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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Gallivanting around the Nth Island (pt 8)- The Hidden Valley

The Hidden Valley.
Well worth a visit. K has wanted to explore the Orakei-Korako geothermal area for years. And now that we were intent on showing the boys some of their heritage, we decided that this was a very necessary part of their New Zealand experience. So we headed off one afternoon to see what we could find.
Along with Yellowstone National Park and Iceland, NZ is one of the places in the world, considered to be a geothermal area.
The Earth has a layer of hot rock (magma) beneath its crust, and geothermal areas exist where magma is closer to the surface of the Earth, than in other areas. Volcanoes are one of the reasons why magma gets pushed closer to the surface of the Earth, and so these hotspots potentially occur in volcanic areas... like parts of NZ. Generally, geothermal activity occurs where there is an abundant source of water meeting up with a source of intense heat (magma). This results in the land spewing forth with bubbling mudpools, spurting geysers, and colourful hot springs.
The approach to The Hidden Valley is beautiful. And you can easily see why it is named thus. Driving through the Orakei-Korako area with its rolling hills, established native forests, plumes of pure white geothermal steam, and miles away from anywhere, you could be forgiven for thinking you were living in a different age. Visions of Jurassic Park were not so far from our minds! No wonder the BBC filmed one of its natural history series on "Walking with Dinosaurs" in this area.

From memory, it had been a scorcher of a day. The café only had a few bottles of water left. Fortunately, the morning heat and our later arrrival time, meant that we mostly had the place to ourselves. Bliss. Our journey began with a little putt putt boat trip across Lake Ohakuri. From there on, we were free to meander our way around the well signposted tracks and boardwalks.
The Lonely Planet Travellers Guide writes . . .
"Orakei Korako is possibly the best thermal area left in New Zealand and one of the finest in the world". They were accurate as far as we were concerned!

The Silica Terraces which form the base of the thermal park are believed to be the largest of its kind left in the world. To me, it felt like standing on a glacier, but with steam all around instead of cold air! Most odd.

Many geothermal features are vividly colourful. The colour is a good indicator of the substances which can be found in the water. Red is a good indicator of iron; yellow, of sulphur; pink and white – calcium. Blue or green indicates that there are thermophiles (heat loving micro-organisms) such as algae, bacteria, and protozoa present.

Although none of the major geysers was accommodating enough to perform for us when we were there, we did see some little ones doing their thing along the way. Geysers are hot springs which periodically erupt, shooting columns of hot water and steam. It is helpful to have signposts and safety barriers giving tourists handy hints on where NOT to stand! Most geysers are unpredictable in nature and timing. Some, like the aptly named "Old Faithful" geyser in Rotorua, erupt at the same time each day. This picture is of a geyser which shot its hot water out horizontally! Tricky.

The ancient Maori people who lived in geothermal areas of NZ used to cook and bathe in the hot springs and pools. Some hot pools contain minerals which are medicinal in nature. And pools will vary in temperature and acidity. I caught myself wondering how (in pre-thermometer days) people would determine which pools were safe for dipping in, and which were more suitable for cooking their food therein…the pools that had temperatures suitable for cooking in, were probably fairly obvious. However, I had interesting pictures in my mind, of people with 'singed bits' from having to test the bath water first…

Don't you love the crystal clear blue of this water (just visible through the steam).. obviously too hot for the bathing option in this instance!

Along with the fumaroles (steam vents) everywhere, there were also the bubbling mudpots.

The boys were not able to fully grasp the concept of 'boiling mud' until they laid eyes on the globular blobs of mud, bubbling up and down. You know, there is something quite relaxing about watching thick, gooey, brown stuff going blobble blobble blobble! Fascinating! Truly. I know you may think that I've popped a neuron, thinking that watching bubbling mud is interesting…but I just loved watching the bubbles (no two the same!) growing until they popped. We set the camera on to take several shots every second or so, and we got a cool set of photos of mud in various stages of 'pop'- prepop, midpop, and postpop!

Ok, ok….so we obviously need to get out more!!! :-)

One of the highlights was the spectacular Ruatapu Cave (sacred hole).
The cave extends about 120ft down, with a brilliant blue hot pool at the bottom.
The thermal pool is known as "Waiwhakaata" ('pool of mirrors'). This pool may look inviting (and once again I was left wondering how one decided whether a pool was safe or not, without having to take the unnecessary risk of losing limbs in the exploratory process) but it is in fact not a good swimming hole!
Fortunately, the tourist signs told us all the necessary information, that in fact, the water in this pool was acidic! We were invited to clean our jewellery in the waters, but I could foresee myself donating some expensive jewellery in a moment of unexpected inattention…

Whilst we were in the cave, we heard the ominous crack of thunder. Pretty amazing sound to hear at the bottom of a cave. It was a 'moving' experience! Just as well, since we were the very last people left in the park. It was still a good way back to the jetty and the rain clouds looked very ominous. We prayed that the rain would hold off and that we'd find our way back to the jetty without getting lost! Our prayers were answered and the first large droplet of rain hit us as we were getting into our car in the carpark!
It had certainly been a trip to remember.

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