By Irene Butler
Travellers flock to Rotorua – with good reason – it’s the hub to one of the most active geothermal areas in the world. The “hard-boiled-egg” smell around town is a reminder of the hydrogen sulphide (H²S) associated with geothermal activity, but the wonders are worth the occasional nose wrinkling.
The spectacular Pohutu Geyser
The famed Pohutu Geyser is at the southern edge of town in Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve. My husband Rick and I patiently wait before a gigantic mound of rock with small intermittent spurts of steam escaping from large central crevices. Pohutu erupts on average twenty times a day… it should not be long. Mother Nature kindly gives a warning signal in that the nearby smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser spews its scalding water first…and it does just that with a startling whoosh! Within ten minutes the ground rumbles and the mighty Pohutu sends voluminous columns of water higher and higher and with firehose force until it reaches heights of 30m (100ft). Mega-gallons of spray glint in the sun, then fall in scalding cascades over the edge of the rocky mound. The drama lasts a breathtaking 15 minutes, before the end….for now.
Experience the rich culture in Rotorua
It is time to learn about the first peoples to settle New Zealand, the Maori, at the Reserve’s weaving and wood carving schools, followed by an evening cultural show of song and dance. The Maori women swing poi (balls on strings) with great finesse, and the men’s “haka” warrior dance is a roaring success with its resounding chants, vigorous movement and facial distortions of bulging eyes and protruding tongues.
The “Thermal Wonderland”
Early the next morning we aim our rental car towards Rotorua District’s Wai-O-Tapu for the 10:15 a.m. eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser. How does this occur at the same time daily? Well, at this site nature has a helping hand in Fred, the park ranger, who pours a little bag of organic soap into its funnel-like opening. He explains, “The soap breaks the surface tension of cold water in the geyser’s upper chamber so that it mixes with the hot water below, releasing it to shoot to the surface.” Almost immediately the Lady Knox begins to bubble, froth, erupting to a height of approximately 12m – a bit melodramatic after Pohutu.
But Wai-O-Tapu is not called the “Thermal Wonderland” for naught. It covers 18sq km of collapsed craters from volcanic activity eons ago. Champagne Pool and Artist’s Palette are perfect monikers for the bubbling 100°C pools, steaming fumaroles, and patches of dynamic red, green, yellow, orange, white and black produced by different mineral elements. Spectacular!
Leaving Wai-O-Tapu, a small wooden sign reads “mud pool”, which to our delight is more like a lake than a pool. Under a baking sun the surface is like a slow simmering caldron of milk chocolate worthy of a scene from Willy Wonka’s Factory.
The Fascinating Caves
The next day’s two-hour scenic drive is through the Waitomo District of verdant valleys, fields of corn, grazing sheep and cattle. It boggles my mind knowing that underneath these hills are 300 known limestone caves. The abundance of limestone, which is composed of compressed marine life, is due to the area once being under the sea. We arrive at the Waitomo Visitor’s Centre to see some of the caves open to the public.
Before entering the Glowworm Cave, Hardie, our guide, gives us a 101 lesson on the lifecycle of the glowworm (arachnocampa luminosa). The female lays around 120 eggs, which hatch into larvae. The larvae build nests and put down sticky lines to trap insects for food, emitting a visible light from their tail to attract their prey (this bioluminescence is a reaction between chemicals given off by the glowworm and oxygen in the air); the hungriest glow the brightest. After 9 months in this pupae stage of glowing and growing, they morph into adults whose only function is mating and egg laying for survival of the species.
Climbing into a boat with Hardie and twenty other enthusiasts, we silently drift into the dark hollows of the cave, our eyes glued to the mesmerizing milky way of millions of miniscule lights on the cavernous roof. These magical creatures were long known to the Maori people, but the caves were not extensively explored until 1887 when Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace mapped them out, after which Tinorau and his wife began guided tours through the caves. In 1904 the caves were taken over by the government, until in 1990 the land and caves were returned to the descendants of the original owners.
Ruakuri Cave is next; its cavernous entrance is likened to an enormous space station. We follow Angus, our guide, down a spiral ramp dotted with amber lights akin to alien orbs taking us 15-metres below ground. A vast subterranean world spreads before us with delicate limestone formations in hues of pale pinks and soft gold; stalactites hang en mass from ceilings, stalagmites rise like sentinels from the cave floor, some meeting in the middle to form columns.
With only the railing to guide us we shuffle to a pitch-black section becoming transfixed at a more intimate encounter with glowworms; their soft illuminating light above is almost within reach. Along a side wall their threads of “fishing line” are inches away. On the swirling subterranean river below our walkway people float by on tubes as part of the Legendary Black Water Tour.
Further along we enter a chamber that amplifies the river’s turbulence. Lord of the Rings aficionados, hold onto your hats! “Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and actor Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum) were here,” says Angus, who further relates that technicians from “The Hobbit” recorded soundscapes for the movie’s underground scenes: such as Gollum’s chamber and under the mountain with Smaug the dragon. Listening to the eerie, echoing dash of water against rocks, I feel there could be no better background sound than this resounding overture in Mother Nature’s symphony.
Near the end of the 1.6 km walk (out of 7.5km in this cave system) Angus points out the original cave entrance, no longer used as it is a Maori sacred burial grounds. A naturally formed stone corridor takes us back to the spiral walkway to climb out of the depths and into the halogen sun, hyped by our combined Sci-fi and Indiana Jones experience.
We leave New Zealand’s north island “wowed” by its marvels.
About the Author
Irene Butler is an author/travel writer based in Richmond, BC. She and her photographer husband Rick travel the world for 6 months each year, and have immersed themselves in the cultures of 85 countries to date. Read more about their travels in their book, Trekking the Globe With Mostly Gentle Footsteps: Twelve Countries in Twelve Months and on their website Global Trekkers.
Glowworm Cave photo – Waitomo Visitors Centre