The 44-hectare Te Aroha Domain was gazetted as a recreation ground in 1881and has been restored with such painstaking attention to detail that you almost expect a sophisticated Edwardian lady to swan past at any moment, her voluptuous dress and whalebone corset shaded beneath a parasol. The Domain still exudes the tranquillity which made it a preferred destination for the ‘carriage trade’ to ‘take the waters’.
The track starts from the Mokena Geyser in Te Aroha Domain.
Domain Lower Walk 15 minutes one-way
Domain Upper Walk 15 minutes one-way
The Domain Upper Walk climbs gently, passing the junction with the Whakapipi Lookout Track after 5 minutes. It undulates through forest to meet the junction with the track to Wyborn Pool.
Continue right on the Domain Lower Walk to return to the Mokena Geyser. This track is mostly sealed and of a more gentle gradient than the Upper Walk.
The Mokena Geyser is the only natural hot soda spring geyser in the world and erupts a 5-metre-high jet every 40 minutes.
The taking of regular exercise was a popular treatment in Edwardian times and a shaded walk through the forest provided the perfect tonic. Patients convalescing at Te Aroha would stop at numerous drinking taps which bordered the present-day walk.
Each tap was serviced by a different spring, all with differing mineral compositions and healing qualities. The water with a high concentration of bicarbonate of soda was often prescribed to prim and well-mannered ladies suffering from a ‘lack of regularity’. The constipation was caused by low fibre diets, hard physical labour and uncomfortable whale-bone corsets. Despite interminable flatulence the cure was well-proven.
The taps still border the path, although the dragonheads and statuettes of the ornamental surroundings have disappeared. Also lost and overgrown are the secret gardens, which led off from the main track.
During Te Aroha’s heyday of the late 1800s, it received wide publicity in the tourist literature and attracted more bathers than Rotorua. Visitors much preferred a trip to Te Aroha, as the journey from Auckland allowed relaxation aboard a boat to Thames, then a leisurely and dignified cruise aboard the steamship Kotuku, which plied the Waihou River. A trip to Rotorua involved bumping and rattling a further 64 kilometres over the Mamakus in a Cobb and Co. carriage.
During the mid 1900s public attitudes towards spas shifted. As the motorcar developed and people became more mobile, the beach became the preferred setting for relaxation. Pharmaceutical ‘cures’ and improving diets diminished the need for lengthy periods of convalescence at a spa. Te Aroha, like many other New Zealand spa resorts, fell into partial decline.
The Great Spa of the South Seas
Te Aroha Hot Springs Domain has been restored with such painstaking attention to detail that to cast the imagination back to its heyday of Edwardian elegance is as easy as melting into one of its therapeutic spa pools. The 44-hectare Domain, which was gazetted as a recreation ground in 1881, still exudes the tranquillity which made it a preferred destination for the ‘carriage trade’ to ‘take the waters’. The setting is so fitting, a sophisticated Edwardian lady could swan past at any moment, her voluptuous dress and whalebone corset shaded beneath a parasol.
The therapeutic properties of the mineral waters were well known to local Maori, who would send warriors with rheumatism and aged wahines with ailments to relax in the selection of known springs. As the springs were salty, they thought the springs emanated from the sea, cleaving an underground passage through the mountain.
In 1845, the resident Rahiri hapu of Ngati Maru invited Sir George Grey for a dip. Grey was disappointed with the muddy tepid hole, noting the water’s discolouration through the tincture of iron. He was unable to stay longer and thus missed the opportunity to be more impressed with one of the other 17 known springs.
From the late 1870s, the New Zealand Government became keen to develop a spa in the South Seas, which would compete with the long established European resorts such as Bath, Baden-Baden, and Aix-les-Bains.
To attract the wealthy European classes, the Government knew any such development would have to be adorned with the cultural fineries to lure the well-heeled clientele 19,000 kilometres around the world. Dignified architecture, ornamental hotels and cultural accoutrements were needed to supplement the bare basics of a spa and health retreat.
In 1881 the Thermal Springs Districts Act was passed, which allowed the Government to purchase hot spring areas such as Te Aroha. The first bath was the rather unglamorous housing of an upright piano case, which was sunk into the depression of a spring. A zinc-lined packing case was the next improvement.
Two bathhouses were constructed in 1883 and following a government grant of £200 in 1884, a women’s bathhouse was erected. Mr H. Crump was the civil engineer entrusted with planning and laying out the initial 20 acres of the Domain. He obviously had an eye for development in sympathy with the contours of the land, as he preserved the natural beauty of the site’s undulations.
From 1885 Te Aroha received wide publicity in the tourist literature and quickly attracted more bathers than Rotorua. Visitors much preferred a trip to Te Aroha as the journey from Auckland allowed relaxation aboard a boat to Thames, followed by a leisurely and dignified cruise aboard the steamship Kotuku, which plied the Waihou River. The journey could easily be accomplished in a day. A trip to Rotorua involved bumping and rattling a further 64 kilometres over the Mamakus in a Cobb and Co carriage.
23,224 baths were taken at Te Aroha in 1885, a figure which had risen to over 30,000 by 1887, four times as many as Rotorua. The success of the facilities prompted further expansion, capped in late 1886 by the appointment of Dr Alfred Wright as physician to the Thermal Springs Domain.
