Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a geothermal field extending from White Island off the Bay of Plenty Coast to Mt Ruapehu far to the south. Rotorua's array of geothermal features - volcanic crater lakes, spouting geysers, bubbling mud pools, hissing fumaroles and colourful sinter terraces - are sure to impress.

Rotorua's geothermal wonderland and the volcanic activity has drawn visitors since the 1800s and remains a huge draw card for visitors to the region.

From spectacular thermal parks where you can join a guided tour, to the range of freely accessible geothermal features of Kuirau Park and Sulphur Point you will be impressed and amazed - just be sure to stick to the path!

Sulphur Piont
Kuirau Park


history of Rotorua

There are few places in the world where geothermal phenomena of such intensity are as extensive and easily seen as here in Rotorua.

To those in the past who had none of the science or technology that we have today, this bounty of nature must indeed have been regarded as a gift from the gods. The earliest legends speak of a man named Ngatoroirangi, a tohunga (priest) who guided the Te Arawa waka (canoe) to this country.

Anxious to explore he travelled east from Maketu, down the coast until he reached what is now known as the Tarawera River. Naming it Te Awa-o-te-atua he turned inland and followed it upstream until he reached Ruawahia, the central peak of what we call Mount Tarawera. Here he had a remarkable experience.

He met a spirit in the form of a person named Tama-o-Hoi, who objected to Ngatoroirangi trespassing over what he claimed as his country. He tried with his sorcery to destroy Ngatoroirangi but his power was no match for the tohunga from Hawaiki. With a much superior spell Ngatoroirangi caused Tama-o-Hoi to sink into the ground.

The great eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 was blamed by some on Tama-o-Hoi who, it was claimed, was so enraged at having been so long confined in the ground gave vent to his feelings by causing the disaster.

Ngatoroirangi finally reached the magnificent mountains that now form our Tongariro National Park. In order to view the extent of this new country he climbed towards the summit of Tongariro, the highest of the three mountains there. As he neared the top he was affected by the intense cold which was so severe he feared he would die. In desperation he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiki (said to be the ancestral home of all Maori before they came to New Zealand) to send fire to warm him. “Oh Kuiwai, Oh Haungaroa came quickly. Ka riro au I te tonga?” (I am carried away by the cold south wind). Do not delay or I will surely perish,” he cried.

His sisters in far off in Hawaiki heard Ngatoroirangi's prayer and called upon the fire demons to go to their brother’s aid. So Te Pupu and Te Hoata plunged into the sea and swam quickly across the Pacific Ocean until they came to Whakaari (New Zealand’s only active marine volcano now known as White Island off the Eastern Bay of Plenty coastline). As they lifted their heads into the air, the surrounding earth became a fiery pit where the heat remains until this day. As the fire demons rose they saw they still had many miles to go to reach Ngatoroirangi. Down they went once more into the seas and under the earth’s crust. Each time the fire demons surfaced – at Moutohora (Whale Island), Awakeri, Rotoehu, Rotoiti, Rotorua, Tarawera, Orakei Korako, Taupo, Whakarewarewa and Turangi – they left a steaming, bubbling trail of thermal activity in their wake. The ‘tunnel’ they made is said to have connected White Island to Mt Ngaruahoe forever more.

Like a flash of lightening the demons burst through the enormous cone of Tongariro arriving as Ngatoroirangi lay near death.

Although he had already succumbed to death, the volcanic heat brought by the fire demons slowly revived Ngatoroirangi spreading warmth through his veins and sending life to his muscle and bone. He named the mountain Tongariro to commemorate the cold south wind that almost killed him.

And so it is that volcanic and thermal activity came to the region and Rotorua’s Te Arawa tribe became its guardian.

Source: The book Te Whakarewarewa by Don Stafford

To experience this Rotorua story 'first-hand', go see the Rotorua stories audio visual at the Rotorua Museum.


Europeans discover the pink & White terraces

Rotorua is the birthplace of New Zealand tourism with the famed pink and white terraces considered the eighth wonder of the natural world.

Unfortunately the Terraces were reclaimed by Mount Tarawera when it erupted late in the 19th century. The Maori people who lived near Tarawera Mountain faced many changes during the nineteenth century. Early in the 19th century missionaries came to spread the message of Christianity.

Pioneer missionary Seymour Mills Spencer, and his wife Ellen, built a mission station at Kariri (Galilee) in 1843, later moving to the more fertile valley of Te Wairoa where an English styled village was established.

Early visitors to the Pink and White Terraces stayed with missionaries.  Governor Grey’s visit in 1849 helped spread the fame of the terraces and the “thermal wonderland” to the far-away Victorian world.

The Pink & White terraces

The glistening terraces formed near Mount Tarawera on the shores of Lake Rotomahana’s silica-rich waters, warmed by the magma below.

Cascading into remote Lake Rotomahana, the beautiful silica terraces attracted people from all over the world. Visitors travelled by steamer to Tauranga, taking a bridle track to Ohinemutu on the shores of Lake Rotorua. A coach trip to Te Wairoa, a two-hour canoe journey and finally a walk over the narrow isthmus separating the swampy shores of Lake Rotomahana from Lake Tarawera took them to the foot of the fabled terraces.

Te Tarata - the white terraces

Te Tarata, which means the `tattooed rock’, covered three hundred hectares and tumbled to the lake from a height of 30 metres, fanning to a frontage of 240 metres and covering seven acres.  

