Sulfur Fumes in Eden

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There is something rotten in New Zealand and it appears to be eggs. One whole town smells of eggs gone bad. It’s hard to believe that its Maori name, Rotorua, doesn’t actually mean “rotten eggs,” but “two lakes”. Firstly, there is only one lake, and secondly, how could anyone miss the most characteristic (literary breathtaking) feature of the place and name it instead after some phantom lakes? Well, the Maori can. Poets to the bones!

Another amazing fact is that the incredible popularity of the small smelly town still hasn’t managed to convince the world’s leading perfume designers to create a hydrogen sulphide based essence. “Saturated, lasting scent of decay, intertwined with the delicate aroma of something long dead, and dominated by the refreshing odour of freshly spilled rotten eggs.” Who could possibly resist the seduction of the senses?! More than one million tourists annually disembark into stinky Rotorua. From around the world! Obviously, in order to enjoy its irresistible aromas. Why else? The success of CHANEL “Rotorua” is inevitable! But the perfume industry is apparently blind to this unexploited market niche, and so all passionate lovers of sulphur smells still have to visit New Zealand regularly, to indulge in their pleasures.

Rotorua Industriously Steams and Smokes into Spa Fame

Nestled comfortably in the caldera of the peacefully napping volcano, curled like a cat around its eponymous lake, New Zealand's oldest tourist town, Rotorua, steams and smokes in a very industrious manner. In 1870, Prince Alfred himself recognized the immense powers of the stinky fog and asphyxiating fumes, and encouraged the New Zealand Government to build a bathhouse. Translated into modern English, that means "spa.” At that time, just like today, it was the height of fashion for civilised society to go to baths and hydrotherapy all over the world, so Rotorua instantly became a global spa centre.

Well, in truth, at the beginning, most visitors preferred to rehabilitate and beautify themselves at the nearby thermal lake Rotomahana, in its famous, impossibly pretty White and Pink Terraces (or “Paradise Clouds” in Maori – What did I tell you? Such a poetic tribe, they just can’t help themselves.). But this competition didn’t last long.

One night in June 1886, the seemingly dormant volcano Tarawira awoke angrily, erupted with mad power, and within hours annihilated without a trace of discrimination terraces, lakes, villages, forest and tourists, turning the region into a catastrophic landscape of hot mud and ash. After this macabre drama, no one ever dared to compete with Rotorua and the little town quickly prospered.

And no wonder! The valley and its surroundings are like a 24/7, year-round amusement park. Geysers, Maori settlements, dormant and very awake volcanoes, boiling lakes and smoking valleys, hot springs and trout streams, islands, legends, natural parks and adrenaline adventures, Polynesian massages, dances and cuisine, and of course, plenty of amazing asphyxiating hydrogen sulphide fumes. Volcanology, fishing, traditions and the relentless smell of rotten eggs - what more could a tourist wish for?

Just a little Hellish adventure, apparently.

Hell's Gate

Whether New Zealand is the last paradise on earth could be argued, I suppose (although it isn’t advisable, because the poetic Maori are also notoriously proud with their homeland and notoriously touchy and scary), but I think the resemblance is uncanny, especially in cumulonimbus terms. Judging by the works of Renaissance artists and Eastern Orthodox painters who outcompeted each other in decorating the domes of churches and cathedrals with fluffy clouds, Heaven must be a pretty cloudy place. There isn’t a single basilica or cathedral in the world that isn’t dominated by the cumulus clouds of Eden.

In turn, the significant overcast suggests that rainfall isn’t a rare event in the heavenly realms either. And any place where it rains a lot is green, clean and cool, right? Well, then all doubts are defeated. The perpetually rainy, cloudy, cool, green, clean and untouched Aotearoa – The Land of the Long White Cloud is Heaven.

It is a great paradox then to find out (using an Internet search engine and contradicting the claims of Dante Alighieri in his “Inferno”) that Hell’s Gate is not anywhere else, but in the heart of Earth’s paradise - in the peaceful, modestly veiled in geothermal steam Rotorua. The smell of sulphur and clouds of steam throughout the town (from the boiling cauldrons and the infernal flames, of course) leave no room for doubt. Sorry, Poet! Google wins. Google vs. Dante, 1: 0.

