The Volcanic Plateau stretches south-west from the Bay of Plenty coast to Mt Ruapehu in the central North Island. About 180 kilometres from the coast to the mountain, and 100 kilometres wide at most, it is bounded to the east by the North Island main ranges, and to the west by older formations – the Mamaku Plateau and the Hauhungaroa Range.
Unpredictable and fascinating, the Volcanic Plateau is New Zealand’s main area of volcanic activity. In this zone, the Pacific tectonic plate is sinking beneath the Australian Plate. At a certain depth its rocks heat and produce volcanic activity, which erupts at the surface in minor ways (steam vents, mud pools and hot springs), and major ways (volcanic eruptions, collapsing mountains and lake formation).
The region of eruption sites known as the Taupō Volcanic Zone stretches from Whakaari (White Island) in the Bay of Plenty to Mt Ruapehu. This ‘line of fire’ is part of the huge ‘ring of fire’ around the Pacific Ocean.
The Volcanic Plateau itself is the product of massive eruptions from the Taupō Volcanic Zone. These deposited layers of ash and rocks over about a sixth of the North Island. The area is considered a plateau, rather than a plain, because it is well above sea level – 280 metres at Rotorua, rising to 370 metres at Taupō.
The Kāingaroa Forest area, in particular, is as flat as the Canterbury Plains. Standing in that landscape, one does not look up to mountains, nor out to sea or a lake, but across an even terrain with a wide horizon.
The volcanoes at the plateau’s southern end, Tongariro (1,967 metres), Ngāuruhoe (2,291 metres) and Ruapehu (2,797 metres), are three of the four highest summits in the North Island. The Desert Road section of State Highway 1, skirting the eastern side of these mountains, reaches 1,074 metres – the highest point of any main road in the North Island.
There are many lakes on the Volcanic Plateau. Apart from recent man-made ones, they are the result of volcanic activity. Lake Taupō (357 m above sea level) is both New Zealand’s biggest lake and its largest volcano.
The upper course of the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest, has also been shaped by volcanism. It rises on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu and, as the Tongariro River, flows into Lake Taupō. From Taupō to Waipapa on the edge of the plateau, it cuts down deeply into recent volcanic deposits.
Volcanism has given the plateau its geothermal springs, drifting steam and pervasive aroma of sulfur – also described as a smell of rotten eggs. These can be experienced most intensely on still, cold nights, as a bather races from a changing room through frosty sulfur-scented air to the languor of an outdoor hot pool. Hot springs and related volcanic activity are found throughout New Zealand, but nowhere in such concentrations as on the Volcanic Plateau.
Descendants of the early arrivals from Polynesia settled around the shores of the Rotorua lakes and Lake Taupō – particularly where they could take advantage of geothermally heated water and steam, as well as the lakes’ fresh water.
All the hapū (sub-tribes) in the region can trace their lineage to the Te Arawa canoe, which made landfall at Maketū, in the Bay of Plenty. The name Te Arawa usually describes the people who live around Rotorua, whilst those at Taupō identify with their ancestor Tūwharetoa.
For 19th-century Pākehā, the Volcanic Plateau was both appealing and difficult. It was open country, relatively easy to traverse, and had a fascinating geology and landscape. But its soils were not suited to farming – and there was no gold.
The government developed a tourist town at Rotorua, and from 1900, anglers from around the world came to fish for trout in the region’s lakes and rivers. From the 1920s, better roads, timber, electricity and improvements to soil saw the whole region develop.
Rotorua and Taupō are the main urban centres of the Volcanic Plateau.
The region comprises the Rotorua and Taupō local government districts. Rotorua district lies partly within the territory served by the Bay of Plenty regional council. The rest of Rotorua district and Taupō are served by the Waikato regional council. While Tokoroa, Kawerau and Murupara are on the plateau geographically, they are not within either district. Tokoroa is in the South Waikato district and Kawerau and Murupara are part of eastern Bay of Plenty. The summit of Ruapehu is on the regional boundary.
Beneath the Volcanic Plateau, the Pacific Plate has been sinking beneath the Australian Plate for the last 1.5 million years. This has led to intense heating, producing volcanic activity which has found its way to the earth’s surface.
The eruptive part of the plateau is the Taupō Volcanic Zone. The zone is dominated by three huge calderas (basin-shaped volcanic depressions) – Taupō, Rotorua and Okataina. These were formed by infrequent but massive eruptions of rhyolite, an explosive lava. All three are currently filled with water – Taupō and Rotorua by one big lake each, Okataina by several lakes.
Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe–Tongariro, though prominent, are much smaller volcanoes. Their cones were built up by small to moderate eruptions of andesite, a fairly stable lava, every 10 to 50 years.
Areas flanking the Taupō Volcanic Zone, including the Kāingaroa plateau, are formed from many sheets of ignimbrite, a rock formed by hot pumice, ash and gas from rhyolitic eruptions surging across the land (pyroclastic flow). Also west of the zone are older volcanic rocks, which form the Mamaku Range and adjacent areas.
The western Hauhungaroa Range, which stands out from the surrounding volcanic rocks, is greywacke, as are the North Island’s main ranges, which bound the plateau to the east.
A mud flow at Waihī, on Lake Taupō’s shores, killed over 50 people in 1846, including the Ngāti Tūwharetoa chief Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II. A massive lahar (volcanic mud flow) from Ruapehu’s crater lake in December 1953 destroyed a rail bridge across the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, and 151 people died when a night express train plunged into the river. Another lahar in March 2007 caused little damage.
Many eruptions have taken place over the last 1.5 million years. In just the last few thousand years, the whole region has been covered in ash from eruptions of the Taupō, Okataina and Rotorua volcanoes. Vegetation was destroyed many times, as buried and charred forests attest. The pyroclastic flows from the massive Taupō eruption around 200 AD incinerated everything within an area of 20,000 square kilometres – about a sixth of the North Island – and reached Mt Tongariro within minutes. Its effect on the atmosphere was chronicled by the Chinese and the Romans.
