Waimangu Volcanic Valley

19 October 2019

We leave Kohutapu Lodge and head west towards Waimangu Volcanic Valley, via a circuitous route that takes us through the huge Kaingaroa Forest.  For Ena this is a magical place and she harbours a romantic notion that one day she will give up the tourist business and become a bushman (forester). But we see it differently. 

Vast swathes of non-native monoculture tree plantations, interrupted only by patches of brutal clear-cut harvesting, does nothing for the visual appeal of this area.  Nor does it bring much employment for the local Maori now that forestry is so mechanised. Worse still, the Maoris having in the distant past sold the land for a pittance, we are told that most of the profits of the enterprise end up in the coffers of a certain US Ivy League University.  Cleary New Zealand, despite being – geographically speaking – in the middle of nowhere, is plainly not immune from some of the negative impacts of globalisation.

Kaingaroa Forest is without doubt the most depressing thing we’ve seen in New Zealand so far, and we’re delighted to leave it behind us and instead explore the geothermal delights of Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

New Zealand lies on – and indeed is a child of – the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates collide. In North Island this has given rise to a landscape in which extinct volcanic cones and other, still active, geothermal features are widespread. In Waimangu Valley, geothermal activity remains a fact of day-to-day life. But it wasn’t always this way.

As we stand at the valley overlook and admire the lush vegetation interspersed with plumes of steam, it’s difficult to believe that prior to 10 June 1886 this area was rolling scrub country with no visible indication of any geothermal activity. Equally difficult to believe is the fact that in the months and years that followed, the Waimangu Valley was a wasteland, the result of a violent eruption on that date which created a line of craters and destroyed all plant, animal and bird life.

We spend several hours working our way along a well-marked trail, admiring a range of spectacular geothermal features that have all developed and matured since that cataclysmic event in June 1886.

During that period native forest has established itself in the wasteland and is flourishing.  To see geothermal features against a backdrop of splendid tree ferns is both a shock and a delight.  

Another delight is that the lower end of the Waimangu Valley is a hotspot for birds, where native species like the Pukeko and the New Zealand Kingfisher, and modern arrivals from overseas such as the [Australian] Black Swan are thriving. Mrs P doesn’t have her long lens with her (the lens is too heavy and the path is too steep), but some of the birds come close enough to be photographed with her “landscapes lens”. I also manage a couple of minutes of decent video: view it here.

We are well acquainted with geothermal landscapes from the USA, Iceland, Costa Rica and Japan, but Waimangu Volcanic Valley has exceeded all our expectations. It’s definitely the highlight of our first few days in New Zealand.