New Zealand: Waimangu Volcanic Valley

I started going back towards Whirinaki, back the way I’d come. Only I didn’t get anywhere near as far. I pulled in to the car park at Waimangu Volcanic Valley visitor centre. The Taupo Volcanic Zone is a literal hot bed of geothermal activity, stretching from Mount Ruapehu in the South to White Island in the North. There are a near endless list of destinations for tourists to get their fix of steam coming out of the ground. For me Waimangu Volcanic Valley had two things going for it; an excellent logo and a price reduction following the lockdown. I walked into the visitor centre and bought a ticket for the full Waimangu package. Sounds like a burger. It isn’t. The package includes a boat trip over Lake Rotomahana and a self-guided walking tour of the valley. The afternoon boat had already sold out, so I would need to be on the bus down the valley to catch the next one. Perfect, I thought. Enough time to throw together some lunch and lose my ticket for the boat. I had just managed to explain what I’d done to the woman who sold me my ticket when the bus driver and boat captain came to get me. They decided I’d probably paid for a ticket as I still had my receipt and let me on without one.

You don’t see much from the bus. High valley walls, a few bursts of steam.  The first portion of my package was the Voyager; a boat tour of Lake Rotomahana. I stepped outside to the viewing deck on the stern. Nobody wants to be stuck behind filthy glass. I certainly expected to get the best views from outside. Bow waves spin the reflections of the surrounding valley. Thick low shrubs covered any ground not too hot to grow on. There is a suggestion that this is where tourism began in New Zealand. Back in the good ol’ days, Lake Rotomahana was 20 times smaller and home to the Pink and White Terraces. These natural rock formations laid claim to being the 8th wonder of the world, along with around 60 other locations. People would come and bathe in the supposed healing qualities of the water captured in the terraces. This was all well and good up until 1886 when Mount Tarawera decided enough was enough. The volcano blew its top. The terraces were buried, then drowned as the lake filled. The eruption destroyed everything else in the immediate and not so immediate vicinity. What remains of Mount Tarawera is still quite big, rising over 1000 meters above sea level. The most impressive thing about this side of the volcano is the Tarawera Chasm; a 500 meter by 500 meter hole in the dome. The terminus of a 16km long rift spreading beneath the lake.

Rotomahana Geyser

The voyage passes a few sites around the lake shore, a couple of craters, some steaming vents, sailing above the locations of the Pink and White Terraces. Beyond the immediate shoreline, above the superheated vents, a new forest is growing. Even after the surface of the planet has literally exploded, wiping the slate (but more likely basalt) clean, plants have returned. Insert Jeff Goldblum and, life, uh finds a way. The boat drifts towards the lake’s edge. Little white bubbles float up out of the black depths. We stop next to some fiercely boiling water. The captain announces a geyser is about to go off. How does he know? Apparently it runs like clockwork. We wait. The boat floats closer towards the shore. We wait some more. A huge jet of hot water blasts up out of the rocks. A column of white steam rises, rapidly expanding. This goes on for several minutes before settling back down again. Nobody applauds. I realise as we return to the dock, the valley we’d driven down, that I’d walk back up, is the other end of the rift created by the eruption. Cool.

Inferno Crater Lake

Disembarked, it was time to get stuck in to the Wanderer element of my day; a self-guided walk. The route is set out for a down-hill walk. The idea is you arrive, walk down the valley, do the boat trip, return to the car park on the bus. I was doing it in reverse. The first stand out location on the steady climb up the valley is the Warbrick Terrace. A series of multicoloured terraces are being built by silica deposits and algae growths. On my visit they appeared to be mostly white, with a variety of New Zealand greens thrown in for good measure. I continued my ascent, I detoured off the main trail to climb Mount Haszard from which I was gifted my first view of the Inferno Crater Lake. This bright, pale blue lake was chuffing away, steam rising rapidly in the cool air. A stream runs through, steaming the entire way down to Lake Rotomahana. Along the way there are other features of interest; bubbling pools, craters, and brightly coloured vents covered in algal blooms. A personal favourite is the Birds Nest Terrace, which looks as though a bird regularly visits, leaving white deposits on the sides. Waimangu Volcanic Valley peels back the top layer of the planet, offering a glimpse at the raging fire beneath our feet. The final stop is Frying Pan Lake, presumably named because on any given day you could cook an egg in it. The darker water in this crater was simmering. Huge volumes of steam spinning, twisting, rising away from the surface. I was pleased with my trip, so much so as I’d go as far as recommending a trip to Waimangu Volcanic Valley if ever you find yourself in the area, not only does it have a good logo but the self-guided walk and the boat tour are excellent. There’s plenty to see, you can easily fill half a day exploring the features and being reminded of the extraordinary power of the Earth. Having had my fill of geothermal activity I drove in to Rotorua.

Back in Rotorua I wandered through the Government Gardens. I have vague memories of having been here before, which is probably a good thing seeing as I have been here before. I drifted out to the lake, following the shore for a while. Wondering how long exactly it would take a person to get used to the smell of sulphur. People must get used to it, I don’t think I would be able to live here if I didn’t. Fortunately my house has wheels, I’m under no obligation to stay. I ambled back to the car park where I’d be sleeping tonight. The Polynesian Spa is across the road, they were also offering discounted entry after the lockdown. I looked at whether I might be able to book a private pool but of course, such a thing requires a minimum of two people per group. I was feeling quite uncomfortable about the idea of using the communal baths alone. Some things are simply more awkward on your own. It was a Saturday night, the first weekend of school holidays. I was expecting it to be heaving. A little anxiety bubbled to the surface. It took me a while. I had a sit down, held a serious conversation with myself. I do plenty of things on my own, why would using the hot pools be any different? I convinced myself it would be ok. I could sit in a hot bath with other people around and nothing bad would happen. This was a different experience to the Waitangi Soda Springs. There were several pools to choose from, there were significantly more people here, everything was slightly more commercialised. I spent time in three of the pools, having no idea if the next was hotter than the last. After almost an hour of bathing I was feeling quite relaxed. Be it from the warmth, the healing properties of the springs, or the dehydration, I didn’t care.

I arrived back at my van and fell in with my neighbours for the night, Sophie and Sheridan. Locals, locals by my standard anyway, up from Christchurch, taking advantage of their student break. We ended up sat between our vans talking about the benefits of travel, the challenges of living a confined space. How much room do you really need to live? I know I would like a little more room than what’s available in a long wheel base Toyota Hiace. They demonstrated the struggle of putting the bed up in their sleeper van. I realised how fortunate I am to be able to leave the bed up permanently. I was pleased to find myself in the company of others for an evening, especially when the others are nice, interesting, and seemingly like-minded. They were on a much tighter time-scale than me. Heading up to Auckland over the course of 10 days. It was unlikely we’d run into each other again but I took the initiative and suggested perhaps we could catch up for a beer when I passed through the South Island. I was openly delighted when they agreed that this sounded like a good idea. We said goodbye that night, unsure if our paths would remain crossed beyond the morning. 

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