Living in Paradise comes with a price. New Zealand is, by far, one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and I continuously found myself gaping at striking landscapes during my three-week, 2,400-mile trek around the country. But it didn’t get to be so photogenic peacefully; New Zealand’s fantastic scenery arises from millennia of earthquakes, seismic shifts, and volcanic eruptions that continue to this day.
No place displays the country’s geologic volatility better than the area around Rotorua, where I was staying at the charming Robertson House. This hotbed of geothermal activity, where the scent of sulfur tinges the air, clearly reveals how the earth is still one boiling, roiling, toiling ball.
I had already spent several hours in Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the world’s newest geothermal system, the only one created within written history, and the only one wholly created as the direct result of a volcanic eruption (in 1886), which destroyed the world-renowned Pink and White Terraces and extinguished all plant and birdlife. Today, it teems with birds, forests, hot springs and streams, terraces, silver ferns, and steaming lakes.
I had also visited Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, where I learned about Maori culture and witnessed the eruption of Pohutu Geyser, which spouted water up to 90’. The town of Rotorua itself takes advantage of its natural setting, starting back in 1908 with the Bath House, the country’s first major investment in the tourism industry. Today, you can soak in the outdoor hot pools at the Polynesian Spa, one of Condé Nast’s top 10 spas in the world.
My final destination before heading further south was Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters) Thermal Wonderland. Spread out over seven square miles, Wai-O-Tapu is one of the most extensive geothermal systems in New Zealand, filled with collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud and water, and steaming fumaroles.
The area also offers up some of the most surreal colors you’re ever likely to see in nature, starting with Champagne Pool. Formed around 900 years ago, the pool earned its name from the efflux of carbon dioxide and looks like an enormous glass of bubbling Champagne. It sits in a crater just over 200’ in diameter, with a depth of 203’. Steam rising from its surface wisps around visitors ringing its edges, sometimes so thick that it’s easy to lose sight of your friend wrapped in its shrouds just 15’ away. The Champagne color of the water in the center morphs into different shades of aquamarine until it reaches the edges, where it abruptly changes to a shocking orange, stemming from deposits of arsenic and antimony sulfides. Despite the tempting name of the pool, you certainly don’t want to try a sip: The surface temperature of the water is about 165°.
The aptly named Artist’s Palette looks exactly like it—a thermal lake smudged with yellow here, green there, orange over there, blue around there. Elsewhere, an abundance of trentepohlia introduced me to a vibrant orange—it’s actually green algae, but large quantities of carotenoid pigments mask the green of the chlorophyll. And the Devil’s Inkpots—irregularly shaped potholes of a sort—are filled with black and brown goop.
As I continued to walk around, on gravel paths and wood boardwalks, more than my sense of sight was being joyfully entertained. I was treated to the unmistakable scent of sulfur, which could potentially be toxic—if you’re unwise enough to stick your nose an inch or two from the source in a thermal pond. But, otherwise, it just puts you in the mood for some deviled eggs. You can also spy its bright yellow color in Sulphur Cave.
I listened for the calls and chirps of exotic birds in a collapsed crater, where their eggs are incubated by the heat rising from the earth. And I heard the burbling of gloopy mud pools, including the main Mud Pool, the largest one in New Zealand, whose temperature can soar up to 212°.
Getting back to Wai-O-Tapu’s colors, perhaps the most striking feature of all is the Devil’s Bath. Sitting in a slight depression, probably created by a massive underground eruption, this pond of opaque chartreuse water derives its distinct color from deposits of sulfur and ferrous salts that rise to the surface. Picture a stagnant pool of fluid from a toxic waste site and you’ll get a good image, which makes it easy to imagine Lucifer himself rising from it, satisfied with a soak in his tub of malignant-looking water. Although the origins of the name are unclear, I can hypothesize that the hellish color was reason enough.
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