Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland A Rainbow of Colours
After our peaceful and relaxing walkabout Hamurana Springs Reserve in Rotorua, Bob and I drove south to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. It is New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse geothermal area.
Although we missed the daily eruption of Lady Knox Geyser, Bob and I were anxious to get exploring the other wondrous sights. With names like Devil’s Ink Pots, Rainbow Crater and Champagne Pool, the features already sparked our imaginations. We wasted no time heading off on the Red Trail.
Bob and I were set for a sensory experience like no other. Wai-o-tapu was sculpted by volcanic activity 160,000 years ago. Ongoing geothermal activity is the result of leftover magma below the surface heating underground streams. Reaching temperatures of 300º Celsius, the water escapes from the ground as steam.
Many of the large craters at Wai-o-tapu are the result of this acidic steam rising up from the earth. The steam carries hydrogen sulphide that dissolves the surface volcanic rocks. Eventually, they give way and the ground collapses creating a crater.
One collapsed crater is called Devil’s Home. The cooling volcanic vapours escaping from the crater carry ferrous salts that have painted the gaping hole green.
Everywhere we looked, the uniquely different landscape spoke to the ongoing geothermal activity. In the ancient Greek language, “geo” means earth and “thermal” means heat.
Scorching steam belches from hot pools, boiling mud pools and hissing fumaroles. The smell of sulphur in the air is pervasive throughout the reserve. In fact, around the whole area of Rotorua, hydrogen sulphide scents the air.
Rainbow Crater really drew us in. Different mineral elements have oxidized as they hit earth’s atmosphere creating orange streaks and patches that brighten the landscape.
Next up, following the trail in a clockwise direction, was another crater with an evocative name, Thunder Crater. Recently created in 1968, it goes to show that the underlying volcanoes are still active.
There are 25 individual features at Wai-o-tapu reserve that illustrate the instability of the volcanic environment. Intriguing us next were Devil’s Ink Pots.
Resembling Witches’ cauldrons, huge “pots” of inky black mud boiled and bubbled just below the surface.
It is particles of crude oil and graphite that lend their colour to the viscous mixture.
A little Black-headed Jumping Spider was drawn to the warmth on the protective handrail.
Wai-o-tapu has been protected as a reserve since 1931, and only a small part of it is operated as this tourist attraction. The focus is on preserving the natural environment.
Artist’s Palette, the next feature, wowed us! A huge thermal pool, Artist’s Palette is impressive with its vibrant shades of yellow to orange, green and turquoise.
Peaking our interest were glimpses of Champagne Pool on the opposite side of Artist’s Palette. It is the largest hot spring on the Preserve, and it is from there that water slowly drains into Artist’s Palette.
The near-white terrace gets its colourful patches from minerals deposited by the cooling water. The intensity and hue of the colours depend on the direction of wind and depth of water, while the angle of the sun affects luminosity.
It was quite a surprise to see a Pied Stilt foraging in the shallow water of Artist’s Palette. Even the toxic water did not preclude a bevy of insects for the Stilt to eat.
Set into the larger body of Artist’s Palette is a delightful circular pool ideally named the Opal Pool. The water and surrounding rocks have taken on a turquoise colour from oxides in the ground.
The Red Trail follows the contours of Artist’s Palette providing different vantage points.
Lush green terrain within the Preserve forms a dramatic backdrop to the colourful thermal pool.
Boardwalks are in place to conduct visitors safely between Artist’s Palette and Primrose Terrace. The elevated walkways protect visitors from the hot, dangerous surface and doubly protect the fragile sinter terrace from wear and tear.
Fed by water draining from Champagne Pool, which we would see later, this iconic mud flat typifies geothermal areas around the world.
As the shallow water evaporates, residual silica forms a crust on the ground. The many crusts create stepped sinter terraces.
Primrose Terrace is one such sinter terrace. Branching off on the Orange Trail brought us to a lookout overlooking Primrose Terrace. The mineral rich water continues to flow down a slight slope towards Lake Ngakoro.
Because Wai-o-tapu is an eco-reserve, it not only focuses on protecting the geological landscape but also the flora and fauna. We saw a variety of native trees, Kanuka, Manuka and Pines.
Wai-o-tapu means “sacred waters” in Maōri. The Sacred Track honours the Ngāti Whaoa tribe believed to have had an early settlement at this site. This Track leads into the forest that sits above the Champagne Pool. It is in stark contrast to the bleakness of the sinter terrace.
From the Orange Trail, we opted to take a short spur leading to a lookout. Bob and I were so glad that we did! We had a wonderful panoramic view of Frying Pan Flat.
A sneak peak at Lake Ngakoro with its shimmering emerald green water in the distance promised even more fantastic sights.
Frying Pan Flat is a large flat eruption crater dotted with many bubbling hot springs.
