Auckland and Geothermal Wonders of Rotorua

Auckland and Area New Zealand by Irene Butler
Photos by Rick
Our New Zealand Photo Gallery

Sky Tower Down Town AucklandOur first impression of Auckland is how “at home” we felt. We are struck by the similarities to our hometown of Vancouver BC – from the waterfront filled with cruise ships, yachts and sailboats, to the fine shopping areas and malls, to the quiet tree-lined residential streets. Even the weather is as temperamental as Vancouver’s, in that all four seasons can be experienced in one day.

On our first major walk our throbbing thighs confirm the roller-coaster terrain of Auckland which rests on 49 volcanic cones, some rounding off at such a height as to award a panoramic view.

After taking in the architectural highlights of the city centre we venture further out to The Domain, a vast park where we do a few bush walks, then delight in the formal gardens of flowering plants. The park is a happening place, with picnicking families and a crowd of folks sitting on the grass in front of a gazebo stage where a jazz band and singers belt out tunes. We spot the impressive structure we are looking for at the back of The Domain – the Auckland Museum.

The museum sections cover every aspect of the country’s history; itsMaori Haka Performance Te Puia Rotorua people, its geography, flora and fauna, and war memorials. We become especially absorbed in the indigenous peoples culture and history. The Maori were Polynesians who sailed from Hawaiiki (no reference to Hawaii) in huge wakas (canoes) in the early 1300’s, following their legendary ancestor Kupe, who named the new place Aotearoa “Land of the Long White Cloud”. The Maori trace their lineage to these arrivals. We are treated to a cultural performance of chanting and dances passed down over the generations, with the women swinging poi (balls of flax on string) with finesse, and men in a war dance to become psyched for battle with the “haka”, the fierce facial display of wide-open bulging eyes, extended tongue, along with much foot pounding and weapons poised to strike.

Kiwi at Auckland MuseumMy love of flora and fauna is well satisfied. Seeing my first Kiwi is a highlight, not the fruit or the moniker for a New Zealand citizen, but the Kiwi bird that is New Zealand’s national emblem used on military badges, clubs and organizations. Three of the five surviving varieties of Kiwi are stuffed, which makes it easy to see the unique qualities of these birds that have a mammal appearance with their course bristly hair-like feathers. Their long slender flexible bill with nostrils at the lower end gives them such a keen sense of smell they can detect a yummy earthworm 3cm below the soil. The Brown Kiwi is the most prevalent and can be found on the main NZ islands in forests and adjacent shrub. Although only somewhat larger than a hen, their egg is 8 times larger than a hen’s egg. Semi-nocturnal, they spend 20 hours a day sleeping in cool shady dens, and forage for food for the remaining 4 hours nocturnally….locals say this lifestyle is admired by the human Kiwis. These esteemed natives were running around (as they are not able to fly) many centuries before any human set foot on these islands and are the sole survivors of an ancient order of birds, which includes the extinct moa (from bones discovered some types of moa were ostrich size).

It took the flora section in the museum to glean why another national emblem, the silver fern (Cyathea Dealbata; ponga in Maori) that grows all over New Zealand has silver in its name when all the ones I looked at had dark green leaves. Here it is… in the moonlight the lighter underside glows silver-ish providing track markers in forests. The fern leaf is emblazoned on sports jerseys (like the All Blacks Rugby Team), on coat of arms, and all manner of products made in NZ.

After several days of absorbing the sights of Auckland, we hopped a bus south to….

Hot and Steamy Rotorua

Within minutes of being in this town of 70,000, I’d wager it draws Rotorua Bus Terminalmore tourists than anywhere else in New Zealand – with good reason – the Rotorua area is one of the most active geothermal areas in the world, as well16 tranquil freshwater lakes, all of which are of volcanic origin; filled craters or valleys blocked by lava flows. A local geologist we met claimed there are three locations in the world with major geothermal activity due to the depth of the earth’s crust being only 10km from the mantle: Yellowstone Park in the US, Iceland (which extends into Siberia) and the Rotorua area of New Zealand. The “hard-boiled-egg” smell in the town is a reminder of the hydrogen sulphide (H2S) associated with geothermal activity, but the wonders are worth the occasional wrinkling of one’s nose.