Read more about Rotorua New Zealand at
Because we just happen to be in the right age group, “in the middle of the journey of our life,” and are in Rotorua already, we decide to follow literally the detailed instructions of the ”Divine Comedy” and head enthusiastically to Hell’s Gate - New Zealand’s most active volcanic geothermal area. Some say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Not at all! We didn’t see a single intention in the fog. Our observations revealed that the road to Hell is paved with very ordinary-looking asphalt. Wet. (Any visitor would be quick to notice that there aren’t any other asphalt varieties in New Zealand.)

Others deceived us for centuries (in gorgeous Italian verse) that an inscription hanging over Hell’s Gate warns visitors: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Well, yes – there is a sign there, but it actually reads: “Haere Mai!”, i.e. “Welcome!” or “Enter!” in Maori. And the ominous figures guarding the entrance are not tailed, horned devils with tridents, but carved Maori deities with traditional military weapons, eyes made out of shiny seashells and scary tattooed faces.

Narrow wandering paths lead us through a lifeless moonscape to the Devil’s Bath – a fetid pit of poisonous green steaming slime. The Wicked One is nowhere to be seen (Phew!) - apparently today is not his day for bathing. A little further, hidden behind mystical curtains of steam is the Sulphuric Bath. Even smellier (if at all possible), but this time in lemon-yellow bright shades, among hills of smoking crystallised sulphur. Implies not so much sin and suffering, but rather an industrial disaster, probably an exploded chemical plant.

The Devil’s Bath is followed by the Devil’s Cauldron, Smoking Rocks, Mud Volcano, Devil’s Throat, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Inferno - more creepy variations of furiously bubbling hot mud, hissing, burping and splashing miasma, geysers, hot springs and streams of steaming stones, and puddles of sulphuric acid. Smells and colours vary, but only within the narrow range of the unbearable and suffocating mud-yellow-greens, showing the poor imagination of Hell’s designers. (And the odd nature of the tourist phenomenon– a human being, who actually seeks and enjoys such experiences.)

Information boards helpfully display the temperature and chemical composition of the many lakes and springs - mainly in life-threatening combinations, certainly not recommended for rejuvenating procedures - and the thickness of the earth crust beneath our feet - just 100 meters, thinnest in the world. We are close to the Underworld!

And Yet...

Thermal waterfalls offer a nice change of scenery and a breath of fresh air among the entire foul gurgle around. The water temperature - 40 degrees Celsius, almost tempts us to follow the ancient custom of the Maori warriors who healed their bodies and souls here after battle. Unfortunately the Maori name O-Te-Mimi-O-Te-Kakahi - “Kakahi’s Urine” quickly kills any desire for bathing.

Just when my brain, dizzy from the prolonged inhalation of hydrogen sulphide compounds, starts wondering why the hell they didn’t give us oxygen masks at the entrance, the winding alley graciously brings us to the exit, where we can spy in the spa complex. The view is almost as described by Dante – naked bodies in a pool of bubbling, ominously steaming, stinking mud, but the happy smiles of the spa users spoil the dramatic effect and leave an impression of heavenly bliss, rather than eternal suffering. If this is Hell, I am heading there right now! (In general, Dante’s guide proved extremely unreliable factually – it appears it might need a new updated edition for the contemporary reader and traveller.)

Safely escaping the Kingdom of Evil, we find (or rather lose) ourselves once again in the cloudy rainy atmosphere of Rotorua. Still stinking of sulphur and rotten eggs. But this time, happy to have returned alive from the edge of the Inferno, we breathe the hydrogen sulphide fog deeply with obvious pleasure. Smiling insanely.

Crazy people! Tourists.

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Izabela Shopova was born in Varna, Bulgaria in 1971. She then moved to New Zealand and became a kiwi. She travels a lot and writes whenever she happened to be home for a while. Wherever her home happened to be. She is also the author of East in Eden which tells the heartfelt, and hilarious story of Shopova’s six years in New Zealand. Including, of course, Rotorua. Winner of numerous travel writing awards and author of three successful books, Izabela Shopova now lives and writes in Australia. East of Eden is available from all major retailers or go online and order at East of Eden at Amazon

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: April 28th, 2015

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