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Rotorua, New Zealand

Written by  Denise Dube

Feathered leafy trees hang over a stream that gurgles from the earth and then slips and falls over ancient rock. This water has, over the last 10,000 years, etched grooved spouts and rugged steps into that stone. Hot enough for an idyllic soak, the water then slides down and becomes a stream flanked by moss and greenery.

It’s called Kakahi Falls and sits within the 50-acre Tikitere Park, better known as Hell’s Gate Geothermal Reserve, in Rotorua, New Zealand. Approximately 900 years ago and for centuries after, spear-wielding Maori warriors, bodies etched with intricately patterned tattoos and garbed in loin cloths, stood watch. Owned and maintained by the Maori, it’s a perfect example of this island country’s many contrasts, whether in nature or culture.

A few hundred feet away, other than a gray leafless tree or a sparse shrub, traces of lush greenery are gone. Muddy sulfur pools, steam spouts and beige dirt dot the landscape. One stays on the winding narrow path through the park for the next hour or two and explores the steaming and somewhat odorous caldera. Playwright, George Bernard Shaw, ironically an atheist, once stood at the entrance of Tikitere and likened it to the Gates of Hell. The name stuck, although people still talk of the princess who, rather than spend another minute with her abusive husband, went there and threw herself into a scalding
sulfurous grave.

The park is only a small portion of Rotorua, located mostly in the Bay of Plenty on the north island, sitting along the shores of Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotorua. It’s said that both lakes were caused by the volcanic eruptions at Hell’s Gate.

Those fascinated with a country’s culture and history should aim their compass there first. It’s easy. From Auckland it’s three hours by car or 40 minutes by airplane. The Maori, without planes or cars, arrived there between 1250 and 1300 AD. According to legend, Polynesians hopped into a boat, left Hawaiki (no relation to Hawaii), and headed for greener pastures. New Zealand had those pastures, rolling hills, warm healing waters, mud, sulfur and plenty of places to grow food. Although Europeans followed in a few centuries, Maori culture and customs are distinctively carved into Rotorua.

Ohinemutu Village, a short walk from the Regent of Rotorua Hotel, is a Maori village on Lake Rotorua’s shore. Here the Maori meeting house Tama-te-Kapua stands facing the water. These brilliant deep red buildings tell the ancestors’ stories in the carvings that support the house.  It’s not open to the public, but the inlaid shells and the intricate carving are satisfying. These meeting houses, similar red totems and tiki, and the storage sheds, stilted for protection, all have a haka on the roof pitch. The bug-eyed mask with its tongue extended as far as possible, is meant to create fear in opponents. Attend a warrior reenactment and watch as they perform this haka. A loud scream emanates from this exaggerated face. It’s accompanied by persuasive and aggressive dance moves that really are enough to scare anyone. Someone was smart enough to realize this and convert it into wooden faces that adorn the front of Maori entrances and buildings.

In Ohinemutu’s village a lot of the homes along Lake Rotorua’s edge have a small steam spout erupting from their property, usually the front or back yard. One unfortunate villager, sitting in front of her house on this JAX FAX writer’s visit, was evicted by nature. A steam spout erupted in and through her house. Although small, they are so hot people use them to cook, or fence them in for safety. Unless you’re the woman with the living room steam bath, it’s a win win on the energy scale.

Spend the morning in Ohinemutu and the afternoon at the Rotorua Museum, located in the now historic Bath House. Here you’ll learn the art, culture and heritage of Rotorua and hear about the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera.

Before arriving, learn a few phrases. Kia Ora, a Maori salutation is said everywhere, by everyone. You’ll make points if you start your conversation with that greeting. You’ll make even more of an impression if you hongi, which is what Prince William and Her Royal Highness Catherine did during their visit last April. Hongi, the sharing of breath, soul, and trust, is done by pressing noses gently together. Some say it involves pressing the tip of the forehead together too. It seems either one is greeted with a smile. You can shake hands as you do this. Don’t confuse the hongi with the hangi, which is the traditional Maori method of cooking with stones. Someone might get hurt.

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