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Exploring volcanic & geothermic New Zealand

Here are the best ways to see and experience New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland.
By · March 11, 2024
Exploring volcanic & geothermic New Zealand

New Zealand might be considered a relatively young country, but our small South Pacific islands have been shaped by volcanic and geothermal activity for thousands of years.

More than just beautiful lakes and majestic mountains, Aotearoa also has dormant volcanoes and geothermal activity, contributing to boiling mud pools and natural hot springs that are well worth exploring while you are here. Here are the best ways to see and experience New Zealand’s geothermal wonderland.

Where is New Zealand’s geothermal activity found?

Aotearoa is made up of two main islands - the North and South Islands- and most of the geothermal activity is present on the North Island.

New Zealand is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a stretch of the Pacific Ocean of about 40,000km. The country has nine active volcanoes, five of which are found on the North Island and four which are on islands off the mainland.

  • New Zealand has experienced 13 significant volcanic eruptions over the last 1800 years. Four of New Zealand’s volcanoes have erupted in recent memory, including White Island in 1914, Ruapehu in 1953 and Whakaari in 2019.

The Taupo Volcanic Zone, located in the central North Island, is the most active volcanic region in the country. The area is known for numerous volcanic cones and peaks, natural hot springs and beautifully coloured crater lakes. These natural features often seem otherworldly and quite different from the lush rainforests and rolling farmlands in other parts of the country.

  • Significant volcanoes include Mount Ruapehu, an active stratovolcano with the highest peak on the North Island, and Mount Taranaki, which is known for its almost symmetrical cone shape.
  • Tongariro National Park is home to multiple volcanoes, including Ngauruhoe, famous for its turquoise-coloured crater lake accessible by day walk.

Major Eruptions: The Pink and White Terraces

The Pink and White Terraces were natural wonders located near Lake Rotomahana that were often referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," for their beauty. These terraces were silica-rich formations that looked like shallow stairs.

The pools of water that sat atop each terrace were created by geothermally heated water emerging from the ground. The pink and white colours of the terraces would reflect the sunlight and add to their beauty.

The Pink and White Terraces were destroyed in one of New Zealand’s largest ever eruptions. Mount Tarawera erupted on June 10, 1886 and is considered one of the most significant volcanic events in New Zealand's recorded history. As the eruption occurred without much warning, it had devastating consequences for the surrounding landscape and local settlements.

Mount Tarawera, located near Rotorua, exploded during the eruption, sending volcanic ash, rocks, and debris into the air. The eruption also led to the draining of Lake Rotomahana and buried the Pink and White Terraces under debris and sediment, altering the landscape forever.

While you can no longer visit the Pink and White Terraces, their image has been preserved in several paintings from the late 1800s. Charles Blomfield captured the Terraces in his oil paintings from 1882, which Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand now own.

New Zealand’s largest-ever eruption

Despite the eruption of 1886 destroying the famed Pink and White Terraces, which by this time, had become a tourist attraction in their own right, a far bigger eruption occurred in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.

Around 26,500 years ago the Oruanui eruption released immense volumes of ash and lava into the atmosphere, so much so that it is classified as a super eruption. The impact of this eruption is still visible in the landscape of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The aftermath of this explosion created Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake which is visible from space.

Where to experience volcanic and geothermal activities in the North Island

While exploring New Zealand, you’ll find many areas shaped by volcanic activity.

Auckland:

Auckland is situated on an active volcanic field, and it is known for having several volcanic cones within the city. While these volcanic structures are dormant, they are a notable part of Auckland's landscape. Some well-known volcanic cones in Auckland include:

  • Mount Eden (Maungawhau): This is the highest natural point in Auckland and a popular spot for panoramic views of the city. It's an extinct volcanic cone with a large crater.
  • One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie): Another volcanic cone with historical and cultural significance, it offers great views of Auckland. The "one tree" that gave the hill its name was removed, but the area remains an important landmark.
  • Mount Victoria (Takarunga): Located on Auckland's North Shore, Mount Victoria is an extinct volcanic cone that provides excellent views of the harbour and city.
  • Rangitoto Island: Rangitoto is a volcanic island located in the Hauraki Gulf, just off the coast of Auckland. It's the youngest and largest volcanic cone in the Auckland volcanic field.
  • Mount Roskill (Puketapapa): This volcanic cone is located in the southwestern part of Auckland and is now a park with recreational facilities.

Rotorua:

Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a region with significant geothermal activity and a popular tourist destination due to its wonderful spas and preservation of these natural features..

  • Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland: This geothermal park near Rotorua features colourful hot springs, bubbling mud pools, and the famous Champagne Pool.
  • Polynesian Spa: Immerse yourself in the healing powers of the warm and natural waters of the thermal springs at the Polynesian Spa.
  • Te Puia: Te Puia is home to the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts regularly, and the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, an immersive experience where you can learn about Maori culture and their connection to the land.
  • The Buried Village of Te Wairoa: The buried village is a tourist destination showcasing stories that shaped the area after the 1886 Tarawera volcanic eruption. Learn about the Pink and White Terraces, visit Te Wairoa falls walk along streams and trails and learn about how the eruption shaped the natural area.

Taupo:

  • Orakei Korako Geothermal Park: Known as "The Hidden Valley," this park boasts silica terraces, geysers, and hot springs. A boat trip across Lake Ohakuri takes you to the park. Orakei Korako features stunning geothermal waters, famed for their rich colours.
  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing: This trek passes by active volcanic features, including the famous Red Crater and gain glimpses of Mt Ngaurahoe, the setting of the Lord of the Ring’s Mount Doom.
  • Craters of the Moon: This geothermal walk is located north of Taupo and features mud craters and gem-coloured thermal waters that are well worth exploring.

Where to experience geothermal activity in the South Island

While the majority of New Zealand's significant geothermal activity is located in the North Island thanks to the Taupo Volcanic Zone, there are some areas of geothermal activity in the South Island. The most well-known and easily accessible is Hanmer Springs, a geothermal water spa located just north of Christchurch in Canterbury.

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