Here in Korea, the cold weather is starting to seep into my bones as the days grow shorter and the need to apply extra layers of clothing grows more intense. Looking back on my summer (or first winter) in Aotearoa, I yearn for the beautiful and soothing natural hot springs I found in Rotorua.
I have a deep abiding love of hot springs. Not just spas and indoor hot baths, but the wild and natural heated water that springs from the geothermal centers of the earth to bathe us in the mineral rich (slightly sulfur smelling) warmth. I love spas too, goodness knows that I will treasure my Riyadh spa treatment for many cold winter nights to come, but this holiday wasn’t about pampering, it was about wilderness. Whether you believe in the healing properties of these waters or not, it’s still fantastic to spend a day soaking in hot water surrounded by natural beauty instead of tile and grout.
Finding a good natural spot, however, can be a real challenge. When I started looking around my US home of Seattle (also rich in hot spring activity) what I found was that nearly everything was either on private land, had been developed into a spa, or required a massive hike to get to. The shortest hike we found was still 11km from the car park and the campsite nearby had no drinking water and did not allow any fires. If we wanted to stay the night, we would have to haul in all our gear, our water, and our cold food. The most “natural” resort I found was a 5 hour drive away in the next state, required a 2 night minimum booking and cost hundreds of dollars.
However, due to NZ’s water laws, it’s much harder for private owners and companies to monopolize all the accessible springs and rivers. Rotorua is one of NZ’s main geothermally active locations and has bountiful natural hot springs. Some of these have been diverted/converted into lux spas where the water is filtered and even chlorinated and the environment is suitably sterile. I hear they’re nice. I didn’t go. Instead, I sought out three natural and free locations that I’d learned about online during my pre-trip research: Kerosene Creek, Hot and Cold, and Waterfall Spout Bath.
A note on wild hot spring safety:
There are signs at every natural hot spring that basically warn you of 2 things:getting burned and getting sick. Because these are natural springs, the temperatures are not regulated, and water that is hot enough to burn you sometimes rises up from the ground in the river and pool beds. You can be sitting in lovely water and suddenly a hotter current will come by. You can take a step to the left and land on a patch of mud that is scalding hot. However, these are not insurmountable problems if you exercise a little caution and common sense. Don’t dig down into the mud/sand at the bottom. It’s hotter below the surface. Feel before you put your weight down, test the bottom gently with a hand or toe before you put your weight down so you can move away quickly if it’s too hot. If you’re really worried about it, you can always wear water shoes. The other thing to bear in mind is that hot water breeds microbes. In the case of the Rotorua springs, there is a small concern of amoebic meningitis. That sounds scary, but it can’t infect you through your skin, only if it gets up your nose, so just keep your head out of the water and you’re in the clear. If all this sounds like too much work, that’s why the spas exist.
Finally, it’s worth noting that NZ is having some issues with campers and tourists visiting these places being targeted for car theft. I received many differing accounts of the severity, but everyone agrees it is something to consider. Campers are known to be carrying all their belongings in the vehicle so they make great targets for theft. If you can leave your stuff in a hotel, hostel, bus station locker, etc. that’s probably the best solution. Otherwise do your best to make it look like the vehicle is empty and carry your most valuables (passports, money, jewelry, etc) down to the creek with you and lock them to a tree (preferably one you can see from the water). Honestly, if you’re roughing it and don’t have a hotel/hostel to leave valuables in, you should own one of those lockable, cut resistant backpacks for your valuables anyway. It’s sad that these places are becoming targets for theft, but it’s an easily avoidable problem and there are no reports of personal injury or violence whatsoever, so please don’t let it deter you from the experience.
Kerosene Creek is easily the most famous of these three sites. I understand that during tourist season it can get somewhat crowded, and even in August when I was there, I saw about a dozen other people. It’s far from what I would call “comercialized”, but be prepared to share.
