Rotorua and Inferno Crater, NZ

Colour: opalescent white

Mnemonic: TEERR

Original information and clues: Rotorua, North Island, NZ

On hearing the name Rotorua for the first time it meant very little, except that it was located on North Island, New Zealand. In 1994 internet search engines were still in their infancy and a Lonely Planet Travel guide (Wheeler, 1977, 1994) was the best source of travel and location information about New Zealand in general and Rotorua in particular. 

Later research and insights:

My curiosity grew on reading that Rotorua is at the centre of a highly active geothermal area, dominated by geysers of water and mud, crater lakes and sulphuric pools. The local, well-deserved nickname for this popular tourist destination is ‘Sulphur City’ and visitors cannot avoid the famous, odorous fumes which permeate everything. Even the air you breathe can catch in the throat. There are steam vents and bubbling pools everywhere and many families have hot water from geothermal sources piped directly into external bath houses. As well as geothermal areas, there are several active volcanoes in this same central belt of North Island, known as the ‘Taupo Volcanic Zone’, including White Island in the Bay of Plenty to the north of Rotorua. Locals say that as long as a plume of smoke can be seen coming from the top of the volcano, then all is well. The time to worry is when the smoke disappears, a sure sign pressures are building up deep inside and an eruption will occur sooner rather than later. To the south of Rotorua are Lake Taupo, another crater lake and the active volcanoes of Mt Tarawera, Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. 

Lake Rotorua is a giant crater lake and both it and the town of the same name on its southern shore, lie within a much larger volcanic caldera (a depression in the Earth’s surface created when an underground magma chamber collapses) that extends around the horizon. In the last 100,000 years, the whole area has been shaped by violent, frequent volcanic eruptions and, by world standards, its volcanoes are very young and still highly active. For those interested in learning more, the later section on regional geology provides a summary of why geothermal areas and volcanoes occur in this part of New Zealand.

Following the clues on the ground: November/December 1995 and March 2014.

In 1995 my explorations began by reviewing local maps of the Rotorua area to get a feel of where to head first. My attention was drawn southwards towards the huge volcanic dome of Mount Tarawera, Lake Tarawera and the Blue and Green lakes. They appeared to be sites with a different energy and feel about them and the idea of a tourist flight to explore the landscape from above was appealing. Sadly, in my enthusiasm and haste to get into the air, all thoughts of asking permission from the guardian spirits that protected these geothermal and volcanic areas were forgotten. In my ignorance I didn’t realise the raw energies would affect me so greatly. The problem is of course, that once you’re in an airplane flying over the rim of a volcano, it’s a bit late to ask permission to be there. In this instance, the flight over the rugged, raw masculine energy of Mt. Tarawera left me feeling physically sick, both during the flight and for at least half an hour after landing. 

The volcanic rift of Mt Tarawera today (postcard)

The flight did however provide a clue to the possible location of an ‘energy pumping station’ as the small aircraft flew nimbly over a line of crater lakes surrounded by lush vegetation. By twisting around in my seat, balancing on my right buttock and hanging out of the small flap window, I became aware of an energy line flowing through the area and managed to take two snapshots. The pilot informed me we’d just flown over Waimangu Geothermal Valley. Waimangu, which means black water, was so named by its discoverers, because of the appearance of columns of sand and water in the original geyser that erupted on the site. The name now applies generally to the geothermal valley and the sequence of 1886 eruption craters south-west of Lake Rotomahana. Reviewing the pictures later, the ‘Angels’ had been kind and there were two spectacular views looking right down the length of the whole valley, capturing all the crater lakes together in a line. After seeing this view from the air there was no doubting this valley deserved further exploration. With names like Black Crater, Fairy Carter, Inferno Crater, Cathedral Rocks, Echo Crater and Emerald Pool, there were sure to be some spectacular sites; despite the dark, forbidding colours of the crater lakes when seen from above. It turned out they weren’t all forbidding, but then that was part of the magical surprise that awaited.

Line of crater lakes, looking towards Lake Rotomahana (New Zealand Souvenir Company)                                   

The plane landed back at Rotorua airport and after half an hour of deep breathing, the feelings of nausea dissipated, leaving me determined to be more careful in future.                        

