Steaming landscapes, volcanic outcrops and pōhutukawa forests are some of our geology greats, writes Ewan McDonald
Land of volcanoes, glaciers and ancient forests, the diverse geology of Aotearoa is truly astounding. Better yet, it's easily discoverable and accessible.
We've dug up these top tours and experiences to help you appreciate our unique geology, not take it for granite. Even if you don't know your Cambrian from your Devonian.
There's a little of the south in Northland, with its own limestone pancake rocks along the Waipu Coastal Walkway a la Punakaiki, and the Koutu Boulders, up to three metres in diameter, reminiscent of those in Moeraki. There are also the 2.8 million-year-old Wairere Boulders created from a volcanic eruption. Near Hikurangi, you'll discover a field of spectacular limestone formations in Waro Reserve, gigantic sand dunes lining the west coast, and volcanic outcrops at Whangaroa's Duke's Nose, Whāngārei Heads' Mt Manaia and Kauri Coast's Maungaraho.
Rangitoto is the youngest and largest of Auckland's 48 dormant volcanic cones, erupting from the sea around 600 years ago. Exploring Rangitoto is a "must-do", with a gentle, hour-long climb to the summit through lava fields and the world's largest pōhutukawa forest. On the return ferry trip, explore the lava caves or historic bach community near the wharf.
Thirty million years in the making, Waitomo's 300 (known) caves feature dramatic limestone formations including stalactites, stalagmites, columns and natural caverns threaded with the lights of native glow-worms. Several firms offer tours. For rock climbing, canyoning and caving adventures that make the most of the region's assets contact Raglan Rock; Hobbit fans won't want to miss a Hairy Feet film location tour.
There's gold in these here hills – Waihī has been famous for the shiny metal since 1878. Get the lowdown on mining history at the Gold Discovery Centre, complete with holograms, interactive displays and Martha Mine tour. Take the Hahei Explorer for an hour-long cruise along the volcanic coastline, into islands of the marine reserve, reefs, sea caves and bays.
Book a heli-flight for a bird's eye view of Mt Tarawera or take a guided trip to the summit, along the crater's edge, then run down the scree into the volcano's heart. There's a self-guided walking tour through Waimangu Volcanic Valley, created when Tarawera erupted in 1886; add on a Lake Rotomahana cruise or kayak tour to get closer to this steaming, hissing, geothermal landscape. Check out day or night tours of Te Puia, home of world-famous Pōhutu Geyser, or tackle Rainbow Mountain, by foot or bike, for 360-degree views of Tarawera, crater lakes, forests, and ranges all the way to Tongariro.
Our oldest national park, the Tongariro World Heritage site is a geological wonderland recognised for Māori cultural associations as well as its phenomenal volcanic features. From ancient lava flows to crater glaciers, the park is a taonga explored year-round.
Walk up the back of slumbering Taranaki Maunga, a volcano that last erupted 200 years ago, but be careful not to wake the giant; it's due to blow again sometime in the next century. There's a wealth of information at Egmont National Park Visitor Centre – Te Papakura o Taranaki.
Take a trip back in time on the Bell Rock Loop Track as it climbs to a forest dominated by gnarled beech, mountain holly trees and panoramic views. With large numbers of tūī flitting through the low canopy, this lookout features its namesake at the centre plus incredible canyon-esque cliffs and expansive views.
The Red Rocks/Pariwhero along Wellington's rugged south coast shoreline can be reached by foot, bike or 4WD. Māori say they got their colour after the explorer Kupe bled on them after a pāua clamped his hand. Scientists argue the rocks were formed after an undersea eruption 200 million years ago and get their colour from traces of iron oxide. Boring.
Ride horseback along Wharariki Beach to its renowned Archway Islands, discover Cape Farewell's dramatic sandstone cliffs, or get wet to see Split Apple Rock nestled at the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. Head underground from Takaka Hill for a Ngārua Caves tour, where you'll find stalagmites, stalactites and an excellent moa display. Canyon Abel Tasman National Park and witness geological wonders hidden in the country's smallest but most popular reserve. Learn about the Southern Hemisphere's largest natural reef and boulder formation on a sailing or kayaking adventure to Te Pokohiwi - Boulder Bank. Walk to Rawhiti Caves in Dry Creek Valley to see one of the largest cave entrances in New Zealand.
There's no escaping the geology on show - from the flat-topped mountains of the Hawkdun and St Bathans Ranges to the sugarloaf alongside Lake Dunstan. Massive schist landmarks overlook valleys and gorges, like Dunstan Range's Leaning Rock and Old Man Range's Obelisk. Early settlers made good use of local stone for cottages; other examples of working with the land include the Bannockburn Sluicings, scarred landscapes of a short-lived gold mining era, the European and Chinese miners' huts built under the shelter of schist rocks.
Rising sharply to frame almost all activities in the area, The Remarkables range lives up to its name. Get up close with a heli-flight, hiking or skiing. On the Earnslaw Burn Track flowing glacial rivers and valley waterfalls await you on an overnight hike or a half-day heli-hiking trip.
If rocks are your thing, Fiordland's unique granite mountains are a must-see. From the Milford Rd, look up at the sheer cliffs of the Darran Mountains where Sir Edmund Hillary trained to conquer Everest. Hike the Gertrude Valley for a 360-degree rock show.
Discover the 180-million-year-old Jurassic fossil forest on the outgoing tide at Curio Bay, get snapped with the photogenic Moeraki Boulders, formed over several million years, enjoy water activities on our deepest lake, Hauroko, or fossick for interesting stones along Gemstone Beach. Cave enthusiasts have three great options - the ancient limestone of Clifden Caves formed up to 22 million years ago; Cathedral Caves' 30m-high ceilings; or Jack's Blowhole, making the most of its sea-eroded cave roof for an impressive display.