubs

Horrified, Tasman decided to leave immediately, abandoning all hope of having friendly relations with the Māori. In a bitter gesture, he named this place, Murderers Bay although it was renamed to Golden Bay in 1857.

A sketch of the first encounter captured by Isaac Gilsemans who sailed with Tasman.

This tragic misunderstanding between these two worlds was bad enough but it got worse. As Tasman’s crew sailed for the Cook Straight, eleven waka full of Māori paddled out to intercept them. Tasman, fearful he might loose more men he ordered his crew to fire on the waka. According to the account of one of Tasman’s crew, one of the Māori in the lead waka was standing up, holding a small white flag but as the waka drew closer, Tasman’s men fired, hitting and killing him.

It would be another 127 years before Europeans and Māori met again.

What I’ve learned from the Penguin History of New Zealand, is that this encounter set the tone for many more encounters between Māori and Europeans in the country’s history and demonstrates how incomprehension and misunderstanding of other cultures can cause irreparable damage. It is incredibly fortunate that Māori are now very keen to share their history and customs with non-Māori , perhaps to prevent these kind of mistakes ever happening again.

Whakarewarewa is a ‘living’ Māori village in the sense that there are 21 families actually living there. The Māori of Whakarewarewa are the people of Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao and can trace their ancestry back to the Te Arawa people who first occupied the valley in 1325. Whakarewarewa itself was one of the birthplaces of modern tourism in New Zealand. In the 1800’s when Europeans started to arrive, they were fascinated by the local way of life and use of the geothermal resources so the Māori of Whakarewarewa starting giving tours around their village.

Another attraction at this time were The Pink and White Terraces which were being referred to as ‘The 8th Wonder of the World’.

The White Terraces by Charles Blomfield, 1884

These silica deposits were supposed to be the largest on earth at the time and their beauty attracted tourists from all over the world. But in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted with devastating consequences, burying both the terraces and the lands of the Tūhourangi tribe in volcanic ash. The Māori of Whakarewarewa took in what was left of the displaced Tūhourangi Māori although both tribes suffered a huge loss of life and livelihood because of this catastrophic volcanic event.

In 1894, the railway came to Rotorua, and once again Māori began guiding visitors through Whakarewarewa. Some guides such as Maggie Papakura and Sophia Hinerangi even gained international notoriety for their colourful personalities and their ability to navigating deftly between English and Maori languages and culture with both humour and charm.

The beautiful Maggie Papakura otherwise known as Margaret Pattison Thom. She had an English father and a Māori mother. When asked by an overseas visitor if she had a Māori name, she told them (after glancing around for inspiration and seeing the nearby Papakura geyser) that it was Papakura. From then on, she worked under that name and members of her family also adopted the new surname.
Sophia Hinerangi, affectionally known as Guide Sophie

The village itself is in the centre of Rotorua and very easy to find. You can just pay for entry and walk around the village by yourself but to really understand the Māori way of life and to follow in the footsteps of the early Victorian travellers, you need a guide.

Our guide was Philip, a softly spoken older Māori with white hair and bright blue eyes. There were only 7 of us in the tour and my husband was the only New Zealander; the rest of us were English. As we set off, Philip told me that there was a long history of English and Māori in the village.

“All good?” I asked hesitantly, remembering some of the more harrowing chapters from The Penguin History of New Zealand.

“Ah yeah, all good.” he replied. He then went on to explain that many Māori women from the village married English men, something that happened in iwi all over New Zealand when the early European settlers arrived and was generally accepted and encouraged rather than frowned upon.

After pausing briefly at the entrance before several large black and white photos of previous guides and explaining (with some noticeable reverence) who they were and what they did, Philip led us over a bridge into the village.

View from the bridge at the entrance of the village

Philip explained that when he was a boy, tourists would throw money into the river and the children of the village would dive in to collect it.

“But that river looks really shallow,” my husband noted, peering over the side of the bridge into the murky water below. “Didn’t they hurt themselves?”

“Nah,” said Philip. “Well maybe the first time but they soon learned how to do it without breaking anything.”

As Philip was reminiscing, the youngest member of our tour group (a very vocal toddler with an extremely short attention span) kicked and bucked in his mother’s arms, wailing to be put down. As soon as his tiny feet hit the floor, he was off, tottering up the path to the village. To my surprise the Māori lady who was accompanying us (an ex tour guide who was learning the ropes again) broke away from the group and followed him up the path. When she caught up with him, she scooped him up and started chatting to him. She wandered around with him in her arms for some time, showing him different trees, pointing out birds and it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was an example of how family plays such a central role in Māori life. It didn’t matter that the kid wasn’t hers. What mattered was that he was kept occupied and safe so without hesitation or permission, she had stepped in to give his mother a break. Remarkable.

Once we’d reached the other side of the bridge, Philip pointed at a small wooden hut, explaining that this was a traditional dwelling that Māori would have built when they first arrived in New Zealand. The children and their mother would sleep in the hut but the father usually slept outside to protect his family from marauding rival iwi. Philip told us that the early Māori settlers learned that some wood burned more easily than others and so chose the timber that was least flammable for the walls and roofs, sometimes thatching the top with toetoe (pronounced toi toi – what people in the UK would recognise as pampas grass although it’s not the same thing).

