New Zealand is part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ and growing up in Aotearoa, geothermal wonders and seismic activity (i.e. earthquakes) are something you become accustomed to. In fact, New Zealand is set right along the boundary between two tectonic plates – the Australian and the Pacific. This fault line has clearly shaped New Zealand’s geological history.
Lately things have been heating up. Mt Tongariro in the central North Island has started erupting for the first time in 100 years, the volcanic island off the east coast of the North Island has become more active and to the north an undersea volcano Mt Monowai has been erupting, spewing up golf-ball-size pumice rocks across an area of about 10,000 square miles. Coming on top of the tragic events in Christchurch over the past couple of years I hope New Zealand is not shaping up for (in unscientific terms) the ‘big one’.
I thought it timely to share my experiences and photos of New Zealand’s geothermal wonders – from the central volcanic plateau, Rotorua and White Island.
The Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing is often designated the best one day walk in the world and it is certainly a must for anyone visiting New Zealand, as long as they have moderate fitness. It is certainly a spectacular alpine ‘tramp’ through the Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s first after it was gifted to the nation by certain Maori chiefs in 1887 for the purposes of protecting what is a beautiful and sacred area.
It is now a Unesco World Heritage site and was immortalised on film as the land of Mordor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Maori legend around the volcanoes of New Zealand’s North Island is that there were once seven mountains. Six male mountains vied for the attentions of the beautiful Pihanga. After fierce fighting – can you imagine the seismic activity? – Tongariro emerged battered but victorious. Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu retreated to a respectful distance, while Taranaki retreated south and Putauaki (also known as Mt Edgecombe), Tauhara and Tarawera went eastwards.
The exquisite cone of Mt Ngaruahoe and the battered pile that is Tongariro certainly evoke wonderful visions of the mythical war. Mt Ruapehu has erupted spectacularly a number of times over the past 15 years, occasionally disrupting the skifields. And on the Tongariro Crossing itself you will see a moon-like landscape with steaming pools and crater lakes.
This month (August 2012) Mt Tongariro erupted in the middle of the night, sending a shower of ash and rocks over the path of the Tongariro Crossing, which was subsequently closed. Hopefully things will settle down and the track will soon reopen but it is certainly a reminder of the power of nature in New Zealand!
Tourism facilities in the area are well set up, with regular shuttle buses running hikers to both ends of the 19.4 kilometre (12 mile) Tongariro Crossing from National Park village. Make sure to make yourself fully aware of the weather forecast before you set off.
Visit White Island: an active volcano
White Island floats off the east coast of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty, resting in the sunshine. But the column of vapour rising from it is a constant reminder that this is an active volcano just 48 kilometres (30 miles) offshore.
In sympathy with erupting Mt Tongariro, White Island has been very active recently, with steam, gas and ash being pushed out in greater volumes than is usual. Perhaps now is not the time to be visiting White Island – there are a number of tour companies offering boat and helicopter access to White Island – but when things settle down again it is certainly a unique experience.
I have visited White Island twice and the experience was different each time, showing how varied the volcanic activity can be over the years. Colourful volcanic rocks, the yellow crust of sulphur, water-filled craters and steam vents that roar like freight trains.
Periodically from the 1880s through to the 1930s some hardy souls lived out on White Island mining the sulphur for use as an antibacterial agent. The corroded ruins of the mine works and living quarters can still be seen, testament to the tragedy of 1914. A crater rim collapsed and the resulting lahar killed all ten workers then based on White Island. The only survivor was the cat.
The city of Rotorua is probably on the itinerary of every tourist in New Zealand and despite the rotten egg smell of sulphur and the touristic nature of the attractions that make me cringe, I have to admit it is an easy place to learn about Maori culture and see some of New Zealand’s geothermal wonders.
Geothermal activity in Rotorua is intense – imagine being able to heat your swimming pool thanks to nature? If you’re on a budget and can’t afford the entrance fees there are a number of public parks where you can see steam rising from the ground.
Attractions in ‘Roto-Vegas’ as it is affectionately known, include various thermal pools, the old bath house that is now the museum, the bubbling mud pools at ‘Hells Gate’, the geysers at Whakawerawera, and the exquisitely carved Maori Meeting House down on the lakeshore.
By Natasha von Geldern
If you’ve been to New Zealand did you make time to see some of the geothermal wonders?