Enveloped in a haze, I walked the narrow wooden walkway that seemed to disappear into the water. And the water surrounding me wasn't just blue; it had every hue one could imagine. There was a deep emerald lake; streaks of rustic red in an otherwise slate grey basin; entire pools I could barely see as they came blanketed in steam. But this wasn’t a sequence from a dream, or the figment of my imagination. This is Rotorua in New Zealand.
Set in the New Zealand’s North Island, the city of Rotorua and its surroundings are a geothermal hotbed. From hot crater lakes to hissing fumaroles, the surreal comes to life here. The natural phenomena can be seen everywhere and experienced in a variety of ways: from private spas that come with bubbling mud pools, to outdoor restaurants with ‘naturally heated terraces’, to private homes that offer ‘steamy sights’ as they look out at hot springs.
Enter a thermal wonderland
I start by exploring Wai-O-Tapu, an area dubbed a 'thermal wonderland' that sits on the outskirts of Rotorua. Maori legend has it that the explorer, Ngatoro-i-rangi, climbed Mt. Tongariro (in the adjoining city of Taupo) to get a good view of the land and claim everything that the eye could see for his tribe. But strong winds at the top of the summit endangered his life. Some legends claim that this was the work of demons. But Ngatoro-i-rangi persevered, by calling upon the Gods for help. The fire Gods answered his prayers and every place they struck led to the creation of a geothermal feature. Even today the pools, springs and geysers are revered by the Maoris. Little wonder that ‘Wai-O-Tapu’ literally means ‘Sacred waters.’
Science however goes with another story: such activity occurs in areas where there are or was volcanic activity. Because of this activity, molten rocks of magna heat the ground. This in turn heats the water under the ground, giving rise to geothermal features.
I head to the Lady Knox Geyser which dates back over 900-years and puts on a show every day at 10:15 am, with a little help from a surfactant. From a tiny mount, a jet of water starts off with a hint of gurgling and steam and before you know it, it spouts furiously to 20 metres high. The trick to set off the Lady was discovered by prisoners in 1901 when the first open prison in all of New Zealand was set up here. It was the prisoners who discovered the geyser. They experimented and found that she could erupt with just a bit of soap.
There's also the Champagne Lake where nature takes on a vivid palette: rust-orange edges on the lake thanks to arsenic deposits; a green tint due to volcanic elements making the ground seem like ash.
A walk through Wai-O-Tapu is like sighting a rainbow in the water, instead of up above. In little craters, large pools, unassuming mounts, these wonders await.
Soak in healing waters
In the 1800’s, a Catholic priest, Father Mahoney, suffered from arthritis that left him writhing in pain. His friends and well-wishers carried him to the mud pools of Rotorua. As the priest soaked in the waters — that came with trace elements of calcium and silicon he found relief. His story spread far and wide and it extolled the virtues of these miracle pools.
Today, there are a several spas that hold within their grounds thermal pools where you can soak yourself. Or sign up for one of many treatments ranging from mud-wraps to massages to facials. If you’re on a tight budget, there are a few hot springs in Rotorua that are open to the public for a free soak.
Walk into a forest, at night
Up next is the World’s longest living tree walkway. Set at 20 metres above ground, the walkway is about a kilometre long, connected by the gigantic redwood trees that make up the Whakarewarewa forest (colloquially known as the Redwoods). The forest is lit by eco-friendly bamboo lamps fashioned by award-winning furniture designer, David Trubridge.
It is the play of light and shadow that really makes the forest come alive by night. Is that a wallaby in the distance, foraging for food? Or is it just a silhouette created by rustling leaves? I hear a hoot and turn in the direction it comes from. I think I see the yellow eyes of the native Ruru or Morepork. But turns out it is just the beam of light from a carved lamp.
No two walks on the bridge will ever be the same. I see it in autumn, but it takes a whole new avatar in summer as the foliage changes colour and grows around the lamps. Lace up those sneakers, and make sure to pack in an active imagination for this nocturnal forest walk....