Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Thursday 12 July 2007


Well, I'm back ... from our family trip to Rotorua and nearby regions. Here's a rough breakdown:

Saturday Weather overcast, but at least not raining outside Auckland. Drove from Auckland to Rotorua, via Mt Manganui. I'd never been to the Mount, and it was fun to finally see it. The town seemed fun and the Mount itself was spectacular, although a slightly harder ascent than I expected. The view around the Bay of Plenty was simply amazing. I believe I could see White Island. We arrived in Rotorua in the evening and the town was packed --- a combination of school holidays, "Young Farmer Of The Year" competition, and some mountain biking event.

Sunday Perfect blue-sky weather, although cold. Drove to the Waimangu geothermal valley in the morning; along the way, we had an amazing view across hills and plains all the way to the volcanic plateau and snow-capped Ruapehu. Waimangu claims to be the newest geothermal area in the world, since prior to the 1886 Tarawera eruption, it was just regular scrubland. Now it contains an array of steaming lakes, vents and streams. There's a gentle two-hour walk from the road through the valley to the edge of Lake Rotomahana, then you can catch a bus back to the road. Highly recommended.

The two biggest lakes in the valley are actually vents from the 1886 eruption. In tthat event, first the three main peaks running 6km roughly northeast to southwest erupted, starting from the northeast, and then the eruption continued along that axis with new vents opening for a further 10km. (That included the bed of Lake Rotomahana, which blew out in a massive explosion, destroying the famous Pink and White Terraces, annihilating two nearby Maori villages, and burying most of another village (see below). The explosion was apparently heard as far away as Auckland!) Waimangu is the tail end of that axis; it's clear the volcano is only sleeping!

In the afternoon I thought we might try to reach Lake Waikaremoana in the Urewera mountains to the east of Rotorua, but it became clear that we didn't have time, so instead we visited the remains of Fort Galatea, an outpost during the wars of the late 19th century. There's not much there now but the redoubt's moat and the homestead's chimney are still clearly visible.

Late in the day we returned to Rotorua and visited Kuirau Park. This park is great --- just like a regular city park, except pocked with steaming fumaroles and springs. It's clear the thermal activity keeps shifting --- not all of the fumaroles are fenced. In one place a normal-looking puddle by a path, on closer inspection appeared to be boiling...

Monday The weather prediction was for Monday to be sunny, but it was actually the worst day of our trip, overcast and drizzly. Nevertheless we went ahead with our plan to visit Taupo. The Huka Fulls were impressive as always, and we had a good lunch in town. The southern end of Lake Taupo looked murky but we drove down there anyway, hoping the weather would lift and we'd get a look at at the great volcanoes of the central plateau. It was a nice drive but as we reached the southern end of the lake and climbed up to the plateau it became clear we were just going to be inside a cloud. So we started looking for something else to do. My Tongariro topo map showed a thermal area accessible by track near the tiny town of Waihi, west of Turangi. We went looking for it and found the track, which was overgrown but had been recently used by a four-wheeled bike by the look of it ... but after forty-odd minutes of rather damp walking we gave up and returned to the car. I still wonder where that track leads.

We got back to Taupo too late to visit Craters of the Moon or do anything else so we just packed it in and went back to Rotorua. Not a great day overall, partly due to my poor choices, but the drive around the lake was nice and the kids were quite amused throwing pumice stones from the beach into the lake and watching them float back to shore.

Tuesday Another overcast day but no drizzle --- although away to the north NZ was apparently thrashed by high winds and heavy rain. We kicked off by heading out to Lake Tarawera and visiting the Buried Village --- buried in ash and mud by the 1886 Tarawera eruption that I mentioned earlier. The historical reconstructions were quite good and the Te Wairoa stream and waterfall are also very nice. The kids got to feed rainbow trout in the stream, which I guess is something that first-time visitors to the region really should do!

A couple of the historical characters caught my imagination. One was Alfred Warbrick. Born in NZ in 1860, he toured Britain in a rugby team, but more pertinently, he was close to Mount Tarawera when it erupted --- in a hut with some other hunters --- survived, and then led the first search party to discover what was left of the villages close to the mountain. This must have been incredibly difficult, dangerous and ultimately heart-breaking. He spent most of the rest of his life leading tourists around the area.

Another was Sophia Hinerangi. Born in 1832 or thereabouts she may have witnessed the signing of the treaty of Waitangi. Somehow she survived bearing 17 children and became the principal guide for tourists visiting the Pink and White Terraces. She reported sighting the "phantom canoe" on Lake Tarawera before the eruption. She was in the village of Te Wairoa when it was buried and her whare (house), built stronger than most others, sheltered the majority of the survivors in that village. She eventually died in 1911. What a life!

We had lunch at the tearooms there and returned to Rotorua for a walk around part of the lakefront. The sulphurous waters make it clear where the stench of hydrogen sulphide comes from that pervades the town! There's also a neat little thermal area with fumaroles and hot pools. After that walk we went to Hell's Gate, a commercially run thermal area a bit further away from town. That was pretty interesting; in particular you can get up close to some very vigorous hot springs and a fantastic two-metre-high "mud volcano". At $25 per adult, though, it may be less appealing if you're not a thermophile like me.

Wednesday That's today ... again the weather was overcast but not raining ... quite surprising actually as the storm was supposed to sweep down from the north today. We drove to Hamilton in the morning and had lunch there. Then we continued north but stopped between Ngaruawahia and Huntly for a break, to do a walk that I'd located earlier --- the north end of the Hakarimata Scenic Reserve. It turned out to be really great! It was basically a direct ascent of the northernmost peak of a range of hills, with a bonus visit to a grove of regenerating kauri trees with a couple of huge old specimens that somehow survived logging. The track was a bit muddy in places but the kids handled it very well. The view from the top was excellent, over the Waikato to the north and also the south. Was just a bit too hazy to see all the way down to Ruapehu. Recommended.

After that we finally made it home for dinner and a chance to catch up on email for the first time in five days. Can't say I'm too excited about the latter!

Here's a photo of Emerald Lake, one of the Tarawera vent lakes in Waimangu valley. I'll probably post some more photos later.

Why do people call it Rotovegas anyway? It's almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Las Vegas.