Rolling Hills to 22 Volcanic Craters Overnight: Waimangu Volcanic Valley

23 03 2013

Mt Tarawera, at the end of Lake Rotomahana, split on both sides during its 1886 eruption.

Rotorua New Zealand was our next base camp. Rotorua sits on top of the country’s largest thermal system. Right inside the city of Rotorua, there are active geysers! And for hundreds of square kilometers around Rotorua, there are towns with mineral springs, mud pots, geysers, cracked mountains like Waimangu Volcanic Valley – it’s very evident that Planet Earth’s violent, and sometimes beautiful, geologic forces shaped, and are shaping the very area under your feet!

We were really interested in experiencing some active geology first hand. We’d heard Waimangu Volcanic Valley was pretty interesting. We drove out there. Not knowing much about it, I was not prepared for what I was about to witness!

A spring along the hike

A spring along the hike

We arrived at the park entrance, and picked up the guide pamphlet. It is a self-guided hike assisted at certain points by a shuttle. Reading the introduction, my jaw practically hit the ground.

This is a 17-kilometer-long valley. It contains the world’s largest hot spring, and once contained the Waimangu Geyser, the world’s tallest, reaching 1,500 feet! That’s taller than the Empire State Building. In fact, the entire valley was created in ONE DAY!

Steaming hot mineral deposits

Steaming hot mineral deposits

That’s right. If you can imagine. This was not fiction written from a novelist’s pen. It actually happened. This valley was someone’s ranch, just rolling scrubland hills. Then without warning, on the evening of June 10, 1886, Mount Tarawera, at the end of the valley, split open and erupted. Immediately following no less than 22 volcanic craters along the 17-kilometer valley were born. Plus a gigantic thermal geyser and hot spring area formed. It was the first time in recorded history mankind witnessed the birth of a geyser field!

The Tarawera volcano and craters of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley’s 1886 event are the sites of the largest eruption in New Zealand’s recorded history.

At the time, in 1886, the valley was devastated just like Mount St. Helens. What was once a lush forest with vibrant wildlife was laid to waste, nothing was spared. Atomic bomb shock waves flattened everything and ensuing pyroclastic flows atomized what was left. It was not long before the world learned of the fantastic event and tourists flocked to see the spectacle.


Until 1904, there was a building for viewing the geyser, and then another eruption destroyed it and soon after the geyser ceased. As with Mount St. Helens, life began to retake the moonscape, and within a few decades, the valley regained its lush look. Except for the fact that there remained a few geysers, a huge lake, steaming rivers, hot springs, and hills that seem to smoke!


This geyser reached 1,500 feet!

Today visitors can hike the valley all the way to the end, where they can take a boat to see more amazing geologic features on the lake formed by the eruption. From that end point, a shuttle moves you back to the start.



You can make out craters, still smoking, in the forest

All along the way, there are more than two dozen amazing sights to witness!

The river flowing through the valley is filled with hot springs along its path. So, as you walk along and witness its flow, you’ll see how mineral deposits shape everything.

There are beautiful bird songs from bell birds and tuis. In the lake, I can count 91 black swans milling about. It becomes hot. Sometimes, you can smell sulphur from the steaming vents.

If you are seeking some hiking, exercise and really want an in depth up front experience of what earth can do, this valley will not disappoint!

New Zealand: Hiking to Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park

17 03 2013

WitIMG_0254h the meteorologists blowing the forecasts day after day, I decide to forgo hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, fearing repeated pestilence! Tongariro National Park area forecasts were for it to improve after midday, and I simply was not going to take a risk of getting stuck out there. But Elwin took his chances, suited up and boarded the early morning shuttle to the trailhead. His path would take him directly across Mordor along the base of Mount Doom, known outside Lord of Rings fiction as Mt. Ngaurahoe.

Angelique and I would instead hike a trail stretching Whakapapa Village, on Ruapehu, to Mount Doom. This way, we would be able to turn around if squalls materialized. This day dawned exactly as yesterday, with clouds and bright sky all at once. With Elwin gone, we headed to Whakapapa Village and began our hike.

The trail wound across red tussock fields and down into tree lined creek beds. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the breeze, for now, was light. Optimistically I wore shorts, and a baseball cap, and wore a soft shell. I had a ski hat in my pack, but no serious rain gear.

Rain threatened right from the start and I could see it was snowing higher up on Ruapehu. It was predicted to gradually get better during the day. But I just didn’t trust. Angelique was very positive and encouraging. That was good, but she didn’t have gear to withstand an alpine squall should it come, and foolishly neither did I. I had the gear at the Rainbow Motel, I just didn’t bring enough today. I kept thinking how it was summer – forcing the issue!

IMG_0257There were a few people out hiking. Including a USA geology student group of perhaps 20. Here, as elsewhere, the trail is incredibly maintained and developed. It’s been somehow graveled and sometimes has long stretches of wooden platforms.

While we can see Mt. Ruapehu, and we know where Ngauruhoe should be, it stays cloaked in clouds. There is snow on the higher slopes from yesterday’s storms. Blue sky comes and goes.

Every so often the wind would pick up and I’d get pelted with rain drops, and fear some drenching downpour might come. But then, it’d pass by and we could see down into the valleys for miles. When the wind did build sometimes I got very chilled.

As I was still nursing plantar fasciitis my pace was inhibited and it wasn’t long before Angelique pulled far ahead. After 90 minutes I reached the top of a rise and when I got there, I could see all the way to Mount Doom. And, Angelique probably a half mile ahead! I knew with my foot pain I probably shouldn’t keep going. But I worried for her – she wasn’t dressed right, should a real drencher pass through! She was too far for yelling. Then something happened that nailed the point home.


Waiting for Mount Doom…

The wind built, and it started sleeting. My baseball wasn’t enough. The wind blowing on my forehead in between my hat and glasses made my skin feel numb. Shit! I thought. Reluctantly I started back…feeling just wrong. And in disbelief that it’s SUMMER! I was thinking, I might as well be on Mt. Hood, Oregon right now! It was so true. Sleet falling in sheets all around. Mount Doom would not show itself.

Another hiker similarly dressed passes and pauses – he starts putting on the additional leggings he has in his pack. I thought to myself, I am a guide and I KNOW BETTER! I have been in the Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Adirondacks, the Rockies and Cascades. What was I thinking? Baaahhh!

Then the squall passes and it warms up a bit. Maybe I dodged a bullet!

I pause to have some water and a power bar from my pack. It’s really beautiful up here. Then I notice my ski hat! It was in there all this time and would have made a difference. But I forgot about it. Well, I’m wearing it now!

As I sit replenishing my energy, something wonderful happens. It is the first time Mount Ngaurahoe appears in 100% full glory. Wow! It really is a perfect cone.


So beautiful, draped in a fresh blanket of snow. I’m completely taken by the sight!

Then Angelique appears…and wonders what happened? She seems just fine – I just say my foot plus lack of gear made me rethink. But she’d wanted to press on! I felt guilty and maybe unsure. But we started back. It was on the way back I knew I really needed to turn around.

I was still experiencing foot pain, so, sadly this was today’s limit. I don’t understand, as I was able to go six hours in Abel Tasman National Park – yes with some pain, but today was worse. Pretty frustrating.

I was glad, though, to catch a glimpse of that mountain. Wow.

Back at the Rainbow Motel we find Elwin has already returned, and he says it was the best part of the trip so far. Yes, he had to hike through a foot of snow in spots, but it was so incredible to be up close to so many volcanic features. It was a real black Mordor up there, without living things – just a volcanic wasteland. There were amazing blue lakes, but also steaming fumeroles. Just like in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I hope to get his pictures!

Well, our next destination will be Rotorua and the geysers in that area…