This blog was last updated in May 2021.
With so many geothermal attractions around our wonderful region, it is often easy to follow the crowds (and coaches) and go to some of our most popular ones. For those interested in taking the slightly less trodden path, try venturing to Waimangu Volcanic Valley to find something so much more than just a geothermal attraction.
Having driven passed the signs to ‘Waimangu Volcanic Valley’ every second week and really not giving it any more thought than my morning coffee, I decided it was no longer acceptable to tell guests ‘Waimangu is a geothermal park’ and point to it on the map. It was time to get acquainted with the place.
From the beginning, there is something pretty special about knowing that this whole area is the result of a certain day in New Zealand’s recorded history. We all have heard about the eruption of Mt. Tarawera burying both the Buried Village and the destruction of the famous Pink & White Terraces. But what is often left off that lesson is the formation of the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley. For on the 10th June 1886, when Mt. Tarawera violently erupted, burying the Pink and White terraces, it tore a series of craters 17 km long, known as the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, this making it the ‘Youngest Geothermal System in the world.’
As you make your journey through the park you are constantly reminded of the past with photographs, murals and information boards. Through these one can see the views over-looking the valley from the Homestead porch (before it was destroyed). The Waimangu Geyser erupted up to 400 metres high every 36 hours was the largest ever known geyser.
As you walk down through the valley you are drawn to the native forest around you without the presence of giant native trees. This is because when Mt. Tarawera erupted it not only ripped craters, destroyed famous attractions and killed 120 people, it also decimated all the vegetation in the area covering it in 20 metres of volcanic ash. Waimangu is the only New Zealand example of a bio-system re-establishing itself following complete devastation from a volcanic eruption. If you slow the pace and take in the surroundings you will find the most incredible thermally adapted plants and micro-organisms along with the abundant presence of native birds like Kereru, Tui, Fantails, Bellbirds and Pukeko.
You constantly find yourself wide eyed, jaw open, as you wander along narrow ridges looking down craters 50 metres deep. The geothermal activity is ever present, with steam emerging from rocks all around. Cathedral Rock’s red face steams away as it overlooks Frying Pan Lake, covering 38,000 square metres, it is the world’s largest hot spring and reaches temperatures of 55oC. The overflow from this lake form the most spectacular colours from the blue-green algae, with further orange, brown, green and yellows deposits lining the edges.
The pale blue Inferno Crater Lake is undoubtedly the jewel in the Waimangu crown. It follows a rhythmic cycle over 5-7 weeks where it recedes, refills and overflows. This receding period often means the lake drops 8 metres before refilling. This process has a direct effect on the behaviour of the Frying Pan Lake. When Inferno Carter Lake is receding, Frying Pan Lake has greater than usual discharge, when Inferno Crater Lake is overflowing, the discharge from Frying Pan Lake significantly decreases.
As you continue down the valley you are met with more craters, lava bluffs, incredible views up the valley to Lake Rotomahana and Mt. Tarawera. One can also witness further silica build ups and silica terraces that give you a taste of what the Pink and White Terraces may have been like before 1886. Of these silica terraces, Warbrick Terrace is the best example.
On arrival at Lake Rotomahana, the journey takes you onto the water of Lake Rotomahana, where you get a closer inspection of Mt. Tarawera and learn more of the 1886 eruption and formation of the lake. What once was 2 small lakes, lined with the Pink and White Terraces, has now become 20 times larger and 40 metres deeper resulting in the loss of the famous terraces.
While Waimangu Volcanic Valley draws scientists from all over the world, it offers just as much fascination to anyone visiting the area with an interest in the rich geothermal around Rotorua. It gives the opportunity to get away from the crowds of other geothermal parks and explore the intriguing environment at your own pace.
Allow 2.5 hrs if only doing the walk and a further 1 hr for the boat trip. The trails are of an easy nature and a bus service is available to take you back up to the visitors centre.