The Tarawera eruption around 1314 CE covered the region with a layer of ash, known as Kaharoa ash.
In 1868, violent earthquakes accompanied the eruption that formed the upper Te Maari crater on Tongariro. In 1886 Mt Tarawera erupted, killing about 150 people and destroying or submerging the famous Pink and White Terraces. The Te Maari crater erupted again in 1896–97.
Mt Ngāuruhoe is Tongariro’s youngest vent. It erupted about 70 times between 1839 and 1975, but has been dormant since. Ruapehu’s 1945 eruptions smothered crops and farmland. Its 1995–96 eruptions closed the skifields, which had a big economic impact on local communities. Ash fell as far away as Northland and Marlborough.
Throughout the Taupō Volcanic Zone, the ground is heated by magma (molten rock) close to the surface. Water is superheated, far above the normal boiling temperature of 100°C. The most active geothermal field is at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua city, where there are more than 500 hot springs, and seven geysers aligned north–south along a buried fault.
All the major Rotorua lakes are products of volcanic activity. Lake Rotorua (279 m above sea level) is one caldera, and is the area’s biggest lake at 80 square kilometres. Lakes Tarawera (41 square kilometres), Okataina, Okareka and Rotomahana occupy the Okataina caldera along with part of Lake Rotoiti.
Lake Rotoiti (34 square kilometres) is the third largest Rotorua lake, and has a maximum depth of 93.5 metres. Lakes Tarawera and Rotomahana have maximum depths of 87.5 metres and 125 metres respectively.
The Waikato River has eight lakes formed behind man-made hydroelectricity dams – Lakes Aratiatia, Ōhakuri, Ātiamuri, Whakamaru, Maraetai, Waipapa, Arapuni and Karapiro.
Of all North Island regions, the Volcanic Plateau is closest to having a continental climate. Summers are hot and winters cool. Rotorua and Taupō are the highest-altitude urban centres on the island, at 279 metres and 369 metres respectively. Taupō has 69 days of ground frost a year – the most of any North Island town – and a July mean temperature of under 7°C.
Taupō is noticeably drier than Rotorua, with an average annual rainfall of 960 millimetres compared with Rotorua’s 1,341 millimetres. But the plateau generally is dry relative to the mountains – much more rain falls on the Kaimanawa and Mamaku ranges and the central volcanoes. In winter, snow falls on the summits of the central volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountains, sometimes closing the Desert Road section of State Highway 1 between Rangipō and Waiōuru.
People first settled on the Volcanic Plateau around the early 1300s. They burnt forest to clear land for cultivation, and by the 19th century the vegetation was mostly tussock, fern, mānuka and similar plants.
The forests that survived, on the higher reaches and south faces of the ranges, are mostly conifers, notably tōtara, rimu, mataī and miro. The largest forested areas are along the Hauhungaroa Range, west of Lake Taupō, and the Kaimanawa Mountains to its south-east. Pureora Forest, in the Hauhungaroa Range, is home to the rare kōkako (wattlebird).
Heather was planted in Tongariro National Park in the early 20th century to provide habitat for introduced game birds, but soon became an invasive weed.
On Mts Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe, barren lava flows, snowfields and hot springs exist side by side. Because of the high altitude of the land around the central volcanoes, the landscape is stark – early European settlers described it as desert.
The lakes shaped patterns of early settlement. Most people lived close to fresh water, or geothermally heated water and steam. They settled around the shores of Lake Rotorua and nearby lakes, and at the northern and southern ends of Lake Taupō.
In the first half of the 20th century, large tracts of the plateau were planted in exotic pine forests. This was to replenish New Zealand’s timber resources, depleted after large areas of native forest were cleared.
Early farmers found that stock died from a wasting disease called bush sickness – later discovered to be caused by a lack of the trace element cobalt. When this was added to the soil, from the 1930s, the land became productive pasture.
From 1929, the Waikato River was dammed to produce hydroelectricity, creating a series of lakes. Power stations using geothermal energy were built from the 1960s, and natural geothermal activity reduced.
In 1950, around 10,000 people lived on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and 5,000 beside Lake Taupō; by 2000 the numbers had risen fivefold and sixfold respectively. The growing population increased pressure on geothermal areas, as steam was diverted for domestic and commercial use. This sometimes led to a serious decline in natural geothermal activity.
Urbanisation has led to lakes being polluted with sewage, although treatment plants now deal with much of this hazard.
For many years sawmills poured chemical waste into rivers, but these discharges are now treated. The Waikato River continues to have high levels of arsenic, most of it discharged from the Wairākei power station.
Runoff from fertilised farmland has added large amounts of nutrients to the lakes. This leads to rapid growth of lake weed and algae, so a lake could eventually become anoxic (lacking in oxygen), and effectively dead. In 2006 the cost of saving Lake Rotorua was estimated at $200 million.
In 1978 the Ngāti Pikiao people made a successful claim to the Waitangi Tribunal against a proposal to dump Rotorua’s waste in the Kaituna River. Ngāti Tahu lobbied to limit the impact of the Ōhaaki geothermal project on their lands.
The main tribes of the Volcanic Plateau are the Te Arawa people, in the Rotorua area, and Ngāti Tūwharetoa, around Taupō. The traditions of both groups link them to the Te Arawa canoe, which made its final landfall at Maketū on the Bay of Plenty coast. The saying ‘Ko te ihu o te waka kei Maketū, ko te kei o te waka kei Tongariro’, means that the prow of the Te Arawa is at Maketū, and the stern at Mt Tongariro.
