Hellfire and hot stuff in Rotorua

Amber Wilson
The Maori famously used Tikitere in Rotorua, New Zealand, as a sacred site to cleanse after battle

One should never climb a mountain in a skirt. This becomes alarmingly clear to me as I clutch for rocks and boulders while scaling a section of the world's newest volcanic valley.

In 1886, Mt Tarawera erupted, killing 120 people. With its striking sedimented rock formations, it's easy even now to imagine the dramatic scenes of earth exploding and lava gushing.

Given that, it probably would have made sense to buy some trousers. But I ran out of time - and I kind of forgot. Thankfully, my guide Kaylah assures me I'm not the stupidest person to ever scramble up this erupted mountain in Rotorua, New Zealand's cultural capital.

"Once we had an Instagram-famous lady. She climbed up here in high heels. I've never seen a pair of heels wobble so much."

By the time we reach the summit, I'm pretty wobbly too - high heels or not. But luckily for me, the hard work is done. Now it's time for the scree run.

I didn't look up the word "scree" before I came on this tour - in fact I assumed it was probably a typo in my itinerary. But for the volcanically-uninitiated, scree is the tiny, soft volcanic rock left behind inside a crater after its eruption.

Scree is juicy and deep, and you can literally bounce into the centre of the crater like you're jumping down a hillside made of marshmallow. It's a nice reward to scree-run into the centre of Mt Tarawera after the challenge of the ascent - you feel at once like you're both a kindergarten kid and a terribly important geological explorer.

Visiting Rotorua is special for that very reason - it's like a science class come to life with all the magic of nature. Whether you prefer to lay back and enjoy bathing in the region's incredible thermal springs, or if you're a serious environmental tourist wanting to learn and experience, you'll love this place. Rotorua is dramatic, and not least because the ground here is on fire. With lava flowing just 5km under our feet, mud boils around us, steam mists at our heels, fissures hiss and geysers explode as natural energy pushes its way to the surface.

The Maori have been using this geothermal activity for aeons to their benefit, using steam to cook food in pits (hangi), for ceremonial and medicinal bathing, and more recently for heating. Unfortunately, with European settlement, some of that natural power was tapped greedily, to ill effect. Companies started boring holes for free geothermal heating, and ultimately that took energy away from some of the larger geysers in town.

But visiting Rotorua is special for another reason - and that's because of the important role the cultural capital plays for the Maori and the reclaiming of their traditions.

Kaylah explains to me that most of the people who work on tourist attractions around Rotorua are graduates from local tertiary institutions who have a genetic link to the attraction they work at. For instance, Kaylah's tribe once lived around the volcano, as did the families of the other young people who guide here. This is a way of keeping Maori connection to land and building pride again in what the locals say was an almost-lost culture.

Te Puia is another attraction in Rotorua showcasing the geothermal valley with its geysers, and also serves as a cultural centre with a school continuing Maori arts such as weaving, wood and bone carving. It's got some of the most mind-blowing natural wonders you're ever likely to see in real life as geysers periodically erupt before your eyes. The "star of the show" is the gigantic Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. But even in Pohutu's rest periods, a mystical steam tracks along the valleys, giving you the feeling you're on the set of a supernatural movie.

One of Rotorua's most famous destinations is the Hells Gate geothermal park. Its Maori name is Tikitere, named after a princess from hundreds of years ago who threw herself into one of the boiling pools to remove the shame of her people. But commonly the area goes by the name Hells Gate because in the early 1900s, the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw visited the area with its boiling, frothing, steaming pools, and decided it must be "the gateway to hell".

It's astounding. Mud explodes from the ground as pools feature different chemical compositions and different heats. There's also a stunning waterfall not too far from the action. The Maori would come here after battle and apply the sulphuric mud as an antiseptic to their wounds and bathe in the hot, sulphuric waters of the sacred Kakahi Falls, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere.

Visitors are encouraged to spend a few hours exploring the pools with their punishing Biblical names - like Sodom and Gomorrah - before spending the rest of the day bathing in the mud baths and sulphur spas that are said to take years off one's looks and create an uber-smooth complexion.

Rotorua has recently launched a festival celebrating all this mud - the annual Mudtopia, which features a non-stop musical line-up and thousands of young people literally getting dirty over a weekend of fun with a dedicated mud arena with muddy pools for grown-ups. Attendees are encouraged to mud-slide, mud-wrestle, mud-run for 2km, and even take part in a "horizontal mud bungy". But the festival isn't just about hard partying and youth culture. Mudtopia, which officially launched in December 2017, includes a mud wellness program with yoga and a day spa with massages and mud beauty treatments.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies directly from Australia to Auckland and onto Rotorua.

STAYING THERE: Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort has comfortable rooms and several hot spas to hop into after a long day exploring. Prices start at $NZD199 ($A185) per night. Visit www.waioraresort.co.nz for more details.

OTHER ROTORUA HIGHLIGHTS: Don't visit Rotorua without visiting the Tamaki Maori Village to give you a taste of traditional New Zealand life - and a taste of a delicious hangi pit dinner. You'll also see a haka war dance performed. Visit www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz for more details.