Dr Wright waxed lyrical in the modest and passive writing style of the day in his tourist brochure Te Aroha, New Zealand. A Guide for Invalids and Visitors to the Thermal Springs and Baths, published in 1887. On the subject of Te Aroha’s rivalry with Rotorua, Dr Wright was very clear. “At Te Aroha there are no subterranean rumblings, tremblings, and other volcanic disturbances of a more or less appalling character, such as are perpetually taking place at Rotorua, and which render the place quite unsuitable as a resort for nervous invalids.”
He was also enthusiastic about Te Aroha’s location. “A stroll along the river side under the shadow of the bush is in the summer very enjoyable, but the most attractive walks are to be found in the Domain grounds within the enclosure of which are situated the whole of the thermal springs.”
“Now as to the Hot Springs themselves, the celebrity of which is becoming so widespread. Their medicinal and therapeutic properties are such as cannot fail to bring them into the highest repute, and as their rare virtues become more generally known it is confidently expected that Te Aroha is destined ere long to become the chief sanatorium of the Australasian colonies.”
Early testimonials were complimentary about the curative properties of the waters. The right Reverend O. Hadfield, Bishop of Wellington, spent several weeks at Te Aroha after suffering a fall and severe back pains. After his visit, he wrote to the Domain Board, stating, “I am now almost entirely free from pain, and able to walk a moderate distance. I found the baths warm, hot and very hot…I express my appreciation for the courtesy I have received from those in charge.”
By this time over £2000 had been spent on bathing houses, reservoirs, piping and grounds. Further refinements included a lawn tennis court, apparatus for maypole dances for the youngsters and, on summer evenings, the Te Aroha Brass Band rendered musical selections. Of the seven bathhouses, one was set aside for women and two shallow pools catered for children. Dr Wright described another “bathhouse a distance from the rest which is set apart for the sole use of the natives.”
Lacking pharmaceuticals, doctors of the time would often prescribe a course of ‘taking the waters’ to cure ailments such as arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints.
Women often wore whalebone corsets, which crushed their internal organs. They helped men break in the land, often working long hours under physically strenuous conditions. It was common to have 8-10 children. The bread flour was poor in fibre and vegetables were traditionally boiled to a pulp. By the time most women reached 35, they suffered from a ‘lack of regularity’.
As some spring waters at Te Aroha contained a high concentration of bicarbonate of soda, many constipated ladies were prescribed two pints per day. The interminable flatulence was so fierce that the usually prim and well-mannered ladies ceased to care for the cultural prohibitions placed on such behaviour. Palatable mineral waters were bottled and sold from 1886 and in 1888 were exhibited at the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition.
Dr Wright espoused the diuretic effects of the drinking water, stating, “the largest amount of carbonic acid contained in them assists to bring about a complete absorption of the mineral water, thus temporarily raising the flow of blood considerably, and increasing in a corresponding degree the secretion of urine by the kidneys for some hours after.”
Early analysis of Te Aroha’s various spas noted the waters contained heavy percentages of bicarbonate of soda, chloride of sodium and silica. Other essences included sulphate of lime, magnesium, potash and phosphate of soda, ammonia and iron. All waters were tested as feebly alkaline. In composition they were favourable compared to those of Vichy, Ems and Fachingen in Europe.
Another popular course of treatment involved the taking of regular exercise. Te Aroha was well furnished in this respect, perched at the foot of Mount Te Aroha and affording sweeping views of the Hauraki Plains. A shaded walk through the bird filled pongas and manuka behind the Domain provided the perfect tonic.
Numerous taps servicing springs with different mineral compositions lined the path and dragonheads and statuettes decorated fittings and basins. The gardening fashion at the time had a penchant for themed gardens, accessed through a leafy portal or decorated arch. Secret gardens leading off from the main path where shaded by the dense fronds of pongas and the fern garden was resplendent in verdant greenery. The sweet aromas of the bush rose and lavender gardens imbued the recuperating patients with serenity and tranquillity, a panacea for their ills.
The evening entertainments would have taken place in one of the grandiose hotels such as the Hot Springs Hotel, where dances or concerts were held on the famed balcony. Gentlemen could play billiards while the women frequented sitting rooms with pianos. Visitors could walk along the river, visit the Waiorongomai goldfields, walk around the Domain or up to the Spur. By 1887, Te Aroha outshone Rotorua as a cultural centre.
The construction of the Cadman Bath House was the pinnacle of Te Aroha’s opulence and luxury. It was opened amongst much pomp and ceremony by Honourable A.J. Cadman, Minister of Mines and Minister of Railways on the 24th May 1898, Queen Victoria’s birthday. He declared the buildings, equipment and fittings would make Te Aroha one of the most outstanding holiday towns in New Zealand. A visit here was indeed an experience comparable to the pamperings of a European spa.
Te Aroha’s popularity continued until public attitudes shifted, the motorcar developed and the beach became the preferred setting for relaxation. Pharmaceutical ‘cures’ and improving diets diminished the need for lengthy periods of convalescence at a spa. Te Aroha, like many other New Zealand spa resorts, fell into partial decline. The Cadman Bath House closed in 1961.
North Island ▷ Waikato ▷ Te Aroha
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