Many places are named after the journeys of early ancestors.
Rangitihi is an important ancestor of the Te Arawa people. He survived a massive blow to his head in battle and became known as Rangitihi-te-Upoko-i-takaia-ki-te-akatea (Rangitihi whose head is bound with the akatea vine). The descent lines from his eight children are often called ‘Ngā pūmanawa e waru’ – the eight great strengths or beating hearts (of Rangitihi).
Te Arawa tribes today include Ngāti Kearoa, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Rangiteaorere, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Uenukukōpako, Ngāti Wāhiao, Ngāti Whakaue, Tapuika, Tūhourangi and Waitaha.
The Waikato River has two names. Ngāti Tūwharetoa call the river above Lake Taupō Tongariro. They acknowledge that just as they have kinship links with Waikato people, so are the Tongariro’s waters linked to those of the Waikato. Chairman Te Kanawa Pitiroi has said, ‘From Tongariro flows the river named after it; that flows into the lake and eventually becomes the Waikato River. We’re one and the other.’ 1
Tūwharetoa was a prominent Bay of Plenty chief who lived near present-day Kawerau in the 1500s.
About 100 years later, his descendants went to the Taupō area, with their chiefs Tūrangitukua, Waikari and Ruawehea. With the support of Tūtewero from Kawerau, they overwhelmed the local Ngāti Hotu people, establishing the Tūwharetoa tribe’s mana in the region. Tūrangi is named after Tūrangitukua.
Te Rangiita, seven generations after Tūwharetoa, was an important warrior chief, as was his son Tamamutu. Te Rangituamātotoru, Tamamutu’s great-grandson, set a high standard of leadership as paramount chief in the later 1700s.
Herea, who lived around 1800, was descended from Te Rangiita’s sister. He became known as Te Heuheu Tūkino after the time he searched for a relative’s body, which was hidden by the shrub māheuheu.
Herea defeated the warrior chief Te Wakaiti at Pūkawa, and became undisputed chief of the Taupō area. He is the ancestor of the later paramount chiefs of Tūwharetoa – all of whom take the name Te Heuheu Tūkino.
The Volcanic Plateau tribes frequently visited coastal regions to gain access to food resources, and, from the 1820s, to trade with Europeans.
Ngāpuhi war parties, armed with muskets and led by Hongi Hika, made destructive forays into the Rotorua district in the 1820s, partly for utu (revenge). The tribe did not conquer Te Arawa, but took many captives back to the north.
Te Arawa considered migrating, but decided to stay. They fought the neighbouring tribes of Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Hauā for control of coastal Maketū, including Phillip Tapsell’s trading post. The warring ended in 1844, with Te Arawa keeping Maketū. The tribe also made an unsuccessful raid into Te Urewera.
In the 1820s and 1830s war parties from Waikato probed the Taupō area. Around the same time, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and others, under the paramount chief Mananui Te Heuheu, made expeditions into Hawke’s Bay. Ngāti Kahungunu retaliated.
Tūwharetoa also joined Ngāti Raukawa in southern expeditions. Some stayed in the south. There is a saying, ‘Ko te tomokanga o te iwi ki te tonga, ki Tokorangi’ – the southern gateway to Tūwharetoa is at Tokorangi (on the Rangitīkei River).
In the 1830s, missionaries were the first Europeans to see the Volcanic Plateau, including remote Taupō and the volcanoes.
Te Arawa welcomed missionaries in the 1830s and 1840s as a way of gaining Pākehā knowledge and goods, and Ngāti Tūwharetoa did the same in the 1840s and 1850s. Missionaries encouraged tribes to turn from war to peace.
Pūkawa, on the shores of Lake Taupō, is seen as the birthplace of the Māori King movement. In November 2006, 150 years after the meeting which confirmed Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as the first king, tribal leaders met again at the new Pūkawa marae.
But conflict was looming between Māori and Pākehā. In 1856, the Tūwharetoa chief Iwikau Te Heuheu convened a pan-tribal hui (meeting) at Pūkawa, on the western side of Lake Taupō, to discuss the new Māori King movement. The hui agreed to offer the kingship to Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero.
In the 1860s, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa acted to preserve their autonomy. In 1864 Tūwharetoa fought for the King movement against government forces at the battle of Ōrākau in the Waikato.
Te Arawa aligned themselves with the government against their old enemies from Waikato and the East Coast, and repulsed East Coast war parties travelling across their territory to support the King movement. In 1867 Te Arawa fought alongside government forces against supporters of the Pai Mārire (Hauhau) religious movement.
In 1869 the war leader and prophet Te Kooti traversed the Taupō district looking for support. Some Tūwharetoa leaders allied themselves with Te Kooti, but his forces were defeated at Te Pōrere (below Tongariro) in October and he retreated into the King Country (Rohe Pōtae).
In 1870 Te Kooti returned to the east via Rotorua. There were skirmishes with Te Arawa at Ōhinemutu, on Lake Rotorua’s shore, and Ōkaro, near Lake Rotomahana. Captain Gilbert Mair organised a 100-strong Arawa Flying Column, which took part in the pursuit of Te Kooti through Te Urewera over the next two years.
Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the Rotorua lakes in 1870. With the return of peace and improved communications, more Europeans began travelling to the area. The first race meeting was held in 1872, and the first cricket match in 1875, in Rotorua.
The Armed Constabulary occupied redoubts along the Napier–Taupō road and near Rotorua. Roads and telegraph lines crossed the Volcanic Plateau, hotels opened at Ōhinemutu and Taupō, and a few Europeans settled at both places. In 1880 Te Arawa and the Crown agreed to set up a government tourist town on the Pukeroa–Oruawhata block, 1,200 hectares of land near Ōhinemutu.
