We’re on the North Island of New Zealand now. And although we’re only about 350 miles from our last stops on the South Island, the landscape makes it feel like we’re on a completely different planet. Whereas much of the South Island was sculpted by glaciers, much of the North Island was formed by volcanoes.
If you look at a map of the North Island, you’ll see a large, nearly circular body of water in the center of the island. That’s Lake Taupo, the biggest lake in New Zealand. It sits in the crater of a huge volcano that collapsed after many eruptions, the last around 200 AD (when New Zealand was still uninhabited). Stretching northeast from Lake Taupo to the coast is an active geothermal zone that is also home to some of the North Island’s most popular vacation towns, Taupo and Rotorua.
Rotorua is in some ways a North Island version of Queenstown on the South Island: a place for adventure activities of all sorts. Rotorua’s offerings include ziplines and sky swings, whitewater rafting and jet boating, and something called “zorbing,” which involves rolling down a hill in a big, clear, inflatable ball with a little water inside for stability and slidiness. (I was initially intrigued by the idea but decided it would leave me feeling more wet, nauseous, and pummeled than exuberant.)
But that’s not nearly the weirdest thing about Rotorua. Even stranger is that the town stinks of sulfur and has steam and boiling mud bubbling out of the ground in various places. The Rotorua-Taupo area is riddled with geothermal vents. Some release steam full of minerals that stain the ground around them orange or chartreuse or pale green. Some rise through chambers of trapped rainwater and periodically blow geysers high into the air. Some bubble up in pools of thick, dark gray mud or in craters full of boiling water like giant pasta pots.
Several of the most active geothermal areas have been turned into tourist attractions, where you can walk along paths through an otherworldly landscape or soak in pools warmed by hot springs, like big natural jacuzzies. But even outside tourist sites, evidence of geothermal activity isn’t hard to find. As you drive around the region, it’s not uncommon to see billows of steam rising from different spots on the landscape, like so many backyard leaf fires. Even strolling around downtown Rotorua, you can see steam rising from storm drains or hear the blurp of bubbles in a tiny round mud puddle.
Some people think downtown Rotorua smells like rotten eggs or giant farts (much to the amusement of kids). While we were there, the intensity of the smell varied with the wind and weather and with our proximity to thermal vents. Most of the time, the scent reminded me of the smell after a fireworks display or a Revolutionary War battle reenactment—two things I enjoy—so it didn’t bother me much. The smell only got hard to take when I was right by the steam of a geyser or vent.
When Maori settlers reached the Rotorua-Taupo area centuries ago, they were amazed to find hot water flowing out of the ground. Without needing to build fires, they had a ready supply of heat for cooking food, bathing, and softening the plant fibers they used for weaving and making baskets. In the 19th century, European settlers turned Rotorua and Taupo into spa towns, where people could soak in the mineral waters in hopes of curing their ailments. Today, some of the area’s geothermal vents and springs have been harnessed to produce energy; together, they supply more than 15 percent of New Zealand’s electricity.
If you want to visit this fascinating area, here are some suggestions:
- To minimize the sulfur stench in Rotorua, book a place to stay near the north end of town (toward Fairy Springs) and avoid any motel with “thermal” in its name.
- For a sample of the area’s many attractions, we heartily recommend spending half a day at a Maori cultural center called Te Puia. It includes a wonderful landscape full of geysers, a program of ceremonial songs and dances in a Maori meetinghouse, a kiwi hatchery where you can see some of New Zealand’s endangered and nocturnal national birds, and a craft school dedicated to keeping traditional Maori arts and crafts alive. Knowledgeable Maori guides from the village next door take you around the center and explain what you’re seeing. After that, you can wander around as long as you like.
- If you’re hungry for more geothermal oddities after that, the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland between Rotorua and Taupo has 3 kilometers of trails past steaming vents that look like they go down to the center of the earth and ponds in colors that seem impossible to be real.
- For relaxation, we enjoyed soaking in the hot water at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools near Wai-o-Tapu and at the Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Spa in Taupo.
- For a different type of natural experience, we were enchanted by the Redwoods Treewalk in Rotorua, where a series of wooden platforms and bridges let you walk high above the ground through a forest of California coastal redwoods, which grow well in the New Zealand climate.
- And for thrills, we loved riding ziplines and racing luge carts down twisting hillside tracks at Skyline Rotorua.
The town of Taupo, where we stayed after Rotorua, is a popular center for boating, fishing, and other recreation on Lake Taupo. But the day we moved there, an “atmospheric river” unleashed five days of solid rain, so we had to skip all that. We only ventured out for meals and for an afternoon of soaking in hot pools in the rain. The rest of the time, we hunkered down in our cozy little rental house, reading and catching up on work, grateful that we had the time to wait out the rain.