New Zealand  #05 – Rotorua & Waimangu Volcanic Valley

April 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

February 2017

New Zealand  #05 – Rotorua & Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Rotorua to Waimangu Volcanic Valley

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Taupo Volcanic Zone

The Taupo Volcanic Zone is a highly active volcanic area in the North Island that is spreading east–west at the rate of about 8 mm per year. The zone itself is a middle section of the wide bulge in the middle of the North Island and includes several active volcanos.  One of these is Taupo.  Taupo has been erupting for the past 300,000 years but the most recent major eruption took place around 180 CE, and was one of New Zealand's largest eruptions.  It is believed that the eruption column was 31 Miles (50 km) high, twice as high as the eruption column from Mount St. Helens in 1980. This makes it one of the most violent eruptions in the last 5000 years. The resulting ash turned the sky red over areas as far as away as Rome and China.  The caldera of the Taupo volcano is filled with water (Lake Taupo) as it was when it blew1,837 years ago.  The eruption first vaporized the lake and blew it into the atmosphere before it released its pyroclastic flow which covered about 7,722 sq mi (20,000 square km) which must have been quite impressive.  Over the centuries, this volcano is responsible for one fifth of the land area of the North Island of New Zealand. 

New Zealand itself sits on the boundary of the Indo-Australian plate and the Pacific Plate, making it part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.  At New Zealand, the Pacific Plate is pushing against the Indo-Australian plate and, being heavier is sliding down and under it.  This pushes up the leading edge of the upper plate which is what formed New Zealand.  This process generates a lot of heat where these plates grind against each other and that is what makes all the volcanoes.  This is the same process that is responsible for the Cascade Mountains in the American North West. 

But, here in the Taupo Volcanic Zone there is another thing going on.  As it turns out the earth’s crust here is only around 3 miles thick compared to a worldwide average of 44 miles.  This is very similar to Hawaii and Yellowstone National Park.  So, when things heat up a bit, it’s pretty easy for the problem to reach the surface as a volcano.  It also makes for lots of thermal areas where there are geysers, fumaroles, boiling mud pots and steaming lakes.  There are many volcanoes in the zone, just grab a map and look for round lakes.  Each one is most likely a volcano. 



The town of Rotorua is on the shore of Lake Rotorua which is one of the volcanoes in the zone.  This one has been dormant longer than Taupo with its main eruption occurring about 240,000 years ago. The town of Rotorua is one of the most visited places in New Zealand.  The population of the town is around 15,000 (10th largest in New Zealand) and it is typical that another 15,000 visitors will be in town at the same time.  This turns out to be over 1 million visitors per year – and we were 2 of them this year. 

The heyday of Rotorua was in the 1880’s when there was a widely held belief about healing powers of mineral laden hot water, especially if it was a natural source.  So, like many thermal areas around the world, people flocked to Rotorua to “take the waters” as they say.  And, guess what?  Other people were more than willing to build spas, hotels, restaurants and other businesses – including a railroad from Auckland - to help separate these seekers of health from their money.  Several of those spas are still operational and still attract large numbers of visitors.  However, they have for the most part been modernized to cater to the current population.  They have also changed over from marketing health benefits to more of a beauty, relaxation sort of perspective. 

And, truth be told, they are quite nice.  Most have several pools at different temperatures, include a restaurant and provide a wide variety of “spa” services like massages, mud baths, sauna, steam room, etc. 

The center of town is a park called Government Gardens in and around which you can settle see much of the Victorian-Edwardian architecture from the 1800’s.  Government Gardens sits on a peninsula at the edge of Lake Rotorua and was the location of some of the grander establishments of the time.  One grand old Tudor building is the Rotorua Museum which forms the centerpiece of Government Gardens.  This gorgeous facility was originally the official bath house of the city.  However as interest in health spas waned in the middle to the twentieth century it was closed down and left to deteriorate.  Then, in 1969, the south wing was converted into a museum and in 1977 an art gallery moved into the north wing.  In 1988 the two merged into the Rotorua Museum of Art and History.  However after an earthquake in the fall of 2016 the whole building was closed due to structural damage.  It was expected to reopen in April of 2017 but that date is being pushed out as more damage is being uncovered. 