‘Energy Pumping Station’ location and description:

Later that day, feeling much refreshed after a good lunch, I headed south towards the Waimangu Geothermal Valley. An information board at the entrance told of how the landscape south of Rotorua had been completely changed when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, along a 16km volcanic rift, sending ash and pumice into a cloud 9.5 km high. 

Map of the Waimangu Geothermal Valley (Houghton, 1982)

Warning signs said: ‘This area is dangerous. Please stay on the paths. ACTIVE VOLCANIC CRATERS’. In 1995 a small shop stood at the entrance and a sign advised the walk down to the lakeside would take about one and a half hours. Having arrived towards the end of the day, it seemed sensible to catch the little shuttle bus down to Lake Rotomahana at the bottom to get a feel of the site first; before riding half way back and walking up the rest of the way. Once off the bus, the images of dark, uninviting crater lakes seen from the air earlier were confirmed, as I walked past the Iodine Pool, hot air vents, silica stalactites and Bird’s Nest Terrace with its multi-coloured algae that clung to miniature silica terraces. Black Crater and Fairy Crater were off the track in the distance to the right, but clearly visible. It was hot and I had no inclination to climb the dusty, dirt track to explore them. I carried on, slowly climbing the main path, whilst trying to avoid slipping on the different-sized pebbles and stones underfoot. Having checked the map bought in the little shop; Inferno Carter should be just around the next corner and up the slope to the right. The track led uphill to a small wooden platform, but it wasn’t until I stopped and finally looked up, that I saw ‘The Jewel of Waimangu’. In utter disbelief at the sight that was in front of me, I checked back on the map. This was definitely Inferno Crater, but it was nothing like an Inferno at all. In 2014 I discovered the name is in fact a modification of the picturesque informal name of ‘Gateway to the Inferno’; a name used to describe this portal to the underworld by the surveyors who first mapped the area after the 1886 eruption.

Inferno Crater is located in the side of an approximately 100,000 year old rhyolite lava dome, which was blasted out during the 1886 eruption and named Mount Haszard by the geologist Dr. James Hector, in memory of the Haszard family members who died at Te Wairoa village under the fallout from the 1886 eruption.  

Inferno Crater November 1995
Inferno Crater March 2014

I found myself gazing at a conical-shaped crater filled with clear, azure blue water, against a base of white silica/mud, surrounded by a horseshoe of volcanic cliffs of grey, red and white. The blue water surface was bubbling, with a pale mist floating above it: but there was no sound, except for the occasional bird call from somewhere in the surrounding greenery. The stunning view was breathtaking and I stood there totally transfixed, a wide smile on my face and a buzz of energy flowing up and down my spine, causing the hair on my neck and head to stand on end. The colours were a stark contrast to the dark, forbidding, bubbling waters of Frying Pan Lake located just a stone’s throw away. Inferno Crater was surrounded on two sides by sheer cliffs, covered in an abundance of stunted kanuka trees, also known as tea tree, which is the only vegetation that can survive in such close proximity to these geothermal areas. Inferno Crater felt like a young, new energy, which was perfectly balanced in terms of male/femaleness. There was an exuberance that was very different from anything else experienced so far. It was very definitely ‘the new kid on the block’. Thinking about the location later, it made sense. It was almost as if Mother Nature, including the volcano, lakes and mountains, had combined in 1886 to birth this new energy vortex naturally. It was a birth that had been created from the joining of fire from the volcano and water from the lake.

At the time of my return visit in March 2014, much had changed. The Waimangu Geothermal Valley is now a major tourist venue, with the beautiful Inferno Crater as its star attraction. The small shop has been extended and there is a café selling locally made, edible delicacies and organic fruit drinks. The site is covered with wooden walkways and lookouts that lead around and between the bubbling, still stinking pools. Information boards are everywhere, providing the curious with explanations and pictures of how the valley was formed and is still evolving. 

