Wai O Tapu, the excursion and my opinion
While this travel blog focuses mainly on French Polynesia, as it has been place of residence for three years now, at the time of writing. I recently had the opportunity, in October 2018, to discover New Zealand. Many dreams about it, and we all have in mind the splendid landscapes of the Lord of the Rings: volcanoes, glaciers, mountains, high altitude lakes, heavenly beaches, etc.
During my rides around the North Island, I discovered one of the splendid hydrothermal zones of the country: the site of Wai O Tapu (also sometimes written Waiotapu). This article will allow you to discover this spectacular site that is worth the detour if you are traveling in the country. At the end of the article, I give you my opinion on the visit and all the necessary information to plan the visit during your stay in New Zealand. Enjoy a nice walk.
Wai O Tapu: a thermal reserve on the North Island
I am sorry, but as a geographer and geologist by profession, I have to give you a brief overview of the site. The site of Wai o Tapu is actually a geothermal site that started to become active around 15,000 years ago. The site is allegedly the result of major volcanic eruptions some 150,000 years ago. The current site of Wai o Tapu is located at the edge of the ‘Taupo Volcanic Zone’. It is a huge crack about 250 km long that starts in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand and extends to the Bay of Plenty. The volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu are among the witnesses of this volcanic activity. White Island is located at the end of this crack, directly in the Bay of Plenty.
I must say that I went there with a certain a priori before this visit. We had met many tourists that had told us that the area is a big tourist attraction. It is indeed one of the biggest tourist sites of the North Island.
This is why we chose to leave the place where we were staying very early to arrive before the hordes of tourists. This way we were sure to have all the chances of not being swarmed by people. When we arrived, the size of the car park and the security system itself suggests the impressive number of tourists that must pass through. As soon as the site opened, we set off as quickly as possible, with our map of the unmissable spots in hand.
Wai O Ta Pu : map of the park and trails
For information, the Wai O Tapu site is divided into 3 main trails. The smallest one is about 1.5km (1.5 miles) for 30 minutes walk, the second one is 2km (40′) and the last one is about 3Km (1.5 miles) for a 1 hours and 30 minute walk with what looks like a lunar landscape. There are benches to rest, view spots and some wooden bridges. It is well maintained and overall it is a very easy walk. For those with a baby, there is no trouble per se.
Map of Wai O Tapu Park
The site has three distinct parts: the Wai O Tapu area, the Geyser Lady Knox site and the well-known Mud Pool at the exit of the largest part. Having read and heard a lot on the subject, we decided not to go and see the Geyser site, which is nothing but a tourist attraction in my opinion. Many people are fooled and end up very disappointed to having gone through the trouble to go there. Why would you be so disappointed? Simply for the good and simple reason that the geyser is not in permanent activity so the park rangers pour a soap-based product so to make the water gush out of the geyser… Super great for the authenticity of the site…no thanks for us!
For those who have experience with geothermal activity zones (Iceland, Yellowstone, etc.), you can recognize them as soon as you set foot on the site: the smell of sulphur, of rotten eggs, colours that go from grey to beige, through all the shades of orange, red and yellow imaginable.
Our first steps bring us right up to the start to the site of “Devil’s Home”, an example of a collapsed crater. One can imagine how unstable the ground is. The yellow and grey colors remind us of how strong the presence of sulphur vapor is. One might say that’s one way of being introduced to it.
The path continues along grey and orange colored areas with many fumaroles. Then comes the opportunity to come face to face with the site of “Devil’s Ink Pots”. This is a series of mud pools. I had already seen some in Iceland and in other places, but it is always nice to see. A nice brown color with great bubbles!
The walk continues with the superb site “Artist’s Palette”. The area, located only a short distance from the renowned “Champagne Pool”, offers a crazy view of a colorful area. You easily understand why the site got such a name having all the colors of a rainbow or almost. As soon as you start going down and following the path, you can already see the jewel of the site with its brilliant red colors.
It is nice, you can cross this colorful site thanks to a small wooden footbridge. You will eventually see the huge boiling natural swimming pool (Champagne Pool), it is the highlight of the park’s attraction. It is the largest in the park: 65m in diameter, 62m deep with the water at a temperature of 75°C. It almost makes you want to go for a swim but the water is a bit hot for a dip. The name of the site comes from the CO2 emanations travelling up to the surface of the pool as you can see in a champagne glass!
The site is really beautiful, the most beautiful in the park in my opinion. The only problem with taking pictures is that you have to be able to shoot when the wind changes direction and isn’t sending smoke in your direction. I managed to take some nice pictures anyway, I’m happy.
The most beautiful part of Wai O Tapu Park, the Champagne Pool
The rest of the trail promises some interesting discoveries as well, including some small grey lakes along the way. The end of the path brings us to a beautiful green lake, Lake Ngakoro, into which a small waterfall flows. Even if we arrived early, more than an hour and a half after the opening, it’s packed with tourists and they’re all rushing to take a selfies in front of the lake…the scenery is superb but the atmosphere isn’t with all the crowd.
