It’s an overcast April morning and plumes of steam are rising from the vegetation beyond the road. As we get out of the car at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, the air is thick with the smell of rotten egg and, if my nose is to be believed, undertones of tinned dog food. I’m beaming. Rotorua is famous as the centre of New Zealand’s geothermal activity (sulphurous smells, geysers and hot mud aplenty) and it’s already living up to exactly what I had hoped it to be. The smell is offensive, it’s true. But with the assault on the nostrils comes a sense of being in some other world, one where rivers run scalding hot and the mud burbles and belches at your feet…
In (Wai-O-Tapu Thermal) Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is an area of Rotorua that’s a particular hotspot for geothermal activity (it’s really photogenic, too – the effects of this activity often manifest in the most incredible, vivid colours). As we entered the ‘Thermal Wonderland’ my sense of otherworldliness only grew. I’ve often thought to myself how exotic New Zealand’s forests seem compared to pastoral scenes back home – the twisted trunks and branches like something from the set of a horror film, the profusion of palm leaves at every turn, the unfamiliar birdsong. But the shrouds of steam at Wai-O-Tapu take the forest to another level. To cling to my film set analogy, it’s like people are lurking in the undergrowth holding up great big dry ice machines. And they’re stuck on full power.
When the trees clear, the ground is gravelly and barren but the steam is ever present – this time pouring from great craters cleft in the earth, the most recent of which (the Thunder Crater – great name), collapsed only 48 years ago. Suddenly the ground beneath my feet feels very close to the crater sites, with their roaring fumaroles, sulphur vents and up to 80°C water temperatures only a handful of metres below the surface. The information panels describe how the acidity in the steam is “nibbling away” at the ground below, conjuring up an image of an oversized steam hamster rising from underground waters to feast on dirt and rock… An adorable image with less than adorable consequences.
Fire and brimstone
Can I take a moment here to admire the amazing, creative names for the various features at Wai-O-Tapu? My favourites were all fire and brimstone (bestowed by Victorian missionaries, I believe): Devil’s Ink Pots, Devil’s Bath, Devil’s Home etc. Did you know brimstone is an archaic word for sulphur (literally ‘burning stone’)? I hadn’t realised, but given the brimstone and hell associations it makes perfect sense that the Devil would live and bathe at sulphurous Wai-O-Tapu!
Other names had a more ‘pretty and vibrant’ vibe: Rainbow Crater, the Artist’s Palette, the Champagne Pool, Oyster Pool, Primrose Terrace. The places are just as colourful as they sound.
The Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool
The Artist’s Palette and Champagne Pool, just beyond the craters, form probably the most colourful part of the wonderland. The Champagne Pool is the largest of the hot springs at Wai-O-Tapu, occupying a sinter-lined 700-year-old explosion crater. The edges are a bright orange, sliding into sea-green waters that fizz with tiny carbon dioxide bubbles beneath a vast cloud of steam (hence the champagne).
The spring has been tilted by earthquakes in the past, causing water to flow over the flat and create the Artist’s Palette, a shallower pool streaked with colourful mineral deposits. The signposts list names of compounds and elements that yield these colours. Yellow = sulphur, of course, reddish brown = iron oxide, purple = manganese oxide, orange = antimony/arsenic, clear or blue-coloured water = alkali-chloride. Science overload? I find it so interesting to pair the beautiful hues with their scientific compositions.
Water from the Champagne Pool flows further afield, too. To the sinter terraces near the Artist’s Palette, but also underground to the Devil’s Bath. The best way I can describe this diabolically-named tub is that is looks precisely like a pool of yellow highlighter fluid. A guide told us that the water is much cooler there, to the extent that you could swim in it if it wasn’t for, y’know, the acidity and noxious gases. So strong are the fumes that birds often fall prey to them when feeding on insects on the surface. They end up floating in the bath. Like macabre bath toys, I guess. Precisely the kind that would best suit the Devil, after all?
A geyser detour
We took a quick break to visit the Lady Knox Geyser down the road, arriving half an hour or so ahead of the planned 10:15am eruption. To our disappointment, the surrounding benches were filling with people already. By the time the guide arrived to introduce the event and pour in the surfectant that sets it off, the place was packed. With little ado, the geyser frothed into life. With the spectacle of the white jet of water bursting into the sky, the hordes of people around evaporate (metaphorically, of course!). It can get up to 20 metres high and has remarkable energy – continuing to spurt forth for a good five minutes after the soap was applied.
We headed back to the Champagne Pool to continue further into the park. From here on in the scenery (post-apocalyptic) and soundtrack (sputter, cackle and fizz) changes very little. It’s still incredible. As the steam moves with the breeze, thick taupe mud is revealed beneath the walkway, some of it drying in cracked slabs, but most bubbling away happily like a heavy brew simmering in a huge outdoor cauldron. Around the edges the ground is littered with charred wood and pine cones. Occasionally a milky-green pool or lake opens up, with sulphur washing the gravel shore.
Eventually we return full circle to where we began. There’s only one part left to visit, and it’s Ben’s favourite: mud pools! The special blend of acids, sulphates and hydrothermal clay are located a little way down the entrance road to the park. Steam and gas from deep beneath the earth rises and interacts with geothermal fluid and groundwater to make mud pots. The sheer exuberance of the bubbling is so fun to watch. It seems to be almost belching gas, and in the process flinging blistering mud into the air. It might not sound like much, but watching it in person is both amusing and strangely hypnotic.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you ever experienced any cool geothermal activity?
Travel tips: Wai-O-Tapu
Adult entry was NZD 32.50 when we visited – individuals don’t need to book in advance.
Wai-O-Tapu is only 20 minutes south of Rotorua by car. Check out their website for shuttle options if you’re not driving.
The Lady Knox Geyser eruption. This occurs only once per day, at 10.15am, so opt for a morning visit to get your money’s worth and see the geyser come to life!
For tranquility and beautiful lake views I’d recommend the Department of Conservation sites on Lake Rerewhakaaitu. For a higher price point but access to geothermal hot pools, go for Waikite Valley. This is a popular option so make sure you call to book in advance!