New Zealand trip - volcano!


Active Member
I'm going to post each instalment separately. I think it will work better. I might even go back to the original and tidy it up into separate threads.

I had got up to the night before our trip to Mt Ruapehu. At Wairakei Terraces we were told the legend of the mountain - the first Maori to arrive in New Zealand had to go to the top of the highest mountain to claim the land for his people. But it was so cold up there, he was dying in the snow. Back home, his sisters were sitting by the fire and heard his spirit call to them and they travelled to him, taking fire. As they travelled under the ground they would emerge to see where they were, and at every place they emerged, there are hot springs, boiling mud and geysers today. Finally they found their brother and saved him, warming him with the fire they gave to the mountain.

We had been told of the catastrophic origins of Lake Taupo and the massive volcanic explosion that formed it, throwing hundreds of square kilometres of rock into the sky. Huge boulders the size of large houses were thrown and many still lie today where they fell. The shore of the lake is white pumice, very friable. The land around is metres thick with layers of pumice from several previous eruptions. The volcano that did this now lies under the lake, dormant, and heats various places in the area. Geothermal stations have been built and hot springs are piped into various places, including some resorts.

difficult child 3's science teacher had given him lessons on plate tectonics specifically about New Zealand. I was now horrified to learn, myself, that the plate margin was not off the east coast of New Zealand, as I had thought, but right down the middle - right where we were staying! The line of volcanoes are due to the collision of the pacific plate and the Australasian plate.
We packed a picnic and our warm clothes, setting off for a day's long drive south. For most of the way we drove along the edge of Lake Taupo, round winding highway with crumbling cliffs on one side and spectacular views on the other. The lake is stocked with trout but none is available in the shops - you have to fish for it yourself. And with fishing expeditions costing hundreds of dollars, even BF1, a keen fisherman, passed on it.
We took photos all the way, watching the three snow-covered mountains playing hide and seek among the mist. We weren't quite sure - was it ALL mist, or was some of it coming from the volcano? As we got closer it also got colder, but there were small steam vents always, in various places. By this time we were well in the New Zealand forests and loving it. The rocks are huge and craggy, but wherever the grass grows it's emerald green.
We found the turn-off to Whakepapa snow field, a big ski resort on the side of Mt Ruapehu. Here we saw our first snow, melting in the sun on the side of the road. We were able to drive right up to the end of the road, near the top of the mountain, right to the bottom of the ski lifts. They weren't operating - the ski season wasn't due to start for another few days - but there was enough fresh snow for the kids to have a bit of a play. Most of it was icy, partly melted and re-frozen. The rock beneath is black basalt and we could see the rocks steaming as the snow melted and evaporated. It was surprisingly warm - 6 degrees C - so we had our picnic in the car park (I was STILL eating smoked mussel sandwiches, to get rid of the things!). Then the misty clouds began to coalesce and the temperature dropped. husband wanted to get off the mountain before it began to snow, he didn't want to put snow chains on if he didn't have to.

And we were doing our homework for you all - the Lord of the Rings stuff. (Robby, are you paying attention?) Because just above the car park there, was a large, spiky peak of rock, like a slice had been cut from a mountain and then stuck in on edge - a thin, black, forbidding wedge.

The big photo at the top changes in a slide show, so watch and wait. You can see, in the very orange-looking photo of the next volcano (sunset photo) the vertical wedge of rock in the foreground - this is what I'm talking about. In the daylight it looks black. and here, is where they filmed the gates of Mordor. They CG'd the gates in afterwards.
Ruapehu's crater, in summer, was Mt Doom. The website also has a photo of the crater.

Amazing place.

It took the whole day to do this, but we did take our time and explore so we saw a lot of beautiful country.

The next day was my birthday and I was determined to fill it. easy child & BF1 wanted to go on a jet boat but at $80 each I passed. There was another boat ride I wanted to do, so we organised things so the kids could do their ride while husband, difficult child 3 & I got some school work done. Our Maori friends had told us of the Volcanic Education Centre, so husband dropped me & difficult child 3 there while he drove the others to the jet boat.

Inside the museum was fascinating - a very hands-on place. Here we finally had confirmed what we were beginning to suspect - far from being a quiet backwater and refuge from a lot of vulcanism, Lake Taupo is in fact one of the most volcanically active places in the world. Rotarua, compared to it, is only moderately active. And difficult child 3 was finally discovering this. "I thought so," he said, and glared at me. "All that steam on the edge of the lake."
"But have you felt an earthquake at all, the whole time we've been here?"
He had to admit he had not.
We watched a series of films about various aspects of the vulcanism of the area, including some footage of the lahar flow from Mt Ruapehu, in March this year. This also showed the safety systems they have in place, so nobody was injured.
After the films we explored the rest of the place. There was a box there, you could sit in it and feel what it would be like to endure an earthquake of magnitude 6 on the Richter scale. difficult child 3 has always panicked with these, but he stood and watched as two women tried it out. He was anxious but husband said, "I want to try it out too." difficult child 3 watched again. He said, "I'm too scared," but I could hear his voice.
"You want to try it, though, don't you?" he nodded.
husband showed him where the emergency shut-off switch was and together they sat in the box and pushed the button. difficult child 3 endured it, took it well but was relieved when it stopped. But he had done it! A HUGE first!
The rest of the time there, difficult child 3 spent scrutinising the seismograph. He could switch the trace between any of dozens of stations, including some on Mt Ruapehu where we'd been the day before. As he was watching, difficult child 3 saw the trace for a small earthquake on White Island, in the Bay of Plenty.

We were only there an hour but it had been fascinating. easy child phoned - they had finished their jet boat and it was time to collect them and go to our boat ride.
Compared to the others, our boat ride was sedate. The falls seem small when you look at photos, but the amount of water thundering over is stupendous. The trip back was much faster, as we were pushed by the current.

