Lake Tarawera: NZ at its purest

By Alex Robertson

Hot springs at Lake Tarawera are a reminder of the area's volcanic history, writes Alex Robertson.

Kids enjoying the hot waters at Te Rata Bay. Photo / Alex Robertson
Kids enjoying the hot waters at Te Rata Bay. Photo / Alex Robertson

Today marks an important date for the Rotorua region: it's the 125th anniversary of the Tarawera eruption that, over a period of five hours, buried more than 100 people, several villages and the "eighth wonder of the world" - the Pink and White Terraces.

The terraces brought people from all over the world who travelled by sailing ship, coach and, finally, by row boat from Kotukutuku Bay on the western shores of Lake Tarawera to view the beautiful travertine deposits and bathe in the therapeutic hot springs that dotted the area.

All that remains of the terraces is to be found under metres of water at the bottom of Lake Rotomahana. But the many natural hot springs still to be found are one of the major attractions of Rotorua today.

Accessing Rotorua's thermal waters can be as easy as paying an entrance fee and lapping up nature's warmth under soft lighting and shelter from the elements. For the more adventurous there's the opportunity to leap - with much faith - into steaming lakes in the surrounding hills, although caution is recommended.

For the romantics who like to mix a little history and adventure in their restorative therapy, the boat ride across Lake Tarawera to Hot Water Beach at Te Rata Bay is a must.

If you have a boat, then negotiating the drive to the lake will be the most of your effort. There are many ramps accessed easily by road and plenty of parking for your car and trailer.

For the rest of us, the water taxi from the Landing Jetty is a convenient and affordable option.

The taxi is owned and operated by David Walmsley (who also runs the luxury Pounamu Lodge with his wife, Karen, which is situated on the hillside looking over the lake toward Mt Tarawera). His skilful handling of the 14-seater, all-weather boat is matched by his knowledge of the area as he delivers a short history and cultural lesson during the 20-minute journey, pointing out many sites of interest including the memorial at Moura Pt to the many lives lost during that fateful eruption.

Te Rata Bay, the first stop on the thermal springs tour, is a beautiful white sandy beach nestled under verdant bush in the shadow of the great mountain. You might find a few campers on the shore to welcome you: there's a Department of Conservation campsite just above the beach with basic facilities that, reportedly, get busy in summer. But as the beach is only accessible by boat, numbers are limited.

The anniversary will be marked with the opening of the first stage of the Tarawera Trail - a walking track that will eventually run around the lake perimeter, from the buried village to Te Rata Bay.

The lake temperature varies between 17-21C, depending on depth and time of year.

At the northern end of Te Rata Bay, a boiling-hot spring runs down from a small cliff across the beach and raises the immediate water to about 30C.

A small rock pool traps some of the warmer water, which is best accessed from the lake side to prevent burning, and hot water can be felt percolating up through the sand as you dig your feet in.

The day we visited was a day after rain and the lake sparkled blue at the foot of the red-topped, green-skirted mountain. To our left, a mist hovered just above the lake, clinging to the white cliff-face, where another thermal spring shot into the cold water.

David told us that it was possible to cook in the stream that bubbles out of the rock face, and we wished we'd brought eggs to boil - just for the novelty - instead of our sandwiches.

We were herded back on to the boat after a reasonable time but a couple of days spent camping, tramping and resting in the bath-pool could easily be in order.

Our guide sped the boat around a bluff and slowed so that a gentle ripple peeled from the hull across the mirror-like lake.

We nudged gently into a tree-fringed bay that didn't expose its beach until the last moment. A rock spire about 5m high sat below a sheer cliff to our left, that offered a thrilling opportunity for the death-defying among us to leap into the crystal-clear lake water.

David led us on a 30-second bush walk to a hidden pool bounded by reeds, ferns and trees. A dappled sun glinted on the surface and the gravelly bottom could be seen through the metre of water as a light mist of steam hung in the air.

Within seconds we were in the warm embrace of nature as we wallowed under her green canopy. This was a great spot to sip a glass of wine, David informed us, how we wished he'd told us when we'd booked the trip!

This is New Zealand at its purest and David, his whanau and local iwi make regular visits as guardians to clean up after other not-so-careful visitors.

CHECKLIST

Further information: See nzhotpools.co.nz or doc.govt.nz and search "Hot Water Beach".

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 21 Sep 2014 18:24:50 Processing Time: 8089ms