Old Victorian Hotel and Restaurant in Rotorua (Princess Gate Hotel)

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Lion in Government Gardens, Rotorua NZ (of course lions are not native to New Zealand)

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Maori Artwork on Fence in Government Gardens, Rotorua NZ

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Rotorua Museum, Government Gardens (Rotorua, NZ)

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Rotorua Museum, Government Gardens (Rotorua, NZ)

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Rotorua Museum, Government Gardens (Rotorua, NZ)

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Te Puia

The Te Puia site is 173 acres within the historic Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley on the edge of Rotorua and consists of several different things merged together on one site.  It is home to the world famous Pōhutu geyser, mud pools, hot springs and silica formations. You will also find the native Kiwi bird and the national schools of wood carving, weaving, stone and bone carving.  The Maori have used this location as a cultural site for 170 years.

In 1926 a Maori Arts and Crafts school was established in Rotorua by Sir Āpirana Ngata and the new school continued the tradition in a location well-established for traditional Maori arts and crafts. The location of the school at Whakarewarewa enabled easy access to the lucrative tourist market, which continues to be a substantial source of revenue used to support the traditions.  However, by the 1960’s interest in traditional Maori arts and crafts had diminished and was under threat as younger Maori were not learning the old ways of weaving and carving.  Then, in 1963, the Rotorua Maori Arts and Crafts Institute Act created the school as a legal entity.  This act was amended in 1967 which changed it from a local to a national institute by removing most references to Rotorua.  Since the Maori Renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s, Maori traditions have had more impact on contemporary art in New Zealand, leading to a blurring of the lines between art and Maori art.   

The Institute was re-branded as Te Puia in 2005and remains a significant tourist attraction in Rotorua.

Currently the institute houses a Carving school and a weaving school which teaches these traditional art forms to younger people thus keeping the traditions alive.  The school has master craftsmen (women?) who instruct the students in the traditional methods of weaving and carving many times using traditional tools.  The school then sells these works of art to help maintain the program.

Extracting Weaving Threads from Flax by Scraping Off Pulp with Clam Shell

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Extracting Weaving Threads from Flax by Scraping Off Pulp with Clam Shell

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Weaving the Flax with Bone, Feathers and Dog Fur

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Carving a large panel

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Carving a large panel

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The Te Puia center is also a location where one can see Maori buildings such as a traditional meeting house.  Throughout the day they perform various ceremonies in and around these structures.  For example there is a ritual the Maori perform when members of another tribe show up for a visit.  This ceremony is designed to show how powerful, scary, and warlike your tribe is while at the same time gauging whether the visitors have come in peace or to attack your village.  It is typically performed by several of the largest and most powerful warriors in your group.

Marae (Traditional Maori Meeting House)

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“Welcoming” Ceremony

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“Welcoming” Ceremony

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The thermal area of Te Puia is called “Whakarewarewa” which is short for “Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao”.  It means “The gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao” and was the site of the Maori fortress of Te Puia, first occupied around 1325.  It was said to be impenetrable – at least from other Maori tribes before the Europeans showed up with cannons – and was never taken in battle. Maori have lived here ever since, taking full advantage of the geothermal activity in the valley for heating and cooking.  The area is home to some 500 pools, most of which are alkaline chloride hot springs, and at least 65 geyser vents, each with their own name. Seven of those geysers are currently active.

But all was not good for the area as urbanization took hold in adjacent Rotorua.  Many of the thermal features have been adversely affected by Rotorua residents taking advantage of the underlying geothermal fluids by drawing hot water and steam from shallow wells for domestic and commercial heating.  Over the years many geysers stopped erupting and some hot pools and springs dried up.  But, the powers that be took notice and in their infinite wisdom realized if you have a town whose entire being is predicated on thermal activity and that thermal activity ceases to be attractive that it may be a problem.  See, some politicians actually have a reality based thought process.  So they enacted legislation to address the situation.  They passed a bore closure program in 1987-1988 that resulted in 106 wells within 1.5 km of main geothermal areas to be cemented shut, with another 120 wells outside that radius being shut due to the imposition of heavy fees for taking ground water.  There has subsequently been a pronounced recovery in the geysers and hot springs at Whakarewarewa.

