With eruptions as often as 15 times per day, Pohutu Geyser is the largest geyser in New Zealand. // © 2014 John Carnemolla/Thinkstock
A gurgling batch of thick grey pudding, the mud pot in front of me was making a mess.
Splattering viscous globs of a boiling, cement-colored liquid in a range of directions, the geothermal pool was about the size of a basketball court and home to several mischievous hot spots, each playfully bubbling over in regular cadence and often producing knee-high outbursts of superheated mud.
The first of many natural marvels at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a reserve managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation about 18 miles southeast of Rotorua, mud pots are perhaps best defined as acidic hot springs with limited water. This particular pool was once the site of a large mud volcano, destroyed in the 1920s by extensive erosion.
Part of a sprawling volcanic zone covering much of New Zealand’s North Island, the Rotorua region offers travelers a variety of terrific opportunities to view rare geothermal wonders up close. Wai-O-Tapu, which can be translated as “sacred waters" from the original Maori, hosts an impressive collection of highlights, including one of the country’s most photographed attractions — a scalding volcanic pond known as the Champagne Pool.
Formed more than 700 years ago in a hydrothermal eruption, the pool got its name in part thanks to the carbon dioxide bubbles it produces, but unlike its generally chilled namesake, the water in this hot spring is usually about 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
More than 200 feet deep and about 215 feet in diameter, the pool’s extraordinary variety of minerals, including gold, silver, arsenic and mercury, have also accumulated to form a vibrant orange chemical crust lining the pond’s jagged rim, creating a dazzling contrast with the minty green water.
Where to Soak
Although you can’t climb into any of the hot springs at Wai-O-Tapu, which also features a neon green geothermal pond called the Devil’s Bath, Rotorua is loaded with options for visitors hoping to soak in volcanically heated water. Travelers can take a short drive east from the Champagne Pool to bathe in a collection of pools fed by water from Te Manaroa spring, New Zealand's largest single source of naturally boiling water.
Following my recent visit to Wai-O-Tapu, I stopped in at the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools facility, which uses Te Manaroa spring water to fill a collection of private and public pools heated to a range of different temperatures. For about $16 per person, visitors can spend 40 minutes in one of Waikite’s private wooden pools, all of which offer gorgeous views of the New Zealand countryside along with soothing waterfall features.
Waikite’s private pools can be adjusted to whatever temperature bathers prefer, and after the 40-minute private session is up, there’s no added charge to head out and enjoy the excellent assortment of public baths, some of which have water heated to as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hiking Waimangu Valley
Those interested in doing a bit of hiking while discovering more of the Rotorua region’s geothermal attractions will want to head to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, a short drive north from Wai-O-Tapu, where visitors will find steaming volcanic lakes, bubbling geothermal springs and fountains and the forest-lined Inferno Crater.
A wonderful chance to learn more about New Zealand’s unique ecology, Waimangu Valley offers travelers fantastic exposure to the North Island’s native plants and trees. The park’s Mt. Haszard Hiking Trail features stunning views of Tarawera Volcano and Lake Rotomahana. During Tarawera’s last eruption in 1886, the adjacent lake was dramatically expanded and is now a wildlife refuge that visitors can tour by boat. The park is home to many native birds.
One of Rotorua’s most impressive and naturally occurring hydrothermal stars can be found right on the southern edge of town in the Whakarewarewa Valley. Erupting as many as 15 times a day, Pohutu Geyser, the largest in New Zealand, can shoot superheated water as high as 100 feet in the air.
Meaning “the big splash” in Maori, Pohutu is situated right next to the Te Puia visitor attraction, where travelers can learn more about Maori culture, take in traditional performances and watch artisans as they work on jade and wood carvings. There’s also an option to sample a traditional hangi meal prepared using volcanic steam or to visit a live kiwi exhibit that allows visitors to sneak a peak at New Zealand’s endangered and extraordinarily shy national symbol.