Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 7

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Pulsating Wairakei's Geyser Valley — The Devil's Trumpet — The Geysers and Paint-Pots of Taupo — An Immense Crater Lake — Burning Mountains — Terrifying White Island

Thirty miles south of Waiotapu is Wairakei, in some respects the most active place in the wonderland district. There geysers are always playing, and there Karapiti, New Zealand's greatest blowhole, roars every second of the day.

Wairakei is an astounding region in an uninteresting expanse of manuka and low hills. Those who go there expecting to see evidence of thermal activity from hotel veranda or window will be disappointed. From the hotel not a trace of steam is visible. Yet only a short distance away are more geysers than are found in any other part of the country. Everything is hidden behind the manuka-capped hills.

Geyser Valley, only a half-mile from the hostelry, proved to be a veritable nest of geysers. There were more than in the Government Reserve at Whaka, and, like them, they were within a small compass. Wairakei exhibited nothing matching the strength of Wairoa Geyser, but the remarkable industry of its geysers more than counterbalanced the superior powers of Whaka's chief spouters.

The most active feature in the valley was Champagne Pool, a fascinating, fearful splasher at the base of a rocky wall. It was constantly boiling furiously, and it often burst into fountains from two to six feet high, and sometimes ten or twelve feet high. The pool was deep and beautifully clear, and probably it would be a powerful geyser were its opening smaller.

The show geyser of the vale was the Great Wairakei, shooting from the base of steaming cliffs reddened by oxidized iron. The Great Wairakei is one of the hot-water regulators of Maoriland. It always plays from one minute to two minutes at intervals of nine or ten minutes; and, so the guide told me, "if your watch is not keeping correct time, you can almost regulate it by the Great Wairakei."

The mouth of the geyser was so large that we could see its waters rising. When they had risen three or four feet above their extreme ebb, the gusher burst into action and played from twenty-five to thirty feet high. Like all geysers, it had built a terrace with its siliceous sediment, and had formed its own peculiar crystals.

At the mouth of the Great Wairakei we left a record of our visit. In the smooth spaces between the ripples of the terrace we wrote our names in lead, and we were assured that they would be visible for a year or two before a siliceous coating obliterated them.

There are not many geysers one would care to enter just for the novelty of the venture. In Wairakei, however, the regularity of the majority of the geysers enables such an act to be done with reasonable safety. At the Dragon's Mouth the guide, according to custom,


asked me, "Do you want to get inside?" I replied, "Yes," but not until I had been told that the geyser plays so regularly that entering it is not at all foolhardy.

"The Dragon's Mouth plays from one to eight minutes at intervals of eight minutes," said the guide.

"That may be," I thought, "but how do I know that it won't work overtime while I am within its jaws?" Nevertheless, I ventured within the projections that look so much like a dragon's mouth that one woman declared she could see its teeth. The Dragon's Mouth bursts from a soft oxidized wall, which it has beautifully encrusted with sinter. Its beauty, however, was lost on me as I got within range of the Dragon's "teeth." My mind immediately became occupied with stern realities and nerve-racking possibilities. While I enjoyed the novelty, I felt no desire for leisurely exploration. My feet did not lag nor my eyes musingly survey the hot throat; instead I made a very close neighbor of my guide, and was glad the jaws were no wider. I judged the mouth to be an excellent place for a steam bath, but it was too warm for comfort; yet scarcely less comfortable was it than my state of mind as I wondered whether I would get safely through between the shots.

Thermal heat is required to produce geysers, but other causes have been known to precipitate one. Many years ago a packhorse fell into a hole in Geyser Valley, and shortly thereafter an eruption shook and shattered that place—and behold! the Packhorse Mud Geyser was born. For several days it played; then it ceased, and it has not performed worthily since. But how could a horse start a geyser? With its own fat!

"I have a theory," my guide explained, "that the fat of the horse had the same effect on the hot water as soap would have had."

In a clump of tea-trees was the Eagle's Nest Geyser. No eagle ever sat on it, but it looked much like an eagle's nest just the same. It was surrounded by a pile of sticks coated with sinter. Originally there were only a few sticks around the geyser's mouth; the others were placed there by one of the owners of the valley. Through its two openings the Eagle's Nest played briefly every twenty minutes to a height of ten feet.

Below the Eagle's Nest was the Prince of Wales Feathers, which we forced to play by damming a rivulet and at the same time removing a dam from an adjoining stream. For twenty-five minutes its two plumes, leaping from small openings in the side of a terrace, played from twenty-five to thirty feet high. Below it was an indicating splasher which always erupted a few minutes before the Feathers began throwing.

