Rotorua Stories and Tips

Around Taupo: Earth's Powers

Wairakei Steam Fields Photo, Taupo, New Zealand

Tom and I left Rotorua headed south towards Taupo and on to Mount Taranaki, where we would be spending 1 night. We chose Rotorua over Taupo on this holiday, so we didn’t have time to take in everything around Taupo. North of Taupo we spent a bit of time exploring some of nature’s powers—the Wairakei Geothermal Power Station, Huka Falls, and Craters of the Moon (created as a direct result of the power station).

Wairakei Geothermal Power Station is located off of the main road, Hwy 1, north of Taupo. Watch for signs to the power station itself, as well as the Geothermal Borehole Lookout. We didn’t have time to visit the power station, but we did go up to look at the steam field. My husband, an engineer, was particularly impressed by the pipes. Shiny, high-pressure steam pipes twist and turn approximately 2km from the boreholes to the power station. It is an incredible sight to see these shiny silver pipes stretched out across the valley with steam belching from the earth.

"This power station uses geothermal fluid produced in this steamfield to generate electricity. Initial investigations and exploratory wells in this steamfield were undertaken in the 1950s. There have been more than 200 wells drilled in this steamfield and there are approximately 60 wells currently in production. Wells over 2,000m deep tap into zones of hot fluid, at temperatures of 230-260C. When the fluid reaches the surface, it is separated at the well head into dry steam and hot water in a cyclonic separator. The hot water is either collected and piped to secondary ‘flash’ separators at a Flash Plant, where additional dry steam is produced at lower pressure, or reduced to atmospheric pressure in well head silencers. The residual hot water is either piped to the Binary Power Plant at the power station to reinjection wells on the steamfield perimeter or discharged into open drains. Around 1,400 tonnes per hour of steam is produced in the field and transmitted to the power station through insulated pipelines varying in diameter from 300 to 1200mm. Steam travels at about 200 kph in the pipelines. Many of these steam wells have been in production since the power station was commissioned in 1958 generating renewable steam and sustainable energy."

The creation of this site created some interesting happenings up the road. A new geothermal area, Craters of the Moon, was created after the underground thermodynamics were altered. It isn’t a beautiful geothermal site with colourful lakes and geysers, but there is enough steam and hissing to keep you guessing while walking along the 2km of trails. It is free to visit this site, although the parking area has been taken over by a volunteer group that accepts donations to keep the car park guarded—NZ$5 won’t go unappreciated.

There were instances of burned feet and legs so a wooden plank has now been built to keep those feet cool. It is recommended that you stay on the trail to keep you safe and so you aren’t trampling on delicate plants and such. This is very difficult to do when you see steam spewing from a hole or when you can hear hissing and gurgling. I am not telling you to walk off of the trail, but it is much more exciting when you can see the bottom of the pit. Beware: Some areas look like a well-worn path but may be like that due to extreme heat. You wouldn’t want to ruin the rest of your holiday because of burned feet!

Fumaroles, mud pits, and other natural features were created when the power station started using more of the ground water. There is less water for cooling the magma below the earth causing these things to occur. The ground cavity used to be full of water but is now full of steam; hence, the major amount of steam billowing from the earth here. As stated above, some of the water is put back into the earth, but not all of it is replaced.

Make sure you take a look at the strange vegetation in this micro climate. You will see mosses and algae that don’t normally grow here, but due to the heat and steam they now do. Other plants that would normally survive in this area don’t survive due to the steam.

This is an easy walk for most people to do and could potentially be wheelchair accessible, although I think it would be a difficult whether you are pushing someone or wheeling yourself. If you want the extra effort, there is an additional loop trail off of the main trail to the upper lookout that is steep in places and is not wheelchair-accessible. It will add at least 20 minutes to your walk.

Located between these two stops is another famous site, Huka Falls at the Waikato River, one of New Zealand’s most voluminous rivers. Huka Falls, or "great body of spray," is the area where the river is funneled through a narrow chasm and then plunges over a ten-metre shelf into eddies and whirlpools. A walking bridge spans the area providing a bird’s eye view of the spectacle. At times, there can be 300,000 litres (60,000 gallons) of water per second rushing over the shelf. It is such an incredible shade of turquoise blue that is very difficult to capture on film.

For those wanting some adventure out of all of this, Huka jet provides you with a heart-stopping jet-boat ride up the river at 80kph to the base of the falls. Like other places in New Zealand, you won’t believe the colour of the waterfalls. If you are ever more adventurous, crazy even, you may want to canoe or kayak the falls. It has been done with proper training and gear, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

A quick stop to these three sights won’t take more than a couple of hours at the most. Although these aren’t the most popular things to do on the tourist route, you will still find packed car parks and plenty of people. If you want to take a look at varying degrees of the Earth’s powers, this is as good a place as any.

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