Rotorua MuseumThe approach to the Rotorua Museum is like a walk-in-the-park, being that it is nestled in Government Gardens. I found it most interesting that the building this museum is housed in is the Bath House which opened in 1908, fast becoming one of New Zealand’s first major tourist draws. In the bowels of the building are the original tubs and network of pipes where mud bath therapies took place. Wealthy Europeans flocked here “taking the cure” in the “medicinal” mud involving some bizarre treatments, such as radium for gout and the running of an electric current through mud for “nervous exhaustion”. An up-to-the-neck mud bath cost 2 shillings (equivalent to $20 in today’s NZ dollars). Ads also promoted specials in therapeutic treatments for soldiers returning from the war.

The Maori culture and legends is a prominent part of the museum’s new wing. I was also impressed by the educational aspects of geyser eruptions and other geographical phenomena that we were soon so see first-hand.

The famed geyser, Pohutu, is in the Te Puia part ofPohutu Geyser Te Puia Rotorua Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve located at the southern edge of town. Making our way to a gigantic mound of rock, we watch steam streaming out of large crevices in the centre. The billows build to dense white clouds making us think at any moment the star of nature’s show will appear, but instead the steam wanes once again fluttering like sheer curtains. For forty minutes this pattern repeats itself. We refuse to budge from this spot, as if this wondrous event occurs on average twenty or so times a day…it should not be long. Mother Nature kindly gives a warning signal in that the nearby smaller Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser spews its scalding water first…and our eyes bug out as it does just that with a startling whoosh! Ten minutes later the ground rumbles and the mighty Pohutu Geyser erupts with each voluminous column of water reaching higher and higher and with more force than a high-powered fire hose until it reaches heights of 30m (100ft) with dramatic flair, the spray glinting like prisms in the sun and the mega-gallons of scalding water spilling over the edge of the rocky mound like a waterfall. The extravaganza lasts a breathtaking 15 minutes, before the Pohutu giant is spent….for now.

We wander about to see the remaining Te Puia features. Pools of mud bubble and spit at 92°C, and small pools of boiling water are where the Maori once lowered baskets filled with fish and taro to cook.

Maori Cultural Performance Te Puia RotoruaIt is time for our tour of the Maori weaving and wood carving schools here, followed by an evening cultural show of song and dance with a novel flare. The Maori women dancers ask for volunteers to try the poi dance, and several ladies come up to test their dexterity. But when the male dancers call for volunteers for the war dance, almost every man in the crowd (about 80) nearly knock each other over to get on stage. With this overload of testosterone the “haka” is a roaring success.

Following the show is the “hangi”(earth oven) dinner (a traditional way of cooking that goes by different names in South Pacific countries). We are led to where meat and vegetables are lifted off the white-hot rocks in the ground, with some modern adaptations of the old village methods.

Now salivating from the savoury odours permeating the air, we file into the dining hall with an approximate 200-person capacity – that tonight is filled. When our table number is called, and we round the buffet table loaded with platters of hangi cooked beef, chicken and pork, potatoes, taro and cabbage, the latter three drizzled with butter and onion. Alongside are crocks of fried mushrooms and vats of gravy. Another table holds a selection of salads, and yet another has half-dozen dishes of seafood, including finger-sized prawns the doused in garlic sauce. I totally had to by-pass the soup and still-warm bread offerings. With heaping plates we return to our table to find trays of steaming sweet golden corn. Delicious!…the proof is in our licked-clean plates. Rick says, “Can you get my dessert?” I know he does not trust himself with a dozen choices. Handling two plates like a seasoned waitress, my intention is to stop at two. I start with a product New Zealand is famous for – ice-cream, vanilla to be exact topped with tangy thick raspberry sauce, plus a few chocolate dipped strawberries – but then add a light-as-air lemon fluff pie, and a buttery caramel square to each plate…and oh yes, a dash of chocolate mousse. Soooo contented, but with a twinge of guilt, we by-pass the bus and walk the kilometre back to our hotel.


