Wai-O-Tapu: the best volcanic park in New Zealand

January 1, 1970

by Natalija Polyanskaya

“Visiting New Zealand without touching the volcanoes? Nonsense!” – my friend and I thought while planning our trip to the North Island. We had only fifteen days for the whole adventure, half of the time to be spent in Wellington, but still we just couldn’t miss the chance to visit the seismic activity area. Here, in Latvia, we’ve got only one mountain, which is 311 meters high, and, unfortunately, of no relation to volcanoes at all.

According to travel magazines’ reviews Wai-O-Tapu is said to be not only the best volcanic park in the North Island, but throughout the whole country as well. After having just a glance at the photos on the Internet (in order not to spoil the impression and to see everything with my own eyes), I was convinced: the place was a must, at least for a half a day visit. The landscapes looked extraterrestrial and were to be explored slowly, with no haste.


The road to Wai-O-Tapu

We traveled to the park from Auckland, or rather, from Matamata, where we spent the night before, with a stop in the sulfur smelling Rotorua. The route is easy to find: just travel south along the Thermal Explorer Highway (SH 5) towards Taupo for 27km (20 minutes’ drive) until you reach the Wai-O-Tapu Tavern. Turn left opposite the tavern and travel 2km to reach Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (the official name of the park). You can also reach it from the other side – from Taupo, by the same SH 5 to Rotorua (about 53 km, 40 minutes’ drive) and get straight to the Wonderland via two special shuttles – Geyser Link Shuttle and Thermal Land Shuttle. However, a trip by car is more convenient, of course.

We parked at the entrance (the parking area is big enough), bought the tickets and hastily peeking into a large gift shop, went to explore the park itself. Unfortunately, we were late to catch the eruption of the Lady Knox gazer, but managed to take a glance at the rest of the territory.


The Devil’s Land

I’d never been to a volcanic park before and actually had no idea what it was like. The answer was simple: it was like nothing I had ever seen before – an absolutely unique place.

Wai-O-Tapu is huge and never crowded even during the tourist season (our trip took place in early summer). Tourists are plenty, of course, but they spread throughout the park and do not disturb each other. Major pools located close to the entrance are most popular – that is why we decided to postpone our visit there and firstly walked through the park making nice pictures with no hurry.


Immediately after entering the park we could get the idea of how volcanoes effected the environment: the branches of trees surrounding a suspiciously murky river were covered with sulfates as if having instantly turned gray and the smell of sulfur reminded us where we were. Steam rose above the stream stopping any desire to touch the water. A huge territory behind the stream was dotted with holes in the ground: some with rising smoke, others with something scary bubbling inside. Their name was atrocious as well, something like «The Devils Home cave». Even the small bushes seemed to be afraid to grow close to those holes, and, in my opinion, they were absolutely right in that decision. As they say, if you are careful – you have a chance to live longer.


For some time we studied the fanciful stone deposits – mostly green, but some yellow and orange as well – a rather horrifying view, I should say. Some sort of volcanic Halloween.

After that we followed the trail that led us to the main pools, but we went past, planning to examine them on our way back. Meanwhile we wanted to take a look at the colored lakes.

Stone colored waters

The park has several lakes which one can examine from above – by reaching a small observation platform hidden in a pine forest – or have a closer look, though still from a small distance: all trails leading to the water are closed and thoroughly fenced. The lake itself is dull green, similar to the color of aventurine, and spreads along the ground, turning into one of the finest places in the park – the Frying Pan Flat, where the puddles and bubbling oases change their color from time to time. Unfortunately, by the time we came there the sun was hiding in the haze, and we did not have the chance to see the sulfates shimmering with brilliant yellow in clear weather. Nevertheless, the Frying Pan Flat still impressed us immensely.


The next lake we saw was Ngakoro and it struck our imagination even more: I’d never seen such deep emerald green water in my entire life! It shimmered with all shades of the gemstone, modestly lying among the forest-covered shores. The water roared, forming a small waterfall. We were suddenly all alone on the observation platform at the lake, and it was a moment of absolute peace and tranquility.


