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The King Country; or, Explorations in New Zealand. A Narrative of 600 Miles of Travel through Maoriland.

Chapter X. — Wairakei

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Chapter X.

The first view—The Geyser Valley—Curious sights—Tahuatahe—Terekirike—The Whistling Geyser—A nest of stone—Singular mud-holes—The Gas and Black Geyser—The Big Geyser—The great Wairakei—The Blue Lake—Hot mud-holes—Kiriohinekai—A valley of fumaroles—Te Karapiti—Te Huka Falls—Efforts to pass under the falls—A cave—An enormous fissure—Another trial—A legend.

Within the extensive area of country known as Wairakei are situated the principal thermal wonders of this portion of the Lake Country. By reason of the terrace formation, so remarkable in this part of the valley of the Waikato, the whole place appeared as if it had been artificially designed by the hand of man. Small pumice terraces, with flat tops and shelving sides, so regular and distinct in outline that they seemed as if they had been fashioned but yesterday, wound about on every side, while the trees and wide patches of manuka scrub imparted to the whole surroundings the appearance of an English park. Beyond, to the east, Mount Tauhara, the "Lone Lover" of the Maoris, rose forest-clad to its summit, while in the background a prairie-like expanse of open country rolled away to the distant ranges. High conical page 116mountains, clothed with a luxuriant growth of bush, mounted up in the north, rolling hills stretched away to the west, while in the centre of the attractive landscape the Waikato River wound through its grand terraced valley to leap with a terrific roar over the Huka Falls.

The Geyser Valley of Wairakei is one of the most marvellous creations of its kind to be found perhaps in any part of the world. It forms, as it were, one of the principal arteries of thermal action which would seem to extend from the volcano of Tongariro in the south through the Lake region to Whakari, the active crater in the Bay of Plenty, in the east. The bottom of the valley is situated at an elevation of 1000 feet above the level of the sea, while down its centre, which has a gradual fall to the east, a warm stream of water, known as Te Wairakei, flows rapidly on its course to join the Waikato. Its steep, winding sides rise in some places to a height of over 200 feet, and above these again flat terraces spread out, bounded by clusters of conical, fern-clad hills, which mount upward, as it were, in increasing elevation to the heights beyond. Looking down the valley from one of the elevations, one sees the winding course of the great fissure filled with a dense growth of vegetation, forced into vigorous life, as it were, by the white clouds of steam that mount into the air on every side. There is one great charm about the Geyser Valley of Wairakei, and that is that it is not a melancholy, dismal-looking place. It has not the Hades-like appearance of Tikitere nor the Valley-of-Death-like look of Whakarewarewa. One is at once struck with the varied growth of vege-page 117tation which everywhere abounds, the luxuriance of the trees, the rich beauty of the ferns, and the vivid green of the thick carpet of rare and beautiful mosses which spreads itself everywhere about, from the margin of the stream below to the very tops of the steep, smoking cliffs. Every geyser, spring, and mud-hole has its clustering vegetation, and as you grope your way through the thick undergrowth along the tortuous stream, each thermal wonder bursts suddenly upon the view with a fresh and startling beauty.

As we descended into the valley by a tortuous pathway we heard the rushing of waters below, as the turbulent stream beneath swept onward over a series of miniature cascades; then the noise of hissing steam burst upon the ear, the heated ground seemed to quake beneath our feet, the boiling mud-holes sent forth a noise like the incessant "thud" of a steam-hammer, which mingled in a weird way with the loud roar and splashing of the geysers as they threw up their columns of boiling water above the trees.

Gazing anywhere, up and down the valley, some of the most beautiful and curious sights presented themselves. The warm stream which gathered its waters from the overflowing geysers and springs wound its course amidst the trees, sparkling and glittering beneath the sun. In some places its sides were entirely fringed with silicious deposits, some white and beautiful like overhanging folds of lace, some dipping down into the water in the form of enormous stalactites, while others, assuming a rounded buttress-like formation, were green with ferns and dank mosses of varied hue. At another moment a rocky point page 118came into view, and above the clustering ferns, brilliant in the soft rays of light, the tall manuka trees, which here attained to wonderful proportions, cast their gnarled branches in a dense canopy overhead, and from the very water's edge, where the warm springs bubbled and hissed, to the very summit of the valley on either side the heated soil gave life to countless wonders of the vegetable world.

Threading our way through the scrub over the hot, spongy soil, we came to Tahuatahi, a powerful intermittent geyser, with steep, rugged sides, flanked by enormous buttresses of white silica rock. The cauldron was formed by a deep hole, about twenty feet in circumference, from which a column of boiling water shot up now and again from a dense cloud of steam as it overflowed into the stream below. At a short distance from this point we crossed the creek, the sides of which were here covered with a thick growth of moss, which luxuriated in a kind of tropical heat, caused by the jets of steam which coiled out from small fissures in the soil on which it grew. When I inserted the thermometer about a foot beneath the soil at this spot, and right under the very roots of the moss, it rose rapidly to 210° Fahr. Further along was Terekirike, a large geyser, situated on the very margin of the stream. Its cauldron was of irregular formation, but rugged and beautiful in appearance, the rounded, boulder-like masses of which it was built up being of a delicate cream-colour, while the silicious crystals, assuming the most fantastic forms, tinged here and there with a pinkish hue, imparted to the whole a singularly beautiful and delicate appearance. Next to page 119this was the "Whistling Geyser," which threw up a column of boiling water at the summit of a terrace of silicious rock, while next to this again was a boiling cauldron where the heated water burst forth with a loud bubbling sound. All these three geysers formed a terrace-like formation of silicious rock, which was tinted in colours of white, pink, and yellow, while the gnarled roots of the trees, and branches which had fallen to the ground, within the action of the water had been completely covered and cemented, as it were, to the rock by the silicious deposits. Here the thermal action appeared to be very active, and as soon as one geyser subsided, another would burst forth, as it were, with redoubled vigour.

Passing this point we entered a thick scrub, where the ground was in a highly heated condition, and came suddenly into a bend in the creek, where the opposite sides of the valley rose perpendicularly from the water. In the centre of the place where we stood was a deep hole, from which shot up now and again a column of boiling water. Around the deep, cavernous aperture the dead branches of manuka had fallen in a circle, and had interlaced and spread themselves around in the form of a large nest of the most delicate construction, while the water, falling upon the netted twigs and branches, had covered them completely with a pearly incrustation of snowy silica, converting the whole into a pure white nest of stone. Nothing but spreading trees and mosses grew around this secluded spot, and the singular structure, when we first came upon it, looked like the petrified nest of some gigantic antediluvian bird.

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From this curious structure, which we named the Eagle's Nest, we mounted the hot, treacherous sides of the valley to where a number of boiling mud-holes vomited forth vast quantities of white, silicious mud, of the consistency of thick gruel. All were nearly circular in form, and about six feet deep by twenty in circumference, and, while one had a pinkish tint, caused evidently by red oxide of iron, another next to it was of a milky-white colour. When the mud had become hardened, it was of the consistency of cheese, with a greasy feel, while it could be fashioned by the aid of a knife into any form. All the pools were in a constant state of ebullition, and emitted a strong odour of sulphuretted hydrogen. Close to them was a small lakelet of green, silicious water, warm and steaming. The sides of the valley in this vicinity were everywhere very hot, and when I inserted the thermometer about two feet below the surface it registered 215°, and yet on this heated soil the mosses grew luxuriantly, but all other vegetation had a somewhat stunted appearance.

Lower down the valley we came upon another geyser, throwing up boiling water from a funnel-shaped hole, around which big masses of silica rock clustered in fantastic form. At the foot of this geyser, and within a yard or two of the stream, was a small pool, apparently of great depth, in which big balls of gas flashed constantly in the sun as they rose rapidly to the surface and exploded. This only occurred when the geyser was quiescent, but as soon as it became active, the pool became less troubled, as the water from above rolled over it. At a short distance from this was a page 121geyser formed by a circular hole, which threw up constantly a big jet of hot water from a basin where the crystallized rock was covered with a black deposit. Here we jumped the stream at a very treacherous point, and again fought our way through the scrub, and round about a perfect network of hot springs and mud-holes, so close and so intricately laced together that the greatest care was necessary to prevent being boiled alive.