The Rotorua area was known early to Pākehā for its hot or thermal lakes, a stark contrast to the South Island’s cold lakes. Around the lakes were hot springs, geysers, mud pools, sulfurous steam, silica formations and volcanoes, all of which drew the curious and the adventurous.
The smell of sulfur makes a strong impression on the first-time visitor, though long-term locals hardly notice it. The landscape, and especially the silica Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana, appealed to the European aesthetic sense, and attracted many artists.
In 1881, after an agreement with Ngāti Whakaue to lease land between the Māori settlements of Ōhinemutu and Whakarewarewa, the government laid out the town of Rotorua. But hard times – and the 1886 Tarawera eruption, which obliterated or buried the famous Pink and White Terraces – meant development was modest. In 1888 land at Rotorua was sold to the government.
Ngāti Tūwharetoa gifted the summits of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu to the Crown in 1887 to ensure their preservation. The volcanoes became the basis for Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first, created in 1894.
In 1894 the railway from Auckland reached Rotorua, encouraging growth. Māori guided visitors around the thermal areas, especially Whakarewarewa, near the new town. However, Europeans owned the hotels and other businesses both there and at Taupō, and Māori were often not welcome as guests.
The spectacular geyser at Waimangu was a by-product of the Tarawera eruption. It first spouted in 1900, and continued at intervals of about 30 hours until 1904, sometimes reaching a height of nearly 500 metres. Geysers are rare worldwide, and the Waimangu geyser was a major tourist attraction while it lasted.
Spa is a town in Belgium with hot mineral springs. The word has come to describe health and holiday resorts or hotels – usually, but not always, located near hot springs.
A medical officer was appointed in Rotorua in 1882. A bathhouse opened the same year, and a sanatorium in 1886. In 1902, Englishman Arthur Wohlmann became superintendent of the sanatorium. He was also publicist for the spa and the government balneologist (expert on medicinal springs). Wohlmann oversaw the building of the Bath House in Government Gardens, which opened in 1908.
Around Lake Taupō, spa tourism was less formal. Visitors bathed in hot pools at various sites around Taupō and Tokaanu, and could stay at the Lake, Spa, Terraces and Tokaanu hotels.
‘Why suffer from rheumatism and allied troubles when you can find easy relief in Rotorua?’ asked one 1932 advertisement. ‘Nature’s medicinal waters work like magic … Even if you are not a sufferer but only jaded, “nervy” or “run-down” Rotorua will refresh you and restore you to robustness. Take the train to Cureland.’ 1
Rotorua did not become a European-style spa – there were too few visitors and they did not spend enough money. It remained simply a town that had hot pools with some medical applications. In the late 1920s, Prime Minister Joseph Ward, who himself convalesced at Rotorua, promoted it to holidaymakers and spa users. The Ward baths and Blue Baths were built in the early 1930s.
Convalescent hospitals, a product of the two world wars, brought more patients to Rotorua. However, new understandings of the causes of rheumatic and skin diseases discredited the medical uses of thermal springs. The sanatorium closed in 1945 and the position of balneologist ended in 1957. Medical treatment at the baths stopped when the city took over the premises in 1966, but therapeutic thermal treatments were still offered by institutions such as QE Health (formerly a convalescent hospital).
Visitors still head to Rotorua and Taupō’s thermal attractions, but as tourists, not patients. They flock to the Polynesian Spa (on the site of the Ward baths), explore the thermal activity in the Māori settlements of Ōhinemutu and Whakarewarewa, and visit the thermal areas of Tikitere (Hell’s Gate), Waimangu, Waiotapu, Ōrākei Kōrako and the Craters of the Moon at Wairākei, as well as those around the shores of Lake Taupō and in Tongariro National Park.
In Rotorua especially, Māori interaction with Europeans has differed from that in other parts of the country. In other areas, contact was mainly through Māori doing seasonal work for Pākehā farmers, but in Rotorua it was mainly due to tourism.
When Apirana Ngata sought to revive Māori carving in the 1920s, he turned to a generation of Ngāti Tarāwhai carvers from Rotoiti, including Neke Kapua, Tene Waitere and Eramiha Kapua. The School of Māori Arts and Crafts opened at Whakarewarewa in 1927. Its successor, the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, was set up by legislation in 1963. It is now part of Te Puia cultural centre.
In 1911 Mākereti Papakura took a 40-strong Te Arawa concert party to England, where they performed in the Crystal Palace and launched a 14-metre canoe in the Henley Royal Regatta. During an impromptu press conference at a London railway station, the PR-savvy Mākereti told reporters, ‘To the Maoris there is no place beyond England, only heaven.’ 1
Māori have long provided guidance and information for visitors to the thermal areas, lakes and rivers. Alfred Warbrick, one of the first guides, was particularly active after the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. Sophia Hinerangi, who also survived the eruption, was one of a number of remarkable women who became well-known as guides. Mākereti Papakura (Guide Maggie) performed a similar role in the early 1900s, as did Rangitīaria Dennan (Guide Rangi) from the 1920s to the 1960s, and Dorothy ‘Bubbles’ Mihinui in the later 20th century.
Since the 1990s, Māori villages built to cater to tourists have been developed by the Tāmaki brothers from Waikato and the Mitai family of Rotorua.
The tourist industry fostered cultural life. Rotorua was an early centre for New Zealand film making, and local Māori were recruited as actors. Concert parties led by people such as Mākereti Papakura presented Māori music to non-Māori, informing it with Western musical practices.
Witarina Harris (née Mitchell), of Ngāti Whakaue, starred as Princess Miro in the silent 1928 Hollywood movie Under the Southern Cross, later known as The devil’s pit. Over half a century later, she became kaitiaki (guardian) of the New Zealand Film Archive. Mrs Harris died in June 2007 at the age of 101.