An example of an early Māori hut

Philip then showed us the village Marae. Marae are the focal point of Māori families throughout New Zealand and usually consist of a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular iwi, hapū (sub-tribe) or whānau (family).

The Marae at Whakarewarewa – they are always this colour and shape.
These carvings at the top of the Marae represent two of the iwi’s past leaders

Philip then led us up a small path and into an area that was shrouded in clouds of white steam.

The smell of sulphur was strong but not as headache-inducing as I had thought it would be. Bending over one of the low wooden fences, I could just about see the pools of emerald green and sapphire blue, bubbling gently like a pan of water on a stovetop.

The incredible colour of one of the geothermic pools

These are geothermic pools. Geothermal water starts life as rainwater, which seeps down though cracks in the rock towards a heat source deep within the earth. Hot water is less dense than cold water, so it rises and emerges at the earth’s surface, sometimes as steam or mixed with steam. The hot water reacts with the rock it comes into contact with, and becomes enriched with dissolved minerals. The temperature of the water in these pools depends on where they are geographically. Geothermal systems near active or young volcanoes tend to be the hottest, whereas systems that are near extinct or older volcanoes are slightly cooler. Rotorua falls into the Taupō Volcanic Zone and so is part of a large, hot geothermal system.

A map of the geothermic systems in the Taupō Volcanic Zone

I think it’s worth mentioning here that Lake Taupō just south of Rotorua lies in the caldera of an active supervolcano. Yes, you read that right. An active supervolcano. It is the site of the world’s most violent eruption of the last 70,000 years and just 10 km beneath it sits another lake of molten rock 50 km wide and 160 km long. Just take a moment to picture that, would you? A lake of fire the length of which is roughly the distance between London and Sheffield. Crazy.

Philip told us that the surface temperature in most of the geothermic pools in Whakarewarewa is close to boiling point and in some of them, the temperature can reach up to 120 degrees Celsius further down. He also told us why the fences were there. Apparently a toddler from the village wandered away from his mother while she was distracted, fell into one of the pools and died. I glanced sideways at the toddler in our party who was now sitting quietly in his mother’s front pack and thought of how harrowing that must have been.

This is the largest mineral pool in Whakarewarewa called Parekohuru

The villagers use the heat of the pools to cook with, sometimes by putting the food into a muslin bag and suspending it into the water itself or putting vegetables and meat into a box in the ground and using the steam to slow cook them.

The steam box

Phillip demonstrated the first cooking technique by putting corn cobs into a bag and lowering them gently into the pool. We then went on a tour of the vegetable garden and when we came back about 8 minutes later, Philip removed the bag from the water and pulled out 7 perfectly cooked corn cobs. We were given the choice to eat them with or without butter but Philip said to appreciate the flavour given to the corn cobs by the minerals in the pool, we should have them ‘natural.’ Removing his beanie hat and clutching it in both hands in front of his chest, Philip gave a short prayer in Māori before handing over the corn cobs for us to try. We nibbled away at the cobs which were both salty and sweet while the billowing steam clouds swirled around us like mist.

Once we had disposed of our corn cob husks in a well placed litter bin, Philip took us to the area that the villagers use for bathing. The pools themselves are way too hot to just climb into so the water is passed over a flat area in a sort of trough which feeds into the baths, cooling it down enough to sit in it comfortably.

The boiling water is brought across this area to the bathing tubs

There was a small wooden lean-to next to the bathing tubs which Philip explained was for the women of the village to change in. The men, he said, just take off their clothes outside, cover their privates if they’re in front of the ladies and get in. The image of this carefree social nudity made my daughter grin and my son visibly wince.

The last part of the tour took us up to see the geysers. We were lucky and got to see one of them errupting.

The Pōhutu Geyser (centre picture) erupting – pōhutu means ‘big splash’ or ‘explosion’ in Māori

After watching the geysers for a bit longer and mentally willing them to erupt some more (they didn’t), it was time to say goodbye to Philip. He again removed his beanie and clutching it with both hands as he had done earlier before saying grace, announced to the assembled crowd that he’d like to finish off the tour by singing a little song for the people of Ukraine.

And so he did.

It was a short piece and I had no idea what the words meant but Philip sung it beautifully and with such emotion that it gave me a lump in my throat.

Strangely, despite all I had seen and learned that morning, the imagine of Philip with his eyes closed, clasping his little woollen beanie and singing his heart out for people thousands of miles away would be the most memorable by far.

If you want to learn more about the incredible Whakarewarewa experience, you can check out the website here:

Put it on your bucket list.


2 responses to “Rotorua: Whakarewarewa”

  1. That was so interesting. If we all took a little time to learn each others culture there would be less misunderstandings and more tolerance. Pleased you’ve taken the time to get informed.


    1. And I’ve only scratched the surface! There is so much more to learn…..


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