We drove the day before yesterday from our idyllic B&B in Taupo to the town of Rotorua, about an hour to the north. Rotorua is the epicenter — both literally and figuratively — of what for lack of a better term can be thought of as “geothermal tourism” in New Zealand. And there is a lot of it: the local economy depends strongly on the fact that NZ sits on the well-known “Ring of Fire” astride the intersection of two tectonic plates (the Australo-Asian and Pacific plates, thanks for asking), and the fault line runs more or less straight through Taupo and Rotorua. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Lake Taupo is the largest lake in NZ; it is in fact the largest freshwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere, and is actually the remnant of a monumentally gigundous volcanic eruption that took place 28,000 years ago. So you know we’re talking about a region with major league geothermal activity.
Which is another way of saying that there are geothermal attractions of one sort of another pretty much everywhere, and Rotorua is the jumping-off point for many of them. What this also means is that Rotorua stinks. Not that it’s a bad place or anything — it’s actually quite a pleasant small town with some very good restaurants that we enjoyed. I mean it literally stinks: the town is enveloped in an invisible cloud of volcanic gases, hydrogen sulfide in particular, that smell like rotten eggs. As Alice so delicately and accurately put it: “In Rotorua no one can tell if you farted.” Probably not the best slogan to hang your tourist industry on, but it does have something going for it. (And of course, after a short while you stop noticing the odor.)
There are a number of geothermal parks in the area, and we spent a couple of hours at one of the larger and well-known ones, called Waiotapu. Its particular claim to fame is a locally well-known geyser called the Lady Knox geyser, which goes off at precisely 10:15 AM every day. You may wonder how this is possible, since even the most famously regular geysers, e.g. Old Faithful in Yellowstone, cannot be predicted with that much precision. The answer is, that it is possible to cheat.
First you have to know that, left unmolested, the actual period of Lady Knox varies between 24 and 32 hours. The second thing you have to know is that the way geysers work is that they have a narrow throat where cooler water is trapped, capping the pressurized superheated water below it. The blob of cooler water evaporates, the throat is suddenly cleared, and the hot stuff beneath blasts out. As the pressure is released and the eruption ebbs, the water in the throat cools and blocks the entrance, and the cycle begins anew. And so as long as there is adequate pressure underneath it to support an eruption, anything that in effect clears the throat will cause one.
The “anything” in this case is soap flakes. Soap is a so-called surfactant — we’ve moved on from geology to chemistry here, so please make sure you are registered for this class before we continue — which means that it reduces surface tension. By pouring soap flakes down the geyser hole, you greatly increase the evaporation rate of the blob of water that is blocking the throat and thus hasten the eruption. And so at 10:10 the friendly ranger comes out and gives a little spiel about geysers, and at 10:15 he pours a bag of soap flakes down the throat of Lady Knox — who, by the way, looks like a cute little volcano about 4′ tall, rather like someone’s high school science fair project — and steps away. A minute or two later soap bubble foam starts pouring out the top like an overflowing dishwasher, and a minute or two after that, FWOOOM! A blast of hot water and steam erupts to a height of 35′ or so, then eases up and continues spouting 10′ high for the next 15 minutes or more. Here it is in action (photo at left).
Well, this was cool enough, but not exactly earth-shattering. Alice was rather disdainful of the whole thing, having visited Yellowstone, and repeatedly pointed out that Old Faithful is much more impressive and does not require performance-enhancing soap flakes.
This, in fact, was a recurring theme of our visit to Waiotapu: every time we passed a boiling lake, or a steaming crater lined with sulphur crystals, or a white salt flat covered in silica, Alice would observe that the one in Yellowstone was better. I finally threw her into a smoking crevice filled with boiling mud and yelled “Is Yellowstone better than THAT?”
Well, no, I didn’t actually do that. But I threatened to, which worked pretty well insofar as I stopped hearing disparaging comparisons to Yellowstone. Anyway, we actually quite enjoyed it, and here are a couple of pictures of typical volcanic stuff that we saw there.
Our next stop was our long-awaited jet boat ride, which as it turned out was a real highlight of the trip for reasons that are only partially connected to the boat ride itself.
The jet boat is an open-air outboard motor job that seats about twelve people on three rows of benches. The motor is, I believe, a salvaged Saturn V engine or something comparable, given the amount of noise and thrust that it generates. As it happens, there was only one other couple on the boat with us, a pair of ridiculously attractive Austrian 20-somethings who were seeing the country in a rental camper van. Our guide was a blonde, athletic surfer-type named Adam, cheery and knowledgeable.
This is probably a good place to go off on a tangent about the gestalt of New Zealand tourism. In a nutshell, Kiwis seem acutely aware that tourism is a major economic driver of the country and act accordingly. That is to say, pretty much to a greater degree than anywhere else we’ve been, everything is well organized, clean, and generally functioning the way it is supposed to. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing and, as nearly as we can tell, reasonably enjoy doing it. With the exception of one slightly crabby bus driver — the one who almost made us late for the Wellington ferry — we’ve been genuinely impressed with the degree to which people seem inclined to personally engage us, whether in casual conversation or when helping us out with something. (The waitress at the excellent Italian restaurant where we ate dinner this evening overheard Alice asking to borrow my reading glasses for the menu since she had forgotten hers, and came over to offer a pair of glasses that Alice could borrow. Tell me if you think that would ever happen in an American restaurant.)