Highly impressed, we slowly headed back, choosing a slightly different path and suddenly stopping for some time to sit by a brook, whose waters rushed among the mossy stones. Its waters were the color of a moonstone shining as bright as the moon at night. Although we were free to reach for the brook, we didn’t dare to touch its waters, of course.


The Artist’s Palette

The Artist’s Palette is the main goal for most of the tourists that come to Wai-O-Tapu: it is a vast open territory with several geothermal pools conjoined and flowing one into the other. They are wonderful at any time of the year, in any light, but their real beauty is best revealed when the sun peeps out from behind the clouds. We were lucky – as soon as we reached the Artist’s Palette, the dense clouds began to part, and after a few minutes everything around us was bathing in sunlight.


The main site of the Artist’s Palette is of course, the Champagne Pool with the water boiling and rising from the bottom like bubbles in a glass of champagne. Steam rises from the 100 degrees Celsius hot water and if the wind blows into your face you can hardly see pool itself: as if you’re in the middle of a thick fog. That is the best time to play wizards while waiting for the fog to clear. I stood in front of the pool, lifted my arms and began chanting like Gandalf: “Oh nature, obey me! I order you! You shall not pass!” Where else in the world should I do something like that if not in New Zealand?


The Champagne Pool is the most popular site among photographers, not only because of the amazing bubbling hot water, but also because of the orange color of its banks created by the deposited compounds of orpiment and stibnite. But who cares about boring chemistry? The main idea is that the orange edge of the bank is beautiful, like a ripe orange, and you can enjoy it for a long time. So did we, until the clock reminded us that we still had a long way to go along the Lake Taupo.

The Devil & Gifts

On our way to the exit another surprise was waiting for us. My friend stopped behind me photographing another steaming pool, while I went a little bit further. Suddenly I stopped and began to laugh. Lana caught up with me quickly: “What’s the matter?” Well, how should I put it… Have you ever seen a bright green lake? Even the clouds couldn’t dampen its bright poisonous radiance. The lake’s name is the Devil’s Bath, and believe me, nobody but the Devil will ever dare to bathe there. A worker in a safety waistcoat of the same color as the water in the lake was standing nearby mending a broken fence section. “You look as if you have just emerged from there!” – we teased him. “That’s right, – agreed the worker, – but I would never do that, not even for all the money in the world.”


Having spent some time admiring the lake with some strangely phlegmatic birds nesting on its shores, we headed for the exit – this time for sure. However, our plan to buy souvenirs quickly and be gone in some ten minutes failed. The fact is that Wai-O-Tapu has one of the best gift shops in New Zealand (which is why, if you get there, it makes sense to buy most of the souvenirs there). We found wonderful things for our friends and family, as well as for ourselves – two beautiful T-shirts with Maori patterns – which we hastily put on to make a few photos at the parking area, tired, but absolutely happy.

Useful dirt

After having a cup of coffee and a cake, we were practically on the highway to the lake Taupo, when we saw a signpost saying: The Mud Pool. I remembered reading something about it on the Internet – “Turn here! They’ve got some funny gurgling mud there!”

Five minutes later we stood in front of a fence, behind which lay a lake of real, first-class mud! But it didn’t just lay there! It gurgled. It gurgled with such dignity that tourists laughed looking and listening to it. And as we know, laughter prolongs life – therefore the pool with gurgling mud is 100% useful.


Natalija Polyanskaya

By Natalija Polyanskaya

My name is Natalia, I am a journalist, writer and musical director and enjoy traveling a lot. I live in Latvia and adore checking out new destinations, loosing my way in order to find something extraordinary and finding inspiration in different places. I also spend my spare time making jewelry basing on ideas that come to my mind during my adventures.

Read more at nataliapolyanskaya.com

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