Te Puia's geysers send plumes of steam skyward.
Te Puia's geysers send plumes of steam skyward. Eveline Harvey

Playing on childhood memories

ARRIVING in Rotorua is always a sensory experience.

As a child, of course, the hydrogen sulphide fumes which greeted us were usually the catalyst for a few rude jokes, but the distinctive smell's struck me differently on more recent visits, instead evoking a nostalgia for childhood holidays spent marvelling at bubbling mud pools and hissing geysers.

It's those memories Sean Marsh, the Trade Marketing Manager of geothermal and cultural centre Te Puia, is keen for a new generation of Kiwis to embrace.

Located in the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, Te Puia is one of the country's most-visited tourist attractions, but the majority of those visitors are from overseas.

Marsh says while a lot of Kiwi kids were taken to see Rotorua's geothermal attractions by their parents in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, "there are more options these days in terms of our leisure time".

But he firmly believes New Zealanders will benefit from a visit just as much as international tourists do.

"I talk to so many people and they say 'oh, I went there as a kid' but they've never been back. I want to say to those people that it's time they brought their kids."

They might be surprised when they do. Te Puia today is more than just a network of pathways leading to some of the country's most impressive geological wonders; it's also the home of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, which was established in the 1960s with the aim of protecting, preserving and perpetuating traditional skills such as carving and weaving.

From a visitor's perspective, this makes for an intriguing journey through both New Zealand's cultural and its geological history.

People are free to walk around themselves with the aid of a map, but guided tours are also available and they're worth taking for the additional information imparted.

There's a strong tradition of guiding in this valley, seeded when survivors of the devastating 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption were given land in the area by the local hapu (subtribe).

Many of those survivors had previously been guides at the world famous Pink and White Terraces, which were destroyed in the eruption.

"We have some sixth-generation guides here at the village," Marsh tells me.

"What that means," he adds, pausing beneath Te Heketanga a Rangi, the stunningly-carved entrance way, "is that depending on the visitor and their level of interest, the guide can spend a lot of time here, [talking about the meaning of the carvings], or only a short amount of time.

"Because the guides are so knowledgeable, if you think 'gosh, I really want to know more about that', you can ask."

Beyond the entrance way, a display depicts the migratory paths early Maori took to get to New Zealand. It's a fascinating feature and a good jumping-off point for the guides to discuss early Polynesian navigational skills, but it's also the most museum-like part of the entire centre.

Marsh prefers it that way, saying too many information panels can turn a site into "a bit of a billboard".

"Really, tourism is all about people. It's seeing the landscape, but then if you can understand the story behind that landscape you just have a deeper connection to it."

Illustrating his point, we move on to the carving and the weaving schools, where staff and apprentices alike work at their crafts while taking questions from curious onlookers. It's a unique opportunity to watch traditional skills being passed from one generation to another.

Carving tutor Robert tells me many of those applying for the three-year carving apprenticeship scheme mention a desire to contribute to their local communities upon completion of their training by helping to restore local meeting houses and buildings.

At the weaving school, I chat with a woman who shows me how to use a mussel shell to strip flax, exposing the fibres. She works quickly and accurately, laughing as she describes the "algebraic" thinking needed to create intricate flax patterns. It's only after we move on that Marsh tells me the woman is in fact Te Puia's special events manager: "She just heads into the weaving area when she's got time to chill out."

Moving past the institute and the striking wharenui, we head down the hill to see the landscape that has attracted people to this area for hundreds of years.

We come first to a large mud pool - that all-too-familiar image Rotorua portrays to the world, but one I hadn't seen in person for many years.

But the main event is a little further on. Te Puia is home to three geysers: Kereru, the Prince of Wales' Feathers and the mighty Pohutu - the largest in New Zealand.

Pohutu isn't manipulated in any way by the staff at Te Puia, so a bit of patience may be required, but it generally plays for 10-15 minutes at 30- 45-minute intervals.

"She just does her thing whenever she feels like it and it is an awesome sight," says Marsh.

Indeed it is. We arrive just as Pohutu is getting going and I'm mesmerised once again by the power of this ever-changing landscape.

I can't imagine the experience getting much better but as we're leaving Marsh mentions Te Puia's evening tour, which concludes with visitors being served hot chocolate under the stars as they sit on geothermally-heated steps watching the geysers play.

That sounds like a childhood memory that could impress a whole new generation.

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