Smoke On The Water- Published in The Hindu-Metroplus Editions on December 3rd 2012

Rotorua - Inside New Zealand’s Geothermal World 
 “Roto what”? This was the common response when people heard that Rotorua figured majorly in our New Zealand itinerary. What also added spice to Rotorua was the fact that a mere six days before we were to descend there, Mount Tongariro in the same volcanic zone had erupted. The last time it had erupted was a hundred years back!
Rotorua is New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland. It is located in the North Island at the southernmost tip of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Just in case you have forgotten your geography like we had, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped area in the Pacific Ocean, made up of volcanic arcs and belts. It starts in New Zealand, stretches along the Eastern edge of Asia, the Northern islands of Alaska and tapers away south, along the coast of North and South America. 81% of the Earth’s largest earthquakes and 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur in the Pacific Ring of Fire. 240,000 years back, a volcanic eruption in the North Island, as we know it today, caused the magma chamber of the earth to collapse, leaving behind a depression or a caldera. Gradually, water began filling up this caldera. Much later, a Maori chieftain, Kahumatamomoe, from the Te Arawa tribe, discovered the lake and the hot springs around it and called it Roto (lake) Rua (two). Rotorua, even today, remains the seat of Maori culture, with streets named after Maori Gods, warriors and chieftains with unpronounceable names!
Rotorua smokes and smells! As we drive into the city, we are greeted by spirals of smoke coming off the ground and the lake and a strong smell of rotten eggs. Some Smart Alecs call it Rotten-Rua and no, the Rotoruans are not amused! Legend has it, that the geo-thermal activity of Rotorua is due to the exploits of a spiritual leader of the Te Arawa tribe, called Ngatoroirangi, who saw a beautiful white mountain and decided to climb it. However as he climbed higher, icy, snow-laden winds began to blow, threatening his very existence. Almost at the brink of death, Ngatoroirangi prayed to his sisters Te Pupu and Te Hoata, who lived in Hawaiki, to bring him the warmth of fire. The two sisters immediately swam across the Pacific Ocean carrying the gift of life in the form of fire that would save their brother. Every time the sisters raised their head from the ocean, to see if they had reached their destination, the earth in that place became a pit of fire. These are the areas around Rotorua and New Zealand itself. According to geologists, however, this significant geo thermal activity is because, Rotorua is located in an area where, two giant pieces of the earth’s surface are in constant motion and one piece is slowly creeping over the other. This movement, albeit slow, is generating humungous amount of subterranean heat and volcanic activity. The smell arises from the hydrogen sulphide emissions from sulphur deposits that are found in the area. Yet, despite these harsh facts, it was a beautiful sight that greeted us as we entered our room – the sun setting against the lake with plumes of smoke rising off its surface – it was also a bit surreal and a bit scary!
Packaging this totally volatile beauty of nature, in as safe a manner as possible, are the Geothermal Parks of Rotorua, where geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools are cordoned off or harnessed within limits of safety. Hell’s Gate (so called because, when George Bernard Shaw visited the place and saw the angry bubbling mud pools, he is supposed to have remarked that this is how hell must look!), Waiotapu Geothermal Park, Te Puia and Waimangu Volcanic Valley are some of the well known thermal parks here.
Te Puia, in the Te Whakarewarewa Valley, is Rotorua’s most publicised geothermal parks because it is a regular feature on many packaged tours. Te Puia is home to the Pohutu Geyser which is believed to be the largest active geyser in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere. She erupts approximately 20 times a day and reaches a height of almost 100 feet when she is in a good mood. We were lucky enough to see her erupt and it was quite a sight. So were the boiling mud pools in which mud from the earth spluttered and bubbled due to the heat under it! Incidentally, all guides in Te Puia are women, who have been handed this responsibility, generation after generation, by their mothers and grandmothers. Visitors to Te Puia are also treated to an exhaustive peek into Maori culture, lore and legend. One gets to see the marae, which is the central community hall of every Maori village, where people congregate for all occasions – happy or sad. One also gets to see New Zealand’s most iconic figure – the kiwi bird in the Kiwi House. However, the dark brown Kiwi, being a nocturnal creature, is extremely photo-sensitive and sound-sensitive. The lighting in the Kiwi House, therefore, is almost nonexistent, making kiwi-spotting a lottery! We did not win it!
Te Puia tends to get a bit crowded for obvious reasons and it was at Waimangu Volcanic Valley, that we got the full import of a geothermal region. Waimangu Volcanic Valley claims to be the world’s youngest geothermal park. It was created by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, which was so violent that its lava flow buried an entire village. Waimangu Volcanic Valley is, quite simply, a beautiful experience. In fact, Waimangu Valley tops TripAdvisor’s list of things to see and do in Rotorua and now I know why. The Valley is best explored on foot , as this provides an up close view of the amazing crater lakes as well as the flora and fauna that make New Zealand a land of unparalleled beauty. There is an ‘easy trail’ and a ‘hard trail’. We chose the easy trail and were rewarded with the dark and brooding Echo Crater, The Frying Pan Lake, which was actually steaming and last but not the least, the Inferno Crater and its turquoise lake which can only be called enchanting, if not amazing. All this along well laid out pathways, on either side of which, lies the earth, covered with the most unusual of hues, thanks to the silica deposits! We rounded this trail off with a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana, which is said to have exploded to 20 times its size, in a matter of minutes, after the 1886 eruption. It is, today, the deepest lake in the North Island. Steve, our captain, gave us the most illuminating and entertaining geography lesson. We learnt that, the crust of the earth in a geothermal region is only 10 kilometres in thickness as against the normal 30 kilometres elsewhere. We learnt that fumaroles are vents in the earth, in or near a volcanic area, from which steam and hot gases are emitted! We also prayed hard that there should be no eruption, as we marvelled at the steam rising from the fumaroles on the multi-coloured hills around the lake! The crowning glory of the cruise was the geyser on a red hill that is said to erupt, approximately, every seven minutes. The entire experience was quite ‘other-worldly’. Waimangu Volcanic Valley made one feel truly humbled and small!
Constrained by time, we had to miss the other geothermal parks. However, we came away, raising a toast to the mercurial and violent beauty of nature and the passion of the New Zealanders in keeping nature’s endowments, as untouched and pristinely pure as possible!

Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy,


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