Thermal Explorer Highway - Maori culture and geothermal adventures

Ok New Zealand, we give in, we love you! Despite the majority of people suggesting we spend longer on the South Island than the North Island, we are so glad that we did a 50/50 split in the end. The North Island is incredible. We’ve spent the last couple of days driving along the Thermal Explorer Highway making numerous stops along the way. Yesterday looked something like this...

(Mud pools)

Above - a Maori village (complete with geothermal steam), below - our private natural hot spring pool at 38.5 degrees!

Today was even better! We visited Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Waimangu is the youngest geothermal eco-system in the world, created on 10 June 1886. It’s the only geothermal eco-system created as a direct result of a volcanic eruption and is New Zealand’s only example of a native forest that has re-established itself after complete devastation.

In 1886 Tarawera Volcano erupted and the land was split 17km from the point the photo below was taken to the far end of the mountain. 22 craters exploded as a result of the eruption. 120-150 people died in the eruption, most of whom were Maori.

From 1886-1900, Lake Rotomahana formed (seen in the distance below) filling 15 of the eruption craters. Hot springs appeared in the remaining 7 eruption craters.

From 1900 - 1904, the Waimangu Geyser erupted every 36 hours, blasting boiling water, rocks, sand and steam up to 400 metres high (the biggest geyser in the world). It became a huge tourist attraction of its time. We saw a white cross that marked the site where four tourists, standing at a place which they had been warned was dangerous, were washed to their deaths in 1903 when the geyser suddenly erupted.

In 1915 the first plants started to colonise the area, then in 1917 the western basin of Echo Crater violently erupted, completely destroying a tourist accommodation house (which was situated where the painting above is) and killing two people. Frying Pan Flat exploded and within two weeks it filled with water and became the largest hot water spring in the world (below). The water bubbles, giving the impression that it is boiling, but actually gas bubbles in the acidic water (the average pH is 3.5).

Inferno Crater Lake (below) fills and empties every 38 days and is the largest geyser-like feature in the world. Although scienctists are not entirely sure why this happens, the water levels at Inferno Crater Lake are always the opposite of those at Frying Pan Lake i.e. when Inferno Lake is empty, Frying Pan Lake is at its fullest. The top of the white silica deposit marks overflow level. The water can reach 80 degrees and is highly acidic, sometimes with a pH of 2.1.

When Inferno Crater overflows, near-boiling water cascades down a small valley, killing the green algae you can see in the photo below.

The water and steam shooting out in the photo below were fascinating to watch - if a little scary!

I loved all the different natural colours and these were reflected in the names of some of the areas we were looking at - ‘Rainbow Crater’ and ‘Marble Terrace’ were a couple of my favourites.

Although you have to pay to get into Waimangu Volcanic Valley, you can save over 50% by booking last minute (which we did). It meant we had to be there at 8.30am, but this was great as it meant it was empty.

We’d definitely say the Thermal Explorer Highway is a ‘must do’ if you’re planning a trip to New Zealand.