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Heritage and Culture

Geothermal resources have been an integral part of Maori culture for hundreds of years, with the Bay of Plenty’s Te Arawa people regarding them as a taonga (treasure) and a gift from Atua (gods and spirits).

Maori have traditionally used heated waters for cooking, washing, bathing, heating, preserving, ceremonial use and healing. Rotorua was also the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand, with visitors travelling from throughout the world since the 1800s to experience the region’s geothermal wonders and Maori hospitality.

The resource remains integral to Maori culture today, particularly in Rotorua, which has one of the largest and most active geothermal fields in the world. Examples of its rich heritage include the communities of Whakarewarewa Valley geothermal field – the most visited tourist attraction in New Zealand – and Ohinemutu, and the more recent Victorian setting of Government Gardens, the Bathhouse (now the Rotorua Museum) and the Blue Baths. For more information on Maori customary use, see the book of research on the subject by the Department of Geography at the University of Waikato: The Legacy of Ngatoroirangi (warning file size 33MB). That book is also the source for the historical photos on this webpage.

The legend of how geothermal activity came to the Bay of Plenty

The earliest legends speak of a man named Ngatoroirangi, a tohunga (priest) from Hawaiki who guided the Te Arawa waka (canoe) to New Zealand.

Anxious to explore, he travelled down the east coast from Maketu, until he reached the Tarawera River. There, he turned inland and travelled up the river to the peak of Mt Tarawera and on until he finally reached the magnificent mountains that now form the Tongariro National Park. As he neared the top of the highest peak, he was affected by an intense cold so severe, he feared he would die.

In desperation he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiki (said to be the ancestral home of all Maori before they came to New Zealand) to send fire to warm him.

His sisters heard Ngatoroirangi’s prayer and called upon the fire demons to go to their brother’s aid. So Te Pupu and Te Hoata plunged into the sea and swam across the Pacific Ocean.

Each time the fire demons lifted their heads into the air from deep within the earth’s crust – first at Whakaari/White Island), then at Moutohora (Whale) Island, Awakeri, Rotoehu, Rotoiti, Rotorua, Whakarewarewa, Tarawera, Orakeikorako, Taupo, and Turangi – they left a steaming, bubbling trail of thermal activity in their wake.

Like a flash of lightening the demons burst through the enormous cone of Tongariro, arriving as Ngatoroirangi lay near death.

The volcanic heat brought by the fire demons slowly revived Ngatoroirangi, spreading warmth through his veins and sending life to his muscle and bone. He named the mountain Tongariro to commemorate the cold south wind that almost killed him.

And so it is that volcanic and thermal activity came to the region.

Source: Edited from the book Te Whakarewarewa by Don Stafford.

For more information, visit

web TLoNbook Cultural use Ohinemutu c1900 p175

web TLoNbook Whakarewarewa cooking p184