On Wednesday and Thursday last week we spent two days walking through two of the main thermal area of Rotorua. Rotorua is the main city in this very “active” part of the North Island of New Zealand and is similar in a lot of respects to Yellowstone National Park. The features are much the same – bubbling mud pools, fumaroles, geysers (not very active here today) and very colorful pools and runoff areas. Much of what we saw on Wednesday at Waiotapu had resulted from a volcanic eruption only 700 years ago and even the much bigger area between Taupo and Rotorua is the result of a massive eruption only 2800 years ago. With such geologically recent major activity and the clear evidence of continuing change, one wonders just how fragile was the area on which we were walking. Certainly we have learned on previous visits that the earth’s crust around Rotorua is measured in inches to a few feet, so anything could happen at any time!
We spent Thursday at the Waimangu Volcanic Valley about 20 minutes south of Rotorua. This area is billed as the world’s youngest geothermal system since the landscape here was completely changed by the eruption of Mount Terawera in 1886. This eruption and a series of earthquakes, followed by activity that lasted until 1917, destroyed seven small villages, killed 120 people and caused the formation of Lake Rotomahana from two existing smaller lakes. The area is also being watched by scientists as a completely new eco-system develops following the total destruction and plants and trees have been “restored” naturally over the past 100 years. Finally, since it is classed as an active volcanic area, monitoring systems here are of importance in predicting possible future activity throughout the country.
The Reserve is now densely covered with many different flora and a quick glance from the Visitor Center over the valley would not reveal anything untoward about the landscape except for a few areas of steam emanating from the tree tops (not at all unusual in this part of New Zealand!) It is only when you start the walk that the immensity of the eruption and the changes it caused become more clear – especially with the aid of an excellent self-guided tour brochure.
We stopped at every marked area, read the details in the brochure and tried to visualize what must have happened to create the crater, stream or fumaroles that dotted the landscape through the trees. In addition to the obvious items of interest, beautiful in their own right, the whole walk was extremely attractive and would have been a pleasant way to spend the day without the history of the past 130 years to digest.
We concluded our visit with a 45 minute ride on the lake (recently proven to have volcanic activity beneath its 300 feet – and more – depth) which was narrated by the skipper who added colorful descriptions of the events of June 10, 1886 to that we had learned on our walk. We could clearly see the mountain that had caused this new lake and one of the seven craters that formed – this one in the vertical face of the hillside. We had seen three others (two of which are now small lakes) on the walk down to the water.
We drove from Rotorua to Wellington (the country’s capital) on Friday and spent a beautiful two days in this small but attractive city on the southern tip of the North Island.
Our main focus of the day on Saturday was the New Zealand National Museum, Te Papa. This is a six floor building with exhibits on all but the top floor, which is a viewing terrace with some magnificent views of the city, the water and the hillsides around the harbor. We spent much of our time on the floor dedicated to the history, culture and settlement of New Zealand. There were, of course, many exhibits of Maori housing, boats and dress and a good description of their migration to New Zealand about 700 years ago, from their established home in the islands of the southern Pacific Ocean. There is also a large area devoted to the influx of peoples from other parts of the world, which occurred mostly over the past two hundred years. The largest group was of course from the British Isles (of which our own generation was a large part, with post War help from the New Zealand government) but there were also significant numbers from the Dalmatian coast, Poland and a small part of western India. Most recently there have been refugees from the unsettled areas of the Middle East and, most obvious in Auckland, from Japan and other parts of Asia.
The weather was beautiful on Sunday with clear blue skies and no appreciable wind so the 60F temperature was very comfortable for walking. We took a cable car to the top of the botanical gardens area. Obviously we were familiar with the cable car we had just used (privately operated but for public transportation) but we were not aware of the many, much smaller cable cars in operation in Wellington. The city has been built on the very steep hillsides directly behind the harbor and as a result many private homes are accessible only by difficult footpaths or steps. Hence the private cable car! Many homes are now accessible via these 2-4 passenger private cars and, indeed, many have been built with all the materials having been brought on site by the cable car. There were some interesting commentaries by homeowners and the manufacturers about maintenance, breakdowns and use in inclement weather, but for the most part they are a normal part of everyday life for many Wellington residents.
From the top of the ride, with its great views of the city and harbor, we took the winding path down through the Botanical Gardens. This is a beautiful area with many native and imported trees, ferns, flowers and shrubs, and the paved path makes for a very pleasant and easy walk down the hill.
At the bottom is a huge rose garden (we were about a month early for the best display) and an enclosed begonia house – and, of course, an outdoor café. We also walked through the Bolton Street cemetery, which has been there since the earliest days of the city, but which was split in two by the building of a motorway in the mid-1960s. Apparently the decision to build the motorway, with its necessary relocation of an anticipated 2000 sets of remains (it turned out to be nearer 4000), was debated for three years before building could begin. However, with the road now long completed and the angst mostly forgotten, the two areas of the cemetery are connected via a bridge walkway and a mass grave formed for remains not identified. In addition, there is a small chapel with a record book and site map such that those interested may locate the graves of relatives or friends. For those graves not identified, a listing has been inscribed on a marble wall in the chapel.
The path from the gardens and the cemetery leads directly on to the flat land close to the shore – in fact, in 1840 the shoreline was several hundred meters further back than it is now, there having been land reclamation projects ever since the first Europeans arrived. The part of town we were now in (only 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel) is the government center, Wellington being New Zealand’s capital since 1865.
The old parliament buildings were destroyed by fire in 1907 but it wasn’t until 1922 that the new parliament house was finally completed. An executive office was added in the 1980s and has been nicknamed the Beehive. Neither of the two more modern buildings compare with the parliament library, which survived the 1907 fire and still retains the splendor and “strength” of a Victorian building. Perhaps the finest building in this area (and one which I admit I had thought had been the old parliament house is the campus of the Victoria University of Wellington. It certainly is a beautiful structure and must be one of the nicer city campuses anywhere.
Our final stop was at the Anglican Cathedral which was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1995. On the outside it looks much like many modern buildings and is not particularly attractive. However, the inside, while relatively plain, is very pleasing and the organ (which was being played during our visit) is magnificent with some most unusual horizontal pipes. The structure is very light and painted in pastel colors for the most part and dozens of rows of chairs replace the more traditional pews.
So, we concluded over four miles of walking through a beautiful area of Wellington which is a very attractive city in many respects. The fine weather certainly helped, but it is not difficult to understand why it ranks very highly (twelfth) in “most livable” large towns worldwide and third (behind Sydney and Auckland) in the Asia-Pacific region.
On Monday we sailed by ferry across the Cook Straits to begin ten days of touring on the South Island. Our first stop was Christchurch where we now are and more to come on that later. Suffice to say for now that the 2010 earthquake here did far more damage than we had thought and much of the city center is still flattened or has partially damaged buildings. The whole area has the feel of a war zone.
As we said, more on this later.
Bob and Molly