New Zealand’s most amazing natural wonders – down the rabbit hole at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland

Have YOU ever fallen down the rabbit hole? How about one that ends in boiling pools of neon yellow goop? If this sounds up your alley, head on out to Rotorua, New Zealand. Let’s talk about Waiotapu – what does it mean? Waiotapu is a maori word meaning “sacred waters,” and is an active geothermal area at the southern area of the Okataina Volcanic Center in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. Thermal – indeed, quite self-explanatory. Wonderland – aptly titled, because between the unsettling and unnatural (but 1000% natural!) colors, the 100 degree+ temperatures (Celsius) and the crazy landscapes, this beauty will have you feeling like Alice for sure… perhaps after the “eat me, drink me” encounter.

 

There is no shortage of beautiful wonders to see at Waiotapu, so I would allow at least 2 hours for your visit, if not a bit more. If you’re up for an early start, the Lady Knox Geyser (allegedly) awakens every morning at 10:15AM (unfortunately I visited in the afternoon, so cannot confirm this lovely experience but am hoping to see it next time!) The park is well-landscaped with clearly defined paths for visitors, and plenty of signs indicating where really not to step or leave the indicated path given the high temperatures of the ground and steam coming out of the thermal caves. Visitors are able to choose which path (of three main options) they wish to follow, namely a shorter track (walk 1) that takes you to the main attractions of the Central Pools and Champagne Pool, a middle ground (walk 1 & 2) offering some additional sights, and then the full extended trek (walk 1, 2, & 3), which, while not at all more difficult or arduous, provides so many surprises along the way and an unforgettable end view. Estimated lengths and times of walk 1 is 1.5km, 30 min; walk 2 is 2km and should take 40 min, while walk 3 is 3km and should take about 75 min. I was unsure which path to take at first because the guides in the welcome center sound rather ambivalent but say of course it’s all very interesting, may as well go all the way for some additional nice photos… but if you take away anything from this writing, do the full circuit walk!!! It. Is. Amazing. And so SO worth it. My last minute decision to do the entire path because (why not, I was already there) turned out to be an excellent choice, and once you complete the first half with main attractions, a significant chunk of tourists with their impending selfie sticks have already circled back for the entrance, leaving you alone to wander amongst the nature alone with your thoughts, camera (ok, perhaps a selfie stick of your own), and some really breathtaking views.

 

What you’ll see

Along any walk you choose, you will pass a huge variety of wonders, including thermal caves spewing steam, bubbling ominously from their depths, and a lovely sulfuric smell… yum. All of these caves and pools you will see throughout the course of the day are results of time, and location in one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. Here are some of the park’s highlights, and my favorites:

 

Artist’s Palette: After earthquakes caused the Champagne Pool to tilt, mineral laden water flowed over the flat, causing this multicolored display of chemical beauty. Orange, bright yellows and surreal greens and blues paint across the water as mineral deposits are spread around by the wind.

 

Champagne Pool: arguably the most famous attribute of Waiotapu, the Champagne Pool occupies a crater that was formed during an eruption 700 years ago! Purportedly the most violent eruption that the world has seen in the past 5,000 years, ash was seen as far away as the skies of Europe and China. What’s going on to make it these crazy colors, you may ask… let alone the “champagne”-esque bubbles? Well, let’s just say there’s some knarly chemistry going on, to say the least.

            For my science buffs: the water enters the pool at a temp of 230 degrees Celsius and cools within the pool to around 74 degrees, with a pH of 5.4, making it slightly acidic. The gas bubbles rising to the surface are C02, the orange colored edge containing arsenic and antimony sulfur compounds rich in minerals including gold and silver.

 

Lake Ngakoro: This is the enormous, stunning lake that greets deserving visitors at the end of their trek (on the long walk). Crisply turquoise, the lake lures one into its beautiful depths. Take your time just looking, soaking in the beauty, and enjoy life for a moment.

 

Devil’s Bathtub: The most intriguing (perhaps most disturbing) feature of Waiotapu may in fact be its most tranquil (in terms of chemistry and volcanic activity, anyway). Also sitting in a crater caused by eruption likely centuries ago, the stagnant liquid of Devil’s Bathtub is an astonishingly (anyone have a better word?!) neon yellow/green, resulting from sulfur deposits that rise to its surface. LOVELOVELOVE. Stay wild, Waiotapu- seriously.

 

Mud Pool

Ok, you’ve seen all the craziness that nature has to offer. You’ve seen 100 degree steam rising from a bright green pool, a small lake properly comparable only to Gatorade, and wonder upon wonder of geothermal amazement. Stop right there. You simply cannot drive away from Waiotapu without first driving just beyond their main parking area… back towards the signs pointing out “Mud Pools.” A visit to Waiotapu simply would not be complete without seeing Rotorua’s famous boiling mud. It’s just as magical as it sounds, I promise. Go ahead, I dare you to jump in (just kidding, please don’t. As one of the kind fellows that welcomed us implored, “if you want to keep your legs, please refrain.”) The mud occupies the site of a once-volcano which eroded in the 1920s, leaving a rather mysterious and captivating pit of bubbling and boiling goo (which, by the way, is the source of many luxurious cosmetic products including a killer face mask!). Laugh, point, take some pics… try to predict when the next big bubble will come- that’s all, folks.

 

Whether you’re traveling NZ solo or bringing the whole fam damily, this place is MAGICAL, and you need to go. Now. Go see these whimsical wonders and feel your jaw drop- dayum, Mother Nature.

 

 

*Getting there: Waiotapu is more or less smack in the middle of New Zealand’s north island, and nearly equidistant from Taupo and Rotorua. I visited Waiotapu en route from Wellington to Auckland via a night over in Taupo- a quick drive down “Thermal Explorers’ highway” is accessible and easy the next morning. From my experience, having a car to see around NZ is simply preferable, because you avoid uncertainty, get to see all of these tucked-away places, and of course, can see what you want, when and how and you travel on your own terms. J

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