Thermal springs are found in many parts of New Zealand. They are formed when rainwater seeps down through rock towards the heat source deep beneath the surface and then rises again. In the process, the hot water dissolves minerals in the rock.

European settlers and travellers were quick to see the benefits of New Zealand’s thermal resources. They noted the uses Maoris made of them and wanted to try them for themselves.  Nude communal bathing for men was the rule: women bathed alone or in secluded pools. (Sex-segregated nude bathing remained common well into the 20th century.)

1st pool at Hanmer Springs (


Some entrepreneurs soon saw the economic potential of hot springs. In 1845, Scottish businessman Robert Graham purchased land at Waiwera, 48 kilometres north of Auckland. The area was known to Māori as ‘the doctor’, and those with health issues would sit in the thermal waters that appeared when a hole was dug in the sand. In 1875 Robert began promoting the Waiwera spa to Aucklanders and within a short time, it became very popular with them.

At this time, Māori were pressured to provide access to hot springs on their ancestral lands. But because Europeans frequently objected to sharing pools with them separate bathing arrangements often developed.

In the summer of 1874 politician William Fox toured the central North Island thermal regions and also saw their potential as a source of great wealth to the country. In 1881 the government obtained about 2,000 hectares around Lake Rotorua, including all the best springs. Rotorua was declared a township and its development as a health resort and tourist centre began. In 1882, at Sulphur Point (later known as the Government Gardens) a cluster of bathhouses were built. In 1881, at Te Aroha, north-east of Hamilton, eight hectares was gifted to the Crown by the local Maori chief on condition that Māori could continue to use the waters. On this gifted land, the government ordered the construction of bathhouses, and by 1885 more people were visiting Te Aroha than Rotorua, because of the rail link to Auckland. Only after 1894, when the railway reached Rotorua, was Te Aroha’s popularity eclipsed. The only government constructed swimming pools and bathhouses in the South Island were built at Hanmer Springs in 1883.

In the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, public money developed springs at Maruia on the West Coast, Mōrere and Te Puia on the east coast of the North Island, Parakai near the Kaipara Harbour, and the Armed Constabulary Baths near Taupō. At this time, people had great faith in the power of bathing in mineral water to cure arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, and to improve conditions as diverse as gout, impotence, obesity, haemorrhoids, liver disorders and eye problems. Drinking mineral water was done to improve digestive disorders, but was sometimes recommended for insomnia, goitre and even syphilis.

Bathing or drinking were the most common ways to ‘take the waters’. But people also inhaled steam, wallowed in hot mud, or were given massage or spray baths, especially at larger spas such as Rotorua. Government medical officers advised on the curative properties of different kinds of water, and supervised treatments. Today, drinking the water is a ‘no-no’ due to the high level of contaminants found in the water’s natural state.


Maintenance of the spa complexes was extremely costly. The materials used in Rotorua’s elaborate bathhouse proved unsuitable for the steamy, acidic atmosphere in the steam rooms. Even before the building opened, the white furniture began to turn black as lead in the paint reacted with hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere. In 1910 plaster began to come away from the walls in several rooms, and when it began to fall from the ceiling safety concerns arose. By the 1940s the building was extremely run down, and remained in a dilapidated state until it was handed over to the Rotorua City Council in 1966.

In 1971 the government sold off their thermal resorts. In fact, the spas had never been as profitable as hoped. Rotorua was losing money by 1905, and Hanmer by 1909 and both Hanmer and Te Aroha experienced problems with their supply of thermal water. A dowser was engaged at Hanmer in 1911 to locate more water and bores were drilled that year and again in 1936. At Te Aroha the search for more thermal water continued until 1956 when it was closed down.


By the end of the 1920s, roads had improved and more New Zealanders travelled in their own cars. As a result, remote hot springs became more accessible. Outdoor pursuits including mixed bathing appealed to family and social groups, and during the 1920s and 1930s some thermal resorts constructed large swimming pools. At Rotorua the Blue and Ward swimming baths became extremely popular from the early 1930s. Mōrere and Te Puia on the North Island’s East Coast, Crystal Springs and Opal Springs near Matamata, Waingaro Hot Springs near Hamilton, the AC Baths at Taupō, Miranda Hot Springs on the Firth of Thames, Parakai and Kamo north of Auckland, and Awakeri in the Bay of Plenty were just some of the well-known swimming destinations that flourished up till the 1970s. Pools well off the beaten track were developed. Welcome Flat hot pools, 17 kilometres up the Copland River in Westland National Park, was a popular bush walker’s destination which offered three shallow pools lined with thick green mud.


Between 1901 and 1920 several bathers died at covered baths at Kamo, suffocating when carbon dioxide displaced the oxygen in the confined space. High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas have killed a number of people using pools in the Rotorua area and there were nine fatal cases of amoebic meningitis between 1968 and 2000. The amoeba Naegleria fowleri lives in soil surrounding unlined or natural hot pools and can sometimes be found in the water. Diving into such pools or even immersing the head in them can be fatal. Untreated geothermal water is no longer used in swimming pools, and bathers are warned to keep their heads above water in natural pools.


From the late 19th century, bottling mineral water was big business and was marketed as ‘a medicinal, invigorating and cooling draught and purifier of the blood’. Still known today, Lemon and Paeroa, or L&P, has morphed into a soft drink. Named after the town where the spring was located, the drink has been a New Zealand favourite since 1907.


Today some thermal resorts are enjoying a boom. Visitor numbers at Hanmer Springs have increased year on year since 1999. Facilities such as water slides are an added attraction for tourists and holidaymakers. The showcasing of Māori traditional knowledge and history gives unique character to some redeveloped pools such as Wai Ora Spa at Rotorua and Tokaanu Thermal Baths. Health and beauty treatments have been revived at former government spas in Rotorua and Hanmer Springs. In these stressful times, hot pools are once again seen as places of both relaxation and healing.

Ceidrik Heward

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