In 2014 my walk began from the café at the top of the geothermal valley. The first noticeable changes were to Frying Pan Lake, which occupies Echo Crater. In 1995 it had been a dark, forbidding place, with bubbles of gas continually erupting on the surface. Vegetation around the sides of the lake was lush, but dark and one particular tree on the crater rim was very dominant. Nineteen years later and the waters were more blue/green in colour and less forbidding. The vegetation had grown and the skyline along the rim of the crater no longer felt dominated by that ominous, single tree.

Frying Pan Lake November 1995
Frying Pan Lake March 2014

The walk up to Inferno Crater had changed considerably. The simple, dirt track of 1995, with its small wooden viewing platform overlooking the stunning azure blue waters, was gone. Replaced with extensive, wooden walkways and a steep climb of wooden steps up to a large viewing platform that could easily accommodate twenty or more people at any one time. I met a film crew on their way down, carrying heavy camera equipment, lights and other paraphernalia – they assured me it was worth the trip. For two minutes I had the place to myself, before being joined by a throng of people, eager to get close and capture a quick picture before moving on again. Few of them stopped to actually look at the lake, the rocks and the shining white mud around it. Few took the time to simply gaze in wonder at this beautiful sight. I stood to one side, hoping to get a chance to connect in, but that wasn’t to be. This time there was no buzz of energy flowing up and down my spine. It was more of a gentle, welcoming ‘nice to see you’ type of feel; an acceptance that I was there. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes I observed numerous rock guardians in the cliff side overlooking the lake and politely said ‘hello’; then watched the bubbles of gas as they burst on the water’s surface. The water was more placid with levels much lower than in 1995 and clearly the crater lake was at a different point in its cycle. Energetically it felt like the lake was shut down and protecting itself. At this point, I decided the best thing would be to leave and connect in remotely, at a later time, when it was more appropriate. From experience, many energy places shut themselves down when there are large numbers of people around, so the energy they carry cannot be misused. Unfortunately, many people unwittingly take energy without realising it; but once an individual is aware of this, the idea of asking permission before entering any ‘sacred’ place becomes natural. Locations that shut themselves down for protection during the day are often open and receptive to energy connections and exchanges at night, particularly during a full moon. Once a site has been visited and energy signatures have been exchanged, it is possible to connect in remotely from anywhere in the world, after asking permission to do so of course.

Local geology:

In the 19th century, Lake Tarawera near Rotorua was a major tourist attraction. Visitors came from around the world to see the Pink and White Terraces: impressively large and beautiful terraces of multi-levelled pools, formed by silica deposits from thermal waters, which had trickled over them constantly for centuries. The Maori village of Te Wairoa, on the shores of the lake, was New Zealand’s principal tourist resort and Mt Tarawera, with its powerful fire spirit, towered silently over the lake. One day in June 1886 Sophie, a local Maori guide, was taking a party of visitors across the lake to the terraces, when they suddenly saw a phantom Maori war canoe gliding silently across the water. It was an ancient type of war canoe, which had never existed on this lake and the boatmen were paddling very fast. For the local Maori people this was an omen of impending disaster and an old tohunga (Maori wise man) predicted the village would be ‘overwhelmed’. Four days later, on 10th June 1886, in the middle of the night, Mt Tarawera erupted in the largest eruption to have occurred in New Zealand since European settlement. The outbreak began with a series of gradually intensifying earthquakes and loud bangs, before Mt Tarawera suddenly lit up the sky, with fire, ash and magma exploding simultaneously along a 16km north-east/south-west line now known as the ‘Tarawera Rift’. By the time it was finished six hours later, over 8,000 sq. km had been buried in a life-extinguishing blanket of thick ash, lava and mud; the village of Te Wairoa was obliterated; 153 people had been killed; and the Pink and White terraces were destroyed. It was as if Mt Tarawera had been sliced open with a giant cleaver. Seven of the craters formed in the 1886 eruption now make up the Waimangu Geothermal Valley, whilst many others have filled with water to form the basin known as Lake Rotomahana. The hot springs, geysers and other surface geothermal features seen today have developed subsequently, both in and around the craters formed in the 1886 eruption. Beneath the surface, the hydrothermal system extends from the start of the Waimangu walk north-east towards Mt Tarawera and south towards Rainbow Mountain; and geologists believe it may exceed many tens of square kilometres in area (Houghton, 1982). 

