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Thermal pools and spas

by  Nancy Swarbrick

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands enjoyed New Zealand’s mineral hot springs, whether taking nature’s cure for rheumatism or simply seeking relaxation. Modelled on European lines, the fashionable spa was promoted as a fountain of health.

A valued resource

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.

Government spas

Natural assets

Politicians as well as businessmen seized on the idea of exploiting New Zealand’s thermal resources. In the summer of 1874 politician William Fox toured the central North Island thermal regions. He was so struck by their potential that he wrote to Premier Julius Vogel, recommending their development. Fox claimed that the pools would attract both invalids and tourists. Either way, they could in his opinion become a source of great wealth to the country.

State control

Fox’s suggestion eventually bore fruit. In 1880 the government tried to purchase land at Rotorua from the Ngāti Whakaue people. They would not sell without testing the market, but did gift 20 hectares at Sulphur Point on Lake Rotorua to the Crown. However, under the Thermal-Springs Districts Act 1881, an area could be declared a thermal springs district where only the government could purchase land. Private ventures – including those run by Māori – were encouraged, but public interests took priority.

The fashionable spa

The government’s vision was of a colonial version of European spas. These health resorts at natural springs were extremely popular in the 19th century. Spas offered cures for a range of ailments, as well as outdoor pursuits, and diversions ranging from theatre and gambling to clandestine lovers’ meetings. In competing with Europe’s spas, New Zealand’s advantage was its magnificent scenery and unspoilt environment.

An employment opportunity

In 1902 the position of government balneologist was created. The appointee was expected to have a knowledge of medicine, chemistry, engineering and landscape gardening. Visiting the major thermal areas, the balneologist analysed the mineral content of the water and reported on its likely medical benefits. He also assessed the tourist potential and development needs of each area.

Early spa development

Starting in 1881 the government obtained about 2,000 hectares around Lake Rotorua, including all the best springs. Rotorua was declared a township and its development as a health resort and tourist centre began. At Sulphur Point (later known as the Government Gardens) a cluster of bathhouses were built from 1882. At Te Aroha, north-east of Hamilton, eight hectares had been gifted to the Crown by the Marutūahu chief Te Mōkena Hou in 1880, on condition that Māori could continue to use the waters. From 1883 the government built bathhouses, and by 1885 more people were visiting Te Aroha than Rotorua, because of the rail link to Auckland. Only after 1894, when the railway reached Rotorua, was Te Aroha’s popularity eclipsed. In the South Island, the government constructed swimming pools and bathhouses at Hanmer Springs, North Canterbury, in 1883.

Rotorua, Te Aroha and Hanmer were the three main government spas, but in the later 19th and early 20th centuries public money developed springs at Maruia on the West Coast, Mōrere and Te Puia on the east coast of the North Island, Parakai near Kaipara Harbour, and the Armed Constabulary Baths near Taupō.


In 1901 the new Department of Tourist and Health Resorts began making improvements in a concerted effort to attract more visitors. At Te Aroha some bathhouses were replaced and the domain grounds upgraded. Hanmer gained a massage facility, tiled pump room and cold swimming bath. And at Rotorua, a grand Tudor-style bathhouse with elaborate fittings was opened in 1908. This symbolised the government’s ambition to create a great spa in the southern hemisphere.

Health benefits

The cure

In the 19th century people had great faith in the power of bathing in mineral water to cure arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, and to improve conditions as diverse as gout, impotence, obesity, haemorrhoids, liver disorders and eye problems. Drinking mineral water was usually considered to improve digestive disorders, and was sometimes recommended for insomnia, goitre and even syphilis.

Bathing or drinking were the most common ways to ‘take the waters’. But people also inhaled steam, wallowed in hot mud, or were given massage or douche (spray) baths, especially at larger spas such as Rotorua. Government medical officers advised on the curative properties of different kinds of water, and supervised treatments.

Special effects

Certain benefits were ascribed to particular springs. Highly acidic water at Rotorua was thought to reduce the craving for alcohol, while the silica in Wairākei water was believed to restore and darken the hair. And drinking the iron-rich water at Kamo was said to have helped a Mr Kennedy, who had damaged his kidneys through ‘excessive indulgence in amateur athletics.’ 1

Hospitals and sanatoriums

The main spas usually had a sanatorium for invalids, and sometimes a hospital. In 1885 a sanatorium was built at Rotorua for invalids too poor to pay for private boarding houses or hotels. It was replaced after it burnt down in 1888, and finally closed in 1947. Hanmer’s sanatorium was built in 1897, replaced in 1908, and burnt down in 1914.

During the First World War convalescent hospitals were built at Rotorua and Hanmer for returned servicemen; the Health Department took them over in the 1920s and 1930s. Hanmer’s hospital became Queen Mary Hospital, and the thermal waters were used to treat people with rheumatism and other problems. From the 1940s, however, the hospital focused on nervous disorders and the detoxification of alcoholics. Rotorua’s hospital specialised in orthopaedics from the 1920s. Another services hospital there, built during the Second World War, was the predecessor of Queen Elizabeth Hospital (now called QE Health), which treats rheumatic diseases.

Luxury away from home

Boarding houses and hotels sprang up to accommodate visitors who wanted more comfortable lodgings. Te Aroha’s Club, Hot Springs and Palace hotels had verandahs with expansive views, rooms for billiards and reading, and pianos. There were similar hotels at Hanmer and Rotorua. Te Aroha, Rotorua and Hanmer offered attractions such as tearooms and gardens, bowling and croquet greens, tennis courts and band rotundas. While they did not rival the opulence of some European spas, these amenities drew pleasure-seekers as well as invalids.

