Today, it's just a hole in the ground framed by blackberry. But in its heyday it was a major tourist attraction and its steam plume could be seen from Hamilton. LAURILEE McMICHAEL tells the story of Taupō's rogue bore.
If you didn't know it was a crater, you might mistake it for one of the many gullies surrounding Taupō. Pine and gum trees grow around it and the edges are tangled in brambles.
But this unremarkable hole in the ground is the site of the rogue bore, otherwise known as Bore 204, a now largely-forgotten geothermal crater which was created unintentionally and spectacularly by drillers exploring the perimeters of the Wairākei Geothermal Steamfield in 1960.
What began as a well-drilling exercise using a drill bit and some casing became an uncontrollable geothermal eruption that went for nearly 15 years, shaking the ground around it, shooting plumes of steam into the air that were sometimes visible from as far away as Hamilton, and creating a tourist attraction throughout the 1960s.
Nowadays, the rogue bore is best-known as the name of a local craft beer brewery. But in its heyday, it was a fascinating reminder of the power of the geothermal resource lying beneath the Taupō district.
Te Ara the online New Zealand encyclopedia recounts how Rotorua-based journalist Ross Annabell dodged a series of locked gates and warning signs to visit the rogue bore, as he described in Hot Water Country (1962):
"Below us was a small steaming lake about 90m wide, set in a sort of crater about 15m deep, with earth walls which shook visibly under the continuous impact of some hammer-like subterranean force… in the crater bottom a furious, steaming, boiling lake of dark grey murky water was in violent motion, stirred by almost continuous steam eruptions.
"The pressures built up every two or three minutes to a furious geyser eruption which hurled a column of dark muddy water nine to 15 metres into the air, with an accompanying column of steam which shot more than 90m above the hilltop … it was horrifying, yet utterly fascinating. We felt like running, yet our legs remained immobilised by mixed fright and curiosity.
"It was far more than a tourist spectacle; it was a feel, a pulsating, horrifying feel that reverberated through the very soles of our feet."
"A terrible year"
In modern Taupō, the rogue bore is largely forgotten. But long-time locals still remember it well, including former head of humanities at Tauhara College, Jan Habib.
As a keen historian and former history teacher Jan has kept photographs, newspaper clippings and scientific reports from the period.
Her father A C L (Lindsay) Fooks was the project engineer on the Wairakei power development project from 1952 until the early 1970s and Jan says the whole family always took a close interest in what was going on at the project. Whenever a new well was opened they would be there.
"We all used to go out and have a look which you wouldn't be allowed to do today," Jan recalls.
"And when they were opening a bore, Dad would say 'it's opening in five or 10 minutes' or whatever. If you weren't ready, you missed out and he waited for no one."
1960, the year of the rogue bore, was "a terrible year for Dad", Jan says.
In March, a different bore, Bore 26, blew out, causing the collapse of a hillside and causing 40 workmen to run for their lives from the mass of advancing debris. Thankfully, nobody was killed or injured and the bore was soon brought under control.
"On Bore 26 the casing cracked and the steam escaped and it went up into the hillside and suddenly built up (causing the hillside to collapse)," Jan says. "Instead of coming up through the casing and coming out through the valves, it was escaping out through the hillside."
The experience at Bore 26 however taught the engineers what could be done to bring an uncontrollable bore to heel.
"They got an American oil well man who was an expert at putting out oil well fires and he directed a drilling procedure where they drilled another drill into that casing and they met exactly where the crack was, about 600 feet below. How they did that with the tools they had in those days, I don't know."
Aside from the crisis, the emergency at Bore 26 also provided those who disapproved of what was then very new geothermal extraction to weigh in with their two cents. Wairakei was only the second geothermal power station in the world at that point and there were many who thought it too risky.
"The criticism was intense. 'Oh, geothermal's no good', etcetera, and yet they fixed it," Jan says. "There was always a bit of pressure. Even though it had been established it was okay and the power station had been opened, there were always people that didn't like it for some reason or another."
Bore 26 might have been bad but worse was to come for Jan's father. His wife Marie died only a week after their daughter Jacqueline's wedding. Then, in May, there was the rogue bore.
Jan says Bore 204 going "rogue" was totally unforeseen as the drilling was experimental and in what was thought to be an area of cold ground. It was only being drilled because engineers were trying to establish the extent of the steam field.
A scientific report from the time in Jan's collection says that near the site of the hole, the Wairakei Fault branches into several small fault traces and Bore 204 was sited in the centre of this swarm of small faults although no sign of thermal activity, present or past, was visible at the ground surface.
When the hole was drilled about 8am on the morning of Tuesday, May 3, 1960, the hole struck fissured ground within the rock at 1174ft depth and again at 1224ft. Shortly after intercepting the lower fissure, the hole erupted.
"When they drilled down, it was superheated water that flashed to steam when the pressure in the drill hole came off."
The force of the pressure, estimated at 800 thousand pounds per hour of dry steam, equivalent to over 50,000 kilowatts of power, was enough to blow out through the ground in an explosion of steam, earth and superheated water, creating a crater 22 metres deep and 70 metres long.
The Taupo Times of May 5, 1960, described the rogue bore as "a raging fumarole which erupted with frightening violence" and said it appeared without warning as a small hole about 20 metres from the actual bore.
It quoted one of the workmen on the rig at the time as saying the rogue bore "just went off with a roar".
"'Most of us remembered Bore 26 (the March eruption which blasted men and machinery as the side of a hill blew out), and we felt most unhappy about it'," the workman was quoted as saying.
The newspaper went on to say fortunately none of the 100 men working in the vicinity were hurt, either in the initial eruption or during the subsequent race to move the 90ft high drilling rig and generator plant away from the danger area.
