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New Zealand’s Geothermal Areas: Rotorua, Wai-O-Tapu, Waimangu and Lake Taupo

Just south of Rotorua, New Zealand lies an area laden with hot springs, bubbling fumaroles, craters, boiling mud pots, silica, sulfur deposits, etc. Rotorua itself boasts geysers and hot mineral pools perfect for soaking. The smell of sulfur hangs thickly in the air as visitors who just arrive in town plug their noses or dash into the nearest shop for reprieve. It doesn’t take long to become accustomed to the stench, and soon it goes nearly undetected. The town itself is a typical kiwi town although a little larger than most you’ll encounter on a drive through New Zealand’s North Island. The downtown area stretches several blocks and includes the typical trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that line many streets in New Zealand. Downtown it seems comes to a quiet end at a bustling park lining the front of Rotorua Lake. It, like so many places in New Zealand, can be a wonderful spot to stay for a day or a long weekend. It’s also the perfect place to act as a base your exploration of the Central North Island.

If you’re looking for more mountain and less town, a ten to fifteen minute drive southwest looping down on 30 then heading north and taking a right (it’s well marked) brings you to Lake Tikitapu, also known as Blue Lake, along with its neighboring Green Lake and Lake Okareka. There are several camper van sites around this area, but be ready to pay about 25.00 nzd per person per night. The area, however, is beautiful. It’s away from the sulfur smell of Rotoroa and offers great walking, mountain biking and swimming as well as a slew of water sports activities. Venture a little farther sounds and you’ll find several hikes leading to lookouts including Lake Tarawera and Okawa Bay.

While you can catch steam rising from the earth on even a simple drive around Rotorua or the surrounding 16 lakes, the magnificent geothermal activity lies just a short drive south in areas like Wia-o-tapo and Wiamangu. Wia-o-tapo is very much the Yellowstone of New Zealand; however, the touted Lady Knox Geyser doesn’t hold a candle to Ol’ Faithful. In fact, to say it erupts at 10:15 each morning is a stretch as it only begins to spew steaming hot water after a park ranger drops what equates to a chemical bomb into the geyser’s opening. Ol’ Faithful would be ashamed.

With that being said the remainder of Wai-O-Tapu is truly intriguing. It offers magnificent geothermal features in close proximity to each other. It is only part of a scenic reserve, and is managed under the Department of conservation. It makes up the largest area of visible surface activity of any of the systems in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The area is teeming with steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pools and craters. The volcanic activity that spawned what you see today sparked nearly 160,000 years ago. A stream, running through the area, eventually joins other rivers and flows out to the Tasman Sea. Thanks to the high amounts of minerals and gases in the water the stream itself is void of any fish life. They hydrogen sulfide in the area accounts for the familiar stench of sulfur blanketing the area. Three walks make up the Wai-O-Tapu park. The first is a simple 30 minute, 1.5km loop around some of the neatest geothermal activity. The second loop branches from the first an only adds .5km and about ten minutes and adds a few extra sites while walking alongside the Primrose Terrace or nearly 3 acres of silica sinter which makes for a beautiful white mineral cascade. The third walk adds an extra 1km on to the first two and brings the total of you walk to 1 hour and 15 minutes. All three walks combined are very simple and can easily be conquered by families and small children. Cost to get in is around 32.50 nzd per person or 11.oo nzd for children,  and there are family packs available.

The nearby Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest volcanic valley in the world. While its geothermal features may not be as ‘bizarre’ or intriguing to some – they will not disappoint. The last eruption of Waimangu was June 10, 1886, but volcanic activity in the nearby valley dates back to 1917, when Frying Pan Flat (the edge of Echo Crater) erupted killing two people in the Waimangu Visitor’s House. The entire area leaves you in awe of the power of mother nature more so, I believe, than the impressive activity at Wai-O-Tapu. The area is less frequented by swaths of tourists and offers a much quieter walk through the valley. The pathway leads to beautiful craters filled with steaming, mirky yet often times vividly blue waters. and meanders along a stream laced with bright green, orange and white mineral formations as well as small geysers. It’s quite serene. The walk here is slightly greater and a little less maintained than at Wai-O-Tapu, which may be one reason your typical tourist would chose to skip it. To the end of the trail is 3.6km, but if you chose to include a small hike off the main trail it adds about .5km on for a grand total of 4.1km – still not bad at all. There are three bus stops along the way and you can catch a shuttle to back to the top just about every hour. The last bus out of the valley from the third and final stop runs at 4:35pm. It’s at that third stop where can also catch a guided boat tour of Lake Rotomahana for an extra fee. You can buy your tickets at the visitors center when you purchase your entrance into the park, or if you decide you want to hop on last minute, you can buy them from the ship’s captain. The cost for Waimangu is slightly higher than Wai-O-Tapu at 34.50 nzd per person for the self-guided walking tour.

If checking out the Earth’s great creations is your thing, then there are several other geothermal sites throughout the volcanic valley including the Pohutu Geyser in Whakarewarewa ‘The Living Thermal Village Te Puia’ (another park, with another fee).

Through the entire geothermal valley, a slew of roadside motels boast private hot spring pools and thermal spa treatments, and some independent hikes will take you past steaming grounds and boiling pools of water. As you head farther south to Taupo, you’ll find much of the same.

Before you reach the Taupo town limits make sure to stop at Huka falls. The power of the water rushing from Lake Taupo through a cute and out into a beautiful flowing river is astounding.

Taupo itself is a great lake-side town with a vibrant nightlife, pleasant parks and for those of you traveling by camper van the best part – a FREE overnight camper parking lot right on the water to the left of Highway 5 in the heart of downtown. The area, like most tourist traps in New Zealand, offers adreline pumping adventures including skydiving, parasailing, jet boating, etc. But this area isn’t just a catch for adrinele junkies, it’s one of the top spots in the world for anglers. The trout fishing near Taupo and to the south is some of the best you’ll find – so grab a license and rent some gear (about 20.00 nzd for a spin rod and up to 30.00 nzd for fly rod) and sneak off to a nearby stream to cast a line.

This entire region, like many others in New Zealand, can serve as a simple weekend retreat or a week-long spot for fun. If you’re pressed for time, just hit some of the highlights like Wai-O-Tapu and maybe Lake Taupo. If you have more than a couple days, really get out an explore the area.