A thermal soak doesn’t usually come with quick lessons in botany, geology or science but Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, 36km south of Rotorua off the Rotorua-Taupo highway, is different on several levels.
A decade ago long-term lessee Mark Bowie was keen to reveal the source of the thermal bathing waters to visitors to the complex so worked to create an eco-trail to the starting place of New Zealand’s largest single source of natural boiling water, the Te Manaroa Spring, pouring out an astounding 1800 litres a minute of near boiling (98°Celsius, 208° Fahrenheit) mineral water. Working with the Department of Conservation and Environment Bay of Plenty, Mark also discovered the 200m long walk was rich in interesting geological and botanical sights and information.
The fascinating plant life found in and around this unique area includes Christella ferns and club mosses. The geothermal club mosses are an ancient form of plant-life dating back some 360 million years. They represent an evolutionary step up from algae, one of the simplest life-forms on earth. The particular variety of Christella fern growing at Waikite is only found in a few geothermal areas south of Rotorua, yet strangely it is abundant in the rainforests of South America. This seemingly peculiar fact can be explained by the fact that South America, Australia and New Zealand were once part of the same land mass (Gondwanaland) and thus have some plant and animal life in common. When Gondwanaland split apart some 85 million years ago, the Christella fern was one of the few species to survive in two diverse situations.
Another interesting sight is the lily-pad like white formations which are a feature of the hot Otamakokore Stream flowing from the spring. These ‘crusts’ form due to a build up of minerals from the highly concentrated, bicarbonate-laden water including 214 milligrams per litre of sodium, 149 milligrams per litre of silica, 146 milligrams per litre of chloride and 7.7 milligrams per litre of calcium along with 16 other minerals.
According to GNS Science, the Waikite geothermal system contains over 35 springs spanning a distance of 1.5 km. The temperatures of these springs range from 30°C to 99.5°C. While Waikite’s hot springs and soils conditions appear uninhabitable to life, some microscopic organisms collectively known as extremophiles not only survive, but thrive in the thermal conditions. The microorganisms specific to Waikite are high temperature-loving thermophiles, microorganisms are so small it is estimated that approximately one billion microbial cells can inhabit a single gram of soil.
The ‘Living Waters’ complex at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools boasts 10 thermal bathing options. Its wonderful natural resource, Te Manaroa Spring, means the pools are able to be empties, cleaned and refilled on a daily basis. The spa, spring, café and 20-site camp complex is situated 30 minutes south of Rotorua city. The pools are 6km along Waikite Valley Road; turn off at the Wai-O-Tapu Tavern on SH5.