Ring of Fire

Mt. Ngauruhoe, or Mt. Doom from the Lord of The Rings

(Dana) The volcanic region running straight through the center of the North Island of New Zealand is part of the great Pacific Ring of Fire — where massive tectonic plates meet and shift, causing natural wonders and disasters like this year’s horrific Japanese earthquake.  Although these geological forces can wreak havoc and devastation, the great heat emanating from the center of the earth in New Zealand provided us several memorable opportunities.

Three 10,000-foot dormant volcanoes dominate the landscape of the center of the island – Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. As we hiked around the beautiful National Park, we marveled at the power that created these mountains.  We also hoped that Mt. Ruapehu — the primary volcano in New Zealand and 900 years overdue for eruption — would hold off a while longer.  Mt. Ngauruhoe, better known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of The Rings movies, was stunning, but having watched the movies while we were here, we almost didn’t recognize the computer-enhanced landscapes.

The entire area around Rotorua is like a gorgeously green, steamy, slightly-stinky subway grate.  Driving down the highway, we spotted dozens of vents spurting steam into the air.  Our destination was Kerosene Creek, a thermally heated stream where we could do our swimming for New Zealand.  Splashing around was like playing in a natural hot tub with massaging waterfall, although the faint smell of rotten eggs (sulfur) was a small downside.  Several enterprising Kiwis have built thermal pool parks around known hotspots, but we opted for complete nature.

The steaming White Island

Only 30 miles from the coast, White Island is the most-accessible active marine volcano in the world.  Having just erupted in 2000, the volcano gurgles constantly, spewing 180-degree steam from fumaroles and the edges of the massive crater.  Taking a boat out to the island and donning hard hats and gas masks, we followed our guide closely so as not to fall through the surface into boiling vats of mud and earth.

The sulfur kitchen

And in a questionable moment of parenting, we all agreed to taste the sulfur that crystallized on the surface… because Isaac assured us that it used to be sold medicinally.  This was only topped by our willingness to stick our fingers into the heated stream to taste the water to try to figure out what was in it.  Perhaps dubious thinking when we learned that the taste we couldn’t quite place was “very diluted” hydrochloric and sulfuric acid!  It is an inhospitable, dangerous part of the island; no wonder the sulfur mining of the early 19th-century ceased operations.

Air temperature 45F, butt temperature 110F

The highlight of our geothermal activity was our afternoon at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula.  There, the sand is heated by a bulge/hot spot only 2 kilometers beneath the earth’s surface, remnants of volcanic activity 4-6 million years ago.  Close to low tide, we could dig pits in the sand, which would heat the seawater, making our own natural spa pools!  In some spots, it was actually too hot to sit until a wave brought in cold water.  We dug and played until long after sundown and the air temperature dropped.

Reis and Andrew White, vulcanologists

As we have witnessed in many locations this year, the power of the earth is awe-inspiring.  Geothermal action is beautiful, but I have to admit I’m glad that there are no active volcanoes in Massachusetts.


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