The cousins Ana Hato and Deane Waretini formed a soprano–baritone duo in the 1920s. They were among the first recorded New Zealand artists, and were often heard on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1950s, the Howard Morrison Quartet brought further national recognition to this style of popular music.
Temuera Morrison is a well-known contemporary actor of Te Arawa descent, who starred as Jake the Muss in the 1994 film Once were warriors. The movie, about violence in a Māori family, was based on a novel by Rotorua-raised Alan Duff.
The Te Arawa love story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai, particularly Hinemoa’s epic night swim across Lake Rotorua to meet her lover on Mokoia Island, became well-known among Pākehā. It has inspired a musical work by Alfred Hill and a number of films.
In 1905 Mākereti Papakura wrote Guide to the hot lakes district. In later life she lived in England and studied anthropology at the University of Oxford, working on material she had collected on Te Arawa life and customs. It was published after her death as The old-time Maori (1938).
John Te Herekiekie Grace published Tuwharetoa, a history of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, in 1959. The Pākehā historian D. M. Stafford published a history of Te Arawa in 1967, and the two-volume Landmarks of Te Arawa in 1994 and 1996.
In 1981 Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku became the first Māori woman to be awarded a doctoral degree. Her thesis was on the socio-cultural impact of tourism on the Te Arawa people of Rotorua.
Rotorua’s acclaimed museum occupies the 1908 Bath House. The nearby Rotorua Arts Village is a craft and exhibition space. Opera in the Pā has featured on Rotorua’s cultural calendar since the early 2000s, with performances in the 2010s held at Ōhinemutu and on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua.
The Rotorua Competitions Society has held annual performing arts contests since 1946, and its concerto segment is one of New Zealand’s foremost piano and instrumental competitions. The 2003 winner, John Chen, took first prize in the 2004 Sydney international piano competition.
Taupō’s museum occupies a former post-office building in the Domain, near the remains of an Armed Constabulary redoubt. The Lake Taupō Arts Festival was held every two years in the early 2000s.
Rotorua and Taupō were ‘thermal wonderlands’. But they also drew visitors who wanted to try the superb fishing in the region’s rivers and lakes.
Before European arrival, the only fish in the Rotorua lakes were toitoi (bullies), īnanga, kōkopu, kōaro, kākahi (mussels) and kōura (freshwater crayfish). Lake Taupō had all those except for toitoi, which were introduced around the 1930s along with smelt.
Brown trout were introduced into Lake Taupō in 1887 and Lake Rotorua in 1888. They grew to 20 kilograms in weight, but were very difficult to catch. Rainbow trout were introduced to both lakes in 1898. By 1903 they were established in every Rotorua lake except Rotomahana. The first rainbow trout was caught in Lake Taupō in 1904.
There was great enthusiasm for stocking the plateau’s waters with trout. On one occasion in 1894, the Wellington Acclimatisation Society sent 110,000 trout eggs to Taupō. One coach driver en route from Taupō to Tokaanu released fish in every stream he passed. And Dan Ferney and Henry Fletcher carried 20,000 trout in a steamer on Lake Taupō, leaving them in streams between the Karangahape Cliffs and Tokaanu.
Trout fishing was originally at river mouths around the lake, but soon also took place in pools. Trout became so numerous that they ran out of food, and their size decreased. Netting was resorted to, and trout grew bigger by the 1920s. Smelt were also introduced to expand the food supply for trout. For Māori, smelt made up for the reduced numbers of īnanga and kōkopu.
A trout hatchery was set up at Fairy Springs near Rotorua, and another on the Tongariro River after a 1926 agreement between the government and Ngāti Tūwharetoa on control of the lake and its catchment.
Nine-kilogram fish were caught in Taupō in the 1920s, and bag limits were 25 fish per day. Publicity came from visits by American writer Zane Grey and the Duchess of York, and Lake Taupō and the Tongariro River developed a profile among well-heeled, well-travelled anglers. In the 1930s there were too many trout and not enough food, until smelt were introduced to Lake Taupō in 1934.
By the late 1980s, the problem was too many anglers. In 1990, the average weight of rainbow trout had dropped to 2 kilograms and daily bag limits in Taupō waters were reduced from eight to three. The daily limit in the Rotorua lakes is eight trout.
The world of trout fishing included campsites, cabins, long rubber waders, ‘picket fences’ of chest-deep anglers in the Waitahanui Stream and the deep pools of the Tongariro River, and an arcane vocabulary of flies and lures.
Māori often guided visiting anglers. Campsites were still the usual accommodation when Zane Grey and the Duchess of York visited in the late 1920s. Huka Lodge opened on the Waikato River below Taupō in 1930, and the Bridge Lodge at Tūrangi in 1933.
A punter at the Terraces Hotel in Taupō recalled his delight in listening to ‘the yarns of the old hands. Fish at that [after dinner] hour … break all records. Their weights increase as the hours go by, rods and tackle stand unheard of strain and the fish become expert hurdle racers.’ 1
Today trout can be found in rivers and lakes throughout the region – but the Rotorua lakes, and Lake Taupō and its catchment, remain the most fished waters. Anglers range from wealthy guests at secluded luxury lodges like Treetops and Huka Lodge to locals grabbing a couple of hours at a river mouth after work.
The Tongariro National Trout Centre, 4 kilometres south of Tūrangi, displays information about the trout life cycle and fishing. Live trout can be viewed at Rainbow Springs and Paradise Valley Springs, near Rotorua.
The native timber of the Volcanic Plateau came mainly from massive conifers – tōtara, rimu, mataī and miro. The area’s native wood was first exploited by Europeans in the late 19th century, in the Mamaku Range and around the northern shores of Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti.
The Taupo Totara Timber Company built the first of three timber mills at Mōkai in 1898 and completed a private railway to Putaruru in 1905. Until the late 1930s, the timber industry was probably the biggest employer in Rotorua, and there were about 30 mills around Taupō by the 1940s.