Early the next morning we rev-up our rental car to see some sitesWai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland south of Rotorua, the first being Wai-O-Tapu (27km) for the daily eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser at 10:15 a.m. How does this occur at the same time daily? Well, at this site nature has a helping hand in the form of a little bag of soap being poured into its funnel-like limestone opening. A scheduled time does draw a crowd; the bleachers fill and with the overflow of people standing the total spectators are around 200. At 10 o’clock park ranger Fred appears and relates how “soaping” the geyser first came about. “This was the site of a prison 100 years ago, and where the geyser is now was only a pool of thermally heated water where the prisoners came to wash their clothes. The soap caused slightly lower temperature of the top layer of water to break through to the boiling layer below releasing it to shoot up to the surface.” After the initial scare that sent the prisoners racing into the bush, it became a source of entertainment, and still is today. Fred assures us, as he pours in the small bag of organic soap, that this is in no way detrimental to the ecology. Almost immediately the Lady Knox begins to bubble, froth, and erupts to a height of approximately 12m, oddly to a silent crowd. For us it is melodramatic after Pohutu.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal WonderlandBut Wai-O-Tapu is not called the Thermal Wonderland for naught. It covers 18sq km of collapsed craters from volcanic activity eons ago. Champagne Pool and Artist’s Palette are perfect monikers for the bubbling 100°C pools, steaming fumaroles, and patches of dynamic reds, greens, purple, yellow, orange, white and black produced by different mineral elements. Spectacular!

On the side road from Wai-O-Tapu leading back to the highway, we are determined to find the mud pool that Jack, owner of our comfy Newcastle Hotel, told us about. “It’s free and it’s the best, but easy to miss with only a small wooden sign with “mud pool” on it to mark the entrance”. The bloop, bloop, bloop tells us we are in the right place as we step out of our vehicle. It is more like a lake than a pool! Under the halogen sun the surface is like a slow simmering caldron of milk chocolate worthy of a scene from Willy Wonka’s Factory. Our short stop turns into almost an hour of fascination, trying to gauge which of the boiling bubbles will be the next to spurt its mire a few feet into the air.

Orakei Korako

Another hour’s drive brings us to Orakei Korako, where we are ferriedOrakei Korako New Zealand across Lake Ohakuri to the thermal area. Outstanding are the silica terraces with 20 million litres of water flowing over every day. The richness of colour, especially the deep marigold is stunning. The walkways side boiling pools, small gushing geysers, and a deep, dark geothermal cave on our hour’s walk around the Thermal Park.

On our way back to Rotorua we turn into the Buried Village of Te Wairoa. The small museum tells the tale of the June 10, 1886 massive eruption of Mt. Tarawera, located just across the small lake from the village. Prior to the eruption, Te Wairoa had a thriving business of paddling tourists back and forth across the lake to soak in the Pink and White Terraces, where hot mineral-laden Buried Village of Te Wairoawater flowed over the scalloped limestone pools. In the late 1800’s these terraces were known as one of the natural wonders of the world. Both locals and tourists noticed the sudden fall and rise of the lake ten days before Mt. Tarawera unleashed its fury, blowing off its three mountain tops and stirring the lake into a deadly mixture of water, gases, and magna, which buried the Pink and White terraces and smothered the village and surrounding area in mud and ash. Some buildings still exist that were submerged by the eruption to their roof line. A small museum has photos of the destruction. At the edge of the grounds after descending numerous steep, slippery steps is a great upward view of a thunderous waterfall.

One last detour is to where the Blue Lake and the Green Lake can be seen, one on each side of a viewing-point. The turquoise of the Blue is due to the white rhyolite and pumice bottom, while the emerald lake on the other side is caused by the shallow sandy bottom.

After a day’s excursion we often end up at our favourite café, Fat Dog. After our first feast of New Zealand battered fish, we can not digress from this delight! Every melt-in-your-mouth morsel of the two large portions of fresh red cod is exquisite, along with a heap of golden chips and salad with a butter lettuce base topped with layers of shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, beets and sprouts saturated in a lemony sweet in-house dressing…and of course, a few locally brewed NZ Gold beers. Sumptuous!

Hark! – all you Lord of the Rings fans. While we are in Rotorua the “The Daily Post” reports a film-shoot for one of the upcoming prequels, “The Hobbit”. The shoot entails 20-25 barrels being dropped down Aratiatia Rapids, and will be part of an escape scene where Bilbo rescues his dwarf friends from elves by hiding them in barrels which float down the stream.

Our continuing adventure in New Zealand, titled “The Subterranean World of Waitoma”, includes how we are actually at a location where more of “The Hobbit” work was done.

For more info:

Auckland Museum

Rotorua Museum

Buried Village

Suggested Accommodations:
Mercure Hotel Windsor Auckland
(Great hotel a few blocks from the waterfront)
58-60 Queen St, Auckland

New Castle Motor Lodge, Rotorua
(Spotless, friendly, spa in room, ½ way between town centre & Pokutu Geyser)
Reservations: 0508 Castle (227853)

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