Kerosene Creek is also searchable on Google Maps, so if you have GPS this is the easiest one to find. As you drive south of Rotorua toward Wai-O-Tapu there is a little road called Old Waiotapu Road. It is gravel and filled with potholes. I drove very slowly down the 2 km it takes to get there. I also passed Lake Rotowhero (pictured here) which is another hot swimming spot that I didn’t know at the time if it was safe to go into due to the complete lack of signs or other indications of occupation. I have since learned the lake is debatably swimmable due to a potentially skin damaging pH balance and a tendency for the temperature to get to burning hot levels quite quickly once away from the shoreline. But it’s a beautiful lake with the plumes of steam rising up into the air, so it’s worth pulling over for a looksee on your way to Kerosene Creek.
The carpark is clearly marked with signage, and there’s even a toilet facility (hole in the ground style, not flushing) that doubles as a changing room if you arrive here without your swim gear on. The path down to the swimming hole is not long. It took me about 5 minutes of walking along the creek (which is also warm) to find the main area. There’s a beautiful and fairly large waterfall there and a pool that’s deep enough to sit in and have the water come up to a comfortable chest level. This spot is the spot, but if it’s too crowded, bear in mind that the whole river is warm and the path does keep going, so you could keep wandering to find a smaller more private area. There were some people leaving as I arrived, and two other campers came at the same time I did. At one point I think there were maybe 6 people in the pool, and another half dozen or so came by to look at the waterfall but did not want to get in. I also went on a Friday, a weekday, so it is almost assuredly more crowded on a weekend when families can come down from Rotorua for the day.
The entrance to the pool is a steep set of rocks that I actually had to sit down on to reach the one below. There is no stairwell or gentle descent into this particular pool, although there are many shallower areas along the creek. The water was actually not as hot as I had expected based on my experience at Hot Water Beach and all the warning signs. I didn’t have a thermometer but I’d say it was close to body temperature, maybe even a little below. Of course it felt wonderful in contrast to the crisp 16C air. The bottom of the pool was mostly small rocks and was safe to walk on barefoot, but not soft. I quickly discovered that getting closer to the base of the falls made me feel like I was getting a gentle massage just like a jacuzzi jet. There’s not much to tell about soaking in a hot pool for a couple of hours. I chatted with the other bathers and just relaxed, taking in the feelings, the waterfall air and sounds, and the beauty of the sunlight through the trees around us.
Eventually, the water stopped feeling as warm. I’m sure I just became accustomed to it, but it was time to move on. Getting out of the pool is a little tricky because of the steep entryway and I basically went backwards, pushing up from the bottom rocks until I could sit on the upper rocks and scoot back up. Because it took a little while to get out and back to my towel, I got quite chilly on the way, but once dry and rejacketed, the walk back to the car wasn’t too bad.
Hot & Cold
I was going to try to find the Waterfall Spout Bath next because I’d gotten some GPS coordinates from another backpacker online. Basically, you keep going to Wai-O-Tapu and take the Waiotapu Loop Road (paved, yay!) to a road called “The Avenue” which leads to Lady Knox Gyser (on Google Maps, easy to search). The path is just off the Avenue. Sounds easy enough, but when I got there, I discovered that there was a locked bar across the entry to the Avenue. The sign next to it indicated that the road was closed from 5pm to 9am, but it was only 2 in the afternoon, so I was a bit flummoxed. I headed up the road a bit to the visitors center and went inside to find out what was going on.
When I asked, it took a while to get through to the girl at the counter that I wanted to go up the road toward the Gyser. I had to repeat myself a few times that the road was blocked despite the posted signs indicating it should be open. She eventually led me over to an older lady who told me they close the road at 11am after the gyser is done doing it’s thing because there’s just no other reason to go down that way. Taking in my swimsuit under my jacket asked me rather tartly if I meant to go swimming and then told me there was absolutley no place to go swimming down that road… at all. I gently argued that I had seen it on the internet, which earned me a beleaguered sigh and an “of course you did”. She then went on at great length how dangerous it was because my car would be broken into, and I’d burn my feet and I’d get meningitis and and and. She told me that she’d lived there for 15 years and never even wanted to go look at it because it was sooooo dangerous. If I absolutely HAD to go swimming, I could go to Hot and Cold by the bridge, but she was sure I’d have my car broken into if I did.
