Rotorua, New Zealand – Rotorua is a city you smell before you see: you can’t miss the sharp smell of sulphur.
Located at the centre of a geothermal area on New Zealand’s North Island, Rotorua is the site of mineral-?bath spas. The odour of hydrogen sulphide that issues from fissures and ponds is not a problem for those seeking relief from aches and pains.
Our hotel is on the edge of Te Puia, one of the city’s central geyser parks. Looking out our window, we can see Pohutu (Big Splash), a large geyser that sometimes erupts dozens of times a day and shoots hot water 30 metres into the air.
It’s especially eerie in the morning just as the sun comes up, turning Pohutu’s white mist red with early light. Dozens of other smaller clouds rise from the greenery to the blue sky. How do plants survive so close to all that heat?
The landscape resembles a Turner painting, the sun a weak light source in this unfamiliar terrain.
Near Pohutu is a circular mudhole suggestive of a bleak lunar landscape with its cones of dull grey. Mud burps up from some of them, breaking the cracked surface’s crust with darker brown eruptions. The plop-?plopping continues 24/7.
Several of these spurts are like miniature volcanoes, releasing gases and heat from deep beneath the earth. Others resemble sunken bubbling pools, like a mad scientist’s lab or a fairy-tale witch’s cauldron, sending up puffs of smoke and balls of heated mud that fall back into the inferno like boiling porridge into a huge, steaming pot.
Later we visit the only Maori-?owned thermal reserve in the area and one of its most active, its heat source no more than 2 kilometres beneath the surface.
The site’s Maori name is Tikitere, and it was formed some 10,000 years ago during a series of eruptions that drained a lake and allowed the escape of hot fluids and gases. It’s advertised as Hell’s Gate, after a remark by the visiting George Bernard Shaw (an atheist), who wryly noted that the area must be the gateway to the hell his theologian colleagues said he’d pass through if he didn’t change his ways.
Shaw also named several of the pools in the lower section of the reserve, dubbing two of them Sodom and Gomorrah.
Kakahi, a steaming waterfall, joins the two sections of Hell’s Gate. The area’s always-bubbling pools are sometimes clear, sometimes grey or brown; deposits of black, red and yellow minerals, like lichen on rocks, mark the sides of some. Little blowholes around the edges release steam from waters that can exceed 100 degrees Celsius. It’s amazing to see a white-?and-?black bird on stilt-like legs walking on the edge of one pond and feeding on something hardy enough to survive the heat.
We’re warned not to stray from the rock paths, and there’s a sign facetiously noting that people who throw stones or litter into the thermal pools will be asked to retrieve them.
After the hot walk, we try the spa services. Your treatment starts with a mud bath, the fine and smooth brown-?grey mud a natural skin exfoliant. That’s followed by a dip in a sulphur pool, which leaves a smell in your bathing suit that won’t come out for weeks. Finally, you’re treated to a massage with local manuka oil. It’s a wonderfully relaxing two-?hour experience that ends with a cup of manuka tea. We’re limp for the rest of the day.
So I guess it’s worth putting up with the odour of sulphur. And I know that the smell of a single rotten egg will never bother me again.