Travel: Nature's on display at North Island, New Zealand

Travellers flock to Rotorua — with good reason.

It’s the hub to one of the most active geothermal areas in the world.

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The “hard-boiled-egg” smell around town is a reminder of the hydrogen sulphide associated with geothermal activity, but the sights are worth occasional nose wrinkling.

The famed Pohutu Geyser is at the southern edge of town in Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve.

We wait before a gigantic mound of rock with small spurts of steam escape from large central crevices. Pohutu erupts on average, 20 times a day.

Mother Nature gives a warning signal in that the nearby smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser spews its scalding water first…and it does just that with a startling whoosh.

Within minutes the ground rumbles and the mighty Pohutu sends voluminous columns of water higher and higher with firehose force until it reaches heights of 30 metres.

Mega-gallons of spray glint in the sun, then fall in scalding cascades over the edge of the rocky mound. The drama lasts a breathtaking 15 minutes before the Pohutu giant is spent…for now.

It’s time to learn about the first peoples to settle New Zealand — the Maori — at the Reserve’s weaving and wood carving schools — followed by an evening cultural show of song and dance.

Maori women swing poi (balls on strings) with great finesse, and the men’s “haka” warrior dance is a roaring success with its resounding chants, vigorous movements and facial distortions of bulging eyes and protruding tongues.

Early the next morning we aim our rental car toward Rotorua District’s Wai-O-Tapu for the 10:15 a.m. eruption of Lady Knox Geyser.

How does this occur at the same time daily?

Well, at this site nature has a helping hand from Fred, the park ranger, who pours a little bag of organic soap into its funnel-like opening.

He explains, “The soap breaks the surface tension of cooler water in the geyser’s upper chamber so that it mixes with the hot water below, releasing it to shoot to the surface.”

The Lady Knox bubbles and froths, erupting to a height of 12 metres — a bit less dramatic than Pohutu.

But Wai-O-Tapu is not called the “Thermal Wonderland” for naught. It covers 18 square kilometres of collapsed craters from volcanic activity eons ago.

Champagne Pool and Artist’s Palette are perfect monikers for the bubbling 100°C pools, steaming fumaroles and patches of dynamic red, green, yellow, orange, white and black produced by different mineral elements. Spectacular.

The next day’s two-hour scenic drive is through the Waitomo District of verdant valleys and corn fields with grazing sheep and cattle. It boggles my mind knowing that underneath these hills are 300 known limestone caves.

We arrive at the Waitomo Visitor’s Centre to see some caves open for public viewing. Before entering Glowworm Cave we are given a lesson on the life cycle of the glowworm (arachnocampa luminosa).

The female lays around 120 eggs, which hatch into larvae. The larvae build nests and put down sticky lines to trap insects for food, emitting a light from their tail to attract their prey (this bioluminescence is a reaction between chemicals given off by the glowworm and oxygen in the air).

After nine months in this pupae stage they morph into adults whose only function is mating and egg laying for survival of the species.

Climbing into a boat with our guide and 20 other enthusiasts, we silently drift into the dark hollows of the cave, our attentions glued to the mesmerizing Milky Way of millions of miniscule lights on the lofty roof. Alas, no photos are permitted.

Cavernous Ruakuri Cave is next. We follow our guide Angus, down a spiral ramp dotted with amber lights akin to alien orbs, taking us 15-metres below ground.

A vast subterranean world coloured in hues of pale yellow and soft gold spreads before us. Stalactites hang en mass from ceilings, stalagmites rise like sentinels from the cave floor, some meeting in the middle to form columns.

Gigantic limestone “curtains” become translucent veils when our guide holds his headlamp behind them. Underground rivers roil and dash against rocks for an eerie echoing symphony.

Near the end of the 1.6 kilometre walk we pass a sacred burial ground of the Maori.

A stone corridor takes us back to the spiral walkway to climb out from the depths and into the halogen sun, hyped by our combined Sci-fi and Indiana Jones experience. We leave New Zealand’s North Island wowed by its marvels.

Travel Writers’ Tales is an independent travel article syndicate. For more information, go online to travelwriterstales.com.

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