Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting Steamed

Anyone who thinks that landscape is quiet has not been to this part of the world, where it goes pop pop fizz fizz, hiss hiss, gurgle gurgle, and occasionally even KABOOM!

We are of course in the thermal center of the North Island, stretching from Mt. Ruapehu on a NNW course across Lake Taupo, Rotorua, and all the way up to White Island, an active volcano where boaters are warned not to get too close lest they get asphyxiated by noxious fumes.

Ruapehu looked quiet enough to us when we spent a week hiking around it, but it has had more volcanic "events" than we've had birthdays in the -- well, we don't need to be too specific here, but it's a big number -- years since we were born. In 1995 there was a lahar, a giant mudslide caused by the sudden draining of a lake in the crater, that took out a bunch of ski lifts, fortunately late at night while the skiers weren't on them.
It ruined the ski season but otherwise didn't do much harm, but there are Lahar Evacuation Route signs all over the place down there, and you can see why the folks in Ohakune, the nearest city to the mountain, might have a love/fear relationship with it.

Lake Taupo is a different story. There was no lake here until one otherwise quiet day in 186 AD when the ground exploded, creating a lake that is almost circular and about 15 miles in diameter.
What used to be where the lake is now was hurled into the atmosphere with such force that it darkened the skies as far north as China and as far east as Europe -- which is how they can date it. It is estimated to have been the largest explosion on Planet Earth in the past 5000 years! Among other things, it created vast fields of pumice, rock so light it floats in water, as we showed in the last blog. 1822 years later and it still erodes from the land into streams all around, and floats down to the sea.

It would be nice to think that Taupo did its thing and is quiet, but it isn't. No one expects another big bang exactly, but there's thermal activity all around. We spent a night on the south shore of Lake Taupo in Tokaanu and walked over to
the "thermal park" in town. Stray off the path and you could get into hot water -- up to 200 degrees F hot, in fact! The park had the usual thermal park accoutrement --
clear bluish hot springs, bubbling and plopping mud pools, steaming lakes.

The next day we went to the town of Taupo on the northeast side of the lake, and visited the Wairakei Geothermal Power Plant. It featured miles of steam pipes running across the land, bringing geothermal steam to a power generating plant that supplies enough electricity to service a small city.

Back in town we hiked down to the Waikato River, where folks climb in next to a thermal stream. We touched the water coming out of the small stream here, and it was too hot to keep your finger in for more than a second or two, but by standing out into the otherwise cool larger river, swimmers get a free hot tub experience in the wild.

The Waikato drains Lake Taupo and thus the north-facing slopes of Mts. Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, and is NZ's largest river by volume. It was relatively placid in this spot a mile from the lake, but a few miles downstream
is Huka Falls, more of a rapids with a waterfall tagged onto the end, but with an intimidating aura of power tinging the atmosphere.
Further downstream are 8 dams that harness most of the remainder of the Waikato's energy, and in the process supply 15% of all the electricity consumed in NZ.
The first of these struck a compromise with those upset at the loss of another interesting set of rapids.
Three times a day, four in summer, they release water from the dam for half an hour.
We got there just before the release and watched the river shift gears, which actually took almost 15 minutes to reach overdrive.
But when it got up to full speed, the power of the river was quite intense.

Next on the thermal agenda was Waimangu, a valley that was much like any other valley until June 10, 1886.
At about 3:30 am that morning, all hell broke loose on nearby Mt. Tarawera and southward for about 10 miles, including Waimangu. When the smoke cleared, there was a new thermal wonderland here, but one that has been rearranged from time to time since then by other blasts. On April 1, 1917 a small explosion created Frying Pan Lake, seen here in two views.
It's the world's largest hot spring, averaging 6+ feet deep and 9 acres in size. Just don't mistake it as the world's largest hot tub, as the average water temperature is 55C/130F.
Here is a photo from almost the same spot as our shot, taken in mid-1917. What little had regenerated since 1886 was blown to smithereens again, so what the contemporary photos show is all new growth since then.

