With steam, geysers, mud pools and silica terraces seemingly on display at every turn, visitors to Rotorua are well aware they are in New Zealand’s geothermal heartland. Travelling south from Rotorua on SH5 the activity disappears and reappears at various thermal ‘hot spots’. Nearing the turn off to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, drifts of steam – which at times become billowing clouds covering the highway - indicate that this area is rich in geothermal activity.
These signals are reinforced approaching Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, 6km along Waikite Valley Road, where columns of steam drift upwards from the Te Manaroa Spring. Discharging a massive 1800 litres of pure 98°Celsius water per minute into the Otamakokore Stream, this spectacular spring is New Zealand’s largest source of boiling water and the basis of thermal bathing pleasure for thousands upon thousands of visitors over the past four decades the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools have been operating.
The history of the thermal bathing in the Waikite Valley goes back to early Maori occupation. The local Ngati Kahu Upoko and Tuhourangi sub-tribes were the first to value the curative properties of these and other geothermal waters in the surrounding areas, and named them Paparata – earth doctor.
Famous Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter is one of the first Europeans known to have visited the Waikite Valley thermal area. Appointed geologist to a three-year, around-the-world scientific mission under the Austrian flag, von Hochstetter arrived in Auckland aboard the sailing frigate Novara in December 1858. The Novara Expedition’s presence in New Zealand was due to Cape Colony Governor George Grey (also New Zealand governor 1845-53 and 1861-68) who, on meeting the frigate's commodore in Cape Town, encouraged him to visit New Zealand to allow scientific examination of the North Island’s volcanic regions.
Apparently this feast of volcanic possibilities intrigued von Hochstetter and it wasn’t difficult for the provincial government of Auckland to persuade him to remain behind (to carry out extended geological surveys on their behalf) when the Novara left Auckland in January 1859. The resultant sojourns in the North and South Islands earned him the title of father of New Zealand geology but he was also a botanist, zoologist and ethnologist. Venturing as far as south as the Central Plateau’s three volcanoes during his North Island survey, von Hochstetter recorded all he saw as they travelled by foot, horseback and canoe in the volcanic zone. The party’s travels took them to the thermal ‘hot spots’ of Rotorua, Tarawera, Rotomahana, Orakei Korako and Waikite Valley where von Hochstetter noted “vast quantities of crystal-clear boiling water” at the Te Manaroa Spring.
Dr. Hochstetter's descriptions of his travels in the North Island’s volcanic zone in his book Neu-Seeland, published in 1863, are of special interest as they provide an excellent basis for comparison with present conditions in what is popularly known as Geyserland. Another book, The Natural Wonders of New Zealand and Maori Land, published in 1870 predicted that “one of these days (Waikite Valley) will be selected by some members of the lost tribes as a central sanatorium for restoring the health and reinvigorating jaded mortals from all parts of the world.”
The speculation by that long-ago author hasn’t yet unfolded as predicted, however some forward-thinking Waikite Valley locals did band together in 1972 to build a single thermal pool using voluntary labour. Forty years later their vision continues to be enhanced by long-term leaseholders Mark and Lisa Bowie who have developed a further nine pools (including four private spas) utilising the 100% pure natural calcite-laden waters to “reinvigorate jaded mortals.”
Mark also did some bush bashing to uncover the Te Manaroa Spring and restore it to public view in 2004. Working alongside the Department of Conservation and Environment Waikto, he formed a fenced track with comprehensive interpretation panels, and opened an Eco-Trail walk to bathers and campers. It’s interesting to note that a Rotorua Museum supplied photograph featuring on one of the panel’s shows a view of Te Manaroa Spring taken in 1897 and is a clear reminder that some aspects of the Waikite Valley thermal area have changed little in more that a century.