Taupo volcanic zone, New Zealand, where fresh air smells like passed wind. The Waiotapu geothermal field, near Rotorua is both a beautiful natural landmark of the North Island and a malodorous laboratory for economic geologists who want to see a mineral deposit in the making. And, it is a well-studied location for the biology of extremophile (microbial) organisms.
|Algae aren't quite extremophiles, but they evince the primordial soup, where such things were the pinnacle of life on earth for billions of years.|
Some baths are a little too hot for comfort. Frequently depicted in guidebooks, Champagne Pool is perhaps the most striking geothermal feature of Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland. Alkaline springs within its explosive crater are framed by a brilliant orange, silica sinter rim that is colored by arsenic- and antimony-bearing sulfide minerals being deposited today. No wonder this area of the park is named "The Artist's Palette." But with waters hovering above 70 degrees Celsius, a quick dip in the pool would be your last.
Ironically, if the park were an industrial area, heavy metal concentrations in the water would be high enough to attract environmental protests and lawyers. People want to come here. It was possibly the place that hit the most notes for the most people on our trip to New Zealand.
|This same view is essentially the cover of Fodor's New Zealand (2006).|
We visited Waiotapu in October of 2008. It's also a good place to spot some of the local wildlife amidst the fumes. I still remember my oldest son yelling "Pied stilt, pied stilt, PIED STILT!!!" We thought he'd spotted a celebrity. Though a "bird" can perhaps have that connotation in New Zealand.
|Similar sinter terraces at another location in Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland..|
|In some locations, "Champagne Pool" is more the color of a good brandy.|
Then there's the Devil's Bath, proof that Satan has a healthy taste for spas, if not a sense of smell. There's also the Devil's Home. Considering the similar place names in Yellowstone and other thermal areas, it's safe to say Beelzebub hedges his bets on the real estate market. It's only a matter of time before another explosive eruption changes the neighborhood again. Will it be in a thousand years...or tomorrow.
|The Devil's Bath. Sometimes it's an emerald green color. We got puke green, which suits the aroma and the general reputation of its namesake.|
|The Devil's Home. He also lives at a hockey rink in New Jersey. And the house of the devil is the basis of a 2009 horror film, but that must have been made at another residence.|
We skipped one of the main events. Every day at 10:15 there is a talk at the Lady Knox Geyser, after which the demonstrator pours a bag of alkaseltzer into it's misshapen cone to induce an eruption that spouts 10-20 meters. There is no word as to whether the attendant has ever been boiled. As a geologist, I find something indecent about inducing the earth to do tricks. However, the daily release of pressure may buy a few more years before "the big one," or not.
There are three looping walks, the combination of which can be done between 75 minutes or a couple hours, so Wai-o-tapu is the perfect half day family excursion. The main walk takes about 45 minutes and doesn't have any steps. Family admission (2014) is $80 NZD for two adults and up to three children. Single admission is $32.50 NZD for adults (16 and up) or $11 for for a child. Kids under 5 are free.
From Rotorua, continue on SH 5 for 24.5 kilometers and turn left on Waiotapu Loop Road. Continue for two kilometers to the park.
|The source of all the smells, and some pine cones.|