Orakei Korako… let this roll over your tongue. Doesn’t this sound lovely? Doesn’t it seem to hold lots of promise, a whisper of a forgotten land, of magical encounters, and many surprises?
We visited Orakei Korako, The Place of Adorning in the Maori language, during the summer break when we toured New Zealand’s North Island with the family. It was an accidental find in an area that is world renown for its geothermal activity. Many geothermal attractions around Rotorua vie for the visitors’ attention, most of them with the most fabulous names: Hell’s Gate, Waimangu (meaning “black water”), Waiotapu (meaning “sacred water”), and Te Puia (meaning “gushing waters and steaming vents”).
Lonely Planet calls it “possibly the best thermal area left in New Zealand and one of the finest in the world”, and so our choice when visiting Rotorua was made very easy despite the variety of geothermal attractions in the area. As it turned out, visiting the hidden valley of Orakei Korako was one of the highlights of our New Zealand road trip.
Visiting Orakei Korako, you will need to cross the stunning Lake Ohakuri which was filled in 1961 to provide hydroelectric power to the region. It is a peaceful and beautiful lake, in itself a worthwhile day trip destination, but it hurts to learn that the construction of the dam resulted in the cover up of two of the biggest geysers in the world. One of them them was the Orakeikorako geyser from which the area took its name.
Your entry ticket will cover the short ride on the passenger ferry to the opposite side of the lake, from which your journey through this amazing area will begin.
It is a trip for the senses – the strong egg-y smells of sulphur in the air, the steaming hot air wafting across the pathways, the guttural sounds of bubbling mud pools and gushing geysers. The palette of colours of the terraces, formed over hundreds and thousands of years by largely unpredictable tectonic activity. The various vantage points from which you can enjoy the most fascinating views over this unique and sublime landscape.
The path leads us past the Emerald Terraces which flow into the lake right next to the ferry pier, algae covering the surfaces and giving the terraces this distinct green colouring. This is followed by the vast Rainbow and Cascade Terraces, both of them a mix of colours flowing into each other, movement cast in stone.
In fact, nothing is set in stone in Orakei Korako. The activity here is real, it’s fresh, it’s ever changing. Geysers pop up and disappear, conditions can change radically and without warning. The Soda Fountain for example, lay dormant for 17 years before it came back to life one day in 1984.
Defying the odds, a number of Maori families used to live in this area, appreciating the warmth and convenience that the hot water might bring to their lifestyles. But it’s a fine line between comfort and lethal danger.
At the Artist’s Palette we witness a hot pool with bubbling water, steam rising to the sky, like an earth-made boiling kettle that would prove fatal to anyone coming too close. We see wooden beams and structures that have been swallowed up by mud pools that formed suddenly and quite unexplainably. Left and right to our feet as we walk along the raised footpaths there are deep steaming holes, often not much more than a foot wide, yet no less dangerous than their bigger and more famous cousins.
Walking along and overlooking the big rolling silicate terraces at Orakei Korako is one part of our journey. Another is the strange and mysterious Ruatapu Cave, a blue shimmering cave holding warm sulcate-rich water, the so-called Pool of Mirrors. A sign tells us that the spirit of a local fallen soldier from World War II is supposed to linger here, while his body rests somewhere in the Libyan Desert. It’s a lovely sight, and one of only two known caves situated in a geothermal area.
A last treat of our visit is the walk through the areas of Orakei that are less visibly active but overgrown with a variety of plants big and small that miraculously have adapted to life in a geothermal hotspot.
The mosses and lichens in particular appear otherworldly and strange, more vibrant and resilient than elsewhere. They turn a regular rainforest into an enchanted forest, one that doesn’t quite feel the same. Maybe these woods have been touched by spirits of the underworld that have found their exit into our world through the many holes that make up Orakei Korako.
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