The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 4 (July 1, 1939)
(Rly. Publicity photos.)
Roto-Iti, the Little Lake, is the second jewel in that irregular chain of water which lies like a necklace of precious stones across the lap of the Rotorua uplands.
Steep mountain faces run down to Roto-Iti; there are forest-clad reaches, and white bluffs sliding into deep-blue water, and there are pale satin shallows where the lonely bittern booms in the reed-beds. Roto-Iti touches Rotorua by the thin silver link of the Ohau Channel; the main road to Tauranga passes between the two lakes by way of a bridge. At Okere the waters find outlet, rushing in strange abandon from the shallows of the lake in a clear green, glassy river, hurtling over the white drop of the Okere Falls, tumbling and zig-zagging in the dark gorges of the mountain country, until, passing through the green farming lands of the coast, the cold upland waters mingle with the blue salt tide of the Pacific.
Roto-Iti is very old in Maori history. Long, long before the coming of the white man, its grim headlands were ditched and terraced; sentinel posts crowned the heights; palisaded villages looked down sheer slopes upon the still mountain water. From bay to bay, through the long centuries, pealed the sound of the war-conch, harsh as vengeance.
It was here, little more than a hundred years ago, that the great sealord of the North, Hongi Hika, came portaging his war-canoes overland from Roto-Ehu by a road, which his warriors built in one night through the virgin forest. The main highway from Rotorua to Whakatane runs through Hongi's Track now, and the service cars flash under the green gloom of the long bush aisles which were once sacred to Tane the Forest-Lord.
But if you turn aside from the road, your feet will carry you by dim mossy pathways and cathedral pillars of fernsheathed tree-boles, by small shelving beaches where the peacock-blue waters of the lake lap the snow-white sand. In the forests of Roto-Iti, the fairies live. Your pakeha eyes may not be able to see them, but perhaps you have wondered why the long graceful fronds of the tree-fern droop so low. It is because the Little Green Ones, the Spirit-Elves of Tane, have perched there.
Close to Roto-Iti lies the amazing cauldron of thermal activity that is Tikitere. It is a hell of bubbling water and hissing mud, of garishly coloured scars upon the green earth, of strange springs leaping from fantastic rocks, of great steam-plumes billowing against the blue sky.
A few hundred yards away, just across the road, is a curious contrast. It is the cold tranquil crater lake of Roto-Kawau, held in steep circular cliffs of bushland, a cup of water as blue as a liquid sapphire. Of all the lakes of the thermal country, surely Roto-Kawau must be the least and loveliest!
Round about the farther shores of Roto-Iti, there is beauty of another kind, for here, upon the cool blue bays and inlets, are the cottages and dwellings of the holiday settlements. The road to Tauranga and the coast is conveniently close; many Tauranga residents own a cottage and boat at Roto-Iti, and spend lazy holidays and weekends through the summer, enjoying the safe boating and lake bathing, the fishing, and the cooler nights of the upland country.
But Roto-Iti is a lake of many moods. It is, perhaps, at its loveliest on a frosty winter morning, with the water as blue as a peacock's throat, and the low hills white as snow. In summer the water is pale and smooth as satin, shining with some strange subterranean light. But when the thunder-clouds hang low over the mountains, then the lake waters turn dark as steel, sombre and threatening beneath a storm-filled sky. Sunset is tranquillity. Long after the dazzling path of the sun has faded from the water, the colour lingers, until the hills grow dark and the first stars appear.
To a fisherman there is no lovelier sight than the evening rise of a trout, the splash, and the delicacy of the widening ripples. Great shining rainbows leap and play in the shallows of Roto-Iti, when the flies skim low across the tranquil surface. Favourite spot of fishermen is the Ohau Channel, beside the peaceful little saw-mill village of Mourea. The Channel is narrow, and the banks easy, and in the glassy green waters fine fighting fish disport themselves.
The Ohau Channel directly links the two lakes, Rotorua and Roto-Iti. Fishing and boating parties from Rotorua sail straight through the Channel, and have their choice of all the bays and reaches of Roto-Iti. On a calm summer afternoon, white launches and sailing-boats glide through the blue water that was once cleft by the fierce prows of Hongi's war-canoes. By the beaches where the wild war-cry once echoed, the fisherman hears the silken whisper of his cast, and the zipping song of the reel with a fine eightpounder fighting.
By the shores of Roto-Iti the Murillo or Spanish cherries grow.
If you drive in December along the lake roads, the Maori children will stop your car, and offer to sell you small flax-woven baskets of the bright fruit. The trees are very old now, bowed and gnarled, weathered grey by the long years of frost and rain and sunshine. They were planted as slender little whips away back in the old days when the black-robed Catholic missionaries sought to spread the religion of the Cross among the grim dignified fighting people of the Rotorua uplands.
When the brave little twigs broke into blossom in that unhomelike country by the strange lake shores where the swift-flowing springs boiled opal and green out of the trembling rocks, and the great steam-plumes burgeoned upward against the sombre face of the bush-clad mountain, the heart of the exiles must surely have turned wistfully back to their own blue Provencal country, with its grey stone walls running by peaceful villages, and olive-groves glistening kindly in the sunlight.
The missionaries are gone now, and their little wayside shrines are vanished, but the cherry trees still blossom in the lakeside settlements beside the white sand and the steam-plumes, and the deep Italian blue of the mountain water. The fruit has an odd lingering tang, so that, having once tasted it, you cannot completely forget it, but years later, and perhaps thousands of miles away, on thirsty days, you may find your mind turning back to Spanish cherries, and to the blue waters of Roto-Iti.