Frying Pan Flat is fed by water that slowly seeps from Primrose Terrace. Continuing downhill, its path narrows before it will eventually enter Lake Ngakoro.
The Yellow Trail is touted as being the most physically demanding, but a series of steep stairs down to Frying Pan Flat makes navigation of the area quite manageable.
There was never a dull moment! The trail next entered into a different landscape that included soaring Alum Cliffs while warm steam drifted over us.
The Alum Cliffs are painted orange from antimony- or arsenic-laden steam wafting over them.
A narrow gap in the terrain brought us to a milky pool of water tucked at the base of the Alum Cliffs.
For those wanting a closeup view of Frying Pan Flat, they had only to use a short side trail. Bob and I appreciated that different perspective before continuing on the Yellow Loop.
Left unseen from the lookout on high was the Oyster Pool.
This old crater filled with bubbling sulfurous water is encircled by a crusty ledge resembling an Oyster Shell.
Adding intrigue to the landscape is a cave carved out of the Alum Cliffs.
Sulfuric gases captured within the cave’s confines have a chance to cool and solidify into yellow sulfur crystals.
Sulphur Cave was quite a fanciful sight.
Leaving Frying Pan Flat, Bob and I continued on the Yellow Trail towards Lake Ngakoro.
We passed other hikers along the wooded trail, and they said that the lake was not to be missed. We could hardly wait to see it.
The flow of water entering Lake Ngakoro originates above in the Champagne Pool. After trickling down over Primrose Terrace and accumulating in Frying Pan Flat, overflow spills into Lake Ngakoro via a very narrow chute called Lake Ngakoro Waterfalls. It is very rare to see a bubbling hot waterfall.
Bob and I were mesmerized by the sight of boiling water erupting near the shoreline of the lake. Adding to the mystique was the sound of spluttering as bubbles of mud burst.
And then suddenly, there was the lake in front of us! The designated trail at Wai-o-tapu ends at the edge of Lake NgaKoro, and what a reward for making the trek.
Bob and I were totally enthralled by the brilliant green water in Lake Ngakoro.
The green hue is caused by sulfur and ferrous salts mixing in the water.
Assuming that no more wondrous sight could be ahead of us on the return portion of the Yellow Loop, Bob and I lingered at the head of Lake Ngakoro to savour the view.
As we studied the beautiful trees surrounding the lookout, a few feathered friends stopped by such as this Gray Gerygone.
Also demanding some attention was a fledgling New Zealand Fantail being attended by one of its parents.
As difficult as it was to tear ourselves away from the spectacular view, it was time to start making our way back to the Visitor’s Centre.
Bob and I had been noticing the effects of the sulfurous steam on the vegetation along the trails.
Lending their colours to the trees and bushes, the minerals have changed many to shades of vibrant yellow and green, while others appear dead because of their black burnt appearance.
Reveling at the sights we had seen so far, Bob and I made good haste through the Bush Walk. It was now time to see what Champagne Pool was all about.
Sitting half obscured by steam adjacent to the western half of the Red Loop, Champagne Pool captivates you at first glance. It is considered the jewel in the crown of Wai-o-tapu.
Champagne Pool is the largest hot water spring in the area. From 62 metres below ground, water that is 230° Celsius rises toward the surface. Carbon dioxide gas suspended in the water creates bubbles giving rise to the hot spring’s name, Champagne Pool.
Because the water is so hot, minerals are absorbed from surrounding volcanic rock into the water. The trademark orange ledge of the pool is attributable to the variety and concentration of minerals deposited on the sinter ledge around the perimeter of the crater.
Champagne Pool is 65 metres wide and filled with sulfuric green water. The evaporation helps cool the hot spring to a pleasant 74° Celsius at the surface.
700 years ago, a geothermal eruption created this sinter-lined crater. Over the ensuing centuries, the interaction between silver, arsenic, mercury, gold, sulfur and thallium has created the richly-coloured deposits. These are in striking contrast to the surrounding pale pink siliceous terrace.
A trio of sinister sounding features rounds out the list of notable sights at Wai-o-tapu as one nears the end of the Red Loop. It is understandable that such ominous names were given to such unusual and dangerous features. Inferno Crater as the name implies has boiling mud at the bottom of a deep, narrow crater.
Bob and I were shocked at the sight of Devil’s Bath. Ferrous salts and sulfurs have altered the colour of the sulfuric green water that trickles in from Champagne Pool.
The intense yellow liquid sometimes appears lime green depending on the light.
This extremely acidic water is a warm 14° Celsius and only fit for the devil himself to take a bath.
After enjoying our view of Devil’s Bath, we took a look at Bird’s Nest Crater and Devil’s Cave knowing that we had at last completed the trails that circumvent the miraculous geothermal wonders at Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. The amazing sights made a lasting impression on us.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean