Sulphur city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am

Rotorua is the eye in New Zealand's volcanic storm. Bathed in sulphuric smells and steam, the town is at the heart of one of the world's most active volcanic zones.

To its west are the three volcanoes of Tongariro National Park and to its east is the boiling crater of White Island.

The region's geothermal pulse is so near to the surface that at St Faith's Church, in the narrow-laned village of Ohinemutu, the dead are buried in concrete coffins and in one camping area you can pitch your tent on sites warmed by thermal activity. Yet the city has remained untouched by volcanic fury for more than a century, blessed by both nature and tourist interest.

Rotorua is one of New Zealand's top attractions - only Auckland and Christchurch receive more foreign tourists. Here, you can cruise on paddle steamers, watch Maori concerts, ride a luge and try mad-cap activities such as white-water sledging and zorbing (rolling down hills in a large plastic ball).

But what draws the majority of visitors are the geothermal reserves and four of these are in easy reach of the town. Most visitors content themselves with one or two sites, but how do you choose? This guide should help.

Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland Thirty kilometres to the south is Rotorua's most vivid brush with volcanism, bearing names such as Artist's Palette and Rainbow Crater.

The most colourful, and something of an emblem for Rotorua, is Champagne Pool. This small lake, which fizzes with carbon dioxide, is rimmed by an orange, sponge-like crust. Visually, it's spectacular. Chemically, it contains arsenic and antimony sulphur compounds.

Nearby Artist's Palette is a counterpoint to Champagne Pool, with its glistening surface as yellow as yolk and punctured with explosion holes. As impressive, if less colourful, are the Primrose Terraces, formed by the silica overflow of Champagne Pool and resembling a scale model of a glacier. With the destruction of the nearby Pink and White Terraces in Rotorua's last big volcanic eruption, in 1886, the Primrose Terraces are the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Arguably the most popular attraction at Wai-o-Tapu is the Lady Knox Geyser. It blows faithfully at 10.15am every day, tickled into action by soap flakes. If you choose to skip this gimmickry, you're almost guaranteed an hour virtually alone among Wai-o-Tapu's less contrived features.

Whakarewarewa - The Thermal Village At the edge of Rotorua, Whakarewarewa is responsible for much of the dawn steam that blankets the town. The area initially looks little more than bushland with the same thermal activity you can see around Rotorua's lake and parks for free. But two things set it apart: culture and geysers.

This is the place for those who like their geothermal activity combined with ethnic customs. A part of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, it provides insights into the indigenous people's traditions in the form of a marae (gathering place), a war canoe, arts and crafts, cultural performances and hangi (an earth oven) meals. The natural pools of boiling water are still sometimes used for cooking.

Whakarewarewa is home to New Zealand's last remaining geyser field (Lady Knox Geyser is essentially dormant without the addition of the soap flakes), though only five of its 50 geysers are active; as Rotorua has tapped into their thermal energy, so the geysers have been quelled.

The Prince of Wales Feathers geyser spouts like a burst water pipe most of the day while its more impressive neighbour, Pohutu, blows 10 to 25 times a day, up to heights of 25 metres.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley This is the only geothermal area in the world that can be precisely dated - it was born on June 10, 1886. That night, on the opposite shore of Lake Rotomahana, Mount Tarawera erupted, cutting a 17km gash through its own summit, killing about 120 people and creating seven craters.

The valley is geared for walking, with a trail passing each crater and finishing at Lake Rotomahana, from where shuttle buses return visitors uphill to the entrance. Hot mists blow over lakes and silica spills create tiny and colourful thermal deserts; all set within a frame of lush, ferny rainforest.

In 1917, thermal activity created one of the valley's major features, Frying Pan Lake, which erupted in 1973, spraying hot mud up to 100 metres.

Hell's Gate You know you've reached Hell's Gate, 16km north of Rotorua, when it appears the pine forest is on fire. Rotorua's most active geothermal area, it has the largest hot waterfall in the southern hemisphere, Kakahi Falls. Visually, however, Kakahi is little more than a medium-sized waterfall emitting steam and gone are the days when you could shower in its warm spray.

Hell's Gate also has a spitting mud volcano, but mostly what you see here are boiling pools of water and mud in a lunar-like landscape. Its primary lure is the Wai Ora Spa, New Zealand's only mud-bath complex. If seeing so much of Rotorua's boiling mud makes you keen to climb into it, this is your spot. Featuring three baths, you can wallow in the mud's curative properties then brave the smell of the sulphurous bath that overlooks the thermal reserve.

Getting there: Air New Zealand ( flies from Hong Kong to Auckland, from where Rotorua is about three hours by road. Entry to both Whakarewarewa ( and Hell's Gate ( is NZ$25 (HK$155), to Wai-o-Tapu (, NZ$23, and to Waimangu Volcanic Valley (, NZ$25.