When I asked her how this waterfall compared to Kerosene Creek, she told me how awful that place was too, covered with used condoms and needles (no it isn’t). I realized I was dealing with a genuine Paranoid Old Person™ and decided to humor her and back away slowly. “Can I just go look at the waterfall if I promise not to swim?”, (fingers crossed) I asked. “Well, I can’t stop you.”, she grumped back at me. I thanked her for her advice and indicated I’d head to Hot and Cold as she recommended, and leave my car in the visitor’s lot for safety if that was ok. She warned me they would lock it up before 5pm so I should hurry (it was still only 2pm).
Based on her directions, Hot & Cold was right around the corner from the visitor’s center, and since the Avenue wasn’t going to magically open for me, I figured I’d check that one out before assessing my plan of attack for the Waterfall. I did leave my car in the visitor’s car park, and if you’re worried about break-ins you can do the same while they’re open, but there is also plenty of roadside parking by the bridge. It was a short walk from there to the bridge that goes over the Hot of Hot and Cold. I saw several other cars parked around and sure enough there was a small handful (4-5) of bathers already enjoying the water.
Hot and Cold is an interesting geothermal phenomenon where a cold water stream and a hot water stream converge. The hot water stream runs under the bridge and the cold water stream runs along one side of the road. A nice shallow pool rests at the mixing point before they continue on as one merged stream. The Department of Conservation actually built wooden steps that lead down into the pool on one side of the bridge and into the hot stream on the other. The hot side is quite hot, so be careful if you decend into that side. I spent the majority of my time in the mixing pool, not for fear of heat, but because the sensation of being swirled around in hot and cold water is a uniquely pleasant one.
The pool is not merely warm water but active currents of HOT and COLD. Of course, it is generally hotter or colder as you near the appropriate stream, but the currents in the pool get everywhere. You can be soaking up a nice hot spot and suddenly a cold tendril wraps around your legs. One of the interesting activites the old foks in Washington taught me was that it was fun to go dip in the freezing cold river then dash back into the hot spring. I tried this exactly once, not because it wasn’t neat, but because the river was REALLY cold there. The hot and cold pool in NZ isn’t anywhere near so extreme, but it is a fun experience. It’s impossible to overheat in this pool since all you have to do is drift over to the cooler side, and because of the regular changes in temperature, the cool currents are refreshing and invigorating but don’t last long enough to make you cold, while at the same time your body doesn’t adjust to the hotter temperature meaning you get that ‘ahhhh’ sensation of new hot water on your skin over and over.
The water is a bit cloudy, no crystal clear mountain stream water here. You have to be careful walking around when you can’t see the bottom so you don’t stub your toe on a rock (most dangerous thing here). The bottom on the warmer side is sandy and rocky, while on the cooler side there is more algae growing so it gets a little softer (squishier) and muddier. That texture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s pretty harmless. One of the locals I talked to here said in the 10 years he’d been coming up, he’d only had his car broken into once, and that was at night. I personlly did not go to these pools after dark partially for concern of my car, but also because I was travelling alone and still suffer some lingering paranoia about my single woman status and my saftey. If I’d had a travel buddy, I would have happily dumped all my stuff at the hostel (empty car is less tempting) and gone back for a candlelit soak.