One of the most remarkable geysers of the valley was the Twins, two gushers that played from the same pool. The stronger one burst up with an explosive sound every four and one-half minutes; the other played every fifteen minutes with a sound like a paddle-wheel.

Another astonishing geyser was the Steam Hammer, a boiling marvel in a large cold-water basin. Rods before we reached it, we heard it pounding beneath its heavy weight, and just as we arrived at the basin's edge we heard a cracking noise. A San Francisco woman turned round quickly and looked at me.

"Oh, I thought you had broken your stick," said she.

"That is the Steam Hammer," said the guide.

Snap, snap! The Hammer was at it again, almost under our feet this time.

"They are cutting kindling wood down there," remarked another tourist. It certainly sounded something like it.

As we gazed at the pool there was a commotion in its centre. "That is unusual," declared the guide. "This is only the sixth time I have seen the water stirred like that. The Hammer never plays higher than that because of the great weight of water above it. Once it did not play for six years."

As we passed up the slope, the ground shook. The tremors seemed to be far beneath our feet. The Steam Hammer was at work again.

Of all the remarkable sights at Wairakei, the most amazing is the Karapiti Blowhole, or the Devil's Trumpet. It has been called the greatest safety-valve in New Zealand, and one scientist went so far as to estimate its pressure to be one hundred and eighty pounds to the square inch. In its continual action it is unlike other blowholes of New Zealand, which are intermittent. Just what would occur if Karapiti's roaring throat were blocked, no man could foretell, but a tremendous explosion or increased activity in other places surely would result.

Karapiti is muffled behind hills three miles from Wairakei's hotel, and issues from a low, sandy wall in a little hollow. At a sharp angle it shoots up with fearful speed through an irregular mouth having a maximum width of about one foot. As long as the Maoris can remember, Karapiti has been trumpeting; in the hundreds of years that possibly have elapsed since it first broke its bounds, it must have expelled enough steam to run the machinery of worlds.

Powerful as Karapiti is, tourists are sometimes too much for him. He can fling back into their faces tin cans, boards, and their own hats, but he cannot hurl back long, heavy sticks nor beer bottles. So, because the bottles are too heavy and because he cannot get enough surface pressure on the sticks, these obstacles half fill his throat. Light boards, hats, and pieces of tin are thrown back with surprising suddenness to a distance of from ten to twenty feet.

I threw in boards of heavy wood eighteen inches long, four inches wide, and a half-inch thick. Several inches from his mouth Karapiti caught them, and held one at a sharp angle on the verge of his upper lip. There the board remained, swaying constantly, until I knocked it down with a stick. It was then blown out seven or eight feet. A five-gallon oil-can was driven back to the top of an incline, where it rocked like a cradle until removed.

Six miles south of Wairakei is Taupo, one of those places where a fisherman can catch trout in a river and


cook them in a hot spring on that river's banks. There the Waikato, New Zealand's longest river, famed for its Huka Fall and Aratiatia Rapids, passes within a few yards of boiling pools, and almost within its reach are geysers that mingle their waters with its cold eddies. On its right bank are four geysers; splashers clear and cloudy; steaming earth terraces and mud flats; and the Paint-Pots. When Taupo's residents want paint, they need not go to a paint shop; they have one of their own. From the Paint-Pots, one of them told me, they can get a dozen colors and tints. "Mixed with oil," said he, "their ingredients have been used to paint fence palings."

Taupo's best known thermal possession is the Crow's Nest Geyser. It is only twenty feet from the Waikato, and it has built around itself a big lump of silica that looks like a cream puff. This singular object is seven or eight feet high and stands conspicuously isolated. In its base is an opening through which hot water constantly flows to the river. At intervals of from one hour and forty-five minutes to three hours, the geyser plays from ten to thirty-five minutes and at least once daily. Its average height is seventy-five or eighty feet, and its maximum one hundred and twenty feet.

A Taupo geyser that plays infrequently is Waitikirangi, usually to a height of one hundred feet. The Tamati Geyser throws from four to five feet high for one minute at five-minute intervals. The Ioline Geyser is like a spoiled child; before it will play it must be soaped and then covered with a gunny-sack. Even then it plays only thirty seconds, to an average height of fifteen feet.

Among other Taupo wonders are the gulping Satan's Glory Hole, a hot, agitated phenomenon with a red, rocky facing that looks like the stokehole of a furnace; and the Witches' Caldron, a steam-enshrouded, clear pool at the base of a wall that is bright with colors in sunlight. At the edge of this caldron my guide lighted a fire, and at once steam rushed toward the cavity opposite.

