Volcanoes, as destructive as they are, sure make things pretty. Geysers, steaming fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, and rainbow colored pools…this is the work of eruptions and earthquakes and what makes the Rotorua surrounds out-this-world. This New Zealand town is in the Taupo Volcanic region of the North Island, one of the most volatile places in the Pacific Ring of Fire, and our first stop on our five-day road trip from Auckland to Wellington. You smell the sulfur-ridden Rotorua for miles…but if you hold your nose this place will take your breath away.
The hot springs and bubbling mud pools of Rotorua brought European settlers flocking to this caldera in the late 1800s and still do. This old bath house is now a museum and the heart of town. We wandered around its gardens, lawn bowling fields, private spas –historic and new– and the massive lake beyond.
Lake Rotorua’s high sulfur content gives it a beautiful milky-blue hue and an undulating, crusty shore. Steam spews from different holes in the ground and makes mud puddles bubble like chocolate milk under a kid’s straw.
Where there is steam in Rotorua, there is something awesome. We followed the plumes of smoke in search of more geothermic entertainment. Gurgle! Burp! Explode! The cosmic shapes coming out of this gassy pool kept us in awe for a half hour.
The city of Rotorua is lovely and its surrounds are even better. The Blue and Green Lakes are just 15 minutes out of the city and incredible destination for hiking, swimming, and water sports. From this view you see the Blue Lake but turn your head and you see the Green Lake…as a pair their distinct colors are twice as impressive.
Just beyond the Blue and Green Lakes is the Whakarewarewa Forest, the first exotic forest in New Zealand. It was planted in 1901 as an experiment to see what timber could grow in the “newest country in the world.” The Radiata Pines and the California Redwoods thrived, leaving an amazing forest of big trees, but what struck us most was the forest’s ponds with their freaky sheen and psychedelic colors from the volcanic minerals.
It is rare that Mike and I leave each other’s side but there was so much to do in Rotorua that we had to divide and conquer. I spent the afternoon at the Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland while he went to the youngest geothermal ecosystem in the world, Waimangu. In 1886 a volcano erupted and left Rotorua void of all life, but in just a matter of years the lakes filled in, hot springs appeared, and trees grew healthier than ever. It’s still a volatile place and that is exactly what makes it so impressive—look close to see those clouds creeping out of the mountain crevices and the steam hovering over “Frying Pan” lake.
Waiotapu is called a “Thermal Wonderland,” which sounds cheesey, but when you see it…you will get it. Neon green, copper, to sherbet-colored pools boiling at temps north of 300-degrees fill collapsed craters and make this a natural amusement park. Unlike Wainamgu, where you can hike the mountains, in the Waiotapu park you stick to the 30-75 minutes of foot paths because the earth’s thin crust and flammable nature is not stable for traipsing about. This is Artist’s Palette pond, a name that describes itself.
In my time wandering the paths of Waitapu, I got chatting with a British couple that happened to be traveling around the world for a year! Helena and Rob were moving in the opposite direction and had just arrived from South America where we started, so we had plenty of stories to swap. They heard about some natural hot (but not too hot) springs up the road, so we took a little hike and a relaxing evening soak together. (FYI: We are still friends and recently stayed with Rob and Helena at their place in London!).
The road trip continues from steamy Rotorua through the surreal landscape toward Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park, home of Lord of the Ring’s “Mount Doom” and quite possibly the world’s best day hike. Stay tuned!