Clouds billow from the earth as you arrive at the entry of Hells Gate. On closer inspection I discovered they were man made and couldn't help but wonder if like most theme parks, the name was all razzle dazzle, but that the actual adventure would be far less impressive than the name itself. However this couldn't be further from the truth at Hells Gate.
The Naturally Extraterrestrial Terrain of Hells Gate
At the Hells Gate Spa, you can smooth and soften your skin in the traditional mud bath. It is an invigorating and uplifting experience. Soaking in the hot mud, I could actually picture my mental bucket list checking off 'soak in New Zealand mud baths' with a giant red tick.
According to park information, the Maori have been using the mud and sulfurous waters on this site for over 700 years. After your mud bath, enter the healing waters of the sulfur spa. Here you can bathe with an unforgettable view over the active geothermal park.
Although the Mud Bath and Sulfur Spa are exotic experiences that must be had if you come all this way, the true out-of-this-world encounter lies on the Geothermal Reserve Walk. If you have never been to an active geothermal site before, nothing short of a Mission to Mars movie can prepare you for what you will see.
When we first set out on the walk, although I was amazed at the bubbling mud and steaming earth, I confess I was a mite disappointed. It felt like somewhat of a 'Zoo' experience where all the animals were in cages and half of them were sleeping. My disappointment lasted only momentarily as I realised this was the 'show' section of the establishment and we hadn't really even started on the main walk.
We headed up track into a lush forest where gorgeous Kakahi waterfall was visible from our lookout. The information pamphlet told us that this water was about the temperature of a hot shower. The Maori Warriors used to bathe in the falls after battle cleansing their wounds with the antiseptic properties of the sulfurous water.
The steaming clouds rising off the waterfall was our first indication that this was no ordinary hike. Then the forest began to thin and suddenly, an utterly alien terrain stretched out before us. Boiling lakes and bubbling mud surround you inches from the footpath and huge steaming clouds rise ominously from the active earth.
You get the feeling that the earth is very much alive here. I actually found the 'WARNING" signs almost unnecessary. The steaming landscape itself commands such a healthy level of respect, that nothing short of the apocalypse would have persuaded me to leave the marked path anyway. It truly feels as though you have dropped into some kind of warp and been whisked away onto a Martian planet.
Hells Gate is also home to the largest mud volcano in New Zealand. According to my informative pamphlet, every six weeks or so the mud volcano was due for an eruption and erupted over a 5 metre area... As we gazed in wonder, I couldn't help but hope it didn't decide to erupt while we were standing next to it.
This is where my people are from and I grew up here.
If you get the opportunity - take a tour through Waka. It's a little village in Rotorua where people still live in little houses that their great great great grandfathers built.
It is also full of mineral baths and residents still cook there dinners in the little steam holes and in the hot springs.
Sweet corn cooked in the mineral water is so yummy and healthy - until you smear it in butter if course...