The largest of the Rotorua lakes, 279 metres above sea level. Lake Rotorua is teardrop-shaped, about 12 kilometres from north to south and 10 kilometres west to east, with a maximum depth of only 25 metres. The lake’s full name is Te Rotoruanui-a-Kahumatamomoe, after Kahumatamomoe, the Arawa ancestor who is believed to have sighted the lake first.
Geologically separate from the other nearby lakes, Rotorua formed in a caldera (crater caused by a volcanic eruption) about 200,000 years ago. Up to 20,000 years ago it occupied most of the caldera. The water then breached the caldera wall to the north-east, causing a drop of about 100 metres in the lake’s level. The upper sides of the caldera now form the mostly gentle slopes around the lake.
Continued geothermal activity around the lake, notably at Sulphur Flats (Te Arikiroa), is a reminder of its volcanic origins. The islands off Sulphur Flats are a refuge for wildlife. They were also sites where Māori worked stone.
Lake Rotorua has a serious pollution problem – more than any other New Zealand lake. Rotorua city, with over 50,000 people, contaminated the lake with sewage for many years – in 1969 it was described as an ‘unflushed toilet’ 1 . Today the pollution is mostly fertiliser runoff from farmland.
Mouse tracks were found in a bait station on supposedly pest-free Mokoia Island in 2007, spurring a major rodent-hunt. Department of Conservation staff, helped by three sniffer dogs, eventually trapped an adult male mouse after a search that cost $12,000. The culprit was later given a ceremonious burial.
Island in Lake Rotorua, 2 km from the eastern shore. Mokoia Island is a volcanic dome of which 179 metres is above the water level. It is also known by an old Polynesian island name, Te Motutapu-a-Tinirau – the sacred island of Tinirau (the ancestor of all fish).
An important place of settlement for Ngāti Whakaue, Mokoia Island is still renowned as the home of Tūtānekai and the setting of a famous love story. His beloved Hinemoa, who was of higher rank, avoided family hostility to their relationship by swimming to meet him on the island under cover of night.
Mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels) and possums were never introduced to the island, which has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1921. From the 1990s, a number of endangered native bird species have been released. Mokoia Island’s trust board has representatives from Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Uenukukōpako, Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Ngāti Rangiteaorere, all of which have rights to the island.
Waterfall on the Kaituna (Ōkere) River, just north of Lake Rotoiti, 21 km from Rotorua. The 7-metre Ōkere Falls are the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. Walkers can reach them via Hinemoa’s steps, carved into the rock face by the falls.
New Zealand’s first government hydroelectric power station (the country’s fourth), was built at the falls in 1901 and supplied electricity to Rotorua. It was later superseded by power from Waikato River stations. Only the remains of the station can now be seen. A turbine, retrieved in 1995, is on display above the falls.
The settlement of Ōkere Falls is 21 km north-east of Rotorua, just above the falls. It has holiday accommodation and facilities.
A hell of a trip
English playwright George Bernard Shaw visited Tikitere in 1934. He is reported to have said that it was the most damnable place he’d ever been to, and that he would willingly have paid 10 pounds not to see it.
Thermal area also known as Hell’s Gate, 18 km north-east of Rotorua. Tikitere is open to visitors who come to see its hot pools and steam vents, and have spa treatments.
Lake Rotokawau, a bush-surrounded crater lake 1 kilometre away, is, like Tikitere, owned by Ngāti Rangiteaorere.