Unimpressed at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Are you familiar with the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell? If so (if not, shame on you!) you’ll be familiar with the following lyrics:

They took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum.
Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see them

This was the line playing on repeat around my head for our visit to the Wai-O-Tapu “thermal wonderland“.

It had all started very well. Our arrival into Rotura – the geothermal region in New Zealand’s North Island – had taken us across dramatic wide volcanic plains. I half expected to see an elf gallop past on horseback. We’d had a great visit to Huka Falls – an impressive thundering gorge – and enjoyed swimming in the natural warm springs that fed into the calm river a half hour walk upstream.

Huka Falls
Huka Falls

Rotura is a great place to meander if you have a car and keep your eyes peeled for road signs to thermal pools. Hot springs and bubbling mud pools that explode with a satisfying “gloop” noise appear all over.

The only thing you couldn’t see for free was a geyser, so at 8:30 the next morning we were waiting at the entrance to Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, proud home to a resident geyser. The entrance fee to the park was $65 – roughly £15 each. I don’t mean to imply they are taking the piss with this price point (I totally do) but our local Chester Zoo charges a similar entry fee and I can’t quite imagine naturally occurring hot springs require a level of care akin to an ENTIRE ZOO, but I am prepared to be corrected on this.

Anyway. Back to the wonderland.

The circuit of the park takes roughly an hour and a half to complete. To my surprise, given the entry fee, the (admittedly well-maintained) path was not made of gold or inlaid with diamonds but wooden boards. If you are knowledgable, or unusually enthusiastic, about geothermal pools this will be one of the most magical ninety minutes of your life as you meander amongst the numerous foul smelling pools.
The pools vary slightly in size, shape and colour – the different minerals and chemicals present such as sulphur and arsenic affect the colours in the rock and water – and seeing a fluorescent yellow one was quite cool.

Thermal pool - the yellow is due to high sulpher levels
Thermal pool – the yellow is due to high sulpher levels

After our 90 minute walk, we were ready to meet the geyser. I was quite excited about this. We went to Iceland earlier this year and visited their geysers on a tour of the Golden Circle, which are uncrowded, unspoilt and really impressive. They (unprompted) shoot boiling water far up into the air every 20 minutes or so as tourists ooh and aah from behind the loose fencing. I had loved it.

We were told to be at the geyser for a bit before 10am ready for it to go off at 10:15. This seemed rather precise to me, but I guess if one can go off once every 20 minutes one can go off daily, right? Ha.

What actually happened was we arrived, and found some seats on the crowded benches surrounding the little geyser, which looked rather like a white anthill.
At just after 10:15, a park guide came and gave a brief talk on the history of the geyser before pouring a large bag of natural soap crystals into the geyser to set it off. The equivalent of poking it with a stick to annoy it, I suppose.

After five minutes or so, it began shooting steamy water up into the air, as aggravated geysers are wont to do.

Going, going...
Going, going…

A second or so later, it felt like everyone stood as close as they could to get their perfect photo – to hell with anyone else sitting behind them.
Aaaand... no more geyser for you
Aaaand… no more geyser for you

We had just paid $65 to crowd round and watch someone empty a bag of soap into a hole, and then to watch a load of Japanese tourists stand in front of us to take photos of it. There is something deeply anticlimactic about watching something as impressive as a geyser forced to work as a show pony. I couldn’t have been less impressed if someone had pressed a button to set it off.

Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland have paved paradise, put up a parking lot (and a very expensive gift shop, come to that) and charged the people a lot of dollars-and-a-half to see a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Somewhere far away, the entire Icelandic nation is laughing its head off.

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