If you’re driving along in your car and you see steam spouting from underground vents scattered around the surrounding farmland, you can be pretty sure you are in an active geothermal area.
This is the area south of Rotorua on the North Island, part of the Taupo volcanic zone and home to a number of active volcanoes and assorted geothermal activity.
You get the sense that the ground deep beneath your feet is seething with magma and roiling with hot water and gases just waiting to come to the surface—and it is.
You can actually pull off the road and stop alongside some of the geothermal vents. Along with the hot, sulfur-smelling steam stinging your face, you can hear deep subterranean belching and bubbling sounds of the Earth doing its primordial thing.
In the Rotorua area itself, this geothermal activity gives rise to a number of commercial activities highlighting geysers, hot water pools, boiling mud pots and steaming streams along with a number of spas and hot springs for which the city is famous. Soak in the springs to relieve your aches and pains. Rub volcanic mud (there are three different colors each with varying effects) on your face to halt the aging process!
But I suggest you escape all the tourist crowds and buses in Rotorua and head 35 minutes south on Highway 5. Turn right and follow the signs to Waikite Valley Hot Springs. One reason to go there is to soak in the hot water. The other reason— you’ll just have to wait and read on.
Waikite Valley Thermal Pools are nestled in a small valley and are frequented by both visitors and locals. On the two occasions we visited, it was uncrowded and quiet, a pleasant respite after tramping and exploring. There is the Pukeko in a Ponga Tree Café if you get hungry and an adjoining campsite if you want to spend the night.
The clear hot water of the springs was recognized for centuries by the Maori for their healing properties. Wai means water, and kite means clear. The first European saw the springs in 1859 and commented about the vast quantities of crystal clear boiling water. The present operation was officially opened as a commercial facility in 1972.
There are four pools of differing sizes and temperatures (35 -40 degrees Celsius). The largest one is more like a small swimming pool; the others are smaller and for more secluded soaking.
But after a relaxing soak, it’s not over. If you just go to the hot springs, you’ll miss a major reason for going to Waikite Hot Springs. Behind the soaking pools is a short ten-minute walk, the Te Manaroa Eco Trail. This trail follows the geothermal stream, which supplies the pools, up to its source, a huge boiling geothermal spring and the largest of its kind in New Zealand. A fenced walkway keeps the over-adventuresome from contact with the extremely hot water.
The first time we visited Waikite Hot Springs, we almost missed taking this short walk. What a mistake that would have been.
This is Jurassic Park time. Everything is shrouded in geothermal steam. Ferns and other plants hug the banks of the stream and appear and disappear in the ever-moving vapor. In this prehistoric environment, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur appear out the mist.
A unique fern, the Christella fern, grows on the stream banks here. In New Zealand, this fern is found only in a few geothermal areas south of Rotorua. Another place where this same fern is found is in the rainforests of South America, evidence of a time millions of years ago when both New Zealand and South America were both part of the giant land mass Gondwana and shared the same or similar plants.
Club mosses, a particularly ancient group of mosses, are also found along the stream. Club mosses were a dominant plant group during the Carboniferous period 360 million years ago, during which time they attained the size of trees and contributed to the making of coal deposits. The ones here are much smaller than their ancient relatives.
Microorganisms (bacteria) are also found in the geothermal hot water here. These unique organisms that are able to survive in this extremely adverse environment are believed to be related to some of the first life forms on earth.
After the short walk, you reach a viewing platform over the boiling–water spring itself. It looks like a giant cauldron with the boiling water pulsing and surging to the surface. The Maori name for the spring is Te Manaroa (mana means charismatic, roa means long-lasting).
A sign lists the spring as New Zealand’s largest single source of naturally boiling water (98 degrees Celsius). The water emerges at a rate of 40-50 liters per second.
Finally, here is a one-minute video I made attempting to capture the surreal quality of this remarkable place.