ROTORUA, New Zealand — “How hot do you think it gets?” I asked my husband. He simply gestured to the billowing clouds of steam swirling around our private spa pool in the Waikite Valley. An attendant had showed us how to control the temperature of the silky water cascading down a three-level fountain. The hot, she said, came directly from underground springs at a steady rate; we could adjust the flow of mechanically cooled water. I turned the cold tap off. Within seconds the temperature in the pool rose dramatically.
The spa was our last stop on a tour of geysers, hot springs, and bubbling mud pools along New Zealand’s Thermal Explorer Highway. We had seen fantastic landscapes in psychedelic colors, heard the primordial burp of boiling mud, witnessed the incredible power of superheated water erupting from deep within the earth, and visited a village where native Maori still use that power to heat their homes and cook their food.
The highway covers much of the upper North Island of New Zealand, stretching from Auckland, through the central plateau and Taupo, to Napier on the east coast. Well-maintained and lined with neon-yellow Scotch broom bushes, it passes some of the most stunning scenery in the country. In November, New Zealand’s spring, we shared it with logging trucks and an occasional tour bus.
The area’s biggest draw is the Pohutu Geyser. While it is located on the grounds of the Te Puia New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, its eruptions are also visible from the neighboring Whakarewarewa thermal village. The area, known as Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, was one site until 1997, when a disagreement arose over how to manage tourism. Te Puia became a tourist site and cultural center, while Whakarewarewa chose to remain a functioning community while operating tours. Some 25 families live there today.
Rangi Wade, who lives in Whakarewarewa, concedes that villagers sacrifice some privacy as tourists come through. “We do a lot of socializing at night,” she said, laughing. Though she moved away from the village for a while, she always felt its pull. She said she missed the beautifully carved ancestral house, or whare tupuna, where all important village ceremonies are held, and communal cooking and bathing. Wade makes and sells local crafts, specializing in the intricate, ceremonial piupiu skirts made of flax.
The village is wreathed in clouds of steam. Here, as in many geothermal sites, you learn to be patient when trying to see a building or a spring or a cave, waiting for the vapor to clear for just a moment. It’s a precarious existence; we saw at least one wooden house that had succumbed to heat and moisture and fallen in on itself. While scalding waters are now fenced off, we could only imagine the dangers children faced in an earlier time.
Cooking is done in communal steam-box ovens, our guide said. The wooden cases are built where vents concentrate steam from underground springs that average 320 degrees (the hottest spring in the village rises above 500 degrees). Villagers pack vegetables, meat, or fish in muslin cloth tied with a rope, then drop them into the steam box. Leafy vegetables cook in three minutes. For lunch, we had a hangi, or steam-cooked meal, of chicken, corned beef, potato, sweet potato, carrots, bread stuffing, cabbage, and corn on the cob — not unlike a traditional corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner.
At the communal bathing area, our guide said villagers don’t need soap or shampoo because the water is so soft. It is almost oily to the touch, and its therapeutic properties, relieving pain and promoting sleep, are the stuff of legend.
Cultural performances include traditional chants and songs, dances using swinging poi balls for percussion, and stick games. Many of the men’s dances are performed in the traditional aggressive “war stance,” involving fierce facial expressions and grimaces, protruding tongues, and bulging eyes.
The tour wrapped up with a view of the geysers. Pohutu, which reaches heights of 100 feet, erupts up to 20 times a day, often simultaneously with the smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser a few yards away. From an observation platform at Whakarewarewa, we watched the water and steam swirl into the sky, and felt the spray on our faces. To our surprise, the eruptions continued for 15 or 20 minutes, jetting water blending with puffy, low clouds to create a roiling, surrealistic canvas of white.
For sheer spectacle, it would be hard to top Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. The Lady Knox Geyser erupts daily at 10:15 a.m., activated by a deposit of soap. (The area was once part of a prison camp, and it is said that the prisoners discovered the action of the geyser while washing their clothes.) The geyser is just the beginning of a fascinating geothermal journey.
Covering some 7 square miles, with the volcanic dome of Maungakakaramea (Rainbow Mountain) at its northern boundary, the Wai-O-Tapu (sacred waters) thermal area is literally covered with collapsed craters, cold and boiling mud pools, water, and fumaroles, or vents where steam escapes from underground. Three walks through the public area are marked, taking from 30 to 75 minutes. The gray, rocky landscape, with little vegetation, looks like the craters of the moon, which makes the vivid colors of the mineral-dyed pools even more breathtaking.
A boardwalk stretches over the Champagne Pool, with its distinctive reddish-orange petrified edge ringed by steaming, bottle-green water. It’s a constantly changing panorama, as steam lifts briefly to reveal one otherworldly color, then another. The largest spring in the Wai-O-Tapu district, it is 200 feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet deep, with a surface temperature of 165 degrees. The bubbles are due to carbon dioxide. Overflowing water from the Champagne Pool creates the Artist’s Palette, a series of colorful pools. The water in Devil’s Bath, a large crater near the park entrance, is the color of a neon green highlighter.
It’s a short drive to Wai-O-Tapu’s mud pools. If it has rained recently, as it had when we visited, the mud pools are less viscous; the rainwater tends to sit on the top. But even a rain-soaked mud pool is an impressive visual and auditory experience — wonderfully swirling, glossy, boiling, concentric circles accompanied by a guttural burping sound. Since each little pool shimmies and vibrates until the heat below causes it to explode, the trick is to stare at one spot until it erupts; otherwise you’re always just missing the action.
With what we had seen and learned about New Zealand’s thermal wonders, we were eager to immerse ourselves in the legendary waters. Just 4 miles from Wai-O-Tapu, Waikite Valley Thermal Pools includes a large family pool kept at 95-100 degrees, smaller mineral pools and hot tubs that maintain a slightly higher temperature, and private spas that allow users to control the temperature. Every pool is filled daily with fresh geothermal water from the Te Manaroa boiling spring, the largest single source of 100 percent pure boiling water in New Zealand.
As clouds of steam drifted by our private, open-air spa, we sank into the soft, calcite-rich water. While it didn’t take away all our aches and pains, it was silky and relaxing — and very hot.