The energy of Inferno Crater is directly related to a rhythmic cycle of changing water levels; with shallow recessions occurring every few days and deeper recessions at longer intervals. The top of the sparkling, white silica deposits marks the overflow level. A typical cycle lasts between 5 and 7 weeks; during which time the water levels overflow for two to three days; then recede about 8 metres during the next 15 days as 30,000,000 litres of water drain back under Mt Haszard; then partly refill over the following 3 to 4 weeks; before levels are ready to overflow again. This makes Inferno Crater the largest geyser-like feature in the world, although the geyser itself cannot be seen since it plays at the bottom of the 30 metres deep, trumpet-shaped lake bed. Monitoring has shown that water temperatures range from about 35°C when the lake is at its lowest, to about 80°C during periods of overflow. The water is quite acid, as low as pH 2.1; a result of hydrogen sulphide contained in the rising geothermal fluid mixing with oxygen in the air to create sulphuric acid. These cyclical changes are believed to be influenced by the general energy state of the Waimangu hydrothermal system and scientific monitoring since 1995 has shown the ‘geothermal plumbing’ of both the Inferno Crater and Frying Pan Lakes is directly related. According to a local information board, when Inferno Crater Lake is overflowing, there is a decrease in the discharge from Frying Pan Lake; and when Inferno Carter Lake is receding, the discharge from Frying Pan Lake is greater than normal.

The colour of the lake changes, dependent on the amount of turbulence it is undergoing. Although often a dull grey when its levels are low, it assumes an intensely brilliant azure blue colour just a few days after the overflow has stopped. Its appearance is directly influenced by the amount of finely divided silica held in suspension in the water. In addition, the bottom and sides are lined with a ‘white’ siliceous mud that emphasizes the brilliant blue colour of the water, hence the ‘jewel-like’ appearance of the crater and its lake.

Regional Geology (Thornton, 1985, 2009):

The geology of central North Island is a direct result of the subduction of the Pacific Plate in the east, beneath the Australasian/Indian Plate in the west. As the oceanic crust of the Pacific Plate moves slowly westwards, it is dragged beneath the Australasian/Indian Plate, creating a deep trench called the Kermadec Trench. The water dragged down with the descending plate lowers the melting point of the rock beneath North Island, helping to create hot magma. The magma rises to the surface, as a row of volcanoes and geothermal areas that runs parallel to the plate boundary, down the middle of North Island, known as the ‘Taupo Volcanic Zone’. Further south the movement of the Pacific Plate changes. It becomes a ‘strike/slip’ plate boundary as it slowly slides in a south-westerly direction along the Australasian/Indian Plate at a rate of 37-38mm per year. The resulting Hikurangi Trough is a deep, underwater chasm marking the point at which the movement of the plate boundaries changes. It is an area of oceanic upwelling and abundance that supports a major food chain of large numbers of fish, crustaceans, dolphins, seals and migrating whales. In South Island, the boundary becomes the Alpine Fault that slices through the island in a North-easterly/south-westerly direction. 

Map of major fault lines and tectonic plate boundaries affecting New Zealand (Thornton, 1985, 2009)

Local legends: 

Maori folklore has a wealth of stories and legends about their country and how it was formed. Below are just a few, which have been picked up along the way and are pertinent to the places visited. Note that some Maori words appear to have multiple spellings.

Maori legends of the making of New Zealand: (from an information board on the Kaikoura Peninsular, South Island)

The Maori speak of a demi-god called Maui, who landed an enormous fish from his canoe, using the strong seat of his canoe (called Te Taumanu o te Waka a Maui), now known as the Kaikoura Peninsular on the north-eastern side of South Island, to steady his foot. The fish (known as Te Ika a Maui) became North Island, his canoe (called Te Waka a Maui) South Island and Stewart’s Island off the South Coast is the ‘anchor’.

