ON THE TRAIL OF AOTEAROA’S GEOTHERMAL HOT SPOTS, AMATEUR VOLCANOLOGIST Paul Robinson STRAPS INTO THE HOT SEAT FOR A RINGOF-FIRE ROAD TRIP.
Paul Robinson turns volcanologist in New Zealand
There’s good reason for New Zealand’s ‘Shaky Isles’ nickname. The country sits precariously on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, not the Johnny Cash version. Born of violent upheaval, the country has a fault line running its entire length and is home to many recently (geologically-speaking) ‘extinct’ volcanoes, and a few reluctant sleepers. These days the Earth is quiet, but through cracks and fissures come thermal reminders of the power that lurks below.
On a road trip from Auckland it’s possible to bask in therapeutic hot springs and bubbling mud pools, marvel at geysers shooting super-heated water metres into the air, trek the roof of the North Island among active volcanoes and crater lakes, and stroll around an extremely tetchy volcanic isle. They built this city not on rock ‘n’ roll, but on an underground magma sea. Fifty volcanoes within an area of 1,100 sq km make up the lakes, hills and basins of Auckland, each the result of a different magma eruption. Climbing to the top of one of the cones such as One Tree Hill gives a panoramic view of, er, the others. Most impressive – for its classically photogenic “I’m a volcano” shape and position in the middle of Waitemata Harbour – is Rangitoto. Formed by an eruption 500 years ago the scoria island boasts a 260m peak and is covered by dense pohutukawa forest. Catch a ferry or kayak over from the mainland (a two-hour paddle for the fit). The hiking is good and black lava caves worth investigation.
The ‘good’ news for volcanophobes in Auckland is that magma eruptions seldom occur in the same place twice, and are relatively small, probably trashing an area the size of a suburb. Right...
GETTING IN HOT WATER
A 150km drive south will see you relaxing in a natural seaside spa. Hot Water Beach is on the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula, 20 minutes from Tairua, a fishing village with a good surf, great fish ‘n’ chips and awesome mussels.
Hot Water Beach also has good surf, but the main attraction is more left-field – a thermal spring oozes up through the sand under the cliffs at one end of the beach. At low tide, dig a hole at the water’s edge and jump in to enjoy a DIY salty spa. Best to check the tide chart and arrive early enough to grab a space, then break out the champagne as the sun sets and waves roll in.
WELCOME TO HELL
From sublime to scary – New Zealand’s sole remaining active marine volcano, Whakaari, or White Island. Riding the morning high tide across the narrow Whakatane Harbour bar, the 49km voyage to the island takes 90 minutes. So-named by Captain Cook because, er, “it always appeared white” – it’s the summit of a 200,000-year-old submarine volcano, climbing 321m above the sea. In Maori legend, the island was born when two fire gods surfaced here to check their GPS, shooting flames into the sky in the process.
Europeans bought the island for two hogsheads of rum in the 1830s. Attempts to mine the abundant sulphur began in 1885, but it was hard yakka. Part of the crater rim collapsed in September 1914, triggering a lahar (volcanic
landslide) that swept the operation into the sea, killing 10 miners. Arriving weeks after the event, the supply ship found only the camp cat had survived. The stark industrial ruins of the mining settlement remain as a monument to the folly.
The Kiwi Navy and Air Force later used the Volkner Rocks at one end of the island for bombing practice but after a ceasefire, the privately owned island became a scenic reserve. Up until 1990, anyone could land here and wander around. God knows how many accidents there were. The NZ Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences now monitors the island constantly, assigning an alert level from 0-5 (0 being “dormant”, 3 “erupting” and 5 “national disaster”). Two volcanoes in NZ currently register a scale of 1 (“emission of background activity”): Mount Ruapehu, and the one we’re standing on. White Island last erupted big-time in July 2000, firing car-sized chunks of rock into the sea.
Bumping ashore in inflatables, we scramble across the boulders. The sulphurous water around the island looks like urine; its warmth, due to underwater volcanic vents, means an abundance of coral, sponges and fish.