"While this was going on mud, earth and rocks, some as large as a child's head, were being flung over 250 feet in the air.
"The raging bore became steadily more explosive in its eruptions as the day wore on. It showered the men as they worked to pump hundreds of tons of cement down the bore to stifle the roaring fury of the fumarole."
News of the blowout quickly spread - with all the noise it was making it could hardly have been kept under wraps - and locals turned out to witness it. One of the comments on a Ministry of Works short film about the rogue bore is from a man, named only as Malcolm, who said he first visited the rogue bore the evening after it blew out.
"We parked in Poihipi Rd, climbed over the fence and walked the short distance over the farmland to the ridge at the top of the paddock. The drilling rig was lit up and sitting on the pumice access road beside the crater. Some of our friends and neighbours were there also. I saw a crater perhaps 10 - 15 feet in diameter from which a 'solid' column of steam shot straight up. The noise was immense - we could hear it and see the column of steam day and night for months from our home in Taupō."
Jan says given the experience with Bore 26, which had been quickly brought under control, it was expected that the Bore 204 would follow suit. But it refused to be tamed.
News reports of the time say 400 tonnes of concrete was pumped down the hole to try to quell the rogue bore. All available cement supplies in the Taupō district and nearby provinces were rushed to the site and the men worked through the night, but once that had been done and the bore refused to stop raging, the decision had to be made to remove the drilling rig and generator plant, if possible. It was, Jan says, a risky operation.
"Apparently my father said to the driver of the rig 'you don't have to do this', because he didn't know what was going to happen and he [the driver] said 'she'll be right, Boss'. I love that story. They were very brave."
Although the rig was saved, water continued to erupt and the rogue bore crater got bigger. Over several months it swallowed up the original drilling platform, part of the access road and some of the hillside. Attempts to contain it were eventually abandoned.
Jan was away at university in Dunedin at the time the rogue bore exploded but she was able to visit the site when she came home for university holidays the following month.
"When I first saw it, it must have been about June of 1960 because that's when I came home. It was interesting because it was burping and shooting up steam and mud and rocks, and sitting in the car you had this vibration, it was quite strong: it was thud, thud, thud and then you might get a bigger thud or a smaller thud and that went on endlessly.
"We weren't really meant to go in there as public because it was too dangerous, but of course I went in with my dad anyway.
"At that stage and for the first few years it was shooting up continuously. Later, it died away and would just shoot up intermittently and there would be a big column of water and mud go up. We could see the steam from in town and we'd say 'oh it's playing up a bit today' when it was erupting strongly.
"People would take a sugar bag soaked in kerosene and thrown it into the vent and it would send up sparks."
Jan recalls that the ground could be felt shaking about a mile distant from the rogue bore when it was erupting at full pelt.
"They tried anything and everything"
Taupō cartographer Jim Lewis was around nine years old at the time that the rogue bore erupted. He and his family were living in the 'bottom village' at Wairākei and his father was in charge of the power station up in the bore field which generated electricity for the power development project.
He remembers the trucks coming and going, full of cement that was being transported up to the bore site to try to quell it.
"They had depleted the entire area from up to Auckland [of cement]. I remember those trucks and trailer units going down just laden and the guys coming back absolutely exhausted and covered in cement, they were grey. They were throwing it in [the crater]...they tried anything and everything and they just ran out of things."
Jim first visited the rogue bore several years after it began erupting. By then it had stopped erupting continuously but would blow up regularly, every three or four minutes as the pressure built up and then was released again in a continuous cycle.
"Coming down the hill, you could see the steam emerging from some distance and as we got to within three or four hundred metres of the place you could actually feel the ground shaking and you knew an eruption was coming. It was [erupting] every three or four minutes and it went up like a geyser.
"It would build up a little bit of pressure and then 'woof!' - up she went, it would blow up water and cement and mud up into the air.
"It was an awesome sight but you wouldn't want to get too close to it. I don't think I ever got closer than about 20-odd metres from the rim. The stuff was showering out and the spray would come over and it was hot water and at the very least you got covered in filth if the wind was blowing in your direction...you would come home with little specks of grey mud all over you."
Both Jim and Jan separately visited the rogue bore site several times over the years. The continual eruptions built up walls around the crater and at the bottom was a small lake.
Jan says she remembers being "a bit disgusted" by reports that some people had foolishly climbed down into the crater for a closer look.
"They were putting not only themselves at risk but anybody that might have to rescue them."
By 1968, the bore had became a tourist attraction and guide Jim Winitana would bus visitors in to the site from the THC Wairākei Hotel to see it, with many of them booking a stay at the hotel for the express purpose. An estimated 24,000 to 35,000 visitors viewed the rogue bore over the years.
End of an era
Gradually the bore lost its ferocity. On one of her later visits Jan said the rogue bore had died away and she was able to get close to the crater edge and see the water bubbling away down in the bottom.
"But that stopped and the water drained away and it just closed off."
The rogue bore died down of its own accord in 1975 leaving behind a large, now overgrown crater, and just memories.
The Taupō Times reported the bore fell silent sometime between 5am and 3.15pm on October 24, 1975 and quoted THC Wairākei Hotel manager Mike Hoy saying "It looks like the old girl has gone. It is very, very quiet around here now compared with the crashing and hammer-blow thumps that used to be heard."
Jan says nowadays, not many people know of the rogue bore and how its presence dominated the villages of both Taupō and Wairākei.
"People today don't even know it existed, the area has changed so much."
Jim says the irony of the rogue bore was that had it not blown out, it could have been one of the steamfield's most productive wells as it produced dry steam, unlike many of the others. But he counts himself lucky to have seen the rogue bore in its heyday.
"It was a fearsome thing to watch, it was awe-inspiring and something to see - once seen, never forgotten."