The History – Te Tāhuhu Kōrero

Gifted to the city by Ngāti Whakaue, the Rotorua lakefront reserve covers almost eight hectares and was originally a waka landing site for Ngāti Whakaue who lived at Kawaha Point, Mokoia Island, Owhata, Ohinemutu and Maketu. Portions of it were named; Kouramawhitiwhiti, Maraekukuta, Te Ana-a-kakahi, Te Whakahoro, and Te Kiri-o-te-Hinarere. A hot pool, known as Te Wai-o-Tunuhopu, was once located west of the current wharf area. It was named after the Chief Tunuhopu who regularly bathed there. This feature, along with other lake edge features, were lost when extensive lakefront reclamation work happened in the 1930s.

The lakefront reserve has three distinct divisions: the Village Green (bordered by Whakaue Street, Tutanekai Street and Memorial Drive), the Soundshell (bordered by Lake Road and Lake Rotorua) and the War Memorial Park. The Village Green is the oldest part of the reserve, comprising the original public domain area.

Rotorua Lakefront jetty, date unknown.
Photograph by Edward W Payton (1859-1944)
Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (OP1411)

With the development of Rotorua township in the 1890s, also came development of the reserve. Activity on the lake was increasing during this period with the lakefront being used as a base for transport operations to Mokoia Island, but also Rotoiti, Te Ngae and Hamurana. The increasing number of boats on Lake Rotorua saw the need for better facilities and so a wharf was eventually built in 1896. The wharf’s location marked the original end of Tutanekai Street. This wharf was abandoned in the late 1920s and a new one was built in its present location. The first fuel pump was installed on the wharf in 1966 and floatplane operations commenced in 1968.

The people of Rotorua had always been conscious of the part visitors played in its economy, and were always looking for ways to attract more. As early as 1902 a committee began planning for a carnival to take place on the Village Green. The carnival took place in 1903 and ran for almost a week. It was the first of an annual event, which would take place for the next seventy years or so.

Rotorua 30,000 Club Soundshell, date unknown.
Photographer unknown.
Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (OP817)

By the end of the Second World War, major improvements were planned for the Lakefront area, including a newly reclaimed bit of land west of the wharf. It was proposed to build a Soundshell in this area for outdoor concerts and this was aided by the formation of the ‘Rotorua 30,000 Club’. The club raised funds and work started on its construction towards the end of 1947. By February 1948, although not complete The Soundshell was used for its first concert. However by 1954, the original Soundshell was considered not fit for purpose, and the 30,000 Club again contributed to the construction of a new, more permanent, building. The building was built to cater for indoor and outdoor entertainment and conferences. The Soundshell building became the site of concerts, events, conferences, market, as well as a restaurant and nightclub over the space of its 60-year lifespan.

Rotorua Lakefront (1949)
Taken by W.G. Bergman for NZ Herald.
Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-H762.
Rotorua Lakefront (1963)
Alexander Turnbull Library. WA-61006-F.

In 1958, a War Memorial Park, next to the Village Green, was built to commemorate those who served in the Second World War. Fundraising began in 1951, and in 1955, contracts were given for both the reclamation of the eastern part of the lakefront and the construction of the memorial gates. At the opening ceremony on Anzac Day 1958, the Hon. R. Boord, Minister of Customs, opened the lakefront park and Archdeacon R. Hodgson dedicated the memorial gates at the entrance to Memorial Drive. The roll of honour on the gates consisted of four granite tablets listing the names, ranks and serial numbers of 93 men from the area who had been killed on active service.

On 8 October 1972, an olive tree gifted by the people of Crete to the NZ Veterans of the Battle of Crete was planted near to the Council building at the time before being eventually relocated to near the gates on Memorial Drive.

War Memorial Drive (2010)
Taken by Ang Wickham

In April 1993, the Council and the RSA redeveloped the area at the entrance to Memorial Drive, and added plaques commemorating the Malayan Emergency and Korean and Vietnam Wars. On 13 August 2000, the Burma Star Association (NZ) also unveiled a memorial plaque honouring all who had served in the Burma Campaign.

Rotorua’s first recorded playground equipment at the lakefront was a merry-go-round, gifted “to the children of Rotorua” by local bakers Mr. and Mrs. Graeff in 1929. In 1981, a ‘galleon’ ship was constructed and proved extremely popular. However, it was removed in 1993, as it no longer conformed to safety standards. Following this, the Volcanic Playground on Lakefront Drive was completed in 1995, thanks to a large push from community fundraisers – led by the late Harold Holmes.

Rotorua Lakefront (1993)
Rotorua District Council

The last time the lakefront reserve saw major changes was in 1992, when after more than three years of planning and research, the Council worked towards a full redevelopment of the lakefront and City Centre at a cost of over $20 million dollars. The lakefront redevelopment included the installation of new paving, lighting, seating and landscaping, stormwater works and treatment ponds, changes to the road layout and walkway, as well as a new retaining wall at the lake edge. Part of the original proposal included a new wharf and facilities building. This however did not proceed due to cost.