May 7, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Something in the air (The Australian)

5 min read

Catherine Marshall

The fabled hot-springs hub of Rotorua now has an international airport

RotoruaIT is not every day an entire city turns out to greet you. But today is different: throngs of Rotoruans ring the airport’s perimeter fence, waving and clapping as the plane’s tyres hit the runway. Passengers, too, break into thrilled applause, while alongside us Lake Rotorua winks approvingly.

A group of Maori warriors has gathered in haka formation on the tarmac and their elders await us inside the newly designated international terminal for a powhiri, a ceremonial indigenous welcome. “Haere mai, haere mai, haere mai,” they say. Welcome to this sulphur-clouded land, where mud boils away interminably and steam coils ghost-like from the earth’s cracks.

It is history in the making, the first time an international planeload of passengers has touched down in this small city on New Zealand’s North Island.

On the flight from Sydney is one of Rotorua’s oldest and most loved residents, historian Don Stafford. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, he is having a flashback to 1922, when a World War I pilot landed his plane in the middle of a racecourse in Rotorua, causing locals to stream out of their schools and workplaces in the direction of this bird-like apparition.

“Nobody here had ever seen an aeroplane in our skies,” Stafford says. “And suddenly, with the noise, the children rushed to their windows and rushed out to the racecourse just to see it.”

Today, the flow of movement is reversed as we disembark and disperse into Rotorua’s geothermal, sulphur-scented back yard, seeking out the natural remedies and pungent earthly eruptions that have made it famous.

Situated on a volcanic fault line, Rotorua’s epicentre may well be located at the Blue Baths where, as the sun begins its lazy descent, we sip acid-green cocktails and adorn ourselves with feather boas before sitting down to a dazzling retro cabaret dinner.

The candlelit baths are cloaked in a 1930s Spanish facade and steeped in bygone glamour. Here you can take tea, peep behind the curtains of the charming period chang ing rooms and sink into the waters in which men and women were first allowed to bathe together in 1931.

Such activity demands comfortable adjournment and this I find at Peppers on the Point, where I settle into a detached cabin overlooking the city’s focal point, the beautiful Lake Rotorua.

In the morning the lake is an incandescent disc radiating the day’s easterly sunlight. Sheep, an alpaca and a donkey graze on the slope below, nudging the water’s edge. A breakfast of pancakes with manuka honey and mascarpone is optimum fuel for a day on the run.

Just an hour later I am peering back down on my cabin and the wedge-like point from which Peppers derives its name, as the float plane into which I am securely strapped heads from its mooring spot on Lake Rotorua to Mt Tarawera, the volcano that last erupted in 1886, killing 153 people.

Behind us is Sulphur Bay, oozing milky sap and pearlescent steam. Ahead is Mokoia Island, perched in the middle of Lake Rotorua, where 2000 people once lived. Today the island is free of predators, providing an Eden-like sanctuary to the kiwis and other native animals that make this exclusive address their home.

As seen from the air, the flora appears to have been shaken out like an artfully woven rug, oblongs of man-made pine forests adjoin groves of native flax. If I crane my neck, I can still make out Rotorua’s airport, now bereft of the oversized aircraft that caused such consternation the day before. “I’ll have to change my commentary now,” says Fred, the pilot. “It used to be a domestic airport, but as of yesterday it’s a fully fledged international aerodrome.”

By now the fearsome volcano has appeared beneath us, a vertiginous brown moonscape slashed brutally across its high point. Fanning endlessly out from it is an emerald landscape punctured by deep bowls of blue: the 16 lakes that decorate this eastern end of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.

Fred deposits us neatly on one of these, Lake Tarawera, where red-beaked black swans — peculiar, I had thought, to Western Australia’s parched coastline — swim about like anachronisms in this verdant landscape.

Driving back to Rotorua, we skirt first Green Lake, then Blue Lake — coloured by a bed of rhyolite and pumice — where the chief’s daughter lost her tiki tapu, a sacred pendant. Her slaves dived immediately into the cerulean waters to retrieve it, but alas, it was gone forever.

The maiden’s distress over the loss of her sacred pendant was no doubt relieved by a soothing miri miri, the form of traditional Maori massage to which I yield the following day. Standing at the foot of my prostrate body, Fabian, the therapist, recites a karakia, requesting intercession from Wai Ora, the guardian warrior for whom this spa is named.

“From a Maori perspective we look at the body, mind and soul,” Bryan Hughes, owner of Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort, explains to me later. “The three are connected, so you have to address the lot. But the most important part you must address is the soul: the spirit, the essence, the life force in you.”

Wai Ora thus alerted, Fabian wipes my feet to remove the “dust of war” or, perhaps more aptly, the metaphorical shackles of modern life. With gentle tapping movements she works her manuka-oiled fingers along my legs and back, towards my heart, then across my shoulders, arms and neck, gently manipulating each joint in a warrior-style warm-up ritual.

Finally, she places her hands on my head, the part of the body regarded by Maoris as sacred. A final blessing from Fabian, and it’s over. I am not ready for battle; I am ready for bed.

Back at Peppers, the sun has melted into the far western edge of Lake Rotorua.

The light in my cabin burns softly, the bedcovers have been discreetly turned down, the sheep, alpaca and donkey snort contentedly beneath the gentle nightfall.

“This eclipses everything,” Stafford had said as he stepped off the plane on that historic flight to Rotorua. And indeed, it does.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Destination Rotorua.

Air New Zealand flies directly from Sydney to Rotorua twicea week. More:

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