Waterfall Spout Bath
Not wanting to find my car locked up in the visitor’s spot, I only spent a couple hours at hot and cold before venturing out to see what I could do about this waterfall situation. I was very determined not to miss out. Even if the water or mud turned out to be too hot, I just had to go and take a look since it was so nearby. I parked my car on the side of the road just in front of the barrier and off the main road. I’m not sure how advisable this really is, but in general it’s safe to park in NZ if you can get your whole vehicle off the road so that it isn’t blocking traffic and it was almost closing time for the visitors center anyway, coming around to the posted closing time for the road itself. The GPS coordinates I had said the falls were just 500m up the road which isn’t a far walk. As I was locking up the car, two more travelers walked out of the bush. They had parked a bit further away and were using the same set of coordinates to track the elusive bathing spot.
Sure enough, 500m down the road we began to hear the water and there was a small track off to the right. Just at the opening of the bush, the path is fairly wide and clear, but it quickly narrows and becomes overgrown. I’m glad I was wearing my jeans over my suit because I got snagged by a low growing thorn bush that bit right into the fabric. It’s not a long path and you can hear the waterfall sounds to know you’re heading in the right direction. The first thing you see is the top of the falls. These are quite lovely and worth a gander, but the water up here is too shallow to enjoy a soak, so head on down the trail a little further and you’ll find the pool. Despite it’s lack of popularity, it was indeed marked with another Dept of Conservation sign warning us about mud burns and amoebic meningitis, so the government was clearly aware of the fact that people were coming here and was just as clearly not prohibiting it. Ostensibly, this is a result of the Queen’s Chain policy of reserving 20m of land around bodies of water (and prohibiting the private ownership of said water).
We made it down to the pool and quickly skinned down to our bathing suits and waded in. Of the three places I visited, this was easily the most rustic and the most amazing. The bottom of the pool is especially temperature variable. The other lady there singed her bum because she moved onto a hot patch without realizing it. No lasting damage fortunately, but it made us all aware that the hot patches on the bottom were not to be ignored. The pool was less than knee deep, but the bottom is not visible, so it’s necessary to carefully navigate. The water isn’t “dirty”, but the waterfall stirs up mud and leaf debris from the bottom. You can easily see in the stream above and below the falls that the water itself is quite clear. It’s still got microbes tho, so don’t get it up your nose.
Aside from it’s remoteness, and the fact that we slightly felt like we were doing something forbidden the most appealing aspect of this location is the waterfall itself. It is not a tall fall, perhaps 2 meters maybe a little more. It is very powerful, but still narrow enough to be approachable. Some people straight up “shower” in these falls, and given that water falling down on your head is unlikely to get up your nose, it’s not as risky as putting your head under in the pools themselves, but it was still more of a risk than any of us were willing to take. But, and a very important but, the falls are moving quite fast and the water comes at an angle so the bottom is further out into the pool than the top. It is, therefore, possible to get your back and shoulders under the falls while keeping the front and top of your head completely out. It’s a slow process to get there because of the hot mud pockets and the need to move slowly across the ground of the pool to avoid being toasted (considering some waterproof shoes next time) and then backing into the falls to find the sweet spot that hits high on your shoulders without dunking your head, but ah when you get there… the deep tissue hot water massage that mother nature gives you as a reward is oh so sweet.
Blessed by the Gods
After lingering around for another hour or more, I got a feeling it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure of the time, but could tell from the light it was getting dark and I had not left all my stuff in my hostel. My car looked totally lived in and I didn’t want to become an after dark target for thieves ruining what was otherwise an amazingly perfect day full of soaking and nice company. I said my farewells and struggled damply back into my jeans to guard my shins on the way out. Remember how I said I felt like my trip was being divinely influenced for maximum awe? Somehow 3 gorgeous natural hot springs and two waterfall massages was just not enough of a message, because when I emerged from the narrow path in the woods onto the main road I was greeted with the most beautifully gaudy display of sunset color I have seen in a long time. I stood in total shock before remembering to snap a picture and within about two minutes the whole thing was gone, returning the sky to a darkening gray. If I hadn’t listened to the little ‘time to go’ voice in my head, I would have missed it completely. I went from feeling like the gods of the land were putting on a show to wondering if I was instead being wooed by a heavenly being.