We walked through this seeming Valley of Death past all sorts of wonderful sights. Here are just a few, including two burping hot springs,

a steaming baby blue lake, something called the Marble Terrace (actually made of silica, not calcium) and the Warbrick Terrace, the last two showing examples of "sinter terraces" formed by hot water (up to 210F hot!) evaporating and leaving behind minerals.

The hike was followed by a boat trip on a lake created by that same 1886 explosion, where we looked over at Mt. Tarawera, then floated by fumaroles (steam vents), a blue hot spring, a gold hot spring, and lots more you'll have to see in a longer slide show some day.

At last we reached Rotorua, the heart of thermal tourism. This is one place where you can cut the cheese with impunity, it's so pungent from all the sulphur about.
In fact, Sulphur Bay is right on the south edge of town, and it's so acidic it sometimes dissolves the webs on birds' feet! You can see the sharp line where the more normal rest of Lake Rotorua meets the water of Sulphur Bay. Needless to say, there are no public swimming beaches on this part of the lake!

But people do hop into the water here, in large numbers. This handsome building was built by the government over a century ago to service the tourist trade, and a walking path nearby featured this shot of folks in The Coffee Pot,
a hot spring where you tied yourself to a tree and a watcher nearby pulled you out if you became unconscious. Close by is Cameron's Laughing Gas Pool, which Louise is examining from afar.
It does indeed emit laughing gas, and bathers reputedly got the giggles there! There are other modern spas nearby to pamper those with ready cash, or you can just check into a motel, almost all of which have either a mineral pool or a thermally heated freshwater one. Our motel had both, and in winter it heats the motel rooms with hot water from its thermal well!

Rotorua is also the center of the logging industry for the North Island, and we hiked -- ok, tramped -- out to the Redwood Center,
where experimental plantings of redwood and other trees were made almost a century ago. As you can see, they're doing quite well, reputedly growing faster here than in their native California! As you can see from using Louise as a measuring stick, however, they still have a ways to go to catch the New Zealand kauri trees.

Lastly, Rotorua is famous as a center of Maori culture, and there are several groups that compete for tourist dollars with hangi and a performance. We opted for one called Te Puia, and it was terrific. Jeff started the evening by giving one of the sculptures a traditional Maori nose touch. Hangi, in case you're wondering, is a traditional way of cooking, illustrated here.
You set a fire under some large rocks, then lift the rocks (using large sticks) into a clean hole, put food wrapped in leaves into the hole with the rocks, and cover the whole thing lightly with dirt. In an hour or two, you've got a nice steamed meal! However, Te Puia skips the burning wood, the rocks, and the dirt, and just steams stuff in leaves in stainless steel devices that no doubt keep the Dept. of Health a bit happier. They also supplement the chicken, pig, potato and sweet potato that were the mainstays of a 17th century hangi with "modern Maori" food, which would pass muster at any upscale restaurant in Auckland, Wellington, or even Seattle.

Before the hangi we visited the marae, or meeting place, where our group was challenged to establish (or so they said . . .) whether we came as friends or foe.
We passed muster, and entered the meeting hall for a performance of Maori music and dance. Alas, dim light limited the photography. But no Maori performance is complete without a haka, which 19th century pakeha called a "war dance." A prominent feature of a haka is the sticking out of the tongue, which roughly translates as "and if you fight us and lose, you'll be dinner tomorrow night."

And they meant it, something that drove those early missionaries just nuts! Anyway, tongue-sticking-out is a common artistic motif in Maori art, and Louise found herself doing the tongue thing the next day when we returned to tour the grounds.

The grounds were, of course, yet another thermal area. This is Rotorua, and Rotorua is thermal! We saw the highlight, the geyser named Pohutu, at night, then again the next day in daylight, first just letting off a little steam, then geysering, something it does roughly twice an hour.

Nearby were more of the usual thermal delights, including some mud pools that young kids must go just crazy about, they make such rude noises and spit mud about, sometimes a foot or two into the air.

We'll close with this sculpture that seemed to bring our Florida adventures earlier this year together with the Maori culture we've been learning about in New Zealand. We're headed north again as we wander back towards Auckland, this time meandering over to the Coromandel Peninsula famed for beaches, rugged hills, and some of the richest gold fields in New Zealand. Talk to you next from there!

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