On the southern side of the stream, we came suddenly up to the Big Geyser, which every now and again threw up vast volumes of boiling water from an oval-shaped cauldron of pure white, crystallized silica. The water, of the purest blue, flowed over a terrace-like formation, which was being gradually built up just as the famed terraces of Rotomahana must have been, each fold, or lamination, of the rock being distinctively formed with tablets beautifully designed by the silica-charged waters. Climbing up a ridge by the side of this big fountain, we peered over a precipice, which opened out beneath in a semicircular form, and at the bottom of which was a large oval-shaped spring—dark water, shining, and steaming hot, while the silicious rocks which walled it in were tinged a deep red by oxide of iron. This was a very warm though interesting region. The red and white-streaked walls of the chasm steamed and bubbled, the boiling mud-springs displayed a wonderful activity, while the green lakelet on the opposite side of the valley sent down its emerald coloured water to mingle with Te Wairakei, which foamed and hissed as it rushed furiously over its rocky bed below.

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Not far from this point was the geyser known as the Great Wairakei, from which the district takes its name. According to Maori legend, it is said to have been called after an old woman who plunged into its boiling cauldron to end her days. It was formed of an oblong basin of about forty feet long by thirty feet wide, and almost circular, while at its farther end the steep sides of the steaming pool rose to a height of sixty feet, rock-bound, black, and adamantine in appearance. Perhaps, however, one of the most curious features of this geyser was that the edges of the pool were beautifully fringed with white incrustations of silica, pointed and fretted in the form of the most delicate lacework, while down beneath the water might be seen huge masses of silica rock, which had the appearance of the most fantastic coralline formations. White, yellow, and pink were the prevailing colours of these splendid incrustations, and when shining beneath the sun the contrast of the deep blue of the water and the white foam of the geyser, as it threw up its column of steaming water, was very attractive. Right in the centre of the broad basin the hot-fountain surged and roiled, bursting up now and again in the form of a sparkling column, and subsiding with a loud, rumbling sound, as if in fury at the disturbing agency below. Enormous volumes of steam circled in the air, but everywhere around its hot sides a clustering vegetation struggled for life upon the heated soil.

Within a short distance to the west of the Geyser Valley, and at the summit of a high range of hills, we explored another interesting region of thermal action. page 123It was principally formed by a deep, crater-like depression, with rugged sides, composed of huge masses of trachytic and pumice rock and volcanic earth, from the numerous fissures of which issued white jets of steam. The country hereabouts bore traces of having undergone, at some period or another, considerable subterranean disturbance, and it appeared as if the crater-like depression had formed the principal seat of action. In the centre of this remarkable locality was situated a small lake of oblong shape, with steep, rock-bound, precipitous sides, which rose perpendicularly from the edge of the water to a height of about sixty feet. The water, of a thick, opaque blue, like cloudy turqoise, lay undisturbed, without a ripple upon its surface, save where innumerable gas-bubbles rose from the depths below to give off their sulphuretted hydrogen. At its western end, embowered amidst a dense growth of fern and mosses, was a picturesque cave, through which ran a cold, icy spring of delicious water.

Near to the lake were several large mud-pools in a state of great activity, and still further along, close under a steep, rocky bluff, whose hot, quaking sides sent forth innumerable jets of steam, was an extensive chain of sulphur-pools, one of which was over 100 feet in diameter. In the vicinity of these pools were large deposits of bright yellow sulphur, with hematite iron, the red oxide, silica, alum, and other mineral products peculiar to thermal action. All these pools were so disposed that they formed, as it were, natural baths, and, from varions tests I made, I found that the temperature averaged from 100° to page 124206° Fahr. The colour of the water varied in appearance from dark green to steel-grey, but all were evidently highly charged with sulphur and other minerals, and I believe that their curative properties would be found very efficacious in cutaneous and rheumatic affections.

It was from the Blue Lake and the sulphur and mud-pools in its vicinity that a very remarkable spring took its rise. After passing a considerable distance underground, it wound on its way to the Waikato River. Along its entire course the country fell rapidly from the lake, and the stream in many places—which had a channel from three to six feet in width—descended at various intervals into small cascades which, falling into broad pools, formed natural baths. We bathed in one of these fountains where the water had a temperature of 110° Fahr., and as the whole volume of the stream passed over the body, it produced the most delightful sensation. The efficacy of this water for curative purposes has been long known to the Maoris, who have given it the name of Kiriohinekai, or "New Skin," from the singular properties which it possesses in the cure of cutaneous and rheumatic disorders. The water in colour was of a bluish green, and we found that our horses drank readily of it, even when in its warm state.

