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.

Auckland again

16 October 2019

For the second day in a row the weather blows a hole in our plans; once again we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Although it’s stopped raining and the sun is out, today’s boat trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi island is cancelled due to strong winds.  It’s a particular disappointment for us as we’re keen birdwatchers, and the island is a bird reserve where we’d hoped to see some of New Zealand’s rarest native birds.

Our only hope for rescuing the day is a re-run of yesterday’s Plan B, so we head back to Hop-On-Hop-Off bus with the intention of hopping off at some different stops this time.   Our first destinations are the Church of St Mary, and Holy Trinity Cathedral which sits immediately next to it.

St Mary’s dates from the late nineteenth century. It’s a fine timber building, which also boasts a lectern made by the famous Yorkshire Mouseman furniture-maker, whose trademark is a small mouse carved on to every piece he makes.

St Mary’s started out as a parish church, albeit a somewhat grand one.  The first Bishop of Auckland was looking for somewhere to build his cathedral, and managed to acquire land opposite St Mary’s.  But due to shortage of funds it took nearly a century to complete the cathedral, and in the meantime St Mary’s acted as a stand-in.

From the outside Holy Trinity Cathedral looks modern and – to my eyes – rather uninviting, but inside it’s a bit of a stunner.  Interestingly it combines two starkly contrasting styles. The nave and the chancel are a massive stone affair, an attempt at replicating a grand English cathedral.  This, however, is where the project went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, and when work began again decades later ideas – as well as the budget – were very different. 

The main body of the cathedral is a thoroughly modern, cavernous, sweeping space, uninterrupted by pillars.  And the stained glass is to die for.

When the cathedral opened for business, St Mary’s began to fall into disrepair.  Fortunately this was recognised to be a mistake, and it was agreed to restore it.  But not before the church was relocated to stand immediately next to its feisty younger sister, the upstart cathedral.

So, the good burghers of Auckland jacked up St Mary’s until it was high enough to slip rollers underneath, and then towed it inch by painstaking inch across the road until it sat beneath the shadow of the cathedral.  Strange but true.


Although we lucked out on visiting the island bird reserve today, Auckland is not without its ornithological attractions.  We spot a variety of birds during the course of our day in the city, and although most are familiar to us as birds introduced to New Zealand from Britain, we are pleased to come across a couple of native species. 

One of them is the Tui, an attractive bird which is about the size of a magpie and looks as if it’s wearing an iridescent blue suit and a white bow tie.  However, it’s very skittish, forever hopping between branches and refusing to pose for photographs. In the circumstances Mrs P does well to get a shot of it, especially without her long lens.


Auckland is built on around 53 volcanoes.  None of them is still active, but they have been the major players in shaping the land upon which the city has grown up.  One of the most striking is Mount Eden, which is unmistakably a volcano when viewed from the rim into the remnants of the crater.  Close by is the Eden Park rugby union ground, where the All Blacks regularly strut their stuff.


The Auckland Wintergardens is another unexpected Auckland bonus.  It comprises a pair of large, period glasshouses set at either end of a sunken courtyard.  The flower displays within the glasshouses are good and help brighten up the day, but in a city that apparently lacks many structures of real architectural merit it’s the buildings themselves that are the biggest attraction.  Full of character and clearly throwbacks to another era, they are definitely worth a visit.


Once again the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus has shown us that there’s more to Auckland than meets the eye at first glance.  They say that it’s an ill wind that blows no good, so clearly the gales that prevented us visiting Tiri Tiri Matangi island today were not such an ill wind after all.