New Zealand’s Rotorua – holiday perfection

The Weekly explores the sights, sounds and adventure possibilities of the resort of Rotorua in New Zealand in its travel review feature.
Geothermal activity in Rotorua

As the plane starts its decent to Rotorua over the North Island of New Zealand, the blanket of cloud spreads out below us like giant fluffy gift wrap hiding all the magical treats that await us below. We break through and the fluff of vapours disappears to reveal the enchanting landscape below — green peaks, dark impenetrable lakes and lush, rolling countryside.

When asking for people’s impressions of the place before we set off, we’d been given the same basic answer half a dozen times: “It’s beautiful, but it has a certain special aroma.” And already as the plane swoops down towards the brand new runway, we can see the offending sulphur clouds steaming off the lake as a filmic panorama opens out before it.

People’s noses are already beginning to twitch and comical expressions are being exchanged but there is collective look of wonderment at the mythical-looking scene below us. “No wonder so many films are made here,” is the general refrain.

Stepping off the Air New Zealand plane we notice that we are in a different climate to Australia. The air here is fresher, even in spite of the smell (which in any case you quickly forget) and sharper and somehow more European. Breathing in the goodness and looking at the scenery, it is easy to understand why so many Scots were drawn to settle in New Zealand.

Indigenous culture

To whet our appetites, we are treated to singing from the local people whose vibrato voices have a haunting operatic quality which is as surprising as their fondness for ’50s doo-wop vocal harmonies.

Later we drive down to the geyser and once again enter an atmosphere that seems as if it was designed for its filmic qualities. A sulphurous mist floats all around us like we are in some over-egged Victorian London murder mystery with villains disappearing into the pea souper. Below us we can hear rumblings as if Godzilla will burst through the rock but the vents keep pushing out their spurts of boiling water and this seems to appease the beast below.

As we wait for the geyser to blow, we recline on rocks, the hotness of which attests to the mighty power of the natural forces underneath. The heat on our backs is delightfully contrasted with the crisp evening air above, and we look to the stream evaporating in the sky waiting for nature to put on its show.

Then, not with a bang, but more of a gentle crescendo, the geyser rumbles and grumbles and rises, spouts, spurts, sprays and vents until, before our eyes, is a spectacular white firework display. Jets of water and steam shoot into the air and make shapes in the night sky as the awesome power of “the monster” beneath our feet is revealed to us in black and white.

Rotorua wharf

Rebuilding after disaster

The panoramic view from the top of the Victorian bath house — now a museum — gives evidence of the geothermal activity that makes the area so unique, but also reminds you of its precariousness.

From the geyser in the distance to the large patch of bubbling mud that has randomly appeared in a vacant lot by the side of the road, steam continually pours, cooling the temper of the monster the Maoris believe was trapped in the mountain by one of their ancestors. And it was not too long ago that the awesome power of the earth showed Rotorua who was boss when in 1886 the volcano erupted killing hundreds and laying the town to waste.

The Rotoruans quickly rebuilt their town, though, and now it stands as a well provisioned and intelligently laid-out tourist destination — with a brand-new international airport (as we are proudly reminded by all the tourism professionals we meet) — in an area of outstanding natural phenomena coupled with a thrill-seeking industry to rival any in the world.

This truly is a place where the cliché of “something for everyone” really does ring true. While Mum visits one of the countless idyllic spas or hot mud baths to be pampered and indulged to her heart’s content, Dad and the kids can experience one of the many exhilarating activities that the region has to offer. Which, being the big kids that we are, is just what we did.

The Swoop

The Swoop

With two (or three) of you strapped into your sacks and dangling horizontally like glow worms on a piece of string, the crane slowly lifts you up, higher and higher and the ground disconcertingly becomes more distant below as the tree tops reach eye level.

“Oh god, what have I done?” is a question that instinctively comes to mind at this point. “I’m going to die; I’m definitely going to die.” Turning to my Swoop partner for reassurance, I am met with a tight-faced look of panic which at least shows me that I’m not alone. But this only serves to slightly change the refrain: “We’re going to die; we’re definitely going to die.”

