Geysers and hot springs of New Zealand

During the decade from 1860 to 1870, before Yellowstone was officially discovered, gorgeous and colossal sinter terraces and the world‘s largest acknowledged number of partly very tall geysers made New Zealand the most famous thermal hot spot on earth. Nowadays much is lost, but there is still much to see.

Kereru Geyser at Te Puia
Kereru Geyser at Te Puia

New Zealand is located on the boundary between the Indo-Australian and Pacific Plates, a zone also known as southeasternmost section of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The tectonic activity of the two plates led to the formation of several volcanoes with geothermal fields in their proximity. Nowadays, active volcanism is exclusively focused on the North Island, whereas the four volcanoes of South Island are dormant for several million years. Geothermal features are not so common there (I found evidence for 36 hot springs) and are usually associated with faults and tectonic processes. The North Island, by contrast, is home of twelve active volcanoes out of a total of more than forty, grouped in twelve volcanic centres.
With regard to geothermal fields featuring geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles, the Taupō Volcanic Zone is of primary interest. Before 1886 it hosted around 220 geysers, from small ones to more than 50 m (165 feet) tall giants. Since that time, natural and predominantly human impacts have reduced their number drastically to only a handful of naturally active geysers capable of playing more than 3 m (10 feet) high. None of the giants survived.
The northernmost volcano of the Taupō Volcanic Zone is the submarine Whakatane, while the summit of Whakaari / White Island is the northernmost one above sea level. Both are to be found offshore the Bay of Plenty.

White Island
Crater lake of Whakaari / White Island

Within the Taupō Volcanic Zone, Whakaari / White Island is followed to the south by such famous volcanoes as Rotorua, Okataina, Kapenga, Reporoa, Mangakino, Maroa, Whakamaru, Taupō, and Tongariro. Their names also represent related volcanic centres, which often include further volcanoes. Moreover, the Taupō Volcanic Zone is home of the three most frequently erupting volcanoes of New Zealand: White Island, Mount Ruapehu, and Mount Ngauruhoe. Latter has gained some additional renown as embodiment of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Mount Tongariro
Mount Tongariro's red crater in centre and Mount Ngauruhoe in background

Endemic plants, animals, and even road signs keep reminding you that these volcanoes are part of an extraordinary country.

Mount Ngauruhoe and Kiwi
Mount Ngauruhoe and Kiwi

In his book Tarawera and the Terraces, Philip Andrews cites one of the foundation legends of the Māori concerning Mount Ngauruhoe and geothermal features of the Taupō Volcanic Zone: "When Ngatoroirangi [ancestor of Arawa tribes and archpriest of Arawa canoe] huddled freezing on the heights of Ngauruhoe, he called to his sisters [Kuiwai and Haungaroa] to bring him fire from Hawaiiki [the mystic home of gods and humans]. They dutifully sent agents [the undergruond dwelling two Taniwhas, the Earth Spirit and the Water Spirit] via Whakaari (White Island), Tarawera, Rotorua and Orakeikorako, scattering warmth as they came. Thus were born geysers, hot springs and other features of the thermal district."
Already the German-Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who conducted the first scientific geothermal investigations in the Taupō Volanic Zone in 1859, learned from his guides Māori words for different types of hydrothermal features. He explained in his report New Zealand, its physical geography, geology and natural history from 1867 that the term "Puia" is used for geysers but also for volcanoes, "Ngāwhā" designates a quiet hot spring or a fumarole, and "Waiariki" stands for a warm spring suited for bathing.

Taupō, namesake of the volcanic zone and hidden underneath of Lake Taupō, is a caldera volcano. Volcanologists have identified it as super volcano, since they could prove that it has produced two of the world’s most violent eruptions in geologically recent times, around 26,500 and 1,840 years ago. With a view to its historical eruption frequency there is some concern about new and potentially catastrophic activity.

Lake Taupō
Lake Taupō, in background Tongariro Volcanic Centre with Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro

In the south, Taupō Volcanic Zone concludes with the highest volcano of New Zealand, Ruapehu, one of several exceptionally pictorial but also quite active members of this group.

Mount Ruapehu
Mount Ruapehu

In order to visit New Zealands most famous geysers and hot springs you just have to follow the elongated Taupō Volcanic Zone. For the central part of the route you can travel on State Highway 5, which does not only connect Rotorua with Taupō but also provides as Thermal Explorer Highway an appropriate motto for your journey. So let's go!

Thermal Explorer Highway
State Highway 5, the Thermal Explorer Highway

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