Boiling mud

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Thermal Terrace

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Pohutu Geyser

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An Emerald Pool near Pohutu Geyser

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Mitai Maori Village

There are several “Maori experience” sort of places in the Rotorua area where they put on a Maori cultural show of some sort and many include a more or less traditionally cooked dinner.  One such place is the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua.  Even though it is entirely staged, somewhat plastic in nature and entirely designed for busloads of tourists it was an interesting way to spend an evening.  This particular “show” (if you will) included summer camp style introductions of the audience members (who traveled the farthest, what countries are represented, etc.).  This was followed by a walk down a paved path through an overgrown jungle and past the lovely Fairy Spring down to a river where Maori actors came along in a war canoe – complete with flaming torches. 

We then adjourned back up the hill to watch them take our dinner out of the ground where it had been cooking.   I don’t think the original Maori cooked chicken and pork in large metal trays with aluminum foil on top, but it’s the thought that counts.  Then there was a stage show of traditional Maori dance and song along with a welcoming ceremony.  And lastly there was a buffet dinner.  All very Vegas like.  I can’t say I was bored, but I’m sure if we had paid for it on our own we would have been somewhat disappointed.

Tree Ferns in Dense Jungle Area

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Fairy Spring

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Maori Warrior.  Showing tongue is considered a symbol of aggressive power

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Portion of recreated Maori Village

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Fairy Spring

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Portion of recreated Maori Village

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Part of war dance ritual

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Waimangu Volcanic Valley

This area which is about a half hour drive from Rotorua has been volcanic for over 18,000 years during which time there have been 5 volcanic eruptions of mount Tarawera.  In the 1880’s the area was quite popular for its thermal features, much like Yellowstone National Park.  During this time many hotels and restaurants sprang up to accommodate the tourists coming to see the sights and these attracted even more people.  One famous and popular feature of the area was the pink and white terraces (similar to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone, but more massive) as well as the location of the Waimangu Geyser, which was active from 1900 to 1904.  They say that the terraces were the best in the world and some called them the 8th natural wonder of the world.  Some rose over 100 feet above the lake.  But all of this changed on June 10th, 1886 when Tarawera erupted.  There were both European and Maori people who happened to be there to see it happen.  The blast destroyed 7 Maori villages and killed 120 Maori people as well as a handful of non Maori tourists who were there to see the sights.  The remains of the pink and white terraces are now at the bottom of Lake Rotomahana.  Since this 1886 eruption there have been several more smaller eruptions including the latest one in 1917 which killed a couple of tourists. 

The 1886 blast totally wiped out all the plants and animals for many miles, but over the years since then local plants and animals have come back into the area.  Many have adapted to the hot and acidic soil conditions in order to get a foothold.  As this was sort of a “start over from scratch” sort of natural environment, they call the Waimangu valley the “Place where the world began”.  And, indeed in some ways it does have a primordial feel to it. 

A tourism company now controls access to the Waimangu Volcanic valley as well as the lake at the bottom of the valley.  So, you have to pay admission to get in and see the place.  There are several different options including self guided walk/hike, cruise on the lake, and guided walking tours.  We did all three. 

We started out at the visitor center (aka gift shop) and hopped a bus that would take us a bit over 2 miles, down through the valley to Lake Rotomahana.  There we walked a quarter of a mile or so along the shore to the boat dock where we boarded a boat for an hour cruise around the lake.  We then took the bus back up to the visitor center where we met up with another guide for an ecology hike down two thirds of the valley.  From there we hopped on another bus to take us back to the visitor center.  This plan worked out quite well as all the hiking was down hill.  I sure do wish the hikes we take in our own National and State Parks were all downhill but I guess I can keep wishing.

So, let’s go back to some Geology, Biology and history. 

After our bus ride down to the lake we boarded a boat for a 45 minute narrated cruise around Lake Rotomahana.  Lake Rotomahana is about 2,000-acres making it about 1/10th the size of Crater Lake in Oregon.  Prior to the 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera eruption there were two much much smaller lakes at this location.  Following the eruption, a number of craters filled with water over the subsequent 15 years to form today's Lake.  It is the most recently formed large natural lake in New Zealand, and the deepest in the Rotorua district.  Lake Rotomahana has no natural outlet, and its water level varies by about one meter in response to rainfall and evaporation.

There are hundreds of hot water springs dotting the lake bottom and along the western shore is an active thermal area with small geysers and fumaroles.

The lake as well as the islands are part of a wildlife refuge with all hunting of birds prohibited.  As part of the conservation effort, and to restore the balance of nature present in New Zealand prior to the arrival of Europeans, a large island (Patiti Island) has had all non native animals removed as well.  These were mostly mammals that tend to eat bird eggs.  This reduction has allowed the bird population to soar back up to its natural state.

