We decided to drive cross-county from our overnight stop at Mangakino to the area just south of Rotorua where many of New Zealand’s thermal ‘experiences’ are to be found. Our route took us through an area shown on the map as the ‘Hidden Valley Thermal Area’, but whoever was in charge of doing the hiding had done an exceptional job because we saw no signs whatsoever of anything even remotely geothermal until we reached Wai-o-tapu – unless you count the temperature gauge of the campervan as we crawled our way up some pretty steep gravel roads along the way. All very beautiful, but we were pleased to be back on sealed (tarmac) roads if only to end the incessant rattling of our 10 year old VW boneshaker.
Inevitably, most of the more spectacular geo-thermal sites are in private hands and the owners are understandably keen to make a few bucks out of the tens of thousands of slack jawed visitors who flock to gape at geysers and marvel at mud pools.
That said we thought that the ‘Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland’ was pretty good value and it would have been better still if we’d managed to arrive in time for the daily spectacle of the Lady Knox Geyser being induced to do her thing when a member of staff pours soap down her vent (no way to treat a lady!). Nevertheless, the 90 minute walk around vents, craters and a succession of multi-coloured, bubbling pools was excellent and gave us a fascinating insight into the world just below our feet.
We stayed last night at Waihi Beach and started this morning with an hour and a half’s gentle walk up the deserted beach collecting a variety of seashells along the way. Getting back on the road again we stopped for our usual mid-morning coffee and cake at Waihi, which is a pleasant enough spot but seemed pretty unremarkable until we wandered up to look at an unusual and rather ugly monolithic building which sits in the centre of the town.
This turned out to be an ‘historic’ pumping house built at the beginning of the 20th century to keep the local gold mine dry – in fact it was judged to be so iconic that in 2006, when the 1,860 tonne building was threatened by subsidence, the mine owners moved it (in one piece) by 300m at a cost of $4.2 million just to preserve it for the community. All very worthy no doubt, and symptomatic of New Zealand’s yearning for a history of its own, but talk about clutching at historical straws!
Just behind the building, and almost in the heart of the town, is the gold mine itself. Now operated as an open cast mine they reckon that they have to mine 1 tonne of ore-bearing stone to extract 11 grams of gold – that’s a concentration of 11 parts per million. It’s already 190m deep at the centre and when they do finish mining they’ll have to leave it for 20 years before they can let it fill with water (which will take 5 years) and then the town will have its own lake – just what every self-respecting New Zealand community needs.