Just letting off a little steam

With a firm grip on his nose, Steve McKenna discovers it takes a while to forget the charms of the Sulfur City.

PEERING through the flimsy fence, she is transfixed by the bubbling cauldron in front of her. The cute toddler breaks into a smile, points at the object of her interest and mumbles something incoherent to her mother.

Then, as if someone has flicked a switch, the hissing pool suddenly comes alive, throwing mud into the air and unleashing an almighty stench. As rancid steam billows, tears start to flow and a wailing sound pervades the serenity. The girl runs to mummy and buries her head into her chest.

Rotorua has this effect on some people. It is quite possibly the most pungent place on earth, offering the kind of aroma you'd get in a windowless dorm containing a footy team who've spent the night indulging in beer and curry.

It's the definitive test of your olfactory resistance. Yet the simple truth is it's also such a fascinating place that it's easy to see why people come here - despite knowing that they will spend a lot of time holding their noses.

"People are always moaning about the bloody smell - but they keep coming back for more," says Ruben, a local barman.

The pong derives from hydrogen sulfide. Emitted from various geothermal holes, pits, nooks and crannies - Rotorua sits on a volcanic plateau - it is responsible for the relentless rotten-egg-like atmosphere.

While there are a handful of special (paid-for) attractions on the outskirts of the city that promise to wow you with their top geysers - Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, Hells Gate and Waimangu Volcanic Valley, to name just three - the (free) Kuirau Park is a real gem.

A five-minute walk from the city centre, it's here that you truly appreciate the perverse beauty of this region; where hissing, scalding water roars from deep within the earth's crust and shoots up in the air, while traffic trundles past on the adjacent road and, nearby, people sip lattes at trendy cafes and go to the cinema.

It's quite disconcerting walking inches from bubbling mud pools, steaming hot crevices and fickle geysers. They are generally well behaved - save for the occasional belch - but you can never predict their behaviour. Late last year, one of the mud fountains spewed out a concoction up to 15 metres high and 30 metres wide.

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Despite, or perhaps because of, their capricious nature, the pools are wildly entertaining. Children, in particular, are entranced by them - until the sulphurous fumes become unbearable. Every so often, one produces a smoky cloud that smells like a baby's steaming nappy.

The whiff, while still lingering, is not quite as bad in the Government Gardens. Nestled against Lake Rotorua, it's a picturesque setting perfect for bowls, croquet, petanque and golf, and is home to the sumptuous Bath House building.

This Tudor-style masterpiece hosts the Rotorua Museum, where you can dig into the city's history and culture and discover more about the geothermal features that gave Rotorua its reputation as the "spa capital of the South Pacific".

These days, with the Bath House retired from active duty, Rotorua's spa options are found in the Blue Baths, an Art Deco construction built in 1931, and the multi-award-winning Polynesian Spa.

Tired from an afternoon's walking, I pop in, rejecting the selection of mud wraps and massages for a dunk in the hot mineral pools where temperatures range from 36 to 43 degrees.

Built on the site of the Priest Springs, the spa was originally named after a Tauranga-based minister called Father Mahoney, who reputedly cured himself of arthritis in 1878 after bathing daily for three months in a hand-dug pool.

As therapeutic as the pools are, and as revitalised as I feel once I step out, I seem to spend the next hour showering myself and my swimming trunks, so pungent is the water residue. I'm not sure if I could handle doing that every day for three months.

Now you may be thinking Rotorua is all sulfur and stench, but you'd be mistaken.

On the outskirts of the city there is a fabulously fun-filled entertainment park called the Agrodome, which fields a mixture of bungy jumping, Zorbing (where you roll down a hill in a giant plastic ball), and farming activities such as sheep-shearing and milking cows.

But arguably Rotorua's biggest plus - alongside its geothermal offerings - is its proud Maori heritage. The city has a strong indigenous population and it's not unusual to see Maori routines taking place throughout the day; the tourist information centre is a particular haunt for shows reflecting the ancient Te Awara people's way of life.

Rival companies also offer "the authentic Maori experience", a cultural insight and a veritable feast, courtesy of a hangi meal, where meat and vegetables are cooked over hot rocks and left to simmer for hours until guests are invited to wolf them down.

It was during one of these evenings where I reflected that Rotorua, perhaps more than any other city in New Zealand, encapsulates the country's past, present and future just perfectly.

It's well worth a visit, although you may like to pack a gas mask.

TRIP NOTES

- Rotorua is 234 kilometres from Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. Inter-City Coachlines run three services a day between the cities, costing $NZ45 ($40). Phone +64 9 623 1503 or see www.intercitycoach.co.nz.

- Polynesian Spa: Mineral pool tickets are $NZ15. Phone +64 7 348 1328 or see www.polynesianspa.co.nz.

- Maori experience: The Tamaki Maori Village offers an evening's entertainment and hangi meal for $NZ85. Phone +647 349 2999 or see www.maoriculture.co.nz .

- Geothermal adventures outside Rotorua: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (www.geyserland.co.nz), Waimangu Volcanic Valley (www.waimangu.com) and Hells Gate (www.hellsgate.co.nz).

- Agrodome: Phone +64 7 357 1050 or see www.agrodome.co.nz.

- For general Rotorua information, including accommodation and dining, see www.rotorua.co.nz.

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