The stunningly weird Ōrakei Kōrako geothermal valley. © muha04 

Ōrakei Kōrako: thermal wonderland


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There are still reminders scattered about the Taupō district of the subterranean forces that produced its mighty, first-century eruption and subsequent lake.

There are several hot-spots around the lake itself, where hot water surprises the wader in the ice-cold lake. The hillside above the little Māori village of Waihī steams and fumes, and the bathing pools at both Tokaanu and Taupō township’s Royal Armed Constabulary Baths are hydrothermally heated.

Indeed, the main attraction for visitors to Lake Taupō as late as the 1920s was the thermal resort at Wairākei, reached by a long, bum-numbing ride over awful roads slung on the primitive suspension of the early cars.

Just 25 minutes north of Taupō on State Highway 1, if the wind’s in the right direction and you’ve got the windows down, you’ll catch a whiff of sulphur shortly before you see the turnoff to yet another geothermal site, Ōrakei Kōrako. It’s tempting just to keep on driving, but if you do, you’ll have missed out on the best geothermal park in New Zealand – one that’s perversely better known to overseas visitors than it is to kiwis.

From the park’s entrance, where there is a café and an observation area, you take a ferry across Lake Ōhakuri to where the geothermal action is.

The landscape is fabulously coloured, stained by all the minerals deposited by the water bubbling up from the depths of the earth.

The Māori name means something along the lines of ‘painted place’ and it’s easy to see why.

Unlike most of our other thermal areas, Ōrakei Kōrako has never been mined, extensively developed or otherwise exploited, so it’s as close to its pristine state as you could ask. For this reason, and because it’s like a little slice of the Jurassic Age in the here and now, it was filmed by the BBC as a backdrop for their television series, Walking with Dinosaurs.

There are more active geysers here (35) than in any other geothermal field in New Zealand, along with a champion array of entertainingly obscene mud pools, fizzing hot springs, and furiously snorting fumaroles.

There’s also one of the largest silica terraces left in the world, after the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces in 1886, and a short bush walk leads to Ruatapu cave, where you can descend into the warm earth and reflect on (and in) the mirror-calm surface of an underwater pool.

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