Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Some say the world will end in fire..."

I wonder if Robert Frost saw the irony in beginning a poem with the above words, considering the connotations of his last name (likely. He was an ironic kind of guy).

Last night my parents were treated to one of the joys of hostel living: the incessant music from the bar on the ground floor filling the room until all hours of the morning, playing such appealing tunes (to their ears) as Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Duck Sauce’s “Barbra Streisand”, and Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me”. I just smiled and popped in my earplugs, which evidently also enabled me to sleep through the drunken swearing brawl on the street at 3am.

After a brief look around the beautiful Napier Cathedral we were once again on the road, this time heading Northeast to Rotorua, the smelly geothermal capital of New Zealand. The highway was littered with sealcoating operations, so we were constantly stopping and starting, surrounded more often than not by tree plantations of pine and Douglas fir (planted in their straight rows, marching up and down the mountainsides; it unnerves me). We made it to Lake Taupo (and the town of the same name) around noon, and stopped for lunch at the side of the largest freshwater lake (by area) in New Zealand, where we ended up feeding a feral cat morsels of cheese from our sandwiches.

As we drove highway #5 up toward Rotorua, my mother became increasingly agitated about how we just “drive all day and then never see anything”, causing my dad to pull off the road while she consulted the Lonely Planet and tried to figure out what activities we could do for the later afternoon and evening. We ended up driving down the road to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the only hydrothermal system in the world where the exact date of its commencement is known: June 10th, 1886, with the eruption of Tarawera Volcano.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is a Scenic Reserve and its geothermal features are classified as Category A (of international significance); as such, it is administered by the Department of Conservation. However, part of the reserve is leased by the Crown to a New Zealand-owned private company that charges a fee for admission to the site, but in return provides a café, gift shop, boat tours on Lake Rotomahana, and a shuttle service from the end of the walking track back to the main parking lot. We opted to do the 4.4km walk through the valley without the boat tour, as my mum had booked she and my dad into a Maori cultural experience dinner and show in Rotorua that evening starting at 6:30pm, and we needed to be on the road by 5:30pm.

The eruption on June 10th, 1886, radically altered the landscape: what was once rolling, scrub-covered hills with no evident hydrothermal activity became overnight a series of craters, and completely destroyed all plant and animal life in the surrounding area. Before the eruption, the area was the most famous tourist destination in New Zealand due to the Pink and White Terraces, silica deposits on the shores of Lake Rotomahana, formed by geothermal heated water (high in siliceous sinter) flowing down the hillside, leaving pink and white silica deposits behind in a terrace shape, and thermal pools that people came to bathe in. The eruption of Mount Tarawera destroyed the terraces, burying everything under hot mud, boulders, and ash. Tragically, the volcano aslo buried the nearby Maori and English settlement of Te Wairoa, killing over 120 people.

The eruption created a huge crater, which eventually filled in with water, creating a new Lake Rotomahana, considerably larger and deeper than its predecessor. Today, the lake is a peaceful bird sanctuary, and we observed black swans, little shags, and New Zealand scaups all happily swimming around its banks. Amazingly, it turns out the terraces may not be completely destroyed as was previously thought: scientists working in January this year discovered the lower tiers of the Pink Terraces intact at the bottom of the lake, at a depth of 60m!

Having experienced some of New Zealand’s geothermal activity before when I was traveling on the Stray Bus I was well-acquainted with the sulphur smell permeating the air, but I still find it a surreal experience to see hot water bubbling out of pools, and steam rising directly from the sides of a cliff. As we walked down the pathway beside Frying Pan Lake we could hear the mud burbling away; the CO2 and H2S gases bubbling up give the lake the appearance that it is boiling, and also give it an acidic pH of 3.5. In fact, parts of the lake underwater are boiling, but the average temperature of the lake is around 55°C, due to cooling from evaporation, convection, and radiation of heat. Frying Pan Lake itself was the site of an eruption in 1917, which sent steam and debris surging up the hill and destroyed the accommodation house.

Another famous feature of the valley was the Waimangu Geyser, which although only active from 1900-1904, was the world’s largest geyser, hurling black sand, mud, and rocks 400m into the air every 36 hours. Now the basin has been mostly filled in with native bush, and the only sign of the geyser’s presence is a white cross erected on the lowest part of the crater rim, marking where three tourists (who had been warned where they were was unsafe) were swept to their deaths on August 30th, 1903, when Waimangu erupted unexpectedly.

creekside). Also fascinating to see was the colourful algae that could survive and grow in such hot water, creating blooms of dark green, orange, and yellow. The most surreal feature for me, however, was Inferno Crater Lake, which lies in an 1886 crater blown in the side of Mt Haszard. The lake has a complicated rhythmic rise/fall cycle, where the water level rises to around 30m, overflows into Frying Pan Lake (at a temperature of 80°C!), and then recedes to a minimum of about 8m. The lake has a very low pH of 2.1, and is the largest geyser-like feature in the world, even though the geyser cannot be seen (as it’s at the bottom of the lake). What I found surreal was the beautifully intense sky-blue colour of the water, seen under ideal conditions a few days after its overflow has stopped (we were lucky and caught it at just the right time). The colour is caused by the fine silica particles in suspension in the water. It was quite difficult for my glacier-trained brain to accept that this bright blue water was not freezing cold, but nearly boiling hot!

By the time we got down to Lake Rotomahana at the end of the 4.4km walk and took in the giant red crater (Tarawera Chasm) in the side of the volcano on the opposite side of the lake, it was time to catch the last shuttle bus of the day back up to the gift shop and café. I was more than ready to go, as my sore throat/cold/stomachache/headache-suffering body was ready for respite from the intense sunshine we had been walking in for the past two and a half hours.

The drive into Rotorua took only twenty minutes or so, and about half an hour after checking into our motel my parents took off on the shuttle bus to go to their Maori cultural experience (a traditional meal and concert, hosted at the somewhat less-than-traditional location of the Holiday Inn). I think my mum was happy in the end, however; she got to see geothermal activity, and she got to see something of the Maori, culture, all in one day. I was left to fend for myself, which was just fine, as there was a Countdown across the street, and food in our chilly bin that needed to be eaten up.

Now it is 10:30pm, and I promised myself that I would be in bed by now, so I must be off. We still aren’t sure what we’re doing tomorrow; my mom wants to go to Matamata and see Hobbiton, but my dad is angling for heading of to Maunganui and to the beach. We shall see! Goodnight.


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