In the center of New Zealand’s North Island is the town of Rotorua, sitting on top of the country’s biggest expanse of geothermal activity. Despite the city’s distinct smell (wafts of sulfur can be smelled throughout the area) people from all over the world have been coming to Rotorua for centuries to soak in the healing properties of the mineral water abundant in hot springs around the area.
One of the best places to see the extent of the thermal activity when visiting Rotorua is to take a trip about 20 minutes south to the Wai-O-Tapu thermal park. A native Maori name, Wai-O-Tapu means “sacred waters” in English, and the unique colors and sights here definitely make this a very special place and one of New Zealand’s top sights. Ample parking is provided for cars, or several tour companies run shuttle services from Rotorua or nearby Taupo.
On a morning tour, be sure to visit Lady Knox Geyser by 10:15 am for its daily eruption. First discovered by prisoners trying to wash clothes in a bubbling hot spring in the 19th century, rangers are today able to induce an eruption of the geyser by adding a compound similar to soap. While the geyser will erupt naturally every 24-72 hours, rangers induce an eruption just after 10:15 every morning for tourists to experience. The eruption spurts water about ten meters high and, depending on the day, it can last anywhere from one to ten minutes.
The next stop on our tour of the park was to the mud pool, a surprisingly beautiful and bizarre pond filled with boiling, bubbling mineral mud. The mud pool is left over from a mud volcano that eroded in the 1920s. The mud has remarkable medicinal and aesthetic qualities, and the bravest can even choose a tour with a chance to bathe in the sulfurous mud, although no promises on how you will smell coming out!
The most rewarding part of the park comes when you get to the actual Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a giant reserve filled with hundreds of thermal pools and craters, in the most remarkable colors.
It feels like you are walking on Mars as you meander through paths taking you along the pools of boiling water coming right out of the ground. The colors of the pools correspond to the type of mineral, bright yellow being sulfur, red/orange signifying iron, etc. There are three walking tracks of different lengths to suit all abilities, with the longest about 3 kilometers. To see the entire park, be sure to leave approximately 80 minutes.
One of the biggest attractions is the steaming, colorful Champagne Pool in the center of the park. Bordered by bright reds and coppers, the blue-green of the lake is brilliant, especially on a bright sunny day. Visitors in the winter may experience an enormous amount of steam escaping from the surface as pool temperatures exceed 100 degrees Celsius.
If you follow all three tracks to the edge of the park, you will also pass a huge expanse of flat land with puddles of boiling water, making it look like the ground is actually boiling. This is called Frying Pan Flats, and Maori settlements in the area frequently used the boiling water to cook food, lowering it down into the ground to heat in the thermal warmth. The last trail will lead you out to a magnificent lake that is bright teal in color, contrasting beautifully with the surrounding trees and mountains in the background.
Wander your way back out of the park through different trails to see the remainder of the brightly colored pools and craters, making it a truly unique New Zealand experience.