    • Quoted in Ian Rockel, Taking the waters: early spas in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p.143. › Back

The end of a dream

The profit motive

In 1971 the government relinquished responsibility for thermal resorts – the final step in a long withdrawal. The spas were never as profitable as had been hoped. Rotorua was losing money by 1905, and Hanmer by 1909. There was not sufficient revenue to offset expenditure, which peaked before the First World War. Retrenchment during the war and the 1920s hastened the decline, which was interrupted only by a final burst of spending in the 1930s.

A growing liability

Maintenance was extremely costly. For instance, the materials used in Rotorua’s elaborate bathhouse proved unsuitable for the steamy, acidic atmosphere within. Even before the building opened, the white furniture had begun to turn black as lead in the paint reacted with hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. In 1910 plaster began to come away from the walls in several rooms, and when it began to fall from the ceilings there were concerns about safety. By the 1940s the building was extremely run down, and it remained so until it was handed over to Rotorua City Council in 1966. The maintenance nightmare recurred on a smaller scale at other places.

Limited water

Both Hanmer and Te Aroha experienced problems with their supply of thermal water. At Hanmer a dowser was engaged in 1911 to locate more water; further bores were drilled that year and in 1936. At Te Aroha the search for more warm water continued until 1956, and bathhouses were progressively closed.

Only skin deep?

There has always been debate about the medical benefits of thermal baths. For years it was widely believed that the minerals in the water could be absorbed into the body. This was refuted by scientists as early as 1890. Recent Japanese research has shown that some minerals can penetrate the skin, but it is not clear whether this has any therapeutic effect.

Questioning the health benefits

Changing attitudes contributed to the decline. The Health Department’s annual report in 1949 suggested that the spa concept was old-fashioned, and commented that ‘[promoting] the mineral waters of Rotorua as miraculous cure-alls could not be condoned’. 1 Although Rotorua’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital still offered thermal treatments for rheumatic patients, it was generally accepted that relief came from the heat of the water rather than its mineral content.

    • Quoted in Ian Rockel, Taking the waters: early spas in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p.45. › Back

Leisure and pleasure

Recreational bathing

While the idea of thermal springs as health resorts has waxed and waned, their lure for those intent on relaxation has never really diminished. From the 1920s, roads improved and increasingly New Zealanders had cars. Remote hot springs became more accessible.

Outdoor pursuits including mixed bathing appealed to family and social groups, and during the 1920s and 1930s some thermal resorts constructed large swimming pools. At Rotorua the Blue and Ward swimming baths became extremely popular from the early 1930s. Mōrere and Te Puia on the North Island’s east coast, Crystal Springs and Opal Springs near Matamata, Waingaro Hot Springs near Hamilton, the AC Baths at Taupō, Miranda Hot Springs on the Firth of Thames, Parakai and Kamo north of Auckland, and Awakeri in Bay of Plenty were just some of the well-known swimming destinations in the following four decades.

The less energetic opted to soak in hot pools, particularly those in scenic surroundings such as Ōkoroire near Matamata and Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Pools deep in the bush or off the beaten track were prized by tired trampers. Welcome Flat hot pools, 17 kilometres up the Copland River in Westland National Park, were a bushwalker’s oasis – three shallow pools lined with thick green mud.


Some pools have proved to be dangerous. Between 1901 and 1920 several bathers died in covered baths at Kamo, suffocating when carbon dioxide displaced the oxygen in the confined space. High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas have killed a number of people using pools in the Rotorua area. And there were nine fatal cases of amoebic meningitis between 1968 and 2000. The amoeba Naegleria fowleri lives in soil surrounding unlined or natural hot pools and can sometimes be found in the water. Diving into such pools or even immersing the head can force water up the nose, allowing the amoeba to invade the brain. Untreated geothermal water is no longer used in swimming pools, and bathers are warned to keep their heads above water in natural pools.

Bottled waters

From the late 19th century, bottling mineral water was big business. Popular brands included Waiwera Seltzer (marketed as ‘a medicinal, invigorating and cooling draught and purifier of the blood’ 1 ), Puriri Natural Mineral Water, Wai Aroha, and Lemon and Te Aroha. Better known today is Lemon and Paeroa, or L&P, a soft drink. Named after the town where the spring was located, the drink has been a New Zealand favourite since 1907.


The amoebic meningitis scare led to the upgrading of some pools that had become rundown or dangerous. In addition, many were restored through investment by private companies or local bodies. Today some thermal resorts are enjoying a boom. Visitor numbers at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa more than doubled between 1991/92 (238,183) and 2003/04 (495,015). The numbers visiting Waiwera Thermal Resort north of Auckand rose from 260,000 in 1995 to 350,000 in 2005.

Facilities such as water slides are an added attraction for tourists and holidaymakers. The showcasing of Māori traditional knowledge and history has given a unique character to some redeveloped pools, such as Hell’s Gate–Wai Ora Spa at Rotorua and Tokaanu Thermal Baths. The spa concept has been revived – health and beauty treatments are offered at former government spas such as the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua and Hanmer Springs. Once again, hot pools are seen as places for both relaxation and healing.

    • Quoted in Ian Rockel, Taking the waters: early spas in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, pp. 13–14. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Thermal pools and spas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 June 2006