Boat ride finished, it was almost lunch time but I wanted to keep going. My birthday - my choice. We could have gone to the prawn park, where tropical freshwater prawns are farmed using the geothermal heat to warm their ponds, but it looked touristy and expensive so we went to Craters of the Moon. Definitely not touristy - you pay a small fee and enter the grounds, warned to stay on the paths.
This isn't the Idaho site, of course - this is an unspoiled place, with boardwalks to indicate the path areas in most of the park. The boardwalks are fairly recent, because tourists who wandered could come back badly burned from the hot ground or steam vents.

It was a cold day, with a light drizzle of rain. We were dressed warmly but soon had to shed layers because the ground was so hot in places. Steam vents everywhere. Where a steam vent had been blocked there was often a crater, the result of the explosion caused by trapped steam. The largest craters were huge canyons with bubbling mud pools at the bottom. Sulphur was crystallising out in various places, round small vents as well as large ones. Truly an awesome, alien landscape. By the time we left I was stripped down to a sleeveless shirt and had a pounding headache from the heat.
It was a bit late for lunch but we went to the prawn park - we must have been the last customers for the session. Delicious but expensive. We ate little because we had a big dinner planned.

At 5.30 pm we gathered back at Wairakei Terraces for a surprising evening. We were early, so husband parked right outside, just as a young lad was putting out traffic cones. Inside we explored the small display area then someone came to husband and asked him to move his car. The place was crowded, so there went our good parking spot.
About fifteen minutes later, a large Maori in full ceremonial costume and tattoos, the same bloke who'd asked husband to move the car, ushered us into the auditorium. We got a short lesson in Maori culture as he explained what we should expect. We would be greeted by a haka, a show of strength and defiance. How the leader of our group responded to this would determine what happened from that point. Our guide, "Mr T", tutored us and then chose a leader - husband! He appeared to magically 'know' things about husband, probably from asking questions while he was outside in the car park.
husband is not one for the limelight. He is shy in such situations. Still, he took it in good grace and did a very good job through the evening.
A haka can be scary, especially when delivered by Maori warriors in full dress, in the dark, lit only by burning torches. Mr T introduced us to them all - brothers, cousins, all.
We had to each greet every member of the Maori tribe by rubbing noses - sharing our breath and life force. Confronting, if you're a bit retiring. Then we were led through the grounds (which we'd explored the previous Saturday) and legends explained. I noticed the Maori girls were keeping their bare feet in the warm run-off from the geyser.
Mr T led us through the village - it was a recreation of various activities. The wood carver, the tattoo artist, the girls weaving flax and making their skirts. Finally we arrived at the meeting hall, where the feast was laid out. This is the only hangi in the area, we were told, where fire is used to heat the rocks on which the food is placed in the ground. And you could taste the smoke in the food - roast pork, roast chicken, roast lamb, roast vegetables (especially kumara). A fabulous meal. Because our family were with husband, we got the best table. The Maoris performed some dances and songs for us, right next to our table. At the end husband had to give another small speech thanking them for their performance and their hospitality. Mr T then thanked husband, and THEN announced it was my birthday. Back in the car park with Mr T husband had tried to get me 'dobbed in' for something, but got caught himself!
Then they were off to another performance nearby, with more cousins who had been present at the hangi also.
Very informal, but very welcoming. We stayed on a little longer before being driven back to our car.

The next day, Thursday, husband wanted to get our packing done before we did anything else. I supervised difficult child 3's work some more, then cooked up a vegetable bake with leftovers. We were to leave for South Island next day and I STILL hadn't explored the steam rising from the lake edge, so close to our unit. So after lunch I persuaded husband to drive me there so I could explore it. difficult child 3 & I took our ugg boots off and waded on the lake edge - very cold, until we got closer to the steam. I walked over to it and as my feet sank into the pumice, the heat began to burn. No way could I get closer. If I'd had a piece of raw fish in a plastic bag, I could have buried it a few inches down and cooked it in the heat of the shore.
I had wanted to swim there, warm despite the winter chill in the air. But it was too shallow and too unreliable, so we checked out the thermal baths up the hill. DeBrett's. You pay to go in, but it's like a swimming pool complex, only with thermal mineral spring water.

BF1 stayed behind, but easy child,difficult child 3, husband & I went to the thermal pools for a long soak. The pools are about four feet deep, enough to wade in and stay submerged. The hot spring water flows into the top pool and cascades into lower, slightly cooler pools. It was like a comfortably hot bath, but in the area of a swimming pool. The lower pool also had an area with spa jets, for a luxurious soak. We were told this warms you to your bones and they were right.

The weather was beginning to change, getting even colder. But we couldn't feel the cold as we walked back to get changed.

Next day - Friday - time to leave. We had a plane to catch. A very tiny plane, easy child is not a good flier and prefers to sit on the aisle. But this time, ALL the seats were window seats. We could even see right into the cockpit. A small plane - only nineteen seats. It took us back to Auckland, where we had to wait hours for our plane to Queenstown on the South Island. easy child was congratulating herself on surviving the small plane. Only 24 hours later she was in for a rude shock - turning on the TV news we saw footage of the same small plane crash-landing on a NZ runway - the landing gear had failed to engage. But that was still to come - South Island, and the second half of our holiday, was the next thing. We'd explored a lot of North Island but we discovered that South Island is quite different.

More next time.

The pools sound wonderful! What great pictures you paint with your words. I am living my NZ trip vicariously through you!!!!

Can't wait till your next installment!

Thanks so much Marg! I was enchanted by your narrative. I seriously doubt that I will ever be able to physically make it to New Zealand - but for just a few minutes I was on a mini-vacation in my mind. Can't wait for part II!