Rotorua sure packs a lot in. The Sulphur City on New Zealand‘s North Island is the place to head to for bizarre adrenalin rushes, introductions to farm life, geothermal activity and Maori cultural shows – as David Whitley discovers. Here are some of David’s top things to do on your next visit to Rotorua.
It’s a pretty impressive line up on the Agrodome’s podium; the hair of the 19 in the spotlight ranges from lusciously woolly to comically straggly. Abraham the Lincoln sheep, in particular, looks like he has taken to Rastafarianism.
Apparently, his dreadlocks used to be highly prized for making judge’s wigs: an excellent piece of sheep stattery if ever there was one.
If you want to get to know sheep, there’s no better place for it than New Zealand. Australians have made that particular cheap joke for years, but there’s an element of truth to it. New Zealand lamb and wool products are famous the world over, and sheep farming has always been big business here.
And for a beautifully corny introduction to the world of merinos, Drysdales and Romneys, then the Agrodome in Rotorua is the perfect spot. Its sheep show is undeniably well done and extremely popular to boot. The handlers make learning about sheep fabulously entertaining. The rams are brought on one by one as Brian explains which are good for wool and which are good for meat, and from there onwards the show hurtles along in a non-stop action frenzy.
A sheep is sheared on stage, wool is thrown into the crowd, sheepdogs herd ducks up and down stairs before jumping on top of the rams in a bizarre animal version of a human pyramid… It’s all go.
Perhaps the most entertaining part is the mock auction, however – one unfortunate Korean chap loses his watch and his shoes after unwittingly making the top bid. They are, of course, given back to him, but not until Brian and the rest of the crowd has had a good laugh at his expense.
Rotorua Adrenalin Activities
The Agrodome also runs a farm tour, but those who fancy something a little more thrilling don’t have to go too far. Helicopter flights are available from a small pad next to the old woollen mill, while zorbing takes place just down the road. (For the uninitiated, the latter involves rolling down a hill in a giant inflatable ball – think of it as playing the role of an enormous hamster.)
The farm is also home to the Agroventures complex, which offers five separate ways to bring back your lunch. The tamest, and at the same time oddest, is the Shweeb. This is a cross between cycling and travelling by monorail. You’re enclosed in a pod hanging from the track, and pedal around for three laps as fast as you can. It’s silly, but gets deadly serious when you’re competing on time against everyone of your age, gender and nationality who has gone before.
The Agrojet claims to be New Zealand’s fastest jet boat, while The Bungy and The Swoop are practically guaranteed to leave you trembling as you’re dropped from a great height. And there’s the Freefall Xtreme, which bizarrely engineers the precise opposite of falling. You’re kitted out in a jumpsuit and let loose in a netted cage above a powerful wind turbine. The giant fan competes with gravity, blowing you upwards at speeds of 185km/h plus.
The result is supposedly that you end up floating in midair whilst feeling the sensation of freefall, but unless you get your positioning exactly right, it generally means that’s you’re blown all over the cage into the padded matting.
What Rotorua is best known for, however, is its thermal activity. For those inclined to puns, it is a hotspot. The smell of sulphur is noticeable across many parts of the city, while some areas are roped off due to steam vents emerging from the ground. Local tales of new vents springing up in the middle of houses and gardens are relatively commonplace.
For an initial glimpse of what lies underneath, head to Kuirau Park in the city centre. Entrance is free, and a number of bubbling, murky pools emitting steam are fenced off for the safety of visitors. Trying to leap over the fences would be rather unwise, but the views of the dark, violent pools of muck are pretty cool.
There are bigger geothermal areas around the city which charge for entry. Many feature expansive mud pools and regularly gushing geysers. Whakerewarewa is the closest and most popular. You can also book Rotorua thermal tours with Viator.
Maori cultural performances
Whakarewarewa also plays host to another of Rotorua’s most popular drawcards – Maori cultural performances. These can be found in various locations around Rotorua, and are usually slick, rather commercialised operations.
Proper introductions to Maori culture, they are not. But if you want to watch the dances, singing and hakas, then you’re in luck. A hugely popular option – and one that takes place in many surrounding villages – is to combine such cultural performances with a traditional Maori greeting ceremony and a meal cooked in an earth oven (or hangi).
Hanging out in the spa
But historically, the main reason people have come to Rotorua is not to stare at geysers, watch hakas or scare themselves on bungy platforms. The geothermal activity, of course, makes Rotorua the natural place for a spa town – and that is what the visitors have always come for.
The Polynesian Spa, at the edge of Lake Rotorua, is regarded as one of the best in the world. It boasts a whole host of private thermal pools, but the ordinary pleb can have a great time in the shared adult pool complex.
A series of pools, varying slightly in temperature from one to the next, stretches out from the changing rooms to the lakefront. Some are small, some are multi-tiered and the largest would do any five star resort. This one is also undercover, which is handy if it’s raining.
The location seems a little more magical in the evening. Looking out over the lake in the dim lights, whilst up to your neck in the soothing warm water.