Tree Ferns in Waimangu Volcanic Valley

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Area of thermal activity along shore of Lake Rotomahana

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Small Geyser along shore of lake Rotomahana

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Textures left by steam and acid laden water

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Australian Black Swans

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After our boat ride, we rode the bus back up to the top of the valley where we met up with another guide who would lead us on a nature walk back down the valley.  Conveniently enough the hiking trail was a bit away from the dirt road the buses take making for a much more pleasant experience. 

Since the 1890 eruption the valley has gradually been re-populated naturally by plants ranging from hot water-loving algae and bacteria to mosses and many species of native ferns, shrubs and trees. These in turn support native birdlife including kereru, tui, fantail, bellbird, and pukeko, as well as introduced bird species such as mynah, magpie, shining cuckoo, finch and sparrow.

As a rare eco-system completely naturally re-established following a volcanic eruption, Waimangu is protected as a Scenic Reserve, administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The developing local native forest is the only current New Zealand instance of vegetation re-establishing from complete devastation without any human influence such as planting.

The first feature you come to on this hike is a murky brown lake ironically called Emerald Pool which fills the bottom of Southern Crater.  This small crater came from the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption which has since filled with rain water to a depth of a whopping 7 feet.  There is no thermal activity at this lake so the water is cold and not all that interesting. 

A bit further down the valley we come to the much more interesting Echo Crater and its lake called Frying Pan Lake. This lake has an average depth of 20 ft and covers 410,000 sq ft.  Unlike Emerald Pool which is brown, Frying Pan Lake is bluer in color.  This lake has thermal activity and is the largest hot spring in the world.  The average temperature of the steaming acidic water is 131 °F (55° C).  The heat comes from several hot springs along the lake bottom which brings mineral laden hot water into the lake.  In one alcove of the lake the water color is turquoise which is due to the spring at the bottom of that section having different mineral content than the rest of the lake.  The lake's outflow is the source of Waimangu Stream which flows down the valley and into Lake Rotomahana near the boat dock.

The section of Waimangu Stream from where it forms at Frying Pan Lake is colorful hodgepodge of white, browns, yellows, oranges and greens as if flows over different temperature surfaces allowing different types of bacteria, algae and mosses to live.  The sides of this stream are covered with delicate silica formations and colorful mineral deposits.  

Continuing, a little side trail leads up to Inferno Crater with its own turquoise hot spring lake.  Inferno Crater Lake is a large hot spring in the country and contains the largest geyser-like feature in the world.  But wouldn’t you know -  the geyser is not visible.  As it turns out it is at the bottom of the lake.  This lake varies temperature from 95  to 176°F (35  to 80°C) and also varies in depth by 39 ft over a more or less 38 day cycle caused by an intricate interaction with the geyser and Frying Pan Lake.

Back on the main trail is the cutest little geyser you’ll ever see.  This is Birds Nest Spring (and terrace).  It’s not really a geyser, but rather a spring where continuously erupting near boiling-hot water spurts up about 3 ft. The terrace is covered in blue-green algae, which cannot survive in the hot stream of water running down from the spring, providing a colorful contrast of green and orange/

The trail continues on down the valley all the way to the lake passing many other small lakes, pools, and thermal features but our time here was up so we hopped the shuttle bus and want back up to the top of the valley and re-boarded our tour bus for the ride back to Rotorua.

Native Toetoe Plant

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Another small geyser in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Southern Crater in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ (cold water lake)

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Echo Crater and Frying Pan Lake, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Echo Crater and Frying Pan Lake, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Wiamangu Stream, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Spring in Wiamangu Stream, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Inferno Crater, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Bird’s Nest Spring, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, NZ

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Rules of Cricket

Being a British Colony at one time, the game of Cricket is quite popular.  There are Cricket fields all over the place and every little town and village has a Cricket team.  However, as our guide pointed out, the rules of Cricket are not generally understood by people who are not from British Empire countries.  But, he went on; they are actually quite simple and read to us the rules of the game.  Here they are:

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out.

When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.

There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.

When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game

(Original source unknown)

See?  Quite simple after all.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our New Zealand trip. 

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Thanks for reading – Comments Appreciated – Dan


(Info from Wikipedia, Road Scholar Lectures, and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way and attraction websites)


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