The Whakarewarewa nursery, near Rotorua, was set up in 1898 to provide timber trees for the Auckland district, and ornamental plants for Rotorua.
Non-native trees were planted on a large scale first at Whakarewarewa, then at Waiotapu, and from 1913 on the Kāingaroa plateau. The land was thought to be unsuitable for farming. Pinus radiata (radiata pine) and Douglas fir were the most successful trees.
Keepa Te Piki was killed in a logging accident in 1931. After the tangi (funeral), his coffin was placed on one of the timber barges. With almost 200 friends and relatives on board, flags at half-mast and a band playing appropriate music, a launch towed the boat on a circuit of the lake, eventually anchoring off Motutawa pā, where he was buried.
Pine planting gained impetus after the First World War. On the western margins of the plateau, two Sydney investors bought land and established Perpetual Forests (later New Zealand Forest Products).
The New Zealand Forest Service favoured planting exotic trees to counter the depletion of native timber. Leon McIntosh Ellis, its first head, noted that between 1900 and 1920, a million acres (over 400,000 hectares) of native trees had been felled but only 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) planted in non-natives. Forest plantings on the Kāingaroa Plateau, as far south as the Napier–Taupō road, rose steeply after 1925. In 1929–30, the peak year, almost 14,000 hectares were planted with 22 million trees.
Partly for demonstration purposes, and partly to make use of Whakarewarewa and Kāingaroa timber, a mill was built at Waipā and had its first commercial run in June 1940. A training centre at Whakarewarewa became the Forestry Research Institute.
After the Second World War, the 1920s plantings started to reach maturity. Tasman Pulp and Paper built a plant at Kawerau, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, for which Murupara was the logging centre. New Zealand Forest Products set up a similar factory at Kinleith, near Tokoroa. The Forestry Research Institute expanded after 1960, when it became part of the New Zealand Forest Service.
Cutting rights to the Kāingaroa Forest today are managed on behalf of two very different multi-billion-dollar investors. Harvard Management is the investment arm of the Harvard University endowment fund. The New Zealand Superannuation Fund bought a minority interest in the forest in October 2006.
The industry changed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. The Forest Service was disbanded in 1987, and state-owned forests were sold to private interests.
In the 2000s, Māori trusts owned some forests, and others were the subject of tribal claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Cutting rights to the Kāingaroa Forest are managed by a global investment management firm, and the Waipā mill is owned by a Rotorua investor.
Between 1986 and 1991, the number of forestry jobs in the region (including at Tokoroa and Kawerau) fell by nearly a third, to around 2,500. In 2006 there were fewer trees than 10 years earlier – logging can be more profitable than replanting – and the forestry labour force had fallen to 1,500.
The Forestry Research Institute is now SCION, a Crown research institute. The Radi Centre offers diplomas in wood manufacturing excellence, with the aim of building up skills to produce more forest-based industries.
Māori gardened on the Volcanic Plateau where feasible. Early European travellers saw plantations of corn, melons, pumpkins and kūmara (sweet potato) in the Tongariro River delta, as well as thousands of ducks. There were gardens at Tokaanu and at pā around the Rotorua lakes.
The missionary Thomas Chapman grew cereals, fruit and vegetables at Koutū, on the shore of Lake Rotorua, in the 1830s. In the 1850s Thomas Grace, another missionary, drove sheep from Hawke’s Bay to Pūkawa on the west side of Lake Taupō, and kept them near the mission station. More substantial flocks were run on the open country along the Napier–Taupō road.
The first butter factory was built at Ngongotahā in 1910. Canterbury investors and settlers were active in the area between Rotorua and Taupō around before and during the First World War. Aucklander Edward Vaile was an early farmer in the Broadlands district, as he recounted in Pioneering the pumice (1939), and W. J. Parsons took up land at Ātiamuri in the 1910s.
In 1928, blocks of Crown land were offered to settlers at Guthrie (named after a former Minister of Lands) and Ngākuru, south of Rotorua. At Reporoa, low-lying swamplands were reclaimed and turned into farmland. Farms were also established where native forest had been cleared, north and west of Taupō.
However, livestock on the plateau were plagued by a wasting disease called bush sickness. Many scientists worked on the problem. It was solved in 1935 when they realised that a lack of cobalt in the volcanic soil – easily fixed with fertiliser – triggered the illness.
One of the first land blocks in Native Minister Apirana Ngata’s Māori land development scheme, begun in 1929, was at Horohoro, south-west of Rotorua. There were difficulties – the farms were usually not viable, houses and cowsheds were inadequate, and many of the first settlers went to work at the Waipā timber mill instead. Development of the land resumed after the Second World War.
In 1905, Apirana Ngata met Te Arawa leader Tai Mitchell at a hui (meeting) in Ōhinemutu. After the hui, Mitchell invited Ngata for a cup of tea and the two became firm friends. More than 20 years later, when Ngata sought to include Te Arawa lands in his land development scheme, Mitchell was instrumental in getting the Horohoro scheme off the ground.
After the Second World War, returned soldiers began farming at Rerewhakaaitu, Rotomahana and the Waikite valley. Aerial topdressing was first carried out in 1951.
Aspiring farmers continued to ballot for Crown-developed land into the 1980s, while lifestyle blocks have brought newcomers into many rural districts. Since the 1990s, the boom in dairying has led to tracts of plantation forest being converted to farmland. Many overseas tourists visit the Agrodome near Rotorua to see farming displays.
The Volcanic Plateau is notable for the large hydroelectric power stations on the Tongariro/Waikato River, but the most distinctive source of electricity is geothermal.
