Who loves a good road trip?
How about a road trip that involves amazing scenery you can’t tear your eyes off while totally reversing every driving instinct you have by doing it all from the wrong side of the road??
So that’s what I talked Ruben into… a road trip through Middle Earth, as we termed the belly of New Zealand’s North Island between Auckland in the north and Wellington at the southern tip.
One of the first things that you really notice once outside the city is that the Māori language influence, while noticeable throughout the main cities, is much stronger in rural areas. Trying to pronounce location names was a fun challenge that you don’t really get if you stay metropolitan. Māori (M-OW-rreh) has 26 sounds and since American English has 44 sounds, there seemed to be a near unlimited way of screwing things up. So, for fun’s sake, I’ve included my version of a pronunciation key where applicable.
After that awareness sets in, you can’t help but be captivated by the scenery. The countryside is simply amazing and I wish I could have captured more of it (but seriously, that left-side driving thing requires full attention from both driver and navigator the first 48hrs, after that it feels almost natural). Gently rolling hills, tree lined pastures resplendent in every shade and texture of green, dairy cows and fluffy sheep all over. Tracts of dense, managed forests with their uniform radiata pine trees standing tall and straight. Sharply mounded hills with almost man-made looking terraces from years of critters pacing across them reaching for the newest, most tender grasses. Stunning cliff faces and river wrought ravines. Its no wonder that more than a dozen well known movies have been shot here (Lord of the Rings [duh], Chronicles of Narnia, Last Samurai, Vertical Limit, Avatar, King Kong just to name a few).
One of the main features of this Middle Earth area is the geothermal region around Rotorua (Rō-tō-ROO-ah) and Lake Taupo (T-OW-pō) and of those, Waimangu (Wī-ah-MAN-goo) Volcanic Valley is the world’s young-EST geothermal system. The park is set up to be extremely walkable and the signage is quite well done, so grab a map, pay your $38NZ ($27USD) entry fee and enjoy some gorgeous bits of nature!
A leisurely 2hr walk takes you through a variety of habitats~
The Southern Crater is a beautifully inverse cone 160ft deep but only the bottom 7ft contain water, primarily from rain run off. It’s usually a deep emerald green color but can turn a bright red when a particular aquatic fern blooms (would have been quite the sight!).
Frying Pan Lake fills the next major geological formation, Echo Crater. Despite it’s name, Frying Pan Lake is no lake at all, but actually the word’s large-EST hot spring. Covering about 9.5 acres, the surface water hovers around 131*F with temps only 20ft lower at boiling (>212*F). The “steam” seen coming off the water is actually carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gases and it’s these gases (rather than temp) that cause the water to appear to boil at the surface. The pH averages 3.8 even though the lake is also fed by vents that carry an alkaline input of 8.2-8.7.
There’s a lovely hot stream which handles the overflow from Frying Pan Lake that meanders around and through several other features in the valley. A variety of blue and green algae dig the temps and pH of the stream and along with several small, sputtering thermal springs create a rich texture of tropical vegetation and colorful mineral flats.
Next up is Inferno Crater Lake. The lake has an interesting inverse relationship with Frying Pan Lake. Every 38 days there is an oscillation where one fills and is significantly more active in its outflow and temperature while the other reduces. When Inferno Crater’s water level rises and overflows it’s primary crater, it fills an overflow area creating a trumpet shape before receding again. Throughout the cycle, it’s depth varies from 72 to 98ft with a cozy temp around 176*F and pH of 2.1. The highly acidic nature of the water accounts for the lack of algae and the silica content for the white lining of the pool, both contributing to it’s signature pale blue color.
Following the stream brings you to the Marble Terrace and Iodine Pool. Small geysers feed the area silica-rich waters and a variegated colored buttress has built over time. The primary minerals causing the colors are antimony, molybdenum, arsenic and tungsten.
Rounding out the walking tour is Lake Rotomahana, now a 2,000 acre lake formed from two smaller lakes during the 1886 eruption that created the entire valley and is 20 times the size of the previous two. It is the new-EST and deep-EST lake in the North Island at 369ft and with no natural outflow, it’s level only varies about 3ft due to rains and evaporation. A protected wildlife refuge, it’s host to a large flock of native New Zealand black swans, pukekos and other birds as well as a significant number of rainbow trout.
If you happen to be driving through Middle Earth, I can definitely recommend a short stop over here for some light walking and beautiful, natural views!