Thursday, July 31, 2014

Geothermal fun near Rotorua

One of the areas we stayed at in NZ was near Rotorua, a town built on an active geothermal area.  Quite an active geothermal area.  The town itself smells of sulfur and there is steam coming up out of the ground seemingly everywhere.  It's well-known as a tourist destination, with thermal spa facilities (some of which date back to the turn of the last century), Maori village experiences at which you can cook your food right in the hot springs (sort of like an uncontrolled sous-vide setup), and a range of adventure sport activities ranging from straightforward things like mountain biking to less common things like rolling down hills in a giant plastic ball (Zorb -- look it up).  It's probably very scary to be there in the height of the tourist season, as the population swells to some large multiple of normal, but it was pretty pleasant in the winter.

The very nice B&B we stayed at was on the non-crowded, non-stinky, side of the lake.  It was entertaining to look across the lake to see geysers and steam coming up off of the town.

Not being the type to take spa mud baths, and not feeling like spending huge amounts of money on tourist-y cultural shows, we went in search of interesting geothermal features.

We found the Kuirau park, the weirdest city park ever.  Our goofy guidebook mentioned that it was "as if Dante got to play urban designer for a day" making the park (more on the guidebook in another post later).  Quite right.

First, you locate the park by heading for the giant smelly steam cloud.

Then wander the paths past lovely trees punctuated by fenced-off boiling pits of doom.  It's clear that the activity moves around a bit over time, as some pools weren't steaming any more, and others had recently-built fence extensions to corral off the growing pools.


Laugh at boiling mud.  It's just funny, and hard to stop watching.

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Then go play on the playground.  Kids better be good, or their parents might just drop them into the nearest pit.  Nimue was good.


Spin yourself silly, and then wander over to look at the next pit without dizzily falling in.

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Explore the non-mud, non-scalding, geothermal aspects of the park -- there were several pools of relatively clear water that had little pavilions built around them.  I gently eased my feet in (it was hotter than any hot tub I've ever been in) and soaked for a few minutes while we waited out the day's rain squall.  Afterwards, my feet were all tingly and happy :)


And ready for more walking around the steaming lake.  There are actually a couple of strategically placed walls to keep the steam cloud from obscuring the visibility of drivers on the adjacent street.



At some point, we explored the local museum, built in the bath house of one of the original spa facilities over on the shore Lake Rotorua.  It was quite interesting to explore the plumbing system underneath, learn about all of the "treatments" offered back in the day (electro-mud bath, anyone?), and then go upstairs to see more Maori carvings and learn about the history of the 1886 Mt. Tarawera eruption.

It was very tempting to rent mountain bikes, as there is an appealing maze of singletrack cut through Whakarewarewa, a redwood forest just south of town.  And yes, I said redwood -- the trees were planted by lumber interests as an experiment back in 1901 but never cut as other trees proved more favorable.  But this wasn't supposed to be a bike trip, so we stored the idea away for later.

After poking around the city park, we headed half an hour south of town to visit Waimangu Valley, a steaming rift valley full of geothermal features that came into being after the 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera.  This is now a park that you have to pay to get in, but the excellent self-guided hike that wound its way down the steaming valley was worth the price.

Nimue was unusually cooperative and posed in front of the mural that depicted a view of what was the world's largest geyser while it was active from 1900-1904.  


As you descend into the valley, it is clear that something weird is going on down there.


Frying Pan lake, the world's largest hot spring.  The average water temperature in the lake pushes 140F and there is quite a bit of CO2 and other gases burbling up.


Inferno crater.  The water in this lake is also hot, and rises and falls in sync with water levels and temperatures in nearby Frying Pan Lake.  One can't help but wonder what the underground water connections look like.


It was cold enough that we needed our stripy hats, and yet in many places the rock on the side of the trail was warm (or even hot!) to the touch.



Lots of colorful heat-loving bacteria.


Cute little micro-geyser.


Mt. Tarawera, the volcano at the end of the valley that exploded in 1886.


By the end of all this exploration, Nim was tired (see last post).  We all found it most interesting, though I kept wondering about the wisdom of walking about an area that is clearly still so very active!

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