Heat from the geothermal springs and waters had long been used by Māori. After an 1859 visit, geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter described separate springs for bathing, cooking and laundry, and vapour baths and winter huts that had been built on the warm sinter terraces. Especially in winter, the baths were communal meeting places.
The potential of drilling for hot water and steam had first been demonstrated in Italy, and began in New Zealand in the 1930s, through bores reaching water or steam, which rose or could be pumped to the surface. By 1946 there were over 300 bores in Rotorua alone.
The first geothermal power station, at Wairākei, near Taupō, was completed in 1964, and a second opened at Ōhaaki in 1989. Wairākei generates 190 megawatts of power and Ōhaaki has a capacity of 108 megawatts.
Drawing off geothermal steam and water for power has reduced natural geothermal activity. The Wairākei station ended most geothermal activity there and in the nearby Spa field. The hydroelectric development at Ōhakuri on the Waikato River stopped most activity on the Ōrākei Kōrako field. Many scientists welcomed the research opportunities opened up by geothermal development, but others were more cautious, and locals were anxious about the impact on tourism. A controversial campaign in Rotorua in the 1980s saw bores closed to ensure the survival of some geothermal areas.
Ted Lloyd worked for the Geological Survey in Taupō and Rotorua for many years, and with physicist Ron Keam argued for managing power development to preserve some natural geothermal activity. Of Wairākei Ted said, ‘There is a total disaster there, isn’t there? All the geysers in the Wairākei field are dormant – defunct – they will probably never erupt again.’ 1
Interest in exploiting geothermal resources has been revived in the last few years, although there are now strict requirements for waste disposal. New methods make it possible to find previously unidentified hot water resources. Since 1995, new power stations have opened at Rotokawa, Mōkai and Poihipi, all near Taupō.
The earliest hydroelectric power station in the region, at Ōkere Falls on the Kaituna (Ōkere) River, supplied power to Rotorua from May 1901. It was the fourth town in the country to have electricity. Around Lake Taupō, the first hydroelectric station was built at Waihī Falls, with later ones on the Hinemaia River (1952) and Kuratau River (1960).
Work on harnessing the power of the Waikato River began in the 1920s at Arapuni. Damming of the middle reaches of the river began after the Second World War. Dams were built at Aratiatia, Ōhakuri, Ātiamuri, Whakamaru, Maraetai and Waipapa. Of these, the 360-megawatt Maraetai dams generate the most power.
The Tongariro scheme, harnessing the waters of the Whanganui, Rangitīkei and Waikato/Tongariro river catchments, began in the 1960s. It involved diverting the headwaters of several catchments, often through massive tunnels, into the headwaters of the Tongariro River and to Lake Rotoaira. Electricity was generated at power stations at Rangipō and Tokaanu, which produced 120 and 200 megawatts respectively.
In 1906 the Volcanic Plateau had a Māori population of about 2,000, and a non-Māori population of about 3,100. In 2013 the region’s population was 98,187 – an almost twentyfold increase. New Zealand’s population increased fivefold in the same period.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the population grew fastest in Rotorua town – from just under 1,000 in 1896 to 2,000 in 1906 and 4,700 in 1926.
From then until the 1950s, growth was greatest in the farming districts between Rotorua and Taupō. By 1956 they had 2,561 inhabitants – up from 500 30 years earlier.
Once farms had been established, rural areas grew more slowly and towns faster. Rotorua’s population almost quadrupled between 1956 and 1976, from 12,302 to 46,650. Taupō’s increased more than fourfold, from 2,849 to 12,898.
Māori remained a significant part of the total population – around 25% in 1956, compared with about 30% in 1926.
From the mid-1970s, the population grew more slowly. This was due to a number of factors – the completion of hydroelectricity projects, forestry job losses, periods of recession, and the concentration of economic growth in Auckland. Rotorua district’s population barely increased between 1996 and 2013 – from 64,500 to just under 65,300. Taupō district’s population grew from 30,700 to 32,900.
The rise and fall of timber, hydroelectric and resort towns has produced marked variations in their relative populations.
Both Rotorua and Taupō districts have a high proportion of Māori residents, compared with New Zealand as a whole. In 2013, 37.5% of Rotorua’s population and 29.0% of Taupō’s was Māori, compared with the national figure of 14.9%. Rotorua’s Pacific and Asian populations (5.0% Pacific, 6.3% Asian) were higher than Taupō’s (2.7% and 3.5%), but still below the national averages.
The three pillars of the regional economy remain tourism, timber and farming. Tourism provides most jobs. The biggest employers, however, are government entities – the two district councils, the two public hospitals, Waiaraki Institute of Technology and SCION, a Crown research institute.
The advent of gaming machines in Rotorua, along with the large number of motels and hotels, prompted the coining of the name ‘Rotovegas’. This humorous and/or derogatory term also draws attention to the lawlessness which sometimes makes local headlines.
In 2013 the farming settlement of Reporoa (population 453) had a median income of $32,100, compared with $26,900 for the Rotorua district and $28,200 for Taupō. The former hydroelectric town of Mangakino (population 744) had a median income of just $17,000. Half of its population had no school qualifications, and 12.9% were unemployed.
Both Taupō and Rotorua are geographically divided by socio-economic indicators. In Taupō, Rifle Range Road divides a poorer northern and western zone from a wealthier eastern and southern one. Areas with lake views or easy lake access tend to be better off than those without either.
Rotorua’s most deprived areas are on the flat. Elevated neighbourhoods away from the lake – towards Tihiōtonga and the other lakes – tend to be wealthier. The city’s social and racial divisions have been captured in novels by Alan Duff (Once were warriors, 1990) and Craig Marriner (Stonedogs, 2001).
Te Arawa have had a close relationship with the government for many decades.
Ngāti Tūwharetoa held on to much of its land and has had a more even relationship with the Crown than many tribes.