On the way back, we go back up along the terraces (Primrose Terrace) from where the crazy colors and the silica deposits can be seen…
Once getting back to the visitor center, after 2 hours in the park, at around 10 am, there is already a huge crowd. I cannot even imagine in the middle of the season how big the crowd must be. At the exit of the park, we make a quick stop at the Mud Pool; these large pools of boiling mud are always surprising. The same as inside Wai O Tapu, but much bigger!
Wai O Tapu: my opinion on the place?
Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think it all depends if you’ve ever seen this kind of geothermal site. If you’ve had the opportunity to see some in Iceland, in Yellowstone (which I saw afterwards) or in other places, I’m not sure it’s really worth it. I’m not saying that the site is not nice to see, but apart from the Champagne Pool and the green lake at the end, it’s pretty basic.
What spoils it for me, once again, is the amount of crowds in the site. When you start the visit early, it’s still okay, you can find small spots to take pictures. But, in the middle of the visit and at the end, it’s a carnival! I remember, I didn’t even manage to take any pictures at the end when we went to see the lake. Sometimes we would have to stop to let some people pass by. Anyway, it spoils the visit in the end.
If I had to choose, and it’s a site I talk about in another article, I prefer the geothermal site of Orakei Korako. It’s not that far from Wai O Tapu, and if you’re in the area, I would say to choose it. I’ll give it to you that it’s not as big and grandiose, but we were almost alone. Additionally you have to cross a small arm of the river by boat (included in the tour) to get to the site, it was cool…I’ll tell you more about it.
Wai o Tapu : some advice for the visit
Here is all the information you need to prepare your visit to the site. For detailed information, you can take a look at the official Wai O Tapu website.
Prices, admission, booking
Some key points to remember for your visit.
On the price side, in 2018, the rate is $32.5 per person. Expensive or not? Everyone will make up his or her own mind. I would say that it’s still not cheap for a visit that is nice but does not rate top ten in the annals … Note that there are family passes for 2 adults + 2/3 children, which reduces the expenses a little.
Schedules are variable according to the season. The site opens from 8:30 am all year round and closes at 5 pm (less touristic season) and 6 pm (in high season). Be there, as soon as it opens, or even before, 8h o’clock I would suggest (even more for the pictures).
Whether or not you should book, I couldn’t say. It may be that there are so many people in high season, that booking is a good idea.
By the way, if you’re preparing your trip, I wrote this article on the budget for a trip to New Zealand.
How to get to Wai O Tapu
You can just go to the site on your own like a grown-up! The location is about 30 minutes from Rotorua, 1h15 from Matamata (Hobbiton area), or about 35 minutes from Lake Taupo. Many of you will come from Rotorua by car, or camper van. Just follow route 5 in the direction of Taupo. For information, I booked my 3 weeks car rental on this great site. For those who prefer to do a road trip in a van or camper van, the best comparator in my eyes is this one.
If you don’t have a means of transport, there are organized tours that offer excursions from Rotorua, Auckland, and other nearby cities. Note that it is also possible to include other tourist spots in the area to your plans, such as Te Puia, Waimangu Valley or Rainbow Spring Park.
If you are interested in cheap flights to New Zealand, take a look here.
Where to sleep around Wai O Tapu
If you are traveling in the region, the easiest way is to sleep around the city of Rotorua, which is a good access point to plan your activities and walks in the area. You can look through this link, all the good tips to sleep in the area.
For those who are looking for beautiful accommodation in the area, I suggest three recommendations in the surroundings of Wai O Tapu (tested or given by friends) :
The best season to visit Wai O Tapu?
You are wondering why I am talking about seasons? Because when I went there during October, it was not hot at all, especially in the evening/night. It was one of the only evenings, in the center of the island where it went down to 3° (37°F) and we had decided to sleep in a small room instead of camping. Well ok, it was also the same price!
Generally, I would tell you to do the right calculations for your trip to New Zealand, to perhaps avoid the full brunt of winter. You have to know that the climate is reversed in the southern hemisphere and that the coldest months are therefore roughly from June to September. In October, it was spring. You should know that in the middle of August, you could get 0° and less, even on the North Island.
What to do next door?
So what to do in the region? To tell the truth, quite a few things. Fans of activities and walks will be able to have a lot of fun by going to Lake Taupo, the Huka Falls, the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike or the visit of the Waitomo Caves. If you are interested in visiting the area, you can also consider visiting the beautiful filming locations of The Lord of the Rings, the site of Hobbiton. For Hobbit fans, this is a must-see. Not far from here, you can picnic at Kerosene Creek, a hot spring site, a place well known to all the backpackers in the area. Finally, if you have the time, I really recommend going to the Coromandel Peninsula.
I’m coming to the end of this article, I hope you enjoyed the ride anyway. Maybe you’re looking for some ideas of itineraries for your trip to the North Island of New Zealand?
I wish you a nice trip,
I’ll see you soon,