Discovering Wai-O-Tapu, Rotorua

When photographers Shauna and Gareth left Canada for a year of travel in NZ, they realized the best way to travel is to stay open to being sidetracked.

Gareth and I left behind a rainy Taupo and pointed our Mazda Bongo campervan toward Rotorua and the YHA hostel there. We were looking forward to seeing what all the hype was about – the weird smells, the steam rising from random places around town and the whole volcano-like atmosphere.

As we drove north along highway 5 we started seeing large signs for Wai-O-Tapu. Wai-O-Tapu? Neither of us knew what it was. I pulled out our trusty Lonely Planet. The review sounded promising. Our motto for the trip, ‘nothing but time’, made it easy to unexpectedly sidetrack.

We pulled into the park at 9:50am. We were in luck! Wai-O-Tapu’s resident geyser was scheduled to erupt at 10:15am. Travellers and tourists were already gathering around Lady Knox Geyser. Gareth and I wondered how an eruption could be scheduled. The guide explained: years before, the inmates of a nearby (and now non-operational) jail had been bathing in the waters around the undiscovered geyser. When one of them dropped a bar of soap in the water, Lady Knox erupted!

Today, a soap-like substance is added every morning, erupting the geyser into the sky.

Once Lady Knox had finished her show, Gareth and I headed into the geothermal park. When we bought our tickets, we’d been given a map with information about the natural attractions. Names such as the Devil’s Ink Pot, the Artist’s Palette and the Champagne Pools gave us an idea of what we would encounter.

Or so we thought. As soon as we started, our jaws dropped − Wai-O-Tapu was unlike anything we had ever seen before. The rocks and the water were vibrant; the mud thick, goop-like and bubbling. Steam billowed from the ground while sulphur smells overpowered our senses. We lost ourselves there for hours, taking in the mud pools (the sounds they made were fantastic), the craters and the orange, green and yellow rocks. And the Devil’s Bath! The colour of the electric lime green pool was shocking. It was all an absolute thrill to the senses. We were enthralled.

When we finally hopped back into the van and pointed her back toward Rotorua, Gareth and I couldn’t stop talking about what we had seen, heard and smelled.

Our visit to Wai-O-Tapu was, and remains, a testament to spur-ofthe-moment decisions to sidetrack while travelling. It’s the best way to be surprised.

Learn more about Wai-O-Tapu here.

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