For a long time central government had more influence over the Volcanic Plateau than local government.
Between the 1880s and the 1950s, the central government promoted the spa at Rotorua, introduced trout into lakes and rivers, built roads, ran schemes for electricity generation, land development and forestry, and set up new towns at Mangakino and Tūrangi.
County (rural) government was permanently set up in Rotorua in 1911, and first set up in Taupō in 1922.
Haane Manahi of Te Arawa was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his bravery in the battle of Takrouna, in North Africa in 1943 – but instead received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. In 1949 King George VI decided that no further awards would be made for service in the Second World War. Only in 2007 was the tribe reconciled to this, when Prince Andrew presented them with an altar cloth for St Faith’s church, a letter from the Queen recognising Manahi’s bravery, and a sword. The three gifts respectively acknowledged God, king and country – as in the famous marching song of 28 (Maori) Battalion.
An elected town council was set up in Rotorua in 1923. A town board was established in Taupō in 1946.
During the period of rapid growth after the Second World War, many government departments established regional offices in Rotorua for the Volcanic Plateau and Bay of Plenty.
In the 1980s and 1990s the government sold many of its farms, forests and power stations in the region.
The Rotorua town and county councils united in 1979, as did Taupō’s councils in 1989. Since 1989 the Rotorua lakes area has been covered by the Bay of Plenty regional council. The Reporoa district and Taupō are served by the Waikato regional council.
Rotorua has had its own seat in Parliament since 1919, and Taupō since 1963. For voters on the Māori roll, the region was part of the Eastern Māori electorate until 1993. Since then, it has been part of the Waiariki electorate, which also includes coastal Bay of Plenty.
Waiariki Institute of Technology (now Toi-Ohomai), set up in 1977, has its main campus in Rotorua and others in Taupō, Tokoroa, Tauanga and Whakatāne. Rotorua High School was established in 1927 and benefited from a Ngāti Whakaue endowment. Separate boys’ and girls’ high schools, and Western Heights high school, were established in 1958. Other Rotorua high schools are Rotorua Lakes and John Paul College. Schools that teach in te reo Māori include Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Koutū and Te Kura o Hīrangi. Reporoa, Taupō Nui-a-Tia, Tauhara and Tongariro are the region’s other high schools.
The Lakes District Health Board runs public hospitals at Rotorua and Taupō, and funds other health services, including Māori providers. The land for Rotorua Hospital was gifted by Ngāti Whakaue in 1881.
Since the 1920s, and increasingly since the 1950s, the region’s lakes have seen a summer influx of visitors to sunbathe, swim, waterski, or just mess about in boats.
According to writer Frank Sargeson, 1930s Rotorua was ‘not the overcrowded hive of garages which it has since become, having instead an attractive and even genuine touch of the village about it; and it was a particular pleasure that with the aid of the Cadillac we could appreciate thermal delights without having to suffer too much competition from other tourists … [T]he lake was enclosed by hills which [in the early] morning appeared to be entirely constituted of lapis lazuli, and soon began to dazzle my eyes as it was continuously showered with diamonds under the rising sun.’ 1
Rotorua – especially Lakes Okareka, Tarawera and Rotoiti – mostly drew visitors from Auckland. Taupō visitors came from Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and other parts of the lower North Island. In both districts motor camps and baches (small holiday houses) multiplied. They were empty for most of the year, but full in the weeks after Christmas.
The waters of the lakes can be treacherous. A boating accident in 1870 killed 18 Māori. Between 1955 and 1966, 17 people drowned in Lake Rotorua. The lives of four teenagers who drowned on the lake in 1963 were fictionalised in Fiona Kidman’s 2002 novel Songs from the Violet Café. Kidman lived in Rotorua from 1956 until 1970.
The first successful swim of the 40.2 kilometre length of Lake Taupō was by Margaret Sweeney on 30 January 1955.
From the 1960s retired people were an important component of the populations of both towns. In Taupō, people aged 65 and over made up 18.3% of the population in 2013, compared with 14.8% for the region as a whole.
Hinemoa is Rotorua’s most famous swimmer, renowned for her night-time expedition to meet her lover Tūtānekai on Mokoia Island. But many Rotorua Māori have been highly competent swimmers. In 1934, Bill Whareaitu represented New Zealand at the Empire Games in London. Nawi Kira, a young woman from Whakarewarewa, also achieved national prominence in the sport in the 1930s.
Golf courses particularly benefit from the patronage of retirees. The Wairākei international course, opened in 1970, caters for elite golfers.
The Rotorua rugby union was formed by five clubs in 1903. The region’s teams have been affiliated to a variety of provincial unions. From 1911, Rotorua teams played in Bay of Plenty competitions.
Until the 1960s, Taupō teams played in the Hawke’s Bay provincial competition, while teams at the southern end of the lake played in the King Country competition. Taupō joined the King Country union competition in the 1980s.
Direct flights between Sydney and Rotorua – the city's first international service – began in December 2009.
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Rangiteaorere, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tahu
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)
Cooper, Barbara. The remotest interior: a history of Taupo. Tauranga: Moana, 1989.
Grace, John Te H. Tuwharetoa: the history of the Maori people of the Taupo district. Auckland: Reed, 1992 (originally published 1959).
Stafford, D. M. The founding years in Rotorua: a history of events to 1900. Auckland and Rotorua: Ray Richards and Rotorua District Council, 1986.
Stafford, D. M. The new century in Rotorua: a history of events from 1900. Auckland and Rotorua: Ray Richards and Rotorua District Council, 1988.
Stafford, D. M. Te Arawa: a history of the Arawa people. Auckland: Reed, 2002.
Stafford, Don, Roger Steele and Joan Boyd, eds. Rotorua 1880–1980. Rotorua: Rotorua and District Historical Society, 1980.