New Zealand: Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu geothermal parks

This is the seventh of a series of posts detailing mine and my sister’s trip to New Zealand’s North Island. View all the posts so far here.

We spent our last day in Rotorua touring the two geothermal parks we hadn’t yet seen: the moonscapes, multicoloured lakes and bubbling mud of Wai-O-Tapu; and the geysers, steaming rivers and tropical forest of Waimangu.

Unfortunately, without a car, our only way of seeing the parks was in the minivan of a very grumpy man called Thomas. His ‘thermal shuttle’ picked us up from our motel at 8am and drove us and a few other people to ‘Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

An alien world

When we arrived at Wai-O-Tapu, Thomas bought our tickets and told us we had just enough time to walk the park’s shortest route (marked red on the map) before we had to leave to see the eruption of Lady Knox geyser. We all split off into our groups to explore the park independently.


Even on the shortest trail, the landscape was spectacularly weird and otherworldly. The trail begins through a moon-like landscape of white-grey rock plateaus and steaming crevices, then continues through a forest dyed orange by the geothermal gases. The air was thick with the now-familiar stench of sulphur.

The stand-out moment at Wai-O-Tapu is when you first glimpse the large lake at the park’s centre, with its inexplicable patches of white, yellow, red and green water.


A wooden boardwalk takes you across the lake’s shallowest section, and the other side holds further wonders. The most attention-grabbing is the ‘Champagne Pool’ – the boiling pool bordered with bright orange rock that fronts all the park’s promotional material. This is followed by further plateaus and holes of chalky rock, interspersed with steaming caves and oddly coloured pools.


The final landmark you pass is a lime green lake, which is so bright that it appears almost neon. It put me in mind of the ‘gunge’ that would be poured over people’s heads in the kid’s television programmes of my youth!


Lady Knox Geyser

Having returned to the minibus, we were driven next to the famous Lady Knox geyser. Its eruption was a strangely theatrical affair, with a wide curve of stepped seats all around it and a presenter who told the crowd about the geyser before pouring something into its spout to induce it. For me, seeing the all-natural eruption of Pohotu geyser at Te Puia was a much better spectacle and experience.


Mud, glorious mud

Our next stop was a giant, steaming pool of mud, where the many bubbles constantly growing and bursting ranged from tiny to massive. Tama and I couldn’t resist competing to capture the best photo of a bubble bursting, and I’m pleased to say that I think I nailed it!


The rest of Wai-o-tapu

After the mud pools we returned to Wai-O-Tapu to walk the longer trails that we’d skipped the first time around. The sights along these routes were less spectacular, but were surreal on a larger scale: it seemed we were roaming an endless landscape of milky turquoise water and weirdly shaped, multicoloured rock.

Once we’d seen everything, we quickly bought lunch to go and piled back into the minibus. The small group of Chinese women on the tour were late returning, and Thomas was more keen to leave without them than have anyone go look for them. When they appeared a few minutes later and were slow to get back in, Thomas teased them by pretending to drive away. Thankfully they did eventually get back in, but no thanks to our driver!!



At Waimangu it was only us and another girl who got off, and once again Thomas bought our tickets before leaving us to explore the park independently. Waimangu is the world’s youngest geothermal system, and the only one whose birth can be pinpointed to an exact time and event. It was created by the Tarawera volcanic eruption of 10 June 1886, and as a result is unique among New Zealand’s geothermal parks. Unlike Wai-o-tapu or Te Puia, Waimangu is less an alien landscape and more a prehistoric rainforest. I felt like I’d been transported back in time to the Jurassic period.


The level path through the park takes you past epic waterfalls pouring into lakes, bubbling geysers, and steaming rock faces stained a variety of colours, as if spattered with paint. Everything is surrounded by lush green vegetation, and its mainly this that makes Waimangu amazing in a different way to Wai-O-Tapu and other thermal parks.


Boat trip around the lake

We stopped to eat our lunches at a picnic bench in front of a sulphur-yellow volcanic terrace. Because we were short on time, we caught the bus the remainder of the way from stop 2 to stop 3, the jetty at the lake. Here we got on the boat and were taken on a guided sail around the large lake, whose edges are decked with trees, geysers, and furiously steaming rock faces. The weather had become cloudy and drizzly by this point, but it was nevertheless a great experience and a new way to see the landscape.


An affordable indian feast

Thomas drove us back to our accommodation when it was just approaching dinner time. We stopped off at the supermarket first to buy a bottle of rose wine, but the first time we tried we were sent away to get our passports to act as ID! After our successful second attempt, we walked to BYOB Indian restaurant Chimney. We were made to feel welcome as soon as we entered, and the food was really good too. We ordered chicken jalfrezi, chicken balti, peshwari naan, rice and onion bhajis, followed by gulab jamun for dessert, and, thanks in part to buying no drinks, we were amazed at how low the final bill was! This is another restaurant I’d recommend for good-value food in Rotorua.


The next day we left Rotorua on the Intercity bus to Whakatane: a small town on the beautiful, beach-lined East coast.

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All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2018. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “New Zealand: Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu geothermal parks

  1. I like Waimangu best – it looks like a good location to make a dinosaur film! How lovely that you were considered too young to buy alcohol! 😀 Good genes… 😉


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