I’m standing on the café terrace at Waimangu Volcanic Valley looking over a steaming, seething, geothermal landscape under the menacing bulk of Mt Tarawera and might well be on an alien planet.
Remarkably, before that fateful day of June 10, 1886 when Tarawera erupted, this entire scene comprised rolling hills softened by a gentle cloak of forest devoid of any surface hydrothermal activity. Waimangu is the newest geothermal system in the world and the only one created within the span of our written history.
Setting out on the downhill track to join a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana is full of surprises and feels a bit like jumping from the frying pan into a fiery furnace. Instinctively I learn that the sheer violence of the valley imposes a strict discipline of keeping to the walking tracks.
The Frying Pan Lake eruption in 1917 created the world’s largest hot spring and sent steam and debris high in the air. I stand stock still, fascinated by the eerie hissing emanating from the many fumaroles pulsating around the margins, as if the earth’s core is trying to burst out of its confines.
The surface appears to be boiling but it’s a clever deception as the temperature is a moderate 55°C. Carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide gas bubbling up from below give a realistic impression of boiling – a symphony of bubbles, gurgles and gushes like a giant kettle permanently on the boil. Surprisingly, the nearby Emerald Pool is quite cold. By contrast, clusters of prostrate Kanuka beside the path are growing happily in soils heated to 33°C. Clearly some natives like it hot.