Some things are just too wonderful to attribute to mere coincidence and I’m a lousy monotheist. I tend to ascribe to a more fantastical yet practical version of divinity outlined by authors like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I tend to think that gods are “real” in precisely the same way that “truth” or “honor” or “love” are real.
“THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY” – Terry Pratchett
You can’t, of course, but we accept these as real. That’s basically what I mean when I talk about the gods of some place or another (up until the Diaspora, all gods were linked to the land and the local people). It’s not about religion or worship for me, but I do believe it’s important to express gratitude for the good things in life and it can help if that gratitude has a focus. Plus, it’s fun to imagine being courted by a god like a beautiful mortal maid from the old legends.
Once More With Feeling
I ended up spending 3 nights in Rotorua. On the first day I went to the springs, then on the second I did some more touristy things including a visit to a Maori village (post forthcoming). That second part was rough and emotional, so on my final morning, I decided I needed one more cleansing bath in the hot pools before I bid farewell to Rotorua and Waiotapu. First and last activities in a place go a long way to defining our memories of an experience, and as much as I valued my Maori visit, I didn’t want those feelings of sadness and conflict to be my last ones for Rotorua. Matamata was only an hour away by car, and the Hobbiton facility runs tours every 30 minutes until about 4pm, so I wasn’t worried about getting an early start for that part of the day. Instead, I woke up early to return to the Waterfall Spout Bath, easily the most remote and most beautiful of the three pools I had visited 2 days previously. Now that I knew where I was going, it was much easier, and since the gate was open, I was even able to park at the trailhead.
This may have been the best decision I made in all of my time in Rotorua. The pool was completely empty, I had it all to myself. I like company often, but I relished the opportunity to quietly absorb the beauty of the surrounding bush as a means of replenishing my spirit, my joy and my gratitude from the night before. Once more, I could not help but feel that the land or the gods heard my requests, because the waterfall was, if you can believe it, even more beautiful on this morning than it had been the first time I found it. It was as though, having shown me the loss and sorrow that incautious tourism and exploitation brought, they now would show me the best and most beautiful that the untarnished land could offer.
The pool is set down below the level of the main road and most of the surrounding bush. When the morning sun came through the trees that surrounded and enclosed the pool, it was like beams of liquid gold pouring through fine black lace. Spiderwebs still dripping with condensed steam, gleaming like strings of diamonds between the branches drew my eye again and again as the patterns of sunlight changed. The steam itself rose up from the waterfall and the pool in great plumes, turning opaque in stripes and beams where the sunlight penetrated the canopy only to remain invisible in the shadows. If I had seen it in a movie, I would swear it was a computer generated effect, that no real thing could be so amazing all at once. As I lay in the pool, my body relaxing and revitalizing in the mineral water, the shining ribbons of light moving with the steam but also with time’s passage of the rising sun, there came a moment when I was directly in line with the sun itself, my vision becoming the center of a radiating circle of glowing sunbeams, dancing steam, and dark winding branches as though I were looking down a tunnel into another world, or even the afterlife. It was one of the most profound moments of natural beauty I have ever experienced.
I made another stop off at Hot & Cold that morning as well, and the sunlight was no less stunning. Once again, when I arrived I had the place to myself and the sun reached down into the riverbed through the trees not in rays and beams this time, but a spotlight to light up the steam from the hot river as it rose up the steep walls and curled back on itself in an endless spiralling dance of thermodynamics. Feeling wholly restored and incredibly grateful, I didn’t mind at all when other visitors showed up to the creek and promptly encouraged them to come on in. It was the best farewell to Rotorua I could have wished for.
I’m trying my best to get all the stories from my visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud up for viewing before the end of 2016. The good news is, since these stories are not linked to world events, they make sense whenever you read them. And, if you happen to be a northern hemisphere dweller, the weather from my trip is finally starting to line up with what you’re experiencing outside. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Please check out the Facebook page for all the photos, and my Instagram for updates on day to day life in Korea. 🙂