Radiant Rotorua
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Drone image of campervan driving along water

Hannah Klein
/ Categories: NZ blog

Radiant Rotorua

Defined by and determined by its living nature


Words by Emma Fenton-Wells

Blog #3 of her solo trip in NZ



Sign at Rotorua - Rotorua is a city of health, healing and restoration


The drive from the Coromandel to Rotorua isn’t short and must be necessarily broken up with a stop in Hobbiton (Matamata). If you can’t book tickets to Hobbiton itself, just stop off at the Matamata i-SITE Visitor Information Centre for a taste. No one can say NZ hasn’t fully embraced its JRR Tolkein identity. 


Hobbiton Photo credit: Nikhil Prasad

Photo credit: Nikhil Prasad


Now going into Rotorua, everything I knew about it were as follows:

  • The smell.

  • People go zorbing there

  • Volcanoes

That’s literally it. I was ready to have all my preconceptions blown up (like, I’ve now learnt, Mt Tarawera did in 1886). 

Based on a recommendation by the team at Apollo in Auckland, I decided to spend my first night at Lake Okareka. As it turns out, the lake district of the North Island starts around Rotorua and extends down to Taupo. Minutes from the city, you’re winding through ranges of forests all protecting these beautiful lakes, meeting absolute silence. My jaw was on the floor.


People playing at the shoreline of Lake Okareka. Photo credit: NZ Department of Conservation 

Photo credit: NZ Department of Conservation 


At Okarera, I parked up and watched the sunset over the lake. The site quickly filled with families and those planning an early morning out on the lake. This area is all run by volunteers and the Department of Conversation, and I was impressed by how clean and well it was maintained. However, I’ll also admit I was pretty grateful to have my own loo... Another reason why the best way to see NZ is in a self-contained camper!

The next day, I drove the whole 15 minutes down to the Buried Village of Te Wairoa. For 90 years, the Smith Family have run this tourist attraction, telling the story of the devastating eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, which buried the Pink and White Terraces - once believed to be the eighth wonder of the world. The museum is on the site of the hotels from which travellers would eagerly embark on the trek to bath in these naturally hot waters. The museum includes a beautiful walk down (some treacherous stairs) to a waterfall, through bushland and clear streams. 


Buried Village of Te Wairoa building


Buried Village of Te Wairoa Waterfall


On the advice of Pam (the guardian of the Buried Village as fourth generation Smith), I drove down to . Wow. Just wow. I’m running out of ways to describe the vivid colours of these places. Honestly. I don’t know why Kiwis ever leave home. At the lake, there’s places to grab a bite and go for a swim. On a scorching February day, it was a godsend. 


A boat named Sophia is afloat on Lake Tarawera


But there’s no rest for the wicked, so onto Hamurana Springs Nature Reserve I went! Again, winding around bush and Lake Rotorua I came upon what at first glance appeared to be a golf course. The team there sent me on my way into a huge redwood forest surrounding a spectacular, clear running spring - so natural, you can drink directly from it (okay, not the bits where the ducks swim, but further down). Hamurana is the deepest spring in the North Island, and run by the local Iwi. Worth a visit (and a round of golf, if you’re that way inclined). 


Photo credit: Hamurana Springs

Photo credit: Hamurana Springs


I finished out this jam packed day of lakes, lakes, springs, and more lakes, I decided to stay up at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. The campsite is surrounded by open streams of boiling water that heat the thermal pools, so I was constantly surrounded by steam. The pools themselves were the closest I’d been to having a much loved bath in months, and my bones loved me for it. 


Campsite near Waikite Valley Thermal Pools


Bright and early the next day, I drove through the cloudy mountains (a whole 12 minutes) to Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Waimangu is a geothermal attraction, involving a walk of around an hour and 45 minutes down through the remnants of historical volcanic activity. It’s like being in Jurassic Park. Honestly, if Jurassic Park actually happened, I would be staying as far away from Waimangu as possible. 

Another victim of the Mt Tarawera eruption, it is home to a 17km rift in the earth - which split Tarawera in two and exploded Lake Rotomahana to 20 times its original size. On the walk, you’ll be confronted with geysers steadily growing larger in size, the alien nature of Pancake Lake (honestly, you have to see it to believe it), and surfaces of volcanic activity that look like they’ve been imported from Mars. 

Once you’ve reached Lake Rotomahana, there’s a boat cruise to go to the site of the Pink and White Terraces. It’s a nice way to tie together the geological history of the area as the Buried Village really complements this experience. 

Although they say Rotorua is a place of rest, I was buzzing when I got in the car. I had a long drive to Hawke’s Bay ahead of me, with lunch planned on Lake Taupo. 


Waimangu Volcanic Valley


Steam rising off water at Waimangu Volcanic Valley


Steam rising off water in Waimangu Volcanic Valley



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