Put me within 40 miles of a toasty warm, preferably scenic body of flat calm water and I will undoubtedly find it. I consider it my fourth best skill, after writing, dancing and my part time gig as a professional storm chasing sketchologist. Alright maybe fifth, after lying…
Anyway, after moving to the North Island for the remaining portion of our time in New Zealand, we decided to make a side trip to Rotorua, an area well known for its geothermal activity and abundance of supposedly-unmissable tourist activities, previously explained to me as an adult theme park of sorts.
And that’s when I found it: New Zealand’s only geothermal mud bath. Now, seeing as how we currently live full time in a campervan, plopping ourselves into a steaming pile of mud, followed by rather unfortunate smelling sulfuric springs is not normally something I would add to my list of Well Thought-Out Ideas. Luckily I did not consider this at all, so it remains one of my best ideas stemming from the least amount of thought possible.
Hells Gate: A Muddy Must-Do
Only a short 15 minute drive northeast of Rotorua, Hells Gate is located in Tikitere, the Maori name given to the thermal park and surrounding area. In fact, the whole area has held onto its rich Maori culture, tradition and history – perhaps more so than anywhere else we’ve been in New Zealand – as the Ngati Rangiteaorere tribe have lived in the area for upwards of 700 years. Despite the park being formally named “Hells Gate” after the playwright George Bernard Shaw dubbed it so during his visit in the early 1900s, it remains the only Maori-owned thermal park in New Zealand.
While you’re more than welcome to partake in a self-guided tour of the Geothermal Reserve Park, we would not have enjoyed our experience nearly as much without the insight and commentary from our local tour guide who grew up just down the road. Plus our combo tour also included the mud bath and spa, which, let’s be honest, we wouldn’t have been there without.
Geothermal Reserve Park Highlights
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting the actual walking portion of the tour was, especially after arriving on a day of drizzly garbage weather. From learning about the Maori Princess, Hurutini, who killed herself by walking into a geothermal pool, to the healing aspects of the sulfur waterfall used by Maori warriors, I learned quite a bit about what life must have been like hundreds of years ago in this area.
It was also fascinating to learn that because the sulfur is so corrosive, and there’s such an abundance of it in the area, the landscape is constantly changing due to new geothermal activity and day-to-day challenges are always appearing. For example, the staff has switched to using iPads because their desktop computers get ruined too quickly, and the owner has gone through two, most likely very expensive, failed attempts to install lighting on the walkway paths in an effort to offer night tours, after the sulfur ate through the heavy duty casings and wiring within three to five weeks.
Though the pools are all close together and look like they’re surely part of the same source of activity, most have vastly different temperatures and depths. One of the muddiest-looking pools appeared to be only a few inches deep, and was actually somewhere near 20 meters (60 feet), while the one next to it appeared much clearer and was only a few meters deep. Wild. And a last interesting tidbit, for those of us with dark interests – one of the pools pointed out to us is capable of dissolving an entire human body in 3 days.
The largest hot waterfall in Southern Hemisphere, ‘O Te Mimi O Te Kakahi’ means ‘the urine of Kakahi’ – apparently because pee is, like sulfur, also a good salve for cuts and wounds (I remain dubious). Male Maori warriors were the only ones allowed to bathe here, and the temperature remains at a warm 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) today.
Also nearby, you’ll see New Zealand’s endemic silver ferns, as well as bright orange algae created by the sulfur.
Unlike other thermal reserves in New Zealand, which mostly sit 5 to 6 kilometers above the ground’s heat source, Hells Gate sits only 1 kilometer above its heat source, which is, well… it’s rather terrifying to think about, so step lightly, walk quickly, and trust the judgment of your guide’s sturdy walking stick.
I did not know this, but Hells Gate is also home to the 2nd largest mud volcano in the world, right after one in Colombia in which you can apparently swim in without reenacting a scene from that terrible-yet-intriguing late 90s masterpiece, Dante’s Peak. Unfortunately, a French volcanologist came here a few years ago and accidentally stepped on a faulty portion, which then collapsed and caused the poor dude to fall into, instantly searing a large portion of his legs. Lesson: Do not be a volcanologist, or at least one with an interest in unpredictable mud volcanoes.
Also on the Hells Gate website, which I thought I’d just leave here for reference: “Every six weeks or so the top of the volcano goes hard and over a two to three day period pressure builds up which causes the top mud layer to erupt over a 5m wide diameter. Thankfully almost all of these eruptions take place at night.” Perhaps fate (also sulfur, mostly sulfur) had a hand in ruining those nighttime tour walking lights, eh?!
Steaming Cliffs Pool
The hottest pool in the reserve at 122 degrees Celsius (251 degrees Fahrenheit), the Steaming Cliffs Pool is, for lack of a more flowery explanation, rather radical.
“Cooking Pool” & Medicine Lake
The dark black pool toward the end of the walking tour is known as the “Cooking Pool” due to its constant temperature of 93 degrees Celsius (199 degrees Fahrenheit), which is apparently the perfect temperature to cook an assortment of veggies and meat that somehow magically, we were assured, also don’t come out tasting like edible sulfur nonsense.
Used for centuries by local Maoris to cure skin diseases and help with arthritis, we were allowed to put our hands in Medicine Lake to feel how soft the mud made our skin, even after only a minute or two.
At the end of the tour, we had the option of trying whakairo, or traditional Maori wood carving, which of course we decided gave a go. And folks, let me tell you, I AM NOW A GLORIOUS MASTER CARVER. Just kidding, I have no patience and my Kiwi bird came out terrible, but it was still enjoyable.
And then, as if my fourth best skill suddenly reignited, it was time to seek out our mud bath. A few notes:
- Take off all of your jewellery.
- Wear your bathing suit on the tour (it’s easier than changing into it after).
- If, like us, you are living in a van while you partake in this muddy sulfur adventure, also bring your normal shower gear, as there are private showers and you can immediately rinse out your hair, clothing and bathing suit, all of which will smell strongly of sulfur.
- You’re only allowed in the mud bath for 20 minutes, as the heat is intensified here, but can spend as long as you want in the sulfur spas.
- Don’t put the mud on your forehead or anywhere near your eyes.
This was, unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the tour. Sure, learning is great, but after a month living in a van, nothing feels better than baby soft skin and finding mud in your ear two days later. Maybe not the latter, but you get the point. Mud bath = hell yes.
With a few springs to choose from, we hopped in the furthest sulfur pool for a quiet soak in the warm waters overlooking the nearby thermal pools before heading out for more van life shenanigans. And although we really should have done laundry that same day, or at least the day after or day after that, sometimes still receiving the occasional whiff of sulfur, weeks later, is a reminder of our dear time soaking up sulfuric goodness, and I enjoy it.
Kia ora rawa atu, Hells Gate! And may your geothermal activity stay safely at 1 kilometer.