Things get pretty steamy in the area round Rotorua, a hotbed of geothermal activity on New Zealand’s North Island. And however impressive you expect it to be, the reality is even better
Arriving in Rotorua for the first time can only be a surprise and delight experience. I had been told about it, and I had read about it, but never in all my dreams did I imagine such a place. Try to picture a land where lakes, mountain streams and waterfalls around you steam with the heat of geothermal activity. Where walkways around the outskirts of town are lined with bubbling, saucepan-sized springs hot enough to poach an egg, and steam rises from hills and forests all around. Even the storm drains and cracks in the pavement are often seen to have steam pouring out.
It's that closeness to nature that catches you off guard. In Rotorua, the raw power of the natural world is staring you right in the eye. You expect a fairly conventional town with some fenced off geysers somewhere close by, but no; it's everywhere you look, as though the whole place is about to blow up underneath you. The one downside is that there is no escaping that eggy smell of sulphur.
Geysers and craters
There is a geothermal hotspot that runs in a line southwest from the Bay of Plenty as far as Lake Taupo in the central North Island, with Rotorua right in the middle. There are a few thermal parks sited all around Lake Rotorua, the major one being Wai-O-Tapu (meaning sacred waters). That's where you'll find the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts daily at exactly 10.15 am, sending hot water streaming 30 feet into the air. Eruption is induced by a warden, who pours organic soap into the vent, breaking the surface tension in the water chamber below and activating the geyser.
Thrilling and dramatic as it is to see nature at work like that, it's nothing compared to the show that the nearby Waimangu Geyser put on in 1903, when it regularly erupted to heights of over 1,500 feet (higher than the Empire State Building) before becoming extinct in 1904. The valley surrounding this monumental geyser (where Wai-O-Tapu is sited) was created by a volcanic eruption and earthquake in 1886, and it remains one of the most active volcanic districts in the world today.
Wai-O-Tapu was like being transported to another world – a very eerily atmospheric place. There are large smoking craters in the ground, chimney-sized steam vents and huge bubbling lakes stained unearthly colours by the volcanic minerals they contain. Wai-O-Tapu and other focal points of geothermal activity around Rotorua have been described as being the closest you can get to hell on earth. Indeed, one of the less well-known parks was actually named Hells Gate by writer George Bernard Shaw, who said, following his visit there; “I wish I had never seen the place; it reminds me too vividly of the fate theologists have promised me.”
Take to the water
There are, of course, hot pools that are safe to go and swim in but almost all are commercialised now, and most non-commercial ones are simply too hot (they can get up to 90°C on the surface, and much hotter deeper down). One wonderful exception to this is a hot stream hidden away just outside of Taupo. To get to it, you turn off Tongariro Street down Spa Road when you first get into Taupo. From Spa Road, turn left down County Avenue and park at the end. Follow the walkway signposted for the hot stream, and over the hill, just a short walk away, you'll find it cascading into the mighty Waikato river in a gorgeous wide-open setting of green fields and forested hills. The stream is free for all to go for a dip, and just the right temperature too. Getting out of the water and facing the winter wind however is pretty unpleasant - take a big, thick towel!
A good thermal spa in Rotorua is the Polynesian Spa, boasting magnificent views over the lake from its outdoor pools. It was opened in 1886, and it is claimed that its mineral waters have healing properties. Many still swear by it now. There are various spa treatments available here, and you can choose between the family pools, adult-only pools, or the very authentic-looking rock pools, right by the lake shore.
Lake Taupo is the largest lake in the southern hemisphere, and was formed as a result of the most violent volcanic eruption of the last 2,000 years, known as the Hatepe eruption. It happened around 180 AD, and at that time, New Zealand had never even seen a human being. But in Rome, writers noted a particularly vivid sunset on the eve of that eruption because of the huge amount of dust kicked up into the atmosphere. We drove around the lake, stopping occasionally to take in the fantastic views, and, of course, take some photos. I reckon this is the way to see New Zealand. Just hire a car and head for the horizon. Heaven or Hell? You be the judge.
Where to stay
We stayed at Crash Palace backpackers (1271 Hinemaru Street) during our time in Rotorua, and it was excellent. The owners and staff had a wealth of knowledge about the town and surrounding area, and couldn’t wait to share that knowledge with us. There is a free private car park, a spa in the back garden and even a pet Rabbit, what more could you want? Dorms sleeping six people cost from $23NZ per person per night.
How to do it
Located around about 25km south of Rotorua, signposted off SH5 (open 8.30am-5pm; entry $30NZ adult, $10NZ child)
Hells Gate (www.hellsgate.co.nz)
Around 16km northeast of Rotorua on SH30. It is open 9am–8.30pm daily, and entry is $30NZ for the self-guided walk (spa treatments are extra).
Polynesian Spa (www.polynesianspa.co.nz)
Located at 1000 Hinemaru Street, Rotorua. Prices range from $15NZ to $40NZ depending on which pool you want. The spa is open 6:30am-11pm daily, with treatments available from 9am to 9pm
Omega Car rentals (www.omegarentalcars.com)
We had a great experience with this company. The insurance options give great reassurance and you can get a sat nav and snow chains thrown in. They are sited at Aukland airport and in the city and prices start from $29NZ per day. Highly recommended.