Here's to mud in your eye

Invigorating therapy for mind, body and spirit is just a matter of following your nose, writes Mal Chenu.

Yes, Rotorua stinks but it's not nasty enough to miss seeing the geysers, steaming vents and gurgling mud pools that pockmark the town. The rotten egg sulphur fumes that accompany the geothermal activity boiling away just beneath - and occasionally erupting through - the surface are certainly nasally affronting but you get used to it.

The therapeutic properties of the pungent mineral-rich pools are legendary and their uses include the relief of skin infections, muscular aches, arthritis and even acne. There are claims of heightened potency and virility, too - this was the original nasal-delivery technology.

The best way to experience the pools is to follow your nose to the Polynesian Day Spa overlooking Lake Rotorua where you will find 26 hot spring pools of varying temperature, mineral content and pong plus a range of gooey local mud therapies. Europeans have been coming here to soak for more than 125 years.

The Maori have revered the area for more than 700 years and their spiritual link to this land is strong and proud. Te Puia Maori cultural centre epitomises this and its impressive range of sights, sounds and, yes, smells fills a day nicely. The centre boasts a kiwi bird breeding house, traditional Maori village, boiling mud pool, carving and weaving schools and state-of-the-art interactive displays.

Te Puia is built around the venerated Pohutu, the most spectacular of the geysers in the region, which spurts steam and boiling water up to 30 metres into the air. A boardwalk winding past Pohutu puts you within metres of mustard-yellow sulphur-stained rocks, scalding streams and the acrid whiff of hellfire.

The Te Po evening experience at Te Puia begins with a traditional warm Maori welcome complete with bared teeth, extended tongues, yelling and brandished weaponry amid 12 imposing monumental carvings of Maori gods. An elder recounts the creation story when the sky father and earth mother broke their firm embrace to bring life to the world.

A brief spiritual concert is followed by an audience-participation haka for the men - amateurs should be wary of tongue injury - and the graceful poi dance for the women. A sumptuous hangi dinner is complemented by Maori and New Zealand delicacies, beer and wines before taking in the ethereal evening performance of the majestic Pohutu geyser.

We stayed at the comfortable Heritage Hotel (great bar, good breakfast) overlooking the steaming Whakarewarewa Valley. On "chully" winter mornings here, the whole valley steams up like a London pea-souper but even in summer it looked like Robin Hood might gallop out of the mist any minute and head off to the spa for a soak.

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When Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886 - just a geological tick of the clock ago - it destroyed villages, emptied lakes and killed more than a hundred people. We took the Helipro chopper up to the 1111-metre peak and our pilot talked us through the catastrophe. Wide chasms that spewed with Earth's fury now support tufts of grass and we walked the gravelly trail to the windswept summit in hushed awe.

A nice escape from the wrath, fire and brimstone is a peaceful morning cruise on Lake Tarawera. The lake glistens in the crisp, still morning air, its dark waters home to Hot Water Beach, where hot springs rise from the lake bed, trophy-sized rainbow trout and the phantom waka - a legendary canoe seen in the mists of the lake 11 days before the 1886 eruption, now regarded as a harbinger of the doom to follow.

We moored in Duck Bay and walked about 50 metres inland through the bush to loll in a natural thermal rock pool, sipping champagne while the crew of the Clearwater Cruises served us breakfast.

Rotorua has its share of extreme activities, too. Off Road NZ keeps revheads happy with a sprint car circuit, karting track and an exhilarating four-wheel-drive bush safari, which includes a drop so steep you can't see it through the windscreen. We took a ride in the monster truck and spun in the mud, bounced over mounds, hurtled down a near-vertical mine shaft and perched on the side of a hillock at an unbelievable angle.

Add the soon-to-be-completed jet boat circuit and all you need is a sense of adventure and change of underwear.

Skyline Skyrides atop Mount Ngongotaha operates luge rides on three-wheeled carts that look like big serving trays with handle bars. Choose from three courses of varying speed, including the one-kilometre "advanced" track and two-kilometre "scenic" track. With a helmet and brakes for reassurance, you scoot downhill at your own pace and ride up again on a chairlift or the new eight-seater enclosed gondola, taking in spectacular views of the Rotorua township and surrounding lakes.

Stay on for dinner at the excellent Cableway Restaurant and check out the night views through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The writer was a guest of Te Puia and Air New Zealand.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Air New Zealand operates flights from Auckland to Rotorua or it's about a three-hour drive.

Staying there

Heritage Hotel, corner of Froude and Tryon streets, Rotorua, $NZ100 ($80) to $NZ285 a night. Phone +64 7 348 1189, see heritagehotels.co.nz.

Further information

Polynesian Spa, Hinemoa Street, Rotorua, phone +64 7 348 1328 see polynesianspa.co.nz. Te Puia, Hemo Road, Rotorua, phone +64 7 348 9047, see tepuia.com. Helipro, phone +64 7 357 2512, see helipro.co.nz. Clearwater Cruises, phone +64 7 362 8590, see clearwater.co.nz. Off Road NZ, phone +64 7 332 5748, see offroadnz.co.nz. Skyline Skyrides, phone +64 7 347 0027, see skylineskyrides.co.nz.

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