Kiwis all seem to have an easy sense of humor and an (unfeigned, as nearly as we can tell) interest in us; the conversations always seem a lot more than pro forma. (I am not sure why this makes me think of it, but one pleasant farmhouse restaurant that ate at while on the road was called the Quarter Acre Bistro. The menu had what appeared to be a typo, offering a “1012m2 Salad”. I pointed it out to the waitress and asked what 1,012 square meters was; without batting an eyelash she said “A quarter acre.” Which, by god, it is.) Anyway, the attitude and competence of all the service people here — desk clerks, tour guides, and so forth — have definitely enhanced our experience. Adam, our jet boat driver, was a good example: he was knowledgable, even speaking a fair amount of Maori and knowing a lot of the history, and genuinely enthusiastic. He was vocal about loving his job and wanted to share his enjoyment with us. (He succeeded.)
Anyway, back to the boat. We headed downstream for about a half hour at a pretty gentle pace, meaning that the motor was roaring at only 100 decibels. Every now and then Adam would cut the motor and we would drift with the current, past forests and dairyland and through a broad canyon with steep treed walls about 80′ high. During these times he would talk about the local wildlife, birds in particular, and even managed to draw a response from the woods when he did some bird calls. We eventually reached some shallows and climbed out of the boat into surprisingly warm water — fed by thermal springs, of course, hence the mild temperature.
Dressed in bathing suits, upper-body thin wetsuits, and shod in hideous plastic Crocs footware for protection from rocks, we hiked a few hundred yards though the river bed till we came to a slot canyon. And when I say slot, I mean slot, as you can see at right. At its narrowest point — and I say “point”, but it went on for some ten yards or so — the channel was less than a foot wide.
We moved along very slowly, as you can imagine, placing our feet carefully to avoid stepping into holes, as the warm fast-moving water tugged at our legs, sometimes only a few inches deep, sometimes as deep as two or three feet. The rocks, thankfully, were worn smooth and often covered with moss, so it was not hard to guide ourselves along the rock face with our hands. But it was a pretty narrow squeeze, no question about it; there were times when our backs were against the rocks and the opposite surface only as inch or so from our faces. (Why do we get ourselves into these situations? Two days ago we were doing the same thing, on our backs, in an inner tube, in a cave 200 feet underground. At least here the water was reasonably warm.)
The crevice went on like this for 50 or 75 yards, then eventually opened up into a clearing as the riverbed made a sharp right bend. There was a thermal source at that point, and the water temperature rose very noticeably. We followed the bend, enjoying the balmy water, and a few yards further downstream the gorge started to close up again, fortunately not nearly as narrowly as before. There was a fairly straight path along the riverbed through the next slot, and we could see our goal, which was this paradisiacal twin waterfall:
At this point, just before we passed through the crevice to the falls, Adam said, “OK, this is it. You are now six years old. Strip down to your swimsuits and go play.” Oh boy.
This was a little piece of Eden, which we felt we had earned by right of our arduous passage through the dreaded Squeezy Rocks of Claustrophobia. The falls were about 15′ high, thunderously loud, and — here’s the good part — heated by an underground thermal spring to a temperature of 89 degrees F. Niiiiiiiiice.
The operative word was “frolic”, as long as you didn’t worry too much about keeping your balance: they’re certainly not huge as waterfalls go, but water weighs about 60 lbs per cubic feet, and when you drop a continuous stream of many cubic feet of water from a height of 15′, it carries a fair amount of force. Standing underneath it was to get a hell of a massage, and though I am definitely not a massage person this felt pretty damn good. The pool at the base of the falls was maybe 3′ deep, so it was relaxing just to kind of soak in it and let the momentum of the water splashing off the cascade kind of push you around. There were only four of us plus the guide, and there were two cascades, so there was plenty of opportunity for everyone to play around, squeezing behind the falls or just lying flat across a boulder at the base and letting the torrent massage your back. Like I said, niiiiiiiice.
We stayed there for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and could have happily stayed longer, as you might imagine. Since there were four of us versus only one guide, we briefly considered the possibility of outnumbering him and simply staging a sit-down strike, demanding that we stay overnight and that he come back and pick us up tomorrow. But we were concerned that they had our credit numbers on file, and so the plan was regretfully abandoned.
Adam, being a Kiwi tour guide, knows how to operate every known type of camera, and so used our respective cameras to take photos of various permutations of us at play.
Alas, at the appointed time we made our back out along the river bed, through the slot canyon, and into the boat. It was during the return trip, back upstream, that the “jet” in “jet boat” became important. This thing packs a 500HP engine and has a top speed of about 50 mph, which is pretty damn fast on the water. It either has an extraordinarily strong and responsive rudder or side jets for rapid steering, because the trip upstream was quite thrilling: we would, for example, come screaming at an angle at one or another of a pair of obstacles (say, two small islands in the river), when Adam would throttle down and turn the stick and we would suddenly swing abeam and drift crabwise, sideways at high speed between the hazards. The highlight — the big adrenaline rush — was when he would head straight at some imposing potentially fatal obstacle, say charging at 50 mph at a vertical canyon wall, then yank at the wheel at the last moment and send the boat into a high-G 360 degree turn in place. Pure thrill ride…Six Flags stuff, to be sure. It was a lot of fun.
So it was a hell of a day: geysers, boiling mud, high-speed boat ride, riverbed hike, squeeze through a slot canyon, hot water waterfall massage. Today we’re heading off to Auckland for two nights, our final stop in New Zealand before heading to the Cook Islands for five days of enforced decompression.