A Visit to the Sacred Waters of the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Reserve
Deep in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island is a fiery landscape peppered with turbulent geothermal activity and phenomenal displays of volcanicity.
Well known for its unstable setting atop the Australian and Pacific Plates, it is this precarious placement atop an ever changing geology which has produced many of the diverse landscapes the country is now so famous for.
At the very heart of this tempestuous scene is the town of Rotorua.
A town which in almost every way is rather mundane, yet below the pavements it conceals something extraordinary.
While the untrained eye may negate to notice the unique anomalies so many flock to witness, no one can escape to detect a whiff of something peculiar lingering in the air.
A Tempestuous Wonderland
The primordial stench which offends your nostrils as you window shop on that rather mundane high street is the product of the geothermal activity taking place just meters beneath your feet.
Should you care to investigate further, you’ll notice areas where piping hot steam has ripped through the sidewalks and now escapes sporadically in clouds of white hot vapor.
Pools of boiling mud are visible alongside the freeway, globules of the hot black liquid undulating in the afternoon sun.
Then of course there are the more approachable examples of Mother Nature’s creative flair.
Hot pools offer visitors a therapeutic distraction from the day’s events and geysers erupt with an almost theatrical effect, shooting water high into the air above the gathered crowds.
But what causes such primordial displays to entertain this tiny town?
What Is Geothermal Activity?
The word geothermal originates from ancient Greek and translated it literally means ‘earth heat’.
The elemental environment on display in Rotorua is a product of heat escaping from within the depths of our earth.
Deep beneath the ground a system of volcanic streams are heated by the magmatic remnants of past eruptions.
As the water is heated it absorbs minerals from the surrounding rock and transports them to the surface where they are deposited and eventually reabsorbed into the ground.
It is this chemical reaction that produces the primordial stench or ‘hydrogen sulphide’ associated with geothermal activity.
Wai-O-Tapu The Sacred Waters
Should you find yourself atop the turbulent underbelly of the Taupo Volcanic Zone there’s really only one place I recommend you visit.
While there are a number of locations which have harnessed the attraction of the surrounding natural environment for commercial gain, Wai-O-Tapu remains true to the geology it protects.
Forming part of an 18sq km reserve administered by the department of conservation, although the land is owned by a local Maori tribal business group, Wai-O-Tapu has the largest surface area of thermal activity in the entire region.
Littered with collapsed sulphur lined craters, deep hydrothermal springs and boiling pools of mud the reserve offers a wealth of colorful spectacles to discover.
Staying true to the organic nature of the terrain it encompasses, the setup is minimalist to some degree and aims to preserve rather than ‘pimp out’ the 25 individual examples of geothermal activity on display.
Sacred Waters And Spectacular Colour
As I walked the length of the 3km track which encircles the reserve, the ground beneath my feet no longer represented the terra firmer to which I was familiar.
Underground acid erosion had sculpted caverns and craters, their walls tinged with the greenish hue of cooling sulphuric vapors and ferrous salts escaping into the atmosphere.
Thick inky mud hissed and popped as it boiled in craters affectionately known as ‘Devil’s Ink Pots’, and the waters of the neighboring ‘Devil’s Bath’ transformed in color through yellow to green depending on the amount of reflected light and cloud cover.
The crowning glory of the entire reserve had to be the ‘Champagne Pool’. The largest natural spring in the area it is 65m in diameter and 62m in depth.
Forged over 700 years ago by a hydrothermal eruption, it is fed by a system of underground streams which carry water heated to over 230 degrees centigrade up through the earth towards the surface, where it evaporates into the atmosphere above.
Gold, silver, mercury, sulphur, arsenic and thallium are all stripped from the rock below and transported to the surface where they are deposited on brightly colored sinter ledges.
One of the most distinctive phenomenon within the reserve the Champagne Pool is a vibrant display of color, the bright orange sinter ledge contrasts against the sulphuric green water and the surrounding white siliceous terrace.
Just another insight into the first primitive environments on our earth.
Geothermal Flora And Fauna
Although no life can exist within the ferrous waters of Wai-O-Tapu, due to the excess noxious gases and toxins, there are a number of topside inhabitants that can be found in the surrounding vegetation.
Surprisingly they appear undeterred by the less than fragrant air and acidic environment they call home.
One of the few native plants not consumed by grazing animals, the manuka scrub provides a year round habitat for birds and mammals. The most common is the Pied Stilt bird, which feeds on the insects that hover over the areas of flat water.
Geothermal Colour Chart
The rainbow palette of colors found across the reserve are determined by the dominance of specific mineral elements escaping from the earth’s tempestuous soul below.
- Green // colloidal sulphur / ferrous salts
- Orange // antimony
- Purple // manganese oxide
- White // silica
- Yellow //sulphur
- Red/Brown // iron oxide
The noxious smells and gaudy environment really has to be seen to be believed. Imagery of the reserve looks as though perhaps doctored with photo editing software however I can assure you all the images you see in this article are in fact as the reserve appears in plain sight.
The natural environment and tourism are a partnership for which balance is key and so often financial gain replaces ecological responsibility.
While it was obvious that Wai-O-Tapu is a functioning business, it was clear that a focus on education and observation outshone the desire for flashy walk ways and intrusive visitor facilities.
Wai-O-Tapu really does deliver the geothermal wonderland it promises.
Travel south along the Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) towards Taupo for 27km until you reach the Waiotapu Tavern. Turn left opposite the tavern and follow the road down to Wai-O-Tapu.
Child: US$9 (5 -15 yrs inclusive)
Family: US$66 (2 Adults and up to 3 Children)
Under 5 yrs are free of charge
Open daily 8.30 am – 5.00 pm (last admission 3.45pm)
Christmas Day: – 8:30 am – 1:00 pm (last admission 11:45 am)