New Zealand smokes, it smells and then stuns you with its geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools

“Roto what”? This was the common response when people heard that Rotorua figured majorly in our New Zealand itinerary. What also added spice to Rotorua was the fact that a mere six days before we were to descend there, Mount Tongariro in the same volcanic zone had erupted. The last time it had erupted was a 100 years ago.

Rotorua is New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland. It is located on North Island at the southernmost tip of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Just in case you have forgotten your geography like we had, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a horseshoe-shaped area in the Pacific Ocean made up of volcanic arcs and belts. It starts in New Zealand, stretches along the eastern edge of Asia, the northern islands of Alaska and tapers away south, along the coast of North and South America. It is the site of 81 per cent of the earth’s biggest earthquakes, and 90 per cent of the world’s overall earthquakes. About 240,000 years back, a volcanic eruption on North Island caused the magma chamber of the earth to collapse, leaving behind a depression or caldera. Gradually, water filled up the caldera. Much later, Maori chieftain Kahumatamomoe, from the Te Arawa tribe, discovered the lake and the hot springs around it and called it Roto (lake) Rua (two). Rotorua, even today, remains the seat of Maori culture, with streets named after Maori Gods, warriors and chieftains with unpronounceable names.

Rotorua smokes and smells. As we drive into the city, we are greeted by smoke spirals and a strong smell of rotten eggs, earning it the nickname of Rotten-Rua. Legend ascribes the geo-thermal activity to the exploits of a spiritual leader of the Te Arawa tribe called Ngatoroirangi, who saw a beautiful white mountain and decided to climb it. As he climbed higher, icy winds threatened to blow him off. Ngatoroirangi prayed to his sisters Te Pupu and Te Hoata, who lived in Hawaiki, to bring him the warmth of fire. The two sisters immediately swam across the Pacific Ocean carrying the fire that would save their brother. Each time the sisters raised their heads from the ocean to see if they had reached, the earth in that place became a pit of fire.

According to geologists, though, the significant geo thermal activity is because Rotorua is located in an area where two giant pieces of the earth’s surface are in constant motion, with one piece slowly creeping over the other. This movement, albeit slow, is generating a humungous amount of subterranean heat and volcanic activity. The smell arises from the hydrogen sulphide emissions from the sulphur deposits found in the area. Yet, despite these harsh facts, it was a beautiful sight that greeted us as we entered our room — the sun setting against the lake with plumes of smoke rising off its surface — a bit surreal, a bit scary and very beautiful.

Packaged smoke

Packaging this totally volatile beauty of nature in as safe a manner as possible are the Geothermal Parks, where geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools are cordoned off or harnessed within limits of safety. Hell’s Gate (so called because Bernard Shaw is said to have visited the angry bubbling mud pools and commented that this is how hell must look) along with Waiotapu, Te Puia and Waimangu are some of the well-known thermal parks here.

Te Puia, in the Te Whakarewarewa Valley, is Rotorua’s most publicised park, a regular on many packaged tours. Home to the Pohutu Geyser, believed to be the largest active geyser in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere, Te Puia erupts approximately 20 times a day and reaches a height of almost 100 feet when she is in a good mood. We were lucky to see her erupt and it was quite a sight, with boiling mud pools where mud spluttered and bubbled due to the heat beneath the surface.

Incidentally, all guides in Te Puia are women, who have been handed this responsibility, generation after generation, by their mothers and grandmothers. Visitors to Te Puia are treated to an exhaustive peek into Maori culture, lore and legend. You can see the marae, the central community hall of every Maori village, where people congregate for all occasions, happy or sad. The Kiwi House has New Zealand’s iconic kiwi bird but the dark brown bird, being nocturnal, is extremely photo-sensitive and sound-sensitive. The lighting in Kiwi House, therefore, is almost nonexistent, making kiwi-spotting a lottery. We did not win it!

Fully thermal

It was at Waimangu Volcanic Valley, that we got the full import of a geothermal region. With claims to being the world’s youngest geothermal park, it was created by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, so violent that its lava flow buried an entire village. The valley is best explored on foot, as this provides an up-close view of the amazing crater lakes as well as the flora and fauna that make this country so unparalleled in beauty. There is an ‘easy trail’ and a ‘hard trail’. We chose the easy trail and were rewarded with the dark and brooding Echo Crater, the Frying Pan Lake, which was actually steaming, and last but not least the Inferno Crater and its enchanting turquoise lake. The earth on either side of the pathways is coloured a most unusual hue, thanks to silica deposits. We rounded the trail off with a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana, said to have exploded to 20 times its size in a matter of minutes after the 1886 eruption. It is today the deepest lake in North Island.

Steve, the captain, told us about fumaroles or vents in the earth in or near a volcanic area from which steam and hot gases are emitted. Fumaroles covered the multi-coloured hills around the lake, with the crowning glory being a geyser on top of a red hill that supposedly erupts approximately every seven minutes!

Constrained by time, we had to miss the other geothermal parks, but we came away raising a toast to the mercurial and violent beauty of nature in New Zealand.

QUICK GUIDE

MUST DO

The Rotomahana Cruise at Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Mud baths at the thermal spas

MUST BUY

Pounamu (Jade) jewellery and Maori carvings from Te Puia

Mud spa products from Rotorua mud, Manuka honey and tea tree extracts

MUST EAT

Maori feast cooked in the Hangi or Maori earthen oven

A meal at Skyline Skyride Restaurant with Rotorua spread out below