An intriguing landscape
The Rotorua area was known early to Pākehā for its hot or thermal lakes, a stark contrast to the South Island’s cold lakes. Around the lakes were hot springs, geysers, mud pools, sulphurous steam, silica formations and volcanoes, all of which drew the curious and the adventurous.
The smell of sulphur makes a strong impression on the first-time visitor, though long-term locals barely notice it. The landscape, and especially the silica Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana, appealed to the European aesthetic sense, and attracted many artists.
In 1881, after an agreement with Ngāti Whakaue to lease land between the Māori settlements of Ōhinemutu and Whakarewarewa, the government laid out the town of Rotorua. But hard times – and the 1886 Tarawera eruption, which obliterated or buried the famous Pink and White Terraces – meant development was modest. In 1888 land at Rotorua was sold to the government.
Tongariro National Park
Ngāti Tūwharetoa gifted the summits of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu to the Crown in 1887 in return for a guarantee of their preservation. The volcanoes became the basis for Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first, created in 1894.
In 1894 the railway from Auckland reached Rotorua, encouraging growth. Māori guided visitors around the thermal areas, especially Whakarewarewa, near the new town. However, Europeans owned the hotels and other businesses both there and at Taupō, and Māori were often not welcome as guests.
The spectacular geyser at Waimangu was a by-product of the Tarawera eruption. It first spouted in 1900, and continued at intervals of about 30 hours until 1904, sometimes reaching a height of nearly 500 metres. Geysers are rare worldwide, and the Waimangu geyser was a major tourist attraction while it lasted.
Getting into hot water
Spa is a town in Belgium with hot mineral springs. The word has come to describe health and holiday resorts or hotels – usually, but not always, located near hot springs.
A medical officer was appointed in Rotorua in 1882. A bathhouse opened the same year, and a sanatorium in 1886. In 1902, Englishman Arthur Wohlmann became superintendent of the sanatorium. He was also publicist for the spa and the government balneologist (expert on medicinal springs). Wohlmann oversaw the building of the Bath House in Government Gardens, which opened in 1908.
Around Lake Taupō, spa tourism was less formal. Visitors bathed in hot pools at various sites around Taupō and Tokaanu, and could stay at the Lake, Spa, Terraces and Tokaanu hotels.
‘Why suffer from rheumatism and allied troubles when you can find easy relief in Rotorua?’ asked one 1932 advertisement. ‘Nature’s medicinal waters work like magic … Even if you are not a sufferer but only jaded, “nervy” or “run-down” Rotorua will refresh you and restore you to robustness. Take the train to Cureland.’ 1
Decline and revival
Rotorua did not become a European-style spa – there were too few visitors and they did not spend enough money. It remained simply a town that had hot pools with some medical applications. In the late 1920s, Prime Minister Joseph Ward, who himself convalesced at Rotorua, promoted it to holidaymakers and spa users. The Ward baths and Blue Baths were built in the early 1930s.
The end of the spa
Convalescent hospitals, a product of the two world wars, brought more patients to Rotorua. However, new understandings of the causes of rheumatic and skin diseases discredited the medical uses of thermal springs. The sanatorium closed in 1945 and the position of balneologist ended in 1957. Medical treatment at the baths stopped when the city took over the premises in 1966, but therapeutic thermal treatments were still offered by institutions such as QE Health (formerly a convalescent hospital).
Thermal sightseeing today
Visitors still head to Rotorua and Taupō’s thermal attractions, but as tourists, not patients. They flock to the Polynesian Spa (on the site of the Ward baths), explore the thermal activity in the Māori settlements of Ōhinemutu and Whakarewarewa, and visit the thermal areas of Tikitere (Hell’s Gate), Waimangu, Waiotapu, Ōrākei Kōrako and the Craters of the Moon at Wairākei, as well as those around the shores of Lake Taupō and in Tongariro National Park.