At the base, where the terraces disappeared into the lake, the height and distance between terraces could be measured in millimetres. The higher up the greater the distance between them, those near the top being around 3.5 metres high.

otukaparangi - the pink terraces 

Otukapuarangi, which means `fountain of the clouded sky’, was slightly smaller. 
The steps gradually rose to the crater platform where three one metre deep basins were filled with warm, clear blue water making superb bathing places.

The Pink Terrace was wider at the top than the White Terrace, narrowing to 23 metres on the lakeshore.

Victorian travellers recorded their experience in a rich legacy of art, photographs and words.

Writer Anthony Trollope enjoyed a bath in one of the pools of the Pink Terrace in 1874: “In the bath, when you strike your chest against it, it is soft to the touch, you press yourself against it and it is smooth…..The baths are shell-like in shape, like vast open shells, the walls of which are concave and the lips ornamented in a thousand forms.” 


legends - warnings & the ghost canoe

The wealth of tourism from the Pink and White Terraces was easily spent by the Maori and Tuhoto Ariki an old priest warned disaster would come if they forgot the ways of their ancestors.

Ten days before the eruption a ghost canoe was seen on Lake Tarawera – it was a waka wairua, a spirit canoe. The Maori believed an event such as this foretold of the death and destruction to come.

Visitors were willing to pay a high price to visit the Pink and White Terraces on Lake Rotomahana.  Annual income for village residents was said to reach up to ₤4,000 each. The eyes of carvings on the wharenui Hinemihi, where tourists were entertained with an extended haka, were decorated with gold sovereigns instead of paua shell.  

The wealth that came with tourism also had a dark side. The wealth was easily spent and illness and alcohol took a heavy toll on the Maori people. Tuhoto Ariki, an old priest of great power and wisdom, warned the Tuhourangi people that to forget the ways of their ancestors would bring disaster.

Ten days before the eruption, on May 31 1886, Guide Sophia on her way to the terraces with a group of six European visitors, saw a mysterious canoe on Lake Tarawera. Both European and Maori statements about the strange sighting have been recorded. The canoe appeared to be racing and was sufficiently close for the group to see the flash of paddles. 
When the tourist boat turned Moura point to enter the Te Ariki arm of Lake Tarawera, the canoe passed from their view.

To the Maori onlookers the meaning was clear – it was a waka wairua, a spirit canoe. An event such as this usually foretold of death.

There were other signs of disturbance. Wairoa creek dried but, as people watched, the water returned with “a crying sound all along the shores of the lake.”  Then the water rushed away again, exposing the muddy creek bed.

Much later, Guide Sophia remembered another event. The old chief Rangiheuea had offered “Tapu” honey collected on Tarawera Mountain to her. Knowing it was tapu (sacred), she had instantly refused.  Everyone who ate the honey is said to have died in the eruption, including the chief.


mt tarawera eruption

Without warning on June 10, 1886 Mt Tarawera woke and rumbled into life. At 12:30am the first earthquakes were felt. People throughout the area were jolted awake as earthquakes became increasingly powerful.

A rumbling noise began and by 2:30am Mt Tarawera had ripped open across the summit domes. This fissure or hole began to erupt scoria and ash and an eruption cloud reached 9.5 km into the night sky.

Destructive, hurricane force winds developed as the eruption columns sucked in air from the surrounding countryside.  Violent electrical storms above the eruption columns blasted into the night sky, with water vapours poured out by the eruption causing torrential rains.  The final length of the craters was a massive 16-km long. 

Worse was to come. Basalt magma mixed with the hydro-thermal system under Lake Rotomahana and, at 3.20am, the bed of Lake Rotomahana blew out, taking with it the famed Pink and White Terraces. Nearby villages of Te Ariki and Moura were buried under a scalding pyroclastic flow.

The settlement of Te Wairoa was almost completely destroyed by falling rocks and mud. At the schoolhouse Charles Haszard, his family and guests were awoken around 1am. They gazed in awe across the lake at a crimson glow above Tarawera.

As they watched, a dense black cloud rose above the glow, lit by a tremendous display of lightning.

A guest, William Bird, recalled the scene vividly: “Lake Tarawera was a copper mirror, reflecting the mountain from base to summit in a lurid glare. Dominating all, hung the great cloud-curtain, gloomy and dark above, saffron and orange on its under-surface. From the cloud, great balls of flaming rock dropped from time to time, descending with a splash into the waters of the lake.”

The awe of those watching quickly turned to fear. A hail of stones began to rain down, and a strong wind accompanied by the deafening roar of smashing windows.

The death toll will never be known exactly but some 150 people are believed to have died that night. Maori guide Sophia later estimated that 62 people had survived the night with her in her whare. Five members of schoolmaster Charles Haszard's family perished and a young English guest named Edwin Bainbridge died under the falling verandah of the Rotomahana Hotel.

The grief was terrible for the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi people who lost family members, their livelihood and the bones of their ancestors in one terrible night.

Many of the survivors were offered land at Whakarewarewa and Ngapuna – and the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley became the new home for many and the tradition of guiding continues in the thermal area today.

*This information has been shared and sourced from the people of Te Arawa and should be respected as their cultural and intellectual property. Not for commercial reproduction without express permission.


Geothermal Experiences