Story: Thermal pools and spas

Page 1. A valued resource

All images & media in this story

Aptly described as ‘gifts from the earth’, thermal springs occur in many parts of New Zealand. Most are scattered throughout the Taupō Volcanic Zone in the central North Island, but some are in areas of extinct volcanic activity such as Northland, Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Plenty. Others lie along fault lines in non-volcanic areas, particularly in Westland and North Canterbury. They are formed when rainwater seeps down through rock towards the heat source deep beneath the surface and then rises again. The hot water dissolves minerals in the rock. The mineral content as well as the temperature of hot springs varies according to locality.

Use by Māori

Hot springs have been valued from the beginnings of settlement in New Zealand. Particular pools were said by Māori to have spiritual kaitiaki (guardians), and were central to important rituals. The warm waters of waiariki (large bathing pools) and ngāwhā (overflowing pools) were used for washing, relaxation and for treating skin complaints and rheumatism. Boiling pools were used for cooking, and to prepare flax for weaving.

Hinemoa’s hot pool

Te Arawa people often tell the story of Tūtānekai, who lived on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua, and the beautiful Hinemoa, who lived on the lake’s eastern shore. The two fell in love, but their families disapproved. One night, guided by the sound of Tūtānekai’s flute, Hinemoa swam out to join him. After her epic swim she recuperated in a hot pool, Waikimihia, which is now a tourist attraction.

European discovery

European explorers and travellers were quick to see the benefits of New Zealand’s thermal resources. They noted their medicinal and recreational use by Māori, and were keen to test the waters themselves.

Nude communal bathing for men was the rule; women bathed alone or in secluded pools. Sex-segregated nude bathing remained common well into the 20th century.

Commercial development

Some entrepreneurs saw the economic potential of hot springs. One was Scottish businessman Robert Graham, who purchased land at Waiwera, 48 kilometres north of Auckland, in 1845. The area was known to Māori as Te Rata (the doctor), and the infirm would bathe in the thermal waters that rose to the surface when a hole was dug in the sand. In 1875 Graham began promoting the Waiwera spa, and it became very popular with visitors from Auckland.

Racial distinctions

Māori were pressured to provide access to hot springs on their ancestral land. But because Europeans frequently objected to sharing pools with Māori, separate bathing arrangements often developed. This sometimes led to conflict. For example, when the government purchased land at Tokaanu the main bathing pool was reserved for the people of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, but later it was enclosed by a fence, sparking an angry reaction from Māori bathers. Racially segregated bathing persisted for decades: Māori were excluded from some Rotorua pools in the early 1960s.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Thermal pools and spas - A valued resource', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006