In the line of fire
When I was a kid, I remember we had a wooden souvenir school ruler in amongst our stationery at home. For those younger readers, a ruler is a 30cm long strip of wood along which you drag a pen or pencil to make a straight line on a piece of paper. Oh, and stationery refers to things you use to write or draw with, which is what pens and pencils are. And writing is something we used to do…ah, forget it. Anyway, on one side of the ruler it had a series of illustrations of Rotorua; bubbling mud, Maori traditional buildings and assorted artefacts. I have no idea where it came from, as none of us had ever been to New Zealand. It’s funny what impresses the young mind; I can still picture the ruler very clearly. I always thought bubbling mud pools and steam rising from the ground would be pretty cool to see.
New Zealand is, well, volcanic. Sitting astride the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, Aotearoa experiences frequent earthquakes and thankfully less frequent volcanic eruptions. One of the most active areas geologically is the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which stretches in a line from Whakaari/White Island in the Bay of Plenty south-west through Rotorua and on to Tongariro National Park.
A drive around Rotorua is both fascinating and bizarre. In addition to the bubbling mud pools just next to the CBD, there are steam vents in peoples’ yards. No, really.
The town has a sulphurous smell from the hydrogen sulphide (a flammable, corrosive and toxic gas) that seeps from the ground. With the combination of volcanic instability just below the surface, and the bouquet of poisonous rotten egg gas in the air, I did wonder about house prices in Rotorua.
A short trip south of town towards Taupo provides a world of opportunity for the visitor to be subject to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, scalding and gas poisoning. Waiotapu Scenic Reserve sports a huge, steaming, bubbling mudpool that is mesmerising to watch. It fair dinkum feels like you’ve stepped back to the dinosaur era. Well, the popular culture dinosaur era anyway.
There are a variety of privately run parks in the area, where for a fee you can admire unique features whilst exposing yourself to volcanic and geothermal peril. The park I visited contained this spooky pool, which had a water temperature of 74 degrees Celcius at the surface, and 230 degrees at the bottom of its 64 metre depth.
Sulphur and steam belched from numerous rumbling caves and crevasses.
The water in this pool contained suspended minerals which refract the light, resulting in its freaky colour.
There were ‘no smoking’ signs posted throughout the park. It wasn’t so much that park management were concerned about the risk of smoking related illness, but rather that if someone sparks up it could ignite all the gas and incinerate half the North Island. Park information also advised visitors to limit their stay to no more than two hours, in line with government health recommendations with regards to gas inhalation. These reassuring signs were common too.
Although the geothermal features of New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone seem locked in a primeval past, things certainly have changed in the gift shop. There wasn’t a souvenir wooden ruler to be found. However I did leave knowing that I had been right all along; bubbling mud pools and steam rising from the ground are pretty cool to see.
For more on the Waiotapu Scenic Reserve click here
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