Many of the best attractions in the area lie outside the city itself but shuttles and tours mean that just about every combination of sights can be packed into a day, as well as all manner of adventure activities – from rafting to skydiving.
Travellers can quickly dispatch minor sights along the eastern shore of Lake Rotorua, leaving time for the seldom-crowded Hell’s Gate thermal area and the opportunity to watch terrified rafters plunging over Tutea’s Falls. Rewards are more plentiful to the east and south especially around the shattered 5km-long massif of Mount Tarawera. During one cataclysmic night of eruptions in 1886 this chain split in two, destroying the region’s first tourist attraction (the beautiful Pink and White Terraces), entombing the nearest settlement, Te Wairoa, now known as the Buried Village, and creating the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. It now ranks as one of the finest collections of geothermal features in the region alongside kaleidoscopic Wai-O-Tapu, with its daily triggered Lady Knox Geyser, boiling mud, and brilliantly coloured pools. Other magnificent geothermal areas around Rotorua include Kerosene Creek, which has the best free hot pools hereabouts, and Orakei Korako, which offers a peaceful geothermal experience. Meanwhile, the Whirinaki Forest Park presents great hiking and biking opportunities on the road to Lake Waikaremoana.Read More
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, 10km south of Waimangu, is the area’s most colourful and varied geothermal site. At 10.15am daily, the 10m Lady Knox Geyser is ignominiously induced to perform by a staff member who pours a soapy surfactant into the vent. If you miss the geyser your ticket allows you to come back next morning.
Everyone then drives 1km to the main site where an hour-long walking loop wends its way through a series of small lakes which have taken on the tints of the minerals dissolved in them – yellow from sulphur, purple from manganese, green from arsenic and so on. The gurgling and growling black mud of the Devil’s Ink-Pots and a series of hissing and rumbling craters pale beside the ever-changing rainbow colours of the Artist’s Palette pools and the gorgeous, effervescent Champagne Pool, a circular bottle-green cauldron wreathed in swirling steam and fringed by a burnt-orange shelf. The waters of the Champagne Pool froth over The Terraces, a rippled accretion of lime silicate that glistens in the sunlight.
As you drive back to the main road, follow a short detour to a huge and active boiling mud pool which plops away merrily, forming lovely concentric patterns.
The Mount Tarawera eruption
The Mount Tarawera eruption
Volcanic activity provides the main theme for attractions southeast of Rotorua, most having some association with Lake Tarawera and the jagged line of volcanic peaks and craters along the southeastern shore, collectively known as Mount Tarawera, which erupted in 1886.
Prior to that eruption Tarawera was New Zealand’s premier tourist destination, with thousands of visitors every year crossing lakes Tarawera and Rotomahana in whaleboats and waka, frequently guided by the renowned Maori guide Sophia, to the Pink and White Terraces, two separate fans of silica that cascaded down the hillside to the edge of Lake Rotomahana. Boiling cauldrons bubbled at the top of each formation, spilling mineral-rich water down into a series of staggered cup-shaped pools, the outflow of one filling the one below. Most visitors favoured the Pink Terraces, which were prettier and better suited to sitting and soaking. All this came to an abrupt end on the night of June 10, 1886, when the long-dormant Mount Tarawera erupted, creating 22 craters along a 17km rift, and covering over 15,000 square kilometres in mud and scoria. The Pink and White Terraces were shattered by the buckling earth, covered by ash and lava, then submerged deep under the waters of Lake Rotomahana.
The cataclysm had been foreshadowed eleven days earlier, when two separate canoe-loads of Pakeha tourists and their Maori guides saw an ancient waka glide out of the mist, with a dozen warriors paddling furiously, then vanish just as suddenly; the ancient tohunga (priest) Tuhoto Ariki interpreted this as a sign of imminent disaster. The fallout from the eruption buried five villages, including the staging post for the Pink and White Terrace trips, Te Wairoa, where the tohunga, lived. In a classic case of blaming the messenger, the inhabitants refused to rescue the tohunga and it wasn’t until four days later that they allowed a group of Pakeha to dig him out. Miraculously he lived, for a week.
In 2011, scientists discovered that rather than being completely destroyed, parts of the Pink Terraces appear to have survived the 1886 eruption (the White Terraces are thought to have been more likely to have been affected). The gas and hot water vents discovered on the lake floor indicate rare active underwater geothermal systems, which scientists are continuing to research.