One of the consequences of New Zealand’s geothermal activity is an abundance of hot springs. Some of these are now spas, visited for their therapeutic and health giving properties. Others, like Whakarewarewa, are centuries’ old Maori settlements. But Waiotapu, 27 km south of Rotarua on the North Island, focuses on the natural environment. Although I’ve never seen a nature reserve quite like this before. It is full of trees, rocks and water of every imaginable colour, giving the whole place an otherworldly appearance.
Geological Formations of Waiotapu
Waiotapu is an 18 sq km volcanic zone, full of craters, hot springs and weird geological formations. The landscape was formed 160,000 years ago, but it remains a work in progress. The newest addition, the Thunder Crater, emerged as recently as 1968, and there are signs everywhere urging you to keep to the paths as the volcanoes are still active.
Not all of the park is accessible to the public, but visitors can choose from three waymarked walks through the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. We took the longest, 3 km of varied (and sometimes steep) pathway. This led to a panoramic viewpoint, looking across the massive Kaingaroa forest to a geothermal power station in the distance. As we went we passed craters and pools with evocative names. There was the Inferno Crater, where we could hear the mud pounding at the bottom, and the Devil’s Bath, full of evil looking green water.
An Artist’s Palette
Walking through Waiotapu is a slightly unreal sensory experience. There was a strong smell of sulphur everywhere and we breathed in hot steam as we walked. It was a dull wet day, and we went from being cold to hot depending on where we were standing, a bit like being in a sauna. We could hear bubbling mud and hissing steam, and birds chattering in the trees.
But it was the colours that were remarkable. Oxides in the ground have given their colours to the rocks and the water. Rainbow Crater has bands of red and yellow rock, and the orange water of the Champagne Pool is fringed with grey and yellow silica. At the centre of the park is the Artist’s Palette, a vast pool with a whole range of colours, from green and yellow to orange.
The trees and bushes soak up the minerals too. Some of them are blackened, giving them a burnt appearance. Elsewhere they are tinted with shades of mauve and yellow, like something from a sci-fi movie set.
Sacred Waters of Waiotapu
Waiotapu means “sacred waters” in the Maori language. Although the area has long been uninhabited, it was once home to the Ngati Whaoa tribe. As you walk around the park you come to a path known as The Sacred Track, passing the probable site of the early settlement.
Today Waiotapu is run as an eco-reserve. It seeks to protect the geological landscape, and to provide a safe environment for the plants and animals that live there. Since 2012 the site has been owned and managed by a Maori company, preserving the physical and cultural heritage for future generations.