Maori legend for how the Taupo Volcanic Zone was formed: (Williams, 1991)

Geologists explain the existence of what is called the ‘Taupo Volcanic Zone’ down central North Island, in terms of plate tectonics, but the Maori have long had their own explanations and legends of how volcanic fire came to the area, based on their observations of geothermal activity throughout the region:

‘A tohunga called Ngatoroirangi was one of the first to voyage from Hawaiki to New Zealand by canoe. He landed on the east coast of North Island then travelled in the Bay of Plenty, Taupo region. To the south he saw a high mountain, which he decided to climb to survey the surrounding country. Nearing the summit Ngatoroirangi was enveloped in a snowstorm. In desperation he cried out to his priestess sisters who had remained in his homeland: ‘Ka riro au I te tonga! Haria mai he ahi moku!’ Which translates as: ‘I am borne away in the cold south wind – I perish from the cold! Send fire to warm me!’

Taniwha (mountain and water spirits) carried the sacred fire from the Pacific to Aotearoa (New Zealand) via an underground passage. Fire burst forth along this route at a number of places including White Island, Rotorua, Taupo and finally on the mountain top where Ngatoroirangi stood. He was saved, but his female slave named Auruhoe was sacrificed in the crater to appease Ruaumoko, the volcano god. The active crater is called Ngauruhoe, after the slave, to this day; and the origin of the word Tongariro is contained in Ngatoroirangi’s prayer for fire – ‘tonga’ (south wind) and ‘riro’ (carried away).

Maori legends of the god Ruaumoko and the formation of the Waimangu Geothermal Valley: (taken from an information board at the entrance to Waimangu Geothermal Valley)

Another legend specifically relates to Ruaumoko, the god of earthquakes and all volcanic phenomena. He is the unborn child of Papatuanuku the Earth Mother and Rangi the Sky Father. Whilst Papatuanuku was pregnant with Ruaumoko she was turned face down towards Rarohenga, the Underworld or Spirit World. Hence Ruaumoko never emerged into the upper world or saw the light of day. According to legend, Ruaumoko, together with his brother Whiro, still make war against the offspring of Tane i.e. mankind, to avenge the separation of their parents, the Earth and the Sky. Whiro suggested to Ruaumoko that they should return to ao-turoa, the upper world, to fight, but Ruaumoko said: ‘You belong to the upper world. Go thither and fight. But I belong to the underworld and I will conduct my own warfare.’ Whiro enquired ‘But what weapons will serve you?’ Ruaumoko replied ‘I will procure one from Puna-te-waro where-in is conserved ahi-komai’ i.e. subterranean fire, also known as ahi-tipua or supernatural fire. 

The frequent earthquakes experienced on both islands are said to be caused by Ruaumoko turning over in his subterranean home. If summer is approaching, he is said to be turning warmth uppermost, if winter, cold uppermost.

The Maori Ngati Awa people also believe that Ruaumoko is the origin of thunder, which he uses to separate summer and winter. Another legend says that Ruaumoko took Hine-nui-te-po as his wife in the underworld. This is a curious story for some Maoris, because Ruaumoko is seen as the destroyer of mankind; whilst Hine is the protector of the spirits of the dead.

Works Cited

Hitching, Francis. 1978. The World Atlas of Mysteries. London : Pan Books, 1978.
Houghton, B.F. 1982. Geyserland: a guide to the volcanoes and geothermal areas of Rotorua. Lower Hutt, New Zealand : Geological Society of New Zealand, 1982.
Miller, Hamish and Broadhurst, Paul. 1989. The Sun and The Serpent. Launceston, Cornwall : Pendragon Press, 1989.
New Zealand Souvenir Company. ‘Waimangu, New Zealand’. Postcard P4041. PO Box 558, Hastings, New Zealand : s.n.
Thornton, J. 1985, 2009. The Field Guide to New Zealand Geology: An introduction to rocks, minerals and fossils. North Shore, New Zealand : Penguin Books, 1985, 2009.
Waimangu Wanderer Guide. Rotorua : s.n.
Wheeler, T., Keller, N., Williams, J. 1977, 1994. New Zealand – a travel survival kit. Hawthorn, Vic 3122, Australia : Lonely Planet Publications, 1977, 1994.
Williams, Karen. 1991. Coming Round The Mountains. Rotorua : Tongariro Natural History Society Inc., 1991. [Online] 


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