Rotorua - a geothermal wonderland

Steam near lake

Steam swirls up from all kinds of places throughout Rotorua.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Hangi box

Hangi boxes at Whakka Village provide delicious and eco-friendly meals.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Steaming cliffs and Frying Pan Lake at Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is full of natural wonders.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Inferno Crater Lake

Inferno Crater Lake at Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Boiling mud

Be captured by the plopping mud making mesmerising patterns at Hell's Gate Spa.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

Steaming cliffs

No, it's not a fire! Just Rotorua's active geothermal landscape at work.

Credit: Lauren Monaghan

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Another world

The beauty of geothermal systems can also be appreciated with a visit to the multi-eco-award-winning Waimangu Volcanic Valley, whose CEO, Harvey James, was one of the Sustainability Charter's founding members.

While Whaka village may be an up close and personal, getting-to-know-you experience, Waimangu offers up a completely different vibe. Though just a short drive from the main city area, here you feel as though you may very well be the last - or very first - person on Earth.

Taking a leisurely 45-minute walk (or more challenging 4-hour hike) through the valley is like trekking through another time and place. And indeed, it practically is - this area represents the world's newest geothermal system, and the only to be formed within written history.

It was violently birthed during the 1886 erruption of Mount Tarawera, with springs, lakes, craters and steaming cliffs springing forth to form this utterly mystical, untouched landscape.

The wonders here are numerous, though the startling azure blue Inferno Crater Lake is a particularly stunning sight to behold (its colour changes as the crater fills and overflows in a regular cycle, so to see it at its highest and bluest is a treat), as is Frying Pan Lake, the world's largest hot spring at 38,000 square metres in area.

If you can bear to close your eyes, the sounds to be heard here are just as amazing. From the call of native birds like the tui and fantail, to the drumming rhythm of the bubbling springs, the percussion of nature in the area is a wonder in itself.

After your walk, take a relaxing boat trip on an old fishing vessel, where churning springs, steaming mountains and pristine water all butt up against each other.

"It's like heaven and hell come together," breathes the man next to me as we drift past one particularly active vent. "I feel like I'm getting a glimpse of the afterlife."

But lets not be so hasty - there's still plenty to see and do before we go there!

The mouth to Hell is surprisingly heavenly

A trip to the Hell's Gate Spa, for example, is pretty high on the list.

Located on Rotorua's most active geothermal field, formed around 10,000 years ago, Hell's Gate (or "Tikitere") offers visitors the opportunity to explore the 2.5-kilometre expanse of walking paths on their own or with a tour guide.

After checking out the highest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere and taking a gander at an active mud volcano (which is preparing to make its regular, bi-monthly blow as I wander past), you'll be forgiven for thinking you've stepped onto a movie set as you take in the further reaches of the grounds, where boiling mud plops away, water hisses in massive pools and - if you're lucky - spontaneous, purple-coloured sulphur fires ignite on the hot ground of Sulphur Crystal Valley.

Then, when the excitement's all over, you can return to the Spa complex for a relaxing private mud bath, warm sulphur spa and traditional Maori massage. As this journalists' happy muscles will attest, you won't regret it.

While geothermal activity is at the heart of Rotorua - both physically and metaphorically speaking - there's plenty else to do aside from being stupefied by the natural wonders of the place.

From exploring the history of the Maori culture and Rotorua's past at the local museum, to hurtling your way along the Kaituna River, white water rafting down the world's highest commercially-rafted drop, there's something here for everyone.

It's a place I'm loathe to leave, and not just because it means boarding that little plane again...

Kia ora! Lauren travelled to Rotorua courtesy of Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com.au), and was hosted by Destination Rotorua Tourism Marketing.

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