Within ten minutes the ground rumbles and my breath catches as the mighty Pohutu sends voluminous columns of water higher and higher with thunderous firehose force...

New Zealand's North Island
By Irene Butler

Pohutu Geyser erupts on average twenty times a day… it should not be long now. My husband Rick and I patiently wait before the gigantic rock mound from which intermittent spurts of steam escape through a large central crevice. Mother Nature kindly sends a warning signal in that the smaller-scale Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser spews its scalding water first…and it does just that with a startling whoosh! Within ten minutes the ground rumbles and my breath catches as the mighty Pohutu sends voluminous columns of water higher and higher with thunderous firehose force to heights of 30m (100ft). Mega-gallons of spray glint in the sun, then fall in torrid cascades over the edge of the rocky mound. The jaw-dropping drama goes on for over a quarter hour, before the Pohutu giant is spent….for now.

This famed geyser is in Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve at the southern edge of Rotorua, the hub-town to one of the most active geothermal areas in the world.

We leave the geyser area for the Reserve’s Maori Weaving and Wood Carving Schools for an introduction to the artistic skills of the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. At the evening cultural show of song and dance the Maori women swing poi (balls on strings) with great finesse, and the men’s “haka” warrior dance is a roaring success with its resounding chants, vigorous movements and facial distortions of bulging eyes and protruding tongues.

Early the next morning we aim our rental car towards Rotorua District’s Wai-O-Tapu for the10:15 a.m. eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser. How does this occur at the exact same time daily? Well, at this site nature has a helping hand in Fred, the park ranger, who pours a little bag of organic soap into its funnel-like opening. He explains, “ The soap breaks the surface tension of cold water in the geyser's upper chamber so that it mixes with the hot water below, releasing it to shoot to the surface.” Almost immediately the Lady Knox begins to bubble, froth, erupting to a height of approximately 12m – rather less melodramatic than Pohutu.

But Wai-O-Tapu is not called the “Thermal Wonderland” for naught. It covers 18sq km of collapsed craters from volcanic activity eons ago. Champagne Pool and Artist’s Palette are perfect monikers for the bubbling 100°C pools, steaming fumaroles, and patches of dynamic reds, lime green, zinging yellow and chalk white produced by different mineral elements. Spectacular!

Leaving Wai-O-Tapu, a small wooden sign reads “mud pool”, which is more like a lake than a pool. Under a baking sun the surface is like a simmering caldron of bubbling milk chocolate worthy of a scene from Willy Wonka’s factory.

The next day’s two-hour scenic drive is through the Waitomo District of verdant valleys, fields of corn, grazing sheep and cattle. It boggles my mind knowing that underneath these hills are 300 known limestone caves. The abundance of limestone, which is composed of compressed marine life, is due to the area once being under the sea. We arrive at the Waitomo Visitor’s Centre to see some of the caves open to the public.

Before entering the Glowworm Cave, Hardie, our guide, gives us a 101 lesson on the lifecycle of the glowworm (arachnocampaluminosa). The female lays about 120 eggs, which hatch into larvae. The larvae build nests and put down sticky lines to trap insects for food, emitting a visible light from their tail to attract their prey (this bioluminescence is a reaction between chemicals given off by the worm and oxygen in the air); the hungriest glow the brightest. After 9 months in this pupae stage of glowing and growing, they morph into adults whose only function is mating and egg laying for survival of the species.

Climbing into a boat with Hardie and twenty other enthusiasts, we silently drift into the dark hollows of the cave, our eyes glued to the mesmerizing milky way of a million miniscule lights on the cavernous roof. These magical creatures were long known to the Maori people, but the caves were not extensively explored until 1887 when Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace mapped them out, after which Tinorau and his wife began guided tours through the caves. In 1904 the caves were taken over by the government, until in 1990 the land and caves were returned to the descendents of the original owners.

Ruakuri Cave is next; its cavernous entrance is likened to an enormous space station. We follow Angus, our guide, down a spiral ramp dotted with amber lights akin to alien orbs taking us15-metres below ground. A vast subterranean world spreads before us with delicate limestone formations in hues of pale pinks and soft gold; stalactites hang en mass from ceilings, stalagmites rise like sentinels from the cave floor, some meeting in the middle to form columns.

With only the railing to guide us we shuffle into a pitch-black section and stand transfixed by an intimate encounter with glowworms; their soft illuminating light is a metre above our heads, and their threads of “fishing line” along a side wall are mere inches away! On the subterranean river below our walkway people swirl by on tubes, as part of the Legendary Black Water Rafting Tour.

Further along we enter a chamber that amplifies the river’s turbulence. Lord of the Rings aficionados, hold onto your hats! “Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and actor Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum) were here,” says Angus, who further relates technicians from “The Hobbit” recorded soundscapes for the movie’s underground scenes: such as Gollum’s chamber and under the mountain with Smaug the dragon. Listening to the eerie, echoing dash of water against rocks, I feel there could be no better background sound than this resounding overture in Mother Nature’s symphony.

Near the end of the 1.6 km walk (out of 7.5 km in this cave system) a naturally formed stone corridor takes us back to the spiral walkway to climb out of the depths and into the halogen sun, hyped by our combined Sci-fi and Indiana Jones experience.

Warmed by the hospitality of the people and “wowed” by its array of natural marvels, we leave New Zealand’s north island, wishing our stay could be longer.


Photo credits: Rick Butler

1 Pohutu Geyser
2 Haka
3 Glowworm Cave
4 Crater Lake at Wai-O-Tapu
5 Entrance Ruakuri Cave
6 Limestone formations
7 Limestone veils
8.Glowworm Cave photo – courtesy of Waitomo Visitors Centre

For More Information:

Rotorua Town & District


Waitomo Caves & Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.