Rotorua smells bad.
And I mean bad.
As in really bad.
This is a far cry from your run of the mill city smell, this is broken-egg-left-in-direct-sunlight-in-a-room-with-minimal-to-no-ventilation-and-a-five-day-old-fart bad. No sooner had we passed the Haere Mai sign into Rotorua than the dry stench of sulphur seeped through the car windows, which we thought exciting at first (ohmigoshohmigoshlookeventhedrainsaresteaming) but soon realised that the novelty of breathing with a scarf on your face wears off pretty sharpish.
The reason for the smell? Geothermal is big here. Rotorua is known as NZ’s most dynamic thermal area and is famed for it’s bubbling mud pools, hyperactive geysers and, of course, it’s distinctive whiff. To a nose-less person, it would be perfect. To a dog, it’s probably the equivalent of hell.
The smell (which I don’t think I’m exaggerating – there was definitely a middle of the night rage where the window was slammed shut and ear plugs were rapidly removed and jammed up nostrils) doesn’t deter tourists, however, and Rotorua is one of the most visited spots on the North Island. You can see why. There is loads to see and do, and the thermal activity, although pungent, is strangely mystifying.
Lonely Planet’s walking tour (although we know we’re being slightly spoonfed) was an absolute shout (most likely due to the watering hole, the Pig and Whistle, at the finish line). Not only did it take us round all the colonial buildings of the town, including the pastiche Tudor building that went from bath-house to nightclub to museum in the space of about 150 years, but also it wound through the historical Maori village of Ohinemutu and through the bubbling springs of Kairau Park, one of the few places where you can see the hot springs in action without being rinsed (financially).
The museum (beforeyougotosleepIpromiseIwon’tsayverymuch) is actually well worth the $18 entry fee. Chirpy museum staff (including the tour guide who claimed she couldn’t smell the sulphur any more. Harumph.) and informative exhibits about the town, both geographically (geothermally?) and historically actually made for a very interesting couple of hours. Namely the museum more than compensated for the lack of information about Maori culture that we had been whinging about in Kohukohu and Hamilton. It was all there, and we gratefully lapped it up (including the bit about cannibalism. Nyom.) Not so much the ‘historical Maori village’, which seemed pretty anti-historical i.e. totally fake. The gardens were pretty, but stank. End of.
Rotorua may smell, but the thermal springs are fascinating. That’s the reason why people settled here. Imagine freezing in winter and just popping outside for a ready-made hot bath. Or needing to cook something when it’s too windy for a fire so all you do is pop your boil-in-a-bag bag into the lake and in five minutes it’s done. I think this is probably worth burning your nasal cavity for.
Yet Rotorua isn’t the only one spurting steam from it’s sewage system (I’m talking about the thermal waters, not the other steamy sewer filler…) as we had discovered a few days before at Hot Water Beach, a few hours drive north from Rotorua. Here, armed with a spade and your bathers, you could happily while away a few hours in a home-made bath of warm water on an otherwise extremely chilly beach. Likewise, the famously cold lake at Taupo has it’s own thermal springs just below the surface, causing random warm patches (that can be explained). It just goes to show that NZ is geographically tumultuous. The volcanic pathway that runs through the centre of the the North Island is well and truly alive – forget our puny land of the mountain and the flood, this is more like land of eruptions and earthquakes and boiling mud.
Granted, it’s terrifying, but still fantastic at the same time.