To the south of the Kiriohinekai stream, and about a mile distant, there was another broad valley, the bottom of which was covered with innumerable fumaroles that sent up their coils of steam in every direction. Here the soft, spongy, heated soil was covered with a dense growth of moss and stunted page 125manuka scrub. All the springs running over this valley were warm, and most of them were impregnated to a high degree with sulphur and alum.

Here at the foot of a hill sloping towards the south was situated Te Karapiti, the largest fumarole in the Lake Country. It was formed by a deep and apparently fathomless aperture, rounded like a funnel, and from which issued with a terrific force and unearthly screeching noise, a spiral column of transparent steam, which mounted high into the air as if forced upward from below by a 100-horse-power engine. So great was the force of this column of steam as it issued from the earth, that the branches of trees we threw into the funnel were at once ejected and hurled upwards with tremendous power. When I tested its heat, the thermometer rose to 220° Fahr. This curious steam-hole, which carries on its eruptions incessantly, may be distinctly seen all over the Taupo country.1

The Huka2 Falls form, without doubt, the most attractive sight to be seen along the whole valley of the Waikato, and there is no better way to view them than by an approach from the north through Wairakei. Journeying this way, one gets a splendid view of the deep valley of the river, as it meanders for miles on either side, and when the falls burst upon the gaze they produce a magnificent coup d'œil. The river page 126pouring out of Lake Taupo, at an elevation of 1175 feet above the level of the sea, rolls onward in a serpentine course down a picturesque terraced ravine for about five miles, when it suddenly breaks into a series of eddying cascades, and then, sweeping with a rapid current round an abrupt curve, the vast volume of water enters a channel about 150 feet long by 60 feet broad, and with perpendicular, rock-bound sides. The foaming stream thus confined shoots onward with tremendous fury into bounding rapids, until the mass
section of valley of waikato river at huka falls.A A. Table-land ofpumice drift 1400 feet above sea-level.B B. Flat terrace.C. Channel cut by river through dyke of trachytic rock.D. Fall of river into lower terraced valley, 50 feet.

section of valley of waikato river at huka falls.
A A. Table-land ofpumice drift 1400 feet above sea-level.
B B. Flat terrace.
C. Channel cut by river through dyke of trachytic rock.
D. Fall of river into lower terraced valley, 50 feet.

of water leaps from a height of 50 feet into a circular basin below, whence it rushes onwards in its course to the sea. The fine basin into which the river falls is about 150 feet broad in its widest part; its precipitous sides rise to a height of about 60 feet, and above these again the terraced hills of pumice rise hundreds of feet higher. Around this pool the greenest and most varied vegetation clusters to the very edge of the water; enormous boulders lie scattered beneath, as if hurled into their present position by the fury of the stream, and as the bright, bluish-green water comes thundering page 127in a glittering, foaming wave over the rocky precipice, and falls shining beneath the sun in wild, seething eddies below, amidst a cloud of diamond spray, the effect is beautiful in the extreme.

When I had gazed with admiration at the beauty of the Huka, I determined to ascertain whether it would be possible to pass underneath the shoot of water from one side to the other. I had done this under the Falls of Niagara, and it seemed to me that the same thing might be accomplished at the Huka, only on a smaller scale. When I suggested to my guide that we should make this trial at the risk of our necks, he did not hesitate, but, on the contrary, entered with spirit into what appeared an almost impossible undertaking. To get down on a level with the seething pool below, it was necessary for us to descend a perpendicular precipice of rock of some sixty feet in height. The only way down was by clinging on to the roots of the trees, and in this way we gained the rugged rocks beneath. Once on the margin of the river, we crept through the thick growth of fern and manuka, and then along steep, slippery, moss-grown boulders that bordered the eddying whirlpool. There was just sufficient room at each step to put the toes of our boots. One false step and all was over. As we crept cautiously along towards the fall, and looked upwards, it appeared much higher and grander than when we had beheld it from the precipice above, and as it came thundering towards us from a cloud of spray the effect was not only beautiful, but thrilling to a degree. With the cautious tread of a couple of cats, we crawled round the edge of the fall, so close that the outside water of the grand cascade caught page 128us and drenched us to the skin, but it soon became apparent as we progressed under the fall that our way was barred by a barrier of rock which rose vertically up under the centre of the shoot. We discovered, however, a small cave, which extended right under the bed of the rocky channel over which the river passed, and, as we squatted down inside, the vibration caused by the terrific flow of water over our heads was so great that not only did the rocks above and around us shake, but the delicate and beautiful ferns which grew about the walls of the cave trembled like aspen leaves as they grew. As we gazed from the recesses of the cave through the falling water the effect produced by the sunlight was very beautiful, as it lit up the foaming cataract in all the colours of the rainbow.

