Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

21 October 2019

Another day, another geothermal area. We’ve left the coast and headed inland, back south towards Rotorua. We pass close to Waimangu where, a couple of days ago, we visited New Zealand’s newest geothermal area, a mere toddler at just over 130 years old.

Today, however, we’re at Wai-O-Tapu, which is at the other end of the age spectrum having been around for some 160,000 years. The management has lapsed into hyperbole, describing this place as a “thermal wonderland,” but I guess I can see where they’re coming from.

Wai-O-Tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in this part of New Zealand. It’s a a fascinating mixture of collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud, water of various colours, and steaming fumaroles.

In many ways Wai-O-Tapu reminds us of parts of Yellowstone National Park in the USA, where the geothermal features are simply awesome.

Yellowstone is just about our favourite place in the world, so reminding us of it is a mark of just how good we think it is.

Of course Yellowstone is famous for its wildlife, and we’re pleased to spot some here at Wai-O-Tapu too. There are no bison or wolves, of course, but here in New Zealand small is beautiful so we are fascinated to watch a pair of Pied Stilts hanging out in one of the pools.

Before we leave the self-proclaimed and profoundly immodest Thermal Wonderland, we call in at the café for a well-deserved mocha. While we savour the sweet nectar, outside the window a Silvereye puts on a show for us. This bird is an Aussie invader that colonised New Zealand in the 1850s, at a time when traffic between the two British colonies was growing steadily. It’s now one of the most abundant and widespread bird species in New Zealand.

We first encountered Silvereyes in Tasmania a few years ago, and though we hadn’t expected to see them here it’s good to make their acquaintance again: they are very handsome birds. Click here for my YouTube video of his antics.


We are making our way inland to spend the night on the shores of Lake Taupo, and on the way we call in at the Huka Falls. As we already know from bitter experience, New Zealand has a lot of rain. As the mountains are high and all that water has to make its way to the sea somehow, lots of waterfalls are inevitable; Huka is just one of many we plan to visit during the course of our stay here.

But before we catch a glimpse of the falls we are distracted by a gang of tui causing mayhem in the car park. They are all going crazy in a Kowhai tree ablaze with bright yellow blossom, presumably robbing the flowers of nectar while chattering noisily with their fellows. Tui are real characters, and are fast becoming our favourite bird of the holiday. Click here for my YouTube video of their antics.

At last we tear ourselves away from the tui and have a look at the Falls. We’re expecting something spectacular, given the hard sell of the local tourist industry:

You’ll hear the Huka Falls well before you see them – it’s the sound of nearly a quarter of a million litres of water per second erupting from a natural gorge and thundering 11m into the Waikato River below. This incredible spectacle is the most-visited natural attraction in New Zealand – it’s hard to tear your gaze away from the endless, mesmerising torrent.

Source: Love Taupo website, retrieved 23 October 2019.

As always I treat the outpourings of marketing men with a healthy degree of scepticism, but on this occasion they’ve got it just right. Huka Falls are truly spectacular, and definitely worth a visit. But don’t, whatever you do, get too close and fall in while you’re taking a selfie: if you do your life expectancy will be just a matter of seconds.