Waikato River is the longest river in New Zealand, running some 425 kilometers from Lake Taupo to the Tasman Sea just south of Auckland. the river is fed from as several streams on the side of Mount Ruapehu and Mangatoetoenui glacier on the mountainside, which are referred to as the Tongariro River prior to feeding into Lake Taupo. at the northeast side of the lake, the wide, meandering river wends its way past the town before funneling into a narrow canyon some 15 meters across, which is carved out of sediment laid down during the Oruanui eruption some 26,500 years ago. that eruption completely changed the landscape of the North Island, coating most of the land with tephra up to 200 meters deep, creating Lake Taupo, and changing the course of what is now the Waikato River from flowing northwest (towards the Pacific) to flowing northeast (towards the Tasman Sea). since the river settled on its northeasterly course, the canyon and falls have grown deeper and more forceful; some 200,000 liters of water tumble over the falls per second. the canyon is some 10 meters deep and the drop over the falls isn’t very dramatic, but the force of the water causes it to shoot out from the end of the canyon to the awe of thousands of visitors (including us!) each year.
spa culture in Rotorua received a big boost from the government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which built a series of structures for those hoping to benefit from “taking the cure” in one of the town’s many mineral baths. one of the prominent pools, known to the Maori as Te Pupunitanga, helped relieve the arthritis pain of a Catholic priest in 1878. while previously the site was known as a location of fierce battles and ambushes, it quickly became popular with spa visitors and was renamed Priest’s Pool in honor of Father Mahoney, with the government-constructed Pavillion Bath serving visitors. in 1901, the Duchess Bath was erected nearby to honor a visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York – later George V and Queen Consort. the facilities were upgraded in the 1930s and maintained and operated by the government until the 1970s, when they were purchased by a private consortium and developed into the Polynesian Spa that stands on the site today.
nearby, the Malfroy Geyser, Rachel Pool and Blue Baths illustrate other ways enterprising Europeans capitalized on the geothermal activity of the area. in the late 1880s, a French-born engineer developed a system of artificial geysers using heat from a deep thermal pit, Oruawhata (said to be the final resting place of fierce Maori warriors to ensure they never fell into enemy hands), and a series of wooden valves that an operator could adjust to produce geysers reaching up to 12 meters high.
along with the Priest’s Pool, the Rachel Pool – known as Whangapipiro to the Maori – supplies the baths at what is now the Polynesian Spa. the pool is high in silica, a compound known for softening skin. it was (re)named after Sarah Rachel Russell – known as Madame Rachel – a cosmetician who promised everlasting youth through the use of her beauty line and who conned or blackmailed numerous members of the English elite during the mid-19th century.
the Blue Baths, also built by the government, date from the 1930s and provided a different type of bathing altogether. whereas the other baths focused on therapeutic aims, the Blue Baths aimed for a more festive, family-oriented swimming atmosphere. generations of local children learned to swim at the Blue Baths, something the other government pools could not provide. disuse led the Blue Baths to close in 1982 and they remained so until reopening in 1999 after extensive restoration.
as champions of Rotorua’s early spas hoped, the town has become an internationally recognized destination for “taking the cure” and enjoying the mineral waters that still bubble up from the geothermal waters – including the Rachel and Priest’s Pools.
the first national park established in New Zealand, Tongariro is also one of the oldest national parks in the world. the first parcel of land was set aside in 1887 under the protection of the paramount Maori chief in the area (Te Heuheu Tukino IV, also known as Horonuku) in order to protect sacred Maori land from being sold to European settlers. his family descended from the earliest settlers of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and identified with Ngatoroirangi, the man who navigated the vessel that brought the first people to the island and (according to myth) brought fire to Tongariro. once the land was under his protection, Horonuku gifted the land back to the state for preservation as a national park. while the initial parcel was considered too small to establish a proper national park (with the example of Yellowstone as comparison), subsequent government actions set aside larger and larger parcels of land for that purpose. in 1894, Parliament passed the Tongariro National Park Act, which comprised some 252 square kilometers (not all of which they had yet acquired). several updates to the Act over the 20th century brought the park to its current size encompassing nearly 800 square kilometers.
