The Central North Island
Running through the centre of the North Island, from Ruapehu to White Island in the Bay of Plenty, is a line of geothermal activity and volcanism that highlights New Zealand’s position on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire.’ Boiling mud, geysers, steam vents, strange geothermal pools and impressive volcanic mountains all make this region an exceptional place fro seeing the Earth in this primordial form.
The Taupo-Rotorua highway follows this main line of geothermal activity providing access to six main sites worthy of a visit. Whakarewarewa and Hell’s Gate in Rotorua are followed further south by Waimangu, Wai-o-tapu and Orakei Korako; all with their own specific attractions. At Taupo, the Craters of the Moon are a spectacular finish to this geothermal highway, where boardwalks lead around active steam vents and boiling mud.
Lake Taupo sits in the centre of the North Island and in geological terms is a caldera of the largest volcanic eruption known to have occurred on the Earth in the past 70,000 years. Around 27,000 years ago, in what is known as the Oruanui Eruption, a massive explosion blasted this crater in the Earth’s surface in the Earth’s surface that today is filled by Lake Taupo.
Taupo’s last big eruption is thought to have occurred in AD 186. Scientists have pinpointed this date from both the geological estimate and historic Chinese and Roman texts that record a change in the Earth’s atmosphere for this period. Much of the central North Island is covered with a layer of ash and pumice from the eruption, and deposits have even been found on Pacific Islands far from New Zealand. Standing on the seemingly benign shores of the lake, it is easy to be somewhat oblivious to Taupo’s violent geological past. On most days Taupo seems a place of peaceful calm where the waters of New Zealand’s largest lake lap gently on the shores.
Many more eruptions along the Taupo Volcanic Zone have occurred since the human occupation of New Zealand. The most destructive was the Tarawera eruption of 1886, which destroyed the famous Pink and White Terraces- perhaps the most beautiful geothermal formations the world has ever known. At least 153 people died in this event, almost all of whom were residents of the Maori villages near the mountain.
Mt Ngauruhoe has had periodic outbursts, lastly in 1972, and more recently, Mt Ruapehu erupted spectacularly in the mid 1990’s. Ruapehu gave plenty of warning with increased seismic activity, and when the eruption started their were no casualties. Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake has refilled since a second eruption in 1996, but the mountain continues to show signs of activity from time to time.
Tongariro National Park
The scenic beauty of this high volcanic plateau, with its three prominent volcanoes, was recognised quite early in the nation’s history. The story of its protection as New Zealand’s first national park perhaps started with Sir William Fox who was Premier of New Zealand several times between 1856 and 1873.. Fox had travelled to the United States and visited the world’s first national park in the thermal wonderland of Yellowstone. As Premier, Fox supported Maori land rights and it is likely that this, along with seeing other thermal scenic wonders of the North Island privatized, prompted him to be an early promoter of the parks idea. There was a degree of pragmatism in Fox’s support for parks as a practical response to a complex array of political issues. Maori land loss, changes to the Native Land Act (which attempted to individualise Maori land holding) and increasing conservation issues with the conversion of land for agriculture, all contributed to the genesis of the park idea in New Zealand.
It was left to the mountain’s owners to make the initial gift of land to form New Zealand’s first national park. On the 23rd of September 1887 Horonuku Te HeuHeu of Ngati Tuwharetoa signed the deed of gift that bestowed custodianship of the highest summits of the three main volcanoes to the public. This initial area was 2,630 hectares but over time the government purchased more land surrounding this until six years later the Tongariro National Park Bill was passed, protecting some 25,000 hectares. Over time more land has been added and today Tongaririo National Park covers some 80,000 hectares and is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Area: one of the few places acknowledged for both its natural and cultural importance.
In summer the park is popular with walkers, while in winter the park turns into something of a winter playground with Whakapapa and Turoa the two largest skifields in the North Island.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has an excellent descripiton of Rangitoto Island, New Zealand’s youngest volcano.