Hiking up the beach in hard hats and gasmasks, across rivulets of warm water and up to the inner crater, it’s a vision of hell – a surreal moonscape of craters, scree, steam escaping from vents, bubbling pools of black mud, blitzed tree trunks, tiny red lichens clinging tenuously to life. The sulphur’s acrid tang fills the air – you can feel its corrosive bite. The streams are hot enough to boil an egg; the colours intense – greens, brown, rust, ochre yellows. Sulphur-crusted fumaroles vent the volcano’s energy, filling the air with swirling steam. The whole hillside is steaming, with a constant roar like an enormous angry kettle.
The island is constantly morphing and what looks like a mound can be a pressure-induced crust covering a cavity filled with boiling water, steam or mud – falling through is inadvisable. The closer we get to the inner crater, the more acrid the fumes in the air become.
PLAYING IN THE MUD On the shores of its own lake, 300m above sea level, Rotorua is geothermal central, the result of millennia of volcanic activity, the lakes themselves ancient explosion craters. The smell of sulphur permeates the air and clouds of steam erupt in various spots around the city. So much energy lurks underground that many people tap into it for their hot water. Geysers can appear overnight in the backyard. The city has been a tourist destination for 160 years, a convenient combo of the local Arawa culture, natural wonders and the therapeutic qualities of its hot springs and mud pools.
Hells Gate in Tikitere is a hyperactive geothermal reserve. Playwright George Bernard Shaw visited in 1934 and, much taken with its infernal charms, named some of the attractions. Paths meander past bubbling pools, fumeroles and black mud volcanoes with names like Devil’s Cauldron, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Inferno. Baby geysers sputter and sulphurous mists swirl. Hells Gate is no place for the unwary, though rabbits survive here. Thrill-seeking possums, drunk on camellia leaves, are often parboiled. Somehow the surrounding native bush survives. Maoris have taken the waters as a palliative to aching joints and muscles for generations. The 40ºc Kakahi Falls were used by warriors recuperating post-battle. These days the battle-weary get to soak in sulphur water and geothermal mud, followed by an invigorating miri miri (Maori massage).
ATOP THE MOUNTAIN
In a tiny Robertson chopper we fly over forests, lakes and the erupting Pohutu Geyser at Whakarewarewa – which jets 30m skywards like clockwork 20 times each day – to the sleeping giant Tarawera. From the air, scars from the catastrophic explosion that ripped the earth apart on June 10, 1886 are still obvious. This big bang buried seven villages on the shores of Lake Tarawera, plus the legendary Pink and White Terraces – once the “eighth wonder of the world” and a major tourist attraction of the time. More than 150 people were killed, the eruption cloud was 9.5km high and the bang was heard in Christchurch, 800km south. In Wellington, citizens thought the Russians were invading and ash spread over 15,540km.
From the summit, Whakaari is visible to the east, Lake Taupo and the mountains of the Central Plateau to the west. This is the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a grumbling belt of anger that stretches 240km from Ohakune to Whakaari. If the gods really lost it, they could blow the North Island apart.
PROPHETS OF DOOM
New Zealand’s premier volcanic attraction is the Central Plateau. In the middle of the North Island, it rises to 370m above sea level at Taupo. Under the surface, the Pacific tectonic plate is steadily sinking beneath the Australian plate. Cue the plateau’s steam vents, mud pools, hot springs, crater lakes and active volcanoes.
Ruapehu last erupted in 2007, its sister mountain Tongariro in 2012, and the perfectly formed Ngauruhoe, ‘Mount Doom’ in The Lord of the Rings, in 1975.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a hardcore 19.5km trek across this volcanic theme park. From the Mangatepopo Valley near Whakapapa village, the track climbs around ancient lava flows past streams and springs. It’s steep but worth it for the awesome views.
The hike takes about eight hours if you’re fit (longer in the opposite direction). If you’re really fit, side trips up Tongariro and Ngauruhoe will add many more hours.
Warning: weather can be unpredictable and check for current volcanic activity.
If the gods really lost it, they could blow the North Island apart.
White Island, Bay of Plenty (left) and from the air (below); Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ruapehu (bottom).