As the crane keeps rising, you think that it can’t possibly go any further, that if it does, we will surely be in danger of entering a flight path or leaving the breathable atmosphere altogether.

But up it continues to ratchet, metre by metre as we hang helplessly like puppies in a sock. Finally we reach the summit and there we wait, suspended, for the signal to go. We rock back and forth trying not to look down, hopeless like the condemned prisoner on the gallows, one cord-pull away from oblivion.

After what seems like hours but is probably no more than 10 seconds the signal comes and we reach for the cord. And then — boom! — we start to fall and the world goes silent. All there is for us is ground approaching and silence. My stomach is nothing but a screwed up ball of tension, my eyes wide and my legs straight, twitching like a hanged man’s within the confines of the sack.

Two more seconds in freefall waiting to die. Still not breathing. Still not. One more second and we jolt as the rope reaches its end. Then everything changes. We breathe. No longer are we racing towards the earth and destruction, suddenly we have been transformed into giant birds of prey in full flight as we hurtle past the control team and swing up to the other side.

We slow until suspended momentary, caught in the limbo where forward motion stops and gravity is yet to kick in, before we swoop back down, arms out like kings and queens of the sky, exhilarated and feeling more alive than we have for years.

Jet boating

Jet boat

Just as we start to think Jason is indeed mad (and with a death-wish for us all) and there is no time to stop before crashing into the bank, he switches gear and pulls hard right as we skid around a hairpin turn. Before we have time to catch our breath he has gunned the throttle again and we are zig-zagging through the track, tossed from side to side as our minds ponder both the versatility of the vessel and the insanity of getting to such quick speeds in such a confined space.

Two more laps around the track and our cheeks are numb from smiling. As we hang on for all we are worth, Jason relentlessly pushes the boat to its limits before ending with a textbook Hamilton spin, a 360-degree showboating manoeuvre named after the inventor of the jet boat and beloved in the region.

Quad biking

We have reinvented ourselves as children, become Mario Brothers racing on our toy carts and can’t wait to come back and do it all over again. After quad biking we’ve done so much already that it must be time to head back to the hotel and relax in the spa. But no, it’s not even lunchtime. Before treating ourselves to a bath, we still have to strap ourselves into a Zorb, be flung down a hill and drive a 4×4 down an 80-degree slope into water.


Our surroundings are inspirational in themselves but as die-hard thrill seekers, the natural beauty is not enough to satisfy us. As 21st-century speed demons, we aren’t content unless we are viewing the landscape at tear-inducing speed as our pilot ducks and weaves across the deserted river, showing us nature from extreme close proximity at high velocity as he grazes the banks with his expert boatmanship.

This is the site of a new geothermal power plant and when he’s not painting strange grimaces on our faces as the G forces send our cheeks somewhere back near the stern, our guide explains how the power plant has hit the steam equivalent of gold and if it continues to come out as it is right now it could provide Auckland with a quarter of its power.

After recklessly Hamilton-spinning our way down the river we arrive at our destination: an appropriately-named natural phenomenon called the Squeeze.

The Squeeze

With the rock walls rising to shoulder height, the canopy of trees and bushes above us and steam beginning to drift eerily from the water, it is as if we have been transported onto an Indiana Jones set, trekking our way to some booby-trap-laid treasure cave. The walls climb still further and the channel narrows until we are in no doubt why the passage got its name and we end shuffling sideways though the mini-canyon, warning each other of submerged rocks and logs as we go along.

We continue to stride through the water like adventurers and start to hear a rumbling in the distance, a steady pounding of water which gets louder. As the din continues to grow, we turn a corner and emerge in an open-topped cavern up to waist-height in beautifully warm water as a hot natural waterfall flows in. We take it in turns letting the soothing hot waters rain down on our backs and soothe our aches from the previous day, exchanging looks of wonder that such a place exists and has been so little touched by civilisation.

There is so much to do in Rotorua that after four days we are both reinvigorated and exhausted and have barely even scratched the surface of this magical, unique place. The people are friendly, the natural phenomena spectacular and the activities on offer endless. Until next time, Rotorua.

For more information, visit the official Rotorua website.

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