Day 168: On The Clock

Mon. 28th January 2013

Does what it says on the tin!It seems that we are doing the North Island at a million miles per hour. In truth, we have allocated too little time for it and there will be big chunks of the island that we won’t get to see at all. That is going to continue today as we have a 12 noon appointment with the opening of the sluice gates at a dam down the Waitako River. And we have so much ‘stuff’ to fit in before then.

Huka Falls - not huge but worth viewingToday’s activities are dominated by the Waitako River, which is appropriate given that it is the longest river in New Zealand. After a final look around Taupo – only a small town, but quite pretty fronting on to the lake – we head off for Huka Falls. These are apparently NZ’s best known falls (although by no means the highest). Before the falls themselves, there are a set of rapids as the river narrows and the banks become a steep sided canyon. There are platforms on both sides of the river which provide a good view of both the falls and the rapids. Less dramatic (by far) than Iguassu – I suspect, we are now forever condemned to compare all new sights with other experiences from our trip – it was still worth viewing (and it was much less crowded).

Steam gushing from the Craters of the MoonA little further down the road is the ‘Craters of the Moon’. These were created in the 1950s when a thermal power station was built and lowered the water levels – causing the remaining water to boil more fiercely. There is now a boardwalk around a set of pits (craters) with steam vents and bubbling mud pools. It had mixed reviews on Trip Advisor (to be fair, most things get a mixed review there) with some people saying it was great and uncommercialised and other saying it was boring. We could see both points of view.

Unreal landscapeThe last steam vents/mud pools we saw were above the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia and they were much more spectacular than these. This reminded us that Bolivia was really one of the highlights of our trip – when people ask us for our favourite country, we must answer Bolivia more often. Certainly in terms of smiles per £, Bolivia easily tops our list of countries visited.

The calm after the delugeNext up, is the Aratiatia Dam just a little further down the river. This is the site of a hydro-electric power station and in order to control the level of the lake (and hence the flow of water into the station) they open the sluice gates, to drain excess water, four times per day. We arrive with ten minutes to spare for the 12 noon opening. We are a little disconcerted to find that we have a choice of viewing platform and so, under pressure, we opt for the higher platform. (The right answer would have been to split up and take one platform each!)

Before!After!The release of water creates a set of rapids in the stretch immediately below the dam. We later find out that this stretch of rapids was used in film of (yes, you guessed) The Hobbit – in the part where Bilbo goes over the rapids in a barrel (this will be in Part 2 or 3). Certainly there is a huge contrast in the flow of water before and after the opening of the sluices. The water level rises by around 6’ in stretches and what were once placid pools of blue/green water turn into torrents of seething white water. From our vantage point, we could watch the surge coming downstream over a 5 to 10 minute period.

And that was all before lunch!

Does what it says on the tin!As I have commented before, a jet boat ride is one of the ‘must do’ (or stereotypical) things to do in NZ. I tried and failed to book the most famous ride – the Shotover Jet in Queenstown – and am now running out of opportunities. There are a couple of options to choose from here – one above the dam in the lake, and the other below the dam in the rapids. The latter sounds more fun and so I sign up for a 2pm (coinciding with the opening of sluices) ride on the Rapids Jet. More ‘saying it as it is’ naming.

Of course we got wet!The statistics for the jet boat are impressive:

  • The engine is a 7l V8 producing 500HP (and sounding like the taxi we had in Havanna);
  • It burns up 1l /min of fuel and pushes 400l/s of water out of the jets;
  • The top speed is c. 85kph (50knotts??);
  • It draws only 4” of water when on the plane (i.e. at speed) and so (with a water jet instead of propellers) can go over very shallow water.

However, the statistics don’t do justice to the experience of being in the boat as it rushes over rapids and through the shallows. The river is narrow in places (perhaps only 1’ on either side with vertical banks – no time to appreciate the erosion characteristics). I’ve never been on a boat that skidded before but this one did as the driver aimed the nose of the boat at a rock on the apex of a bend and then skated the boat around to just miss it. Then there were the 180o and 270o spins on a sixpence in stretches of the river you’re sure are too narrow for spinning.

Seriously wierd stuff at Orakei KorakoNeedless to say, I was very wet by the end of the trip. Really exhilarating and great fun and very highly recommended. Would Shotover Jet have been any better? Impossible to say, but it would have had to go some. Shotover would also have been a shorter trip by 10 or 15 minutes so, all in all, I was, perhaps, lucky to have been forced to wait until now.

Just one of the geysers and the surreal landscape at Oarkei KorakoI have to confess that Janet does most of the research as to what activities we should do in each place. She then gives me my opinion as we go. The whole Taupo – Rotorua area is famous for volcanic activity, thermal pools, bubbling mud and geysers. Janet picks out the ‘Hidden Valley’ of Orakei Korako for our final stop of the day, even though it is a little out of our way. “It’s OK”, she goes, “it’s your blog day!”

Looking up at the Sapphire Geyser, Orakei KorakoWell, what a good call. Whilst the Craters of the Moon came off badly in comparison with the bubbling mud pools in Bolivia, Orakei Korako more than held its own – and there was more variety here too. From the minute that the little shuttle boat took us across the river to the ‘Hidden Valley’ to start on the self-guided trail, we were met with an incredible array of sights and sounds.

Saphire Geyser at Orakei Korako from Dave Hornsey on Vimeo.

Silica field, Orakei KorakoFirst was the white silica slope stained bright yellow – presumably by sulphur – and with trickles of (hot) water running down it. Then there were the geysers that periodically gushed steam and boiling water from pink stained rocks – it was hard to keep track as when one geyser stopped another would start elsewhere. We finally got to seem some proper bubbling mud pools – larger than Bolivia – and all but impossible to photograph (a monochrome picture of flat mud if you missed a bubble). All around was a bizarre landscape in a palette of white, pink, yellow and blue with pillars of steam rising from ever changing locations.

Bubbling mud poolSo, it’s been another long, hot, tiring but absolutely fascinating day. Another day to hold in our memories. When we got to our motel, we really did deserve our beer and soak in the hot tub, with free thermally heated water.




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