After yesterday’s gorgeous hike to Taranaki Falls we were expecting today to be just another average tourist experience. I mean honestly, how much better can it get than hiking in an area with snow capped volcanos, alpine scrublands, magnificent waterfalls and glistening streams? Seems pretty unlikely we could top that right? Well, we found a place that we’ve been assure will be truly spectacular so who knows? In fact, we rarely pay to visit tourist parks but we we’ve been assured we will enjoy some hot times at Orakei Korako Thermal Park today.
I’d like to give you a little information on the geology of this area before I take you to the park. You see this part of New Zealand lies on top of a volcanic plate that sits directly above a vast underground lake of magma. For this reason the area is alive with some of the most incredible geothermal activity you’ve ever seen. The geothermal zone runs from White Island which lies off the eastern coast of New Zealand just north of the Bay of Plenty to Tongariro National Park in the South. In fact, the main highway that runs between Rotorua and Taupo is called the Thermal Explorer Highway.
Along this highway you will literally find dozens of places that have taken advantage of this natural phenomenon and turned them into parks that generate tens of millions of dollars in tourist revenue each year. Whether you’re looking to spend an afternoon in a steaming thermal pool, to cover yourself in hot mud or just to take a stroll around the boiling mud pools and rainbow colored silica terraces there is something for everyone. Of course it all comes with a price and our initial opinion on these places was that the price tag is a bit hefty. After all, most of the parks are just fenced in natural wonders.
We’ve found that New Zealand can be quite expensive when it comes to visiting the natural wonders or other tourist areas that seem boundless here. Just about every park or theater or museum has a hand out and they are very proud of what they have to offer. For this reason we’ve been a bit reluctant to shell out the cash to visit one of these thermal parks. If not for our friends, Lutz & Gabi, who told us it is worth every penny, we would have passed on the opportunity. Fortunately, they are very persuasive.
Orakei Korako Thermal Park
So this morning we woke up ready to check out the Orakei Korako Thermal Park. It’s a very cold but clear day. It’s so cold in fact that we awoke to frost on the ground. Brrrr! Dan’s not nearly as excited as I am about this journey but we both know it’s going to be worth it. Or, should I say we hope it will be worth it.
The park is located just a half hour from our BnB. Because the entire area is filled with thermal activity and because it’s quite cold this morning the entire landscape is filled with white steam rising from the ground forming wispy clouds along the way. If nothing else, the drive is quite something.
We’ve been told that Orakei promises to be one of the best thermal parks in the area. Of course at $42 NZD per person, it better be! It’s the middle of the week and we arrive just after they open. Turns out we are two of the first to arrive. There’s just two other cars in the parking lot and one surely belongs to the man running the store. He’s a Māori man who looks to be in his 40s. He’s kind and soft spoken and welcomes us to the park. After taking our entrance fees he leads us out to the dock behind the building where we board the shuttle boat that will take us across the river to the thermal area.
First off, the view across the lake to the steaming thermal terraces is simply stunning. There’s a white mist rising from the deep green forest that forms silky clouds as it rises into the vast, radiant sky. The fog lingers on the top of the quiet lake like a person trying to cling to a departed loved one and the sun, on the rise, is bright and full giving a warm sun kissed glow to everything it sees.
The ride across the lake takes just a few minutes and soon we are dropped off at the dock on the other side. We walk up the boardwalk unsure of what to expect when the forest gives way to an otherworldly scene. The silica terraces are a mixture of every earthy color you can imagine and milky colored vapor rises above it. We can feel the heat emanating from the earth’s core up through the cracks and crevices of the terraces. There’s an odor that reminds us of rotten eggs but for some reason it’s not as offensive as you’d think. Maybe it’s because our minds and eyes are so focused on the unreal sights around us that we don’t seem to care.
As we walk further up the boardwalk we continue to see the most magical sights. It seems everywhere we look there is another tantalizing treat for the eyes. The colors and textures blend together to create the most striking scenes where each small vignette is but a tiny part of one of God’s most impressive tapestries. We’re delighted to find that we are the only ones around and it allows us to capture some amazing images but none will ever be able to convey the magnitude of what it’s like to stand here in person.
Hot, Hot, Hot
There’s the colorful microbial mats of the Emerald Terrace that appear slick and wet as water between 39-59° C (120-138° F) easily glides across the surface. Thousands of years of running water has formed randomly places grooves and small pools in the mats. The water runs along these grooves to the lake below.
As we walk further along running water flanks the boardwalk. Underneath the clear fluid the bed is filled with green algae that is so vibrant it resembles a huge flawless emerald. Soon the area opens up again to a place aptly referred to as Rainbow Terrace. Much like Emerald Terrace this place is filled with colorful microbial mats. The backdrop, however, is Golden Fleece Terrace which is a draping of silica sinter that looks like mounds of snow and sharply carved ice. Yes, the “show” is simply stunning.
The next stop is the Wairiri Geyser. This geyser erupts quite frequently sending water that is 70-90° C (158-194° F) bubbling to the surface creating a steam cloud so big it feels as if you’re standing in the heavens. It doesn’t shoot high into the sky like the Diamond Geyser which shoots water up to 9 meters (29 feet) into the air but it is extraordinary none the less.
The area known as the Artist’s Palette yields the most awe-inspiring views. Formed by hydrothermal eruptions occurring between 8,000-14,000 BC this is truly the “hot bed” of the park with its scalding hot mud pools and steam vents. In places the silica is less than 20 mm (just over half an inch) thick. Underneath lies water that would boil any human who dared to jump in.
Interestingly enough we found that some scofflaw decided to take their chances crossing over the barriers to walk onto the silica bed. It appears they escaped unharmed which, I can’t say I’m overly happy about. After all, if you are dumb enough to take your chances despite all of the warnings then I say, “Let nature sort it out”.
Of course, not surprisingly, we found that this same person must have decided they wanted to climb one of the muddy slopes along the trail and this time it seems they may have had a bit more trouble as there were slips along the slope with butt prints and muddy shoe prints leading away from the scene. Hopefully they learned a lesson but I’m not holding my breath.
As we travel deeper into the park we come across steaming grey mud pools as well as alkali chloride pools that are ice blue and as clear as fine crystal. We continue to travel along the boardwalk and are rewarded with a chance to see Ruatapu Cave. This cave was formed by a volcanic eruption that occurred more than 100,000 years ago. Twenty-three meters (75 feet) below the surface lies Waiwhakaata (the pool of mirrors). The water in this pool is a balmy 40°C (111° F).
From here we finish the loop through the forest dotted with steaming pools and vents. It takes us back to the main boardwalk where we find that more and more people have begun to descend upon the park. We’re glad to be leaving. We’ve had a wonderful experience at one of God’s most spectacular places and we had it all to ourselves. And, we can say without a doubt that this was the best $84 NZD we’ve spent at a tourist attraction in New Zealand!
Until next time,
Jilly & Dan