the three main peaks located in the park – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu – are tapu to the local Maori and development would have destroyed the mana of the sites. the Maori still have territorial rights over the mountains and when the Te Maari crater on Tongariro erupted in 2012, they declared a protective restriction (rahui) over the area to protect both the mana of the site and to ensure the safety of trampers moving through the area. because of its importance to Maori culture and its natural characteristics, the national park was designated a dual (cultural-natural) World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, after previously receiving status for natural heritage in 1990.
although technically established in 1894, it took some decades before transportation caught up enough to bring significant numbers of people to visit the park. the first permanent park ranger began working in 1931, two years after the completion of Chateau Tongariro at the ski resort of Whakapapa. a road to Whakapapa was completed in the 1920s, making the journey much easier than the previous overland trek by horseback or foot. according to our lodge hosts, the park is far more popular for skiing during the winter than for tramping or biking in the summer.
until 2007 the track from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi was known as the “Tongariro Crossing.” however, the difficulty of the terrain and changeability of the weather found many trampers unprepared and the name was changed to include “Alpine” to better convey the reality of the track. we felt well-prepared setting out on the hike – both physically and in relation to gear – and I was still surprised by how much the climate changed on our hike – the limited visibility, bitter the wind and biting the precipitation through the South Crater, up the saddle beside the Red Crater, and past Blue Lake. not all trampers were as well prepared for the trek as we and the view from the trailhead might not prepare you for what was in store. moreover, in addition to the weather-related dangers were legitimate (though distant) volcanic risks. all three peaks in the park have been active in the last century with Te Maari in 2012 the most recent. when we stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, you could see active vents on the side of the mountain and the damage done by debris during the 2012 eruption. fortunately, that eruption occurred near midnight in August so the hut was not in use, but it remains closed to through-hikers due to its location in the active volcanic zone. in spite of the danger (volcanic and otherwise) some 80,000 people undertake the hike each year, with numbers growing.
it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but New Zealand has a booming timber industry – has had for quite some time. prior to Maori arrival on the islands approximately 1,000 years ago, forests covered nearly the entire landmass. using fire, Maori cleared about 15 per cent of those forests prior to the arrival of European settlers in the 1770s. timber proved useful in ship repair – a constant necessity for vessels stopping on their way to or from distant ports. in the early 1800s, the population explosion of New South Wales further increased demand; and the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which paved the way for rapid European settlement in New Zealand, increased the pace of deforestation with thousands of acres being burned to clear farmland or clear cut to fuel the timber industry.
we saw evidence of the timber industry – past and present – nearly everywhere while traveling. one of the more interesting sites (which, to be fair, we didn’t observe ourselves) is the wreck of the HMS Buffalo at the bottom of Mercury Bay in Whitianga. the area around Whitianga was once thick with kauri forests, trees useful for their gum and resin, and the harbor on the northeast of the North Island somewhat sheltered from the Pacific Ocean useful for hauling them to distant destinations. ships came from as far away as Norway, Sweden, France, Italy, and the UK to collect some of the 500 million feet of kauri harvested in the region.
the Buffalo (originally named Hindostan) was built in Calcutta in 1813 as a food transport vessel and subsequently acquired by the Royal Navy for use (initially) as a storeship. over the years, the Buffalo also served as a quarantine vessel, convict ship (carrying 180 female convicts to Australia in 1833), transport for colonists bound for Australia, and finally a timber carrier.
in this last capacity, the Buffalo came to be anchored in Mercury Bay in July 1840. while today the harbor has moved into the mouth of the river (significantly more sheltered though perhaps impractical for vessels that size), in the 1800s the dock and pier extended out from what is know known as Buffalo Bay, near where our first hostel was located. on the 28th of July in 1840, a storm blew into the bay and parted the kauri-laden Buffalo from its anchoring cables. when it became clear that the ship could not be saved, the captain steered onto the beach and the crew abandoned ship. it sank and remains where it went down. in 1996 a team of maritime archaeologists and volunteers from Australia located and charted the site of the wreck and in 2009 the New Zealand Navy investigated the wreck using snorkels; much of the ship has broken up due to storms and spending more than 150 years underwater though the hull, reportedly, remains in good condition. at low tide on a day with exceptionally clear conditions you can see the wreck from above; the weather never got truly clear while we visited Whitianga and, more to the point, we didn’t get directly above the site, but neat to consider all the same!