TRAVEL

ON THE TRAIL OF AOTEAROA’S GEOTHER­MAL HOT SPOTS, AM­A­TEUR VOL­CA­NOL­O­GIST Paul Robin­son STRAPS INTO THE HOT SEAT FOR A RINGOF-FIRE ROAD TRIP.

Men's Style (Australia) - - Contents -

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).

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