Thus baffled, I determined to try the opposite side of the fall, and on the following day we crossed the Waikato at Tapuwaeharuru, and rode across the wide pumice plain between the valley of the river and the great mountain Tauhara. It was when crossing this level tract of weird pumice country, where nothing could be seen but stunted manuka and tussock grass, that we came across, and, in fact, nearly galloped into an enormous fissure, which we did not perceive until we were right on its brink. It was about three quarters of a mile long, running at right angles to the river, and over 100 feet in depth. Now, although on the hard dry plain over which we rode the vegetation was sparse and stunted, down in this chasm there was a beautiful and varied growth of mosses, trees, and ferns, all growing in unsurpassed luxuriance upon the hard pumice soil. A small stream, which came out from page 129under the ground at the head of this deep valley, wound down its centre; and as we gazed upon the varied growth below, it looked like a veritable oasis in a wilderness. To any one anxious to act the part of a modern Quintus Curtius, I know of no better place.

When we gained the Huka Falls on this side, we crawled down a steep, precipitous cliff, and by the aid of a rope let ourselves down a wall of rock some fifty feet in height, until we reached a dense growth of scrub and fern, which fringed the rocks on this side of the pool. We came suddenly into a rustic-looking spot in a cluster of bush, where the water from a spring in the cliff above dropped like a shower-bath upon our heads, and from this point we again got out to the moss-grown, slippery rocks on the margin of the river. The wind, too, being across the falls, blew clouds of spray all around us, and it was with great difficulty we crept round the body of water and right under the centre of the shoot, where the full volume of the Waikato rolled over our heads. On this side a series of rocky ledges, each about a foot wide, formed the inner wall, and these were covered everywhere with a thick growth of bright-green mosses, and there was just sufficient room for us to stand without being caught by the fall and drawn into the vortex that hissed below like a steaming cauldron, as the millions of tons of bright-blue water fell with echoing roar at our feet. So far our adventures beneath the waters of the Huka were satisfactory, but I could not recommend any one to repeat the experiment. Our researches, however, proved beyond a doubt that it is page 130not possible to pass under the Huka Falls from one side to the other.

I found that almost every object of interest in these wild regions had some weird legend attached to it, and Te Huka was not an exception to the rule. Ages ago, so the tradition goes, a number of the tribe of the Ngatihau came on a visit to the Ngatituwharetoa of Taupo. The former, being experienced canoemen, boasted of the rapids they were accustomed to shoot when navigating the Whanganui, pointing out at the same time that the Taupo natives might well sail with ease over their beautiful lake. But the Ngatituwharetoa gave their visitors to understand that they could boast of rapids that no canoe could shoot. "If you show them, we will navigate them," exclaimed the Ngatihau; and the challenge was taken up, the only stipulation being that the Taupo tribe should furnish a pilot to the head of the rapids. A war-canoe was launched, and seventy of the Ngatihau getting into it, the swift craft shot down the Waikato, then over the first rapid and over the second, when at a jutting point of rock the pilot of the Ngatituwharetoa leapt ashore, and in a second more the Ngatihau swept onward to their doom over the falls.

1 When making the ascent of Ruapehu, Te Karapiti was distinctly visible at a distance of nearly fifty miles. It acts as a kind of weather-glass to the Maoris when navigating the treacherous waters of Lake Taupo.

2 Huka is a general term applied by the natives to the foam of the sea, and to ice and snow; it here refers to the foaming, snowy appearance of the falls.