A Major Throwback, Day 8 Pt. I – Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland & Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, Rotorua, New Zealand

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12.02.2015: Waiotapu & Waimangu, Rotorua, New Zealand

“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” — Edward Abbey

This day’s plans threw us right into the wild. It was, at different points, either a little too windy or a little too sunny, and we may have soiled our shoes on more than one occasion during the treks, but… it was still downright wonderful. In the relatively short span of 7-8 hours, we managed to cover Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland (Lady Knox Geyser was, in my opinion, the big star) and Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, where, true to its entrance sign  ‘where the world began’, one would literally feel as though one had entered the prehistoric times of the dinosaurs. Surreal.

i. Lady Knox Geyser (Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland)

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Although ‘the show’ was scheduled to begin at 10.15am, our day’s tour coordinator made sure we were there by at least 9.30am because he said that only the extra punctual individuals could secure seats before the magnificent geyser. Niki and I didn’t think we needed to settle down that early, so instead of heeding their advice, we wandered around a little and found blackberries before we headed back to the natural amphitheatre. A big crowd had gathered and we were slightly regretful, but nevertheless, we managed to score a good view for ourselves.

At 10.15am, a guide walked out, positioned himself right beside the geyser, and dropped a surfactant into the opening of the vent (to induce the eruption) as he began to share with the audience about the history and mechanics of the Lady Knox Geyser. We learned that because the geyser was discovered early in the 20th century, it has no Māori name, unlike almost every other thermal feature in New Zealand. It was named after Lady Constance Knox, the second daughter of Uchter Knox, 15th Governor of New Zealand.

As time passed, the geyser started bubbling and lightly spewing white liquid. It was visibly getting more active and we, the audience, were getting increasingly worried — was it safe to be that close to a geyser that was about to erupt? The guide remained calm and said, “I’ll run away if I have to,” to which we all laughed.

He continued to explain that the eruption we’re about to see would be a jet of water reaching up to 20m that could last for over an hour depending on the weather. The visible spout is made of rocks placed around the base of the spring to enhance the eruption; over the years silica from the eruptions has built up to give a white cone-shaped appearance.

Just as he walked away, the geyser spat a strong jet of water upwards and it was exciting and breath-taking in every way possible.

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ii. (the rest of) Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland

This thermal wonderland, an area in which the landscape has been sculptured by a thousand years of geothermal activity and thus has one of the most extensive geothermal systems in the country, is named as “One of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World” and “New Zealand’s Most Colourful & Diverse Geothermal Sightseeing Attraction”. Opting to go for the self-guided tour, Niki and I got a map of the park, which clearly marked out for us the three well-defined tracks (which take between 30 and 75 minutes). With that, we planned a route that would allow us to view as many unique volcanic features as possible before we had to be picked up by our tour bus.

We saw the world famous Champagne Pool, a couple of naturally coloured springs, an insane amount of bubbling mud in the incredible Mud Pool, steaming ground, expansive vistas, huge volcanic craters and sinter terrace formations… everything one would expect in a geothermal area and more.

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iii. Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley

A short intro: This valley is the world’s youngest geothermal system, the only geothermal system created within written history,  the only one wholly created by a volcanic eruption, a wildlife sanctuary for birds, and a protected scenic reserve.

Upon payment of our entrance fees, we received an interpretive guide sheet which indicated the possible hikes that we could take to explore the Waimangu Valley. Out of all the walks available, we chose to go for the Mount Haszard hiking trail, which led us to see recently forming silica terraces, rare and extraordinary geothermal plants**, Echo Crater, Frying Pan Lake (the world’s largest hot water spring, and the mystifying and spectacular Inferno Crater (a volcano crater) with its striking blue hot lake — striking because it was steaming! We also managed to view craters formed by the Mt Tarawera eruption, Fairy Crater, which is 56 metres deep (its steep sides were formed from lava bluffs), and Black Crater with the massive lava outcrops of Mt Haszard on one side and steaming pink and red soil on the other. Information boards were scattered throughout the park and they made it so easy for us to learn about whatever we saw before us.

It was such a treat to enjoy the beauty (the panoramic views of the valley!!) and tranquility of the pristine New Zealand bush — we were mostly trudging around on our own because the entire valley was so huge and all visitors were well spread out.

*Fun fact: The Mt Haszard Hiking trail follows parts of the original Waimangu Round Trip walking route from the early 1900’s when tourists came to observe the Waimangu Geyser erupting.

**The plants are considered ‘rare’ because they have adapted to the hot earths of Waimangu – evidence of a new ecosystem established out of the total devastation of a volcanic eruption.

Upon reaching Lake Rotomahana, we headed to the shuttle bus station to wait for the bus that would take us back to the visitor centre. (There is free shuttle bus service at specific, marked locations throughout the valley.)

One thing that we didn’t do was take the boat cruise to Lake Rotomahana because it would have been a little too time-consuming. I’ve gathered a bit of information on it online, though:

‘One of New Zealand’s most beautiful, unspoiled, natural wilderness regions, Lake Rotomahana and adjoining land are protected from development. This stunning lake has its own separate geothermal system, with the astonishing geothermal activity that can only be seen from the boat during the cruise.

The 1886 Mt Tarawera Eruption changed Lake Rotomahana dramatically, exploding it to 20 times its size. Fifteen years following that colossal eruption, the lake attained its present depth and is now the deepest in New Zealand’s North Island and now covers around 15 coalescing craters created in the explosion. Lake Rotomahana is the most recent of all New Zealand’s larger, naturally formed lakes – protected as a wildlife refuge, it’s home to large numbers of birds all year round.

Patiti Island, in the centre of the Lake, is now being brought back to a predator-free condition and is being developed into a refuge for endangered New Zealand native birds.’

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More photos on Flickr!

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