Orakei Korako: Beauty at boiling point

By Jim Eagles

An aerial view of the colours of Orakei Korako thermal area between Rotorua and Taupo. Photo / Jim Eagles
An aerial view of the colours of Orakei Korako thermal area between Rotorua and Taupo. Photo / Jim Eagles

From the air, the Orakei Korako thermal area looked like a giant pallette some monster artist had left lying on the banks of Lake Ohakuri.

Up to then the view from the floatplane flying us up from Taupo had been mainly green - the bright green of farms and the dark green of forests - broken occasionally by the white plumes of steam from geothermal power stations, the massive grey shapes of volcanic rocks and the shining blue snake of the Waikato River.

"Look at that," said pilot Neil Kemp, gesturing at an area of new pasture.

"When I was young I used to shear sheep there. Then they planted it in pine forest. Now it's being converted for dairying. Huh."

Land use might be constantly changing, but the dominant colour was still green ... until suddenly there was a brilliant white semicircle lying beneath us, its surface dotted with patches of bright greens and yellows, faded oranges and reds, shining blues and mauves, all blurred from time to time by swirling steam.

What could it be?

"That," said Neil, "is Orakei Korako, the hidden valley. And there," he pointed to a small boat crossing the lake, "is the ferry."

Over the years I must have driven past the signs for Orakei Korako - on State Highway 1 between Tokoroa and Taupo, and on State Highway 5 between Rotorua and Taupo - a hundred times, and I'd even read Lonely Planet's description of it as "possibly the best thermal area left in New Zealand and one of the finest in the world", but had never actually visited.

You can arrive there by car or jetboat as well as by plane, but there is something special about getting your first glimpse from the air, not to mention the great views of Acacia Bay, Rangatira Point, the Craters of the Moon, Wairakei Geothermal Power Station and Huka Falls along the way.

There's also something special about a place you can only reach by boat. Once upon a time visitors crossed the lake in a romantic but awkward dugout canoe - now on display outside the visitor centre - but these days there's a rather less exciting but much more comfortable diesel-powered boat.

Once upon a time, too, visitors risked life and limb just wandering round the thermal area, but now there's a neat new boardwalk which reduces the risk of standing on a deceptively thin crust of silica and cooking your feet.

The route takes in the sort of endlessly fascinating attractions you get at most thermal areas: seething geysers, bubbling mudpools, boiling fountains and steaming vents.

An unusual feature is a geothermal cave - apparently one of only two in the world - with a reflective pool at the bottom whose water may look serene but turns out to be so acid you can clean jewellery in it.

But what makes Orakei Korako special for me are the spectacular silica terraces which, from the air, had given the impression of an artist's pallette.

The Emerald Terrace, at the bottom, is apparently the largest in the country - a magnificent expanse of white with green algal patterns.

Then there's the Rainbow and Cascade Terrace, formed about 2000 years ago when Lake Taupo had its massive eruption, which has an even more impressive range of colours.

And up the top is a terrace so spectacular they actually call it Artist's Pallette - so my impression was far from original - daubed with brown, green, yellow, orange and pink, plus pools of bright blue.

If I was looking for a new metaphor to describe the scene, I'd go for a woman's dressing table spread with foundation, blush, eyeshadow and lipstick. Silly? Well, Orakei Korako apparently does mean "the place of adorning".

CHECKLIST

Getting there: The Taupo Floatplane runs scenic flights to several places around the Volcanic Plateau including Orakei Korako.

What to do: Visit Orakei Korako.

Where to stay: Try the Beechtree Motel in Rifle Range Rd.

Where to eat: The Plateau, in Tuwharetoa St, in the centre of Taupo, does great food with an imaginative flair. Phone (07) 377 2425.

Further information: See laketauponz.com.

Jim Eagles visited Orakei Korako as a guest of Destination Taupo.

- NZ Herald

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