Great Steaming Holes

Broadly speaking, our plan is to start at the top of New Zealand and work our way down. So, after a brief stop-over in Auckland, we went up to the Bay of Islands in the ”winterless north” (remember, winter is summer and north is south). Lovely crinkly coasts with sandy beaches, rocky offshore islands and bush-covered hills inland (or, in the far north, bush-covered sand dunes). From there to the Coromandel pennisular, with similar coast but bigger hills. In both places the wide river esturaries were colonised by mangrove forest, one of the weirdest environments on earth: when the tide goes out the mud is covered in the upstanding spikes of sucker roots, and the pop of snapping shrimps getting macho echoes from the trees. 

As we approached the Big Day (my NNth birthday, and the excuse for the Big Trip), we moved down into volcano country, temporarily upgrading our accomodation from hostels and motels to a posh guesthouse by Lake Okereka. Though there are only a handful of active volcanoes, the areas around the cities of Taupo and Rotorua are way closer to hot magma than most places. The heat breaks out in hot pools, steam vents and, my personal favourite, bubbling mud. Particular hot-spots have become tourist attractions, like Wai-O-Tapu, with the multi-coloured ”champagne pool” (as seen on ”Zena, Warrior Princess”). We saw most of the big sites on our 1999 visit, so this time we”ve sought out more obscure ones. Hell”s Gate (there”s a lot of Hell”s this, Devil”s that) lacked any geysers or dramatic colours, but made up for it in the sheer volume of vents, pools and fumaroles. It was definitely the smelliest natural attraction I”ve ever visited, though the sulphur compounds in the venting gases lend the whole area a certain aroma of eggy flatulence. Nearer Taupo, the Wairakei Valley was a magical wooded vale complete with native plants, brightly coloured rock formations, a bubbling stream…and great steaming holes in the ground. It used to be even more active until the 1950s, when the geothermal power station down the valley opened and shifted things around, opening up a new area now known as the Craters of the Moon. This last site was the only one we visited both last and this time and, as we suspected, it was a whole lot bigger than we remembered it from six years ago.

The Kiwis aren”t much bothered by the volative nature of the ground beneath their feet. In Rotorua, a Victorian spa town with some unexpected mock-Tudor architecture, steam plumes out of drain covers and you”re never more than a hundred metres from a hot pool or great steaming hole, but the people who live there don”t seem concerned. Gesyer erupts out the garden one day? Make it a water feature. Mud pools open up on the golf course? Just makes the ninth hole a bit more tricky. A Kiwi friend of mine says that North Island could open right up along the seam of the Taupo thermal area, but if it did, there”s not a damn thing anyone could do, so why worry? Meantime, we get the chance to view natural wonders and bathe in hot pools, and NZ gets clean natural power from the earth.

For my birthday itself, we took a helicopter ride over the crater lakes area of North Island and out to White Island, an active volcano allegedly  named after the Isle of Wight by Captain Cook (who had defintely been at sea too long by then). Careful to walk in our guide”s footsteps we passed steaming fumeroles with violent yellow encrustations of pure sulphur, natural cauldrons of boiling mud and the gently steaming crater lake which, like many bodies of water in this area, is a highly unnatural colour, in this case bright milky azure. With the bonus Orca spotting on the way back I was ready to ease back on the excitement, and spend an hour or two in the Polynesian Spa on the shores of Lake Rotorua relaxing in pools fed from natural hot mineral springs and getting massaged. Then we took a leisurely walk round the lakeshore – past more pools and steaming holes, and colonies of sea-birds who”d had the webbing on their feet eaten away by the hot acidic ground, but didn”t have to worry about having to sit on their eggs to keep them warm. We finished the day with a dinner cruise on the lake, weaving a zig-zag course out to the sacred island in the middle and eating excellent seafood prepared using local ingredients, including some interesting Maori herbs and spices.

All in all, a damn fine day.

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