Science Fair! Those two words have a funny way up smacking you in the face with a slice of adolescent pie. We all had one… if not five. Maybe we had more back in the early 90’s when I was growing up. Clinton was still pure, Al Gore had just invented the Internet, household computers were relatively new and innovation was the talk of the day.
As far as science and math were concerned, I was slightly less innovative than the rest of the bunch. While others dreamed up schemes to rid the local pond of scum, I stuck to the tried and true explosive volcano. Every science fair had at least two and I’m pretty sure they started selling kits at Toys ‘R Us. I’d like to think mine involved a little chicken wire and some paper mache, but something tells me we probably bought the kit. With a box of baking soda and an eyedropper of red food coloring, a little bit of magic happened atop that linoleum covered fold-up table in the school’s cafeteria.
Bubbling baking soda aside, there was an actual fascination for the earth’s geothermal wonders that developed at an early age. On a childhood trip to Yellowstone National Park, I even wrote my own book on geysers, complete with hand drawn pictures using my Ticonderoga pencil. The interest grew from there.
A year ago, I trekked through the volcanic jungles of Dominica to the world’s second largest hot water spring. The boiling lake of Dominica’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park required a full days climb through the most remote parts of this island nation. Exactly one year later, the curiosity continued as I set to set out on a simpler, but no less rewarding trip to that one larger spring.
Set in the Waimangu Valley of New Zealand’s North Island, Frying Pan Lake was just south of the city of Rotorua in a region that sat atop rumbling cracks in the earth’s core. With gurgling geysers and mumbling mud pools, the drive through the surrounding countryside was a pungent one. The sulfurous smell of egg engulfed the car as plumes of smoke hovered above passing fields. Greater Rotorua was a mini Yellowstone – more tropical, and steeped in ancestral Maori lore.
Rotorua, in the Bay of Plenty, was a lush land with a rich human history. The Polynesian settler Toi set up what is claimed to be New Zealand’s first settlement around AD 800. A third of the current inhabitants were Maori and many descend from the area’s four major tribes. If you are looking to learn about Maori land, history and culture, Rotorua is a good place to start. Yet, the extortionate fees demanded at the areas museums and natural attractions make this an expensive excursion. $32 granted me the two hours I needed to traverse the Waimangu Valley.
On June 10th 1886 the “8th wonder of the world” was obliterated. As the commonwealth’s premier attraction, the Pink and White terraces were blasted into history to linger only on the oil and canvas of observant painters. Within three hours, one-hundred-and-fifty-three people had died. The Maori villages of Te Ariki, Te Wairoa and Moura were buried under 20m (65ft) of mud and all plant and animal life in the area was destroyed. All of this, on the day Mount Tarawera erupted – the day New Zealand experienced it’s largest historic eruption.
Yet, from all the death and destruction came the birth of the only hydrothermal system in the world wholly formed within historic times. The Waimangu Valley is Earth’s newest carnival of geothermal oddities.
This valley underwent constant transformation in the years following the massive eruption of 1886. Frying Pan Lake, whose stinky, steamy surface lured me here, formed within the deepened and enlarged floor of Echo Crater after the hydrothermal (steam) eruption of 1917. There have been two further flare-ups in this area with the most recent occurring in 1973 during the Trinity Terrace Eruption.
Bubbles hum to the surface of the highly acidic, 38,000 square meter lake as steam wafts above at the whim of the wind. In the cliff wall at the lake’s edge, chimneys of smoke spout skyward as prostrate kanuka swell in the heated soil. The broody cliffs, with their smoky special effects, prognosticate an ominous future.
Adjacent to the lake, a nearby basin holds more of the saga of Waimangu’s recent past. Spouting some 400m (1300ft), this was the sight of the world’s largest known geyser. The Waimangu Geyser hurled black mud and sand into the air with massive force on a 36-hour cycle from 1900 until it’s mysterious end in 1904.
These days, the Inferno is the prized act in this steam park of wonders. With a name like that, you’d have to be pretty cool. Inferno Crater Lake operates on a mysterious and meticulous cycle of overflows and recessions. The trumpet-shaped lakebed rises some 30m when full and changes from dull to vibrant blue. Lucky for me, Inferno was in the early stages of a recession and glowing like a turquoise gem. Although the geyser itself cannot be seen, Inferno Lake is the largest geyser-like feature in the world and shares a symbiotic relationship with its record-holding neighbor with the more domestic name.
Beyond the Inferno lay a series of craters and the expansive rift valley. Down the valley, I followed a hot bubbling stream. Its rust colored rocks were draped in tufts of pine-green moss. Nearby, the sharp cliffs rumbled in frustration as the acidic water slid below. Onward the stream flowed down its devilish path to Lake Rotomahana, the former site of the Pink and White Terraces. Beyond Rotomahanga, Tarawera Volcano hovered on the horizon, at watch over the valley and ready for action.
Waimangu is but one of many geothermal areas atop the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Some parks boast a rainbow of colorful pools while others forecast daily geysers. Cordoned off behind a foreboding chain-link fence, an even larger chunk is harnessed for energy.
The people here have learned to live with and learn from their smoky environs. After all, New Zealand is overdue for it’s next big eruption. Scientists warn that the build up for another massive Taupo eruption is already on an unstoppable course. Furthermore, there is much speculation about the forty-nine volcanic mounds that surround the country’s largest city, Auckland.
As it turns out, it was a good thing I studied volcanoes as a youth before venturing off into the Pacific Ring of Fire. If I’ve learned anything from the science fair, it’s this: if you catch anyone running around with a box of baking soda and red dye, run for cover!