The Explosive, Thermal Heart of New Zealand

Rotorua is one place where the turbulent forces that formed New Zealand are most evident. This city, on the Volcanic Plateau, has one of the world’s most lively fields of geothermal activity and sits squarely on the Pacific Rim of Fire. It also smells strongly of sulphur.

We had visited Rotorua many times in the past so after a quick stop to photograph these boiling mud pools in a local park,  the only ones that you can see for free, we carried on out-of-town to visit “Waimangu” the Volcanic Valley, a place we had never visited when we lived in New Zealand.

Entering the Geothermal system of Waimangu

Entering the Geothermal system of Waimangu

Mt Tarawera eruption
In 1886 Mt Tarawera erupted, devastating most of the surrounding landscape, and killing more than 150 people. It also covered and destroyed the world-famous “Pink and white terraces”  New Zealand’s first tourist attraction

The Pink and White Terraces became New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction.  Visitors from England, Australia, Canada and Europe braved a ship passage of several months, followed by an overland trip of 150 kilometres to make the pilgrimage to Lake Rotomahana.

All this changed during the night of 10 June 1886.  Already rumblings in the ground, earthquakes, creeks emptying and refilling, lake water levels rising and falling, were indications of strange happenings. Moreover, a few weeks earlier a group of Europeans and their Maori guides had seen a canoe appear in the distance on the lake.  They watched the  canoe approach until it suddenly vanished before their eyes.   Everyone agreed on what they had seen, but to the Maori it was an apparition, an omen of danger and death.  This night was to confirm their predictions of disaster.

The eruption opend up a line of craters from the northern end of the mountain.  Seven small villages were destroyed. Many human lives were lost.  All plant, animal and bird life was destroyed.  Lake Rotomahana exploded to 20 times its size, with a new water level 40 metres higher than previously.  Tragically the fabled Pink and White Terraces were gone, presumably destroyed. 

This was how the Volcanic Valley was formed as the newest Geothermal area in the world.

Now we are going to explore it.

Echo crater

Echo crater

This lake looks so peaceful and tranquil from a distance but as we get closer we can see the steam rising and swirling across the surface.

Steam shows how hot this lake is

Steam shows how hot this lake is

The majestic Cathedral Rocks rise up from the opposite shore in a myriad of colours.

Cathedral Rocks

Cathedral Rocks

The hot springs over flow at temperatures of about 50c

The hot springs over flow at temperatures of about 50c


A side trip into a side valley takes us up to the Inferno Crater Lake. The water is highly acidic and gets to 80c. What an amazing colour it is.

Inferno Crater Lake

Inferno Crater Lake

As we head back to the main track along the valley we spot this sign…

Now this looks like a challenge...

Now this looks like a challenge…


"Come on" says Jack "let's do it"

“Come on” says Jack “let’s do it” as he disappears ahead of me

"Wait for me. How ever many more steps are there?"

“Wait for me. How ever many more steps are there?”

Finally, the top, and the views are worth it, but I was so pleased to see that seat. Notice I don't exactly have "good walking shoes" on....

Finally, the top, and the views are worth it, but I was so pleased to see that seat. Notice I don’t exactly have “good walking shoes” on….

What goes up has to come down again. This side track added another 2.5 hours walking.

What goes up has to come down again. This side track added another 2.5 hours walking.

Back down in the valley the stream bubbles and steams along and creates multi-coloured algae that grows along the bank

Back down in the valley the stream bubbles and steams along and creates multi-coloured algae that grows along the bank

We had been walking up and down along the valley for almost 4 hours so we were very pleased that the entrance fee of $34.50 (seniors price) included a bus ride back up to where we started from.

Volcano valley












Categories: New Zealand, photos, Rotorua, Volcanic Valley | Tags: , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “The Explosive, Thermal Heart of New Zealand

  1. wow!!! yet another reason to visit new zealand! did the area have a odor of sulfur? i’ve been in volcanic places like that here in the states and they have there’s a light smell of sulfur in the air, more prominent in same places than others. they have also all seem to have lakes of that awesome blue.


  2. pattisj

    It’s a beautiful place, but I find it a little unnerving to be situated on the Pacific rim of Fire!


  3. what an incredible place, so much to see over there, I can tell we will have to plan a trip once our Paris dwellers move back to OZ!


  4. poppytump

    Ah you took me right back PP . We loved out visit here . Now if we ONLY we could go again 🙂
    The smells ..the colours of the water .. the mudpools … amazing place .


  5. I don’t know if I could make it up those steps – you did very well! 😀


  6. Well I am very glad that you have done this trail as it means I don’t have to! I don’t mind steps up, although I get out of puff, but steps down really hurt my knees! So thank you PP and Jack 🙂


  7. What an amazing place.. I wouldn’t want to get splashed with that hot mud.. As for those steps! Much prefer the downward journey :-)…. Love my trip with you both to the thermal heart of NZ… Thank you Pauline..
    Sue xox


    • Those thermal holes pop up all over Rotorua some houses even have one on their back garden. Most of the larger sites have been turned into tourist attractions and are quite pricey to look around but worth seeing if you haven’t been to Rotorua before, but we had seen all the others in the past.


  8. I enjoyed your adventure and the delightful, expressive photos. Also enjoyed the anecdotal history of the Pink and White Terraces. Waimangu looks like a place with lively character.


    • Waimangu certainly has an explosive history and it is still an active area the last explosion was 1973 but not on the scale of the 1886 one.


  9. Thank you for sharing your trip! It must have been tough but wonderful!


  10. It was a challenging walk but you made a great post out of it.


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