Beyond Lake Taupo rise the smoking mountains of Tongariro National Park. Once it was necessary to skirt the shores of this largest of New Zealand lakes, but now the lake can be crossed by steamer. In crossing Taupo there is novelty of a kind not often enjoyed by travelers. Taupo, like many other New Zealand lakes, is believed to be the bed of an ancient crater or of several craters that have lost their walls by erosion.

There are also to be heard on Taupo tales of taniwhas which terrified Maoris in more superstitious days when they navigated it. Even to-day Maoris who have not conquered their supernatural fears take care not to provoke the wrath of the reptile Horomatangi and his supposed attendant, the man-spirit Atiamuri. The traditional home of this monster is near Motutaiko, an island near the centre of the lake. The Maoris of old New Zealand were always careful to avoid this part of the lake, and even now natives dislike to pass between this island and the dreaded spot. "When we get near this place," the Tongariro's engineer told me, "we can't get a word out of our Maori passengers."

Taupo is by far the largest lake in New Zealand, having an area of about two hundred and forty square miles and an extreme length of twenty-five miles. Its surface is twelve hundred feet above the sea; its greatest depth is five hundred and thirty-four feet. On the east and the north it laves pumice cliffs which in one place are three hundred feet high; on the west it beats against lofty cliffs of lava and agglomerate in alternate layers. The greatest of these are the gray bluffs of Karangahape, rising eleven hundred feet above the lake and extending four hundred feet beneath its surface. The lake is a popular fishing-ground, and at Taupo Wharf I saw many large trout swimming far below in the clear depths near its outlet, the Waikato River.

At the lake's southern end is Tokaanu, a pakeha-Maori village in the midst of hot springs and warm baths. Tokaanu's baths are needed by the traveler from the south, for the village is the northern terminus of one of the dustiest coaching-routes in Maoriland.

It is not often that a park can be classed as an inferno; yet, to a great extent, such is Tongariro National Park, a gift of burning mountains. This large scenic reserve was given to New Zealand by Chief Te Heuheu Tukino, and at any moment it may be swept by molten lava, as in other days. In this recreation ground are ice-bound Ruapehu, lashing into fury a hot lake in a frozen funnel; the gas-swept summit of Ngauruhoe; and the steaming craters of Tongariro. Here mountains have been welded together, as in a Pluton furnace. Here can be seen the celestial blue of glacier's rift to-day and the infernal glow of lava pits to-morrow.

Chief of the mountains in this park is Ruapehu, the North Island's highest elevation. The highest of its three main peaks is 9175 feet. At all times glaciers cover its upper slopes, but for three months each year it is scaled by parties of New Zealanders with comparative ease. Although Ruapehu is known to the Maoris as the Snow Mountain, it has within its snow-fields a spouting crater lake which at times is very active. This lake is five hundred feet in diameter and lies three hundred feet below the crater lip, between icy cliffs that can be descended only with the aid of ropes. Years ago an eruption of this slaty-colored tarn caused the formation of hot springs on its shores. In 1911 black and yellow mud poured into it from a vent in its walls, and later there was an eruption of red earth in the lake's centre, and at the same time black ash dust was thrown from the crater.

Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu's poisonous neighbor, is the youngest and lustiest of New Zealand's volcanoes. It has a symmetrical, corrugated cone of scoria ash, stones, and mud, 7515 feet high, and it is always discharging sulphuric acid fumes, which render dangerous a near approach to its summit.

For a decade Ngauruhoe has been getting more active every year. Twelve years ago its crater could be safely


entered, but recently there have been frequent emissions of steam and dust. In 1909 the volcano discharged scoria ash; in 1911, Dr. Marshall, of the Otago University, saw glowing lava in its red inferno and heard gas escape from it with violence. Later visitors heard what they believed to be "the roar of churned waters," and the crashing of boulders in one of the two active craters. From a precipice overlooking a hot lake long streamers of steam issued, and from crateral depths came nauseous odors.

A third party found the ground so hot at the top that it was uncomfortable to stand long in one spot, and the noise of escaping steam was so great that it was impossible to converse. Still others, from the plains miles below, say they saw shooting flames, fire-balls, lightning, and clouds of black smoke. The leaping flames, however, may have been merely the reflections of burning lava on clouds.

In its spasmodic action, Ngauruhoe resembles Vesuvius, Mont Pêlée, and Karakatoa; and it is also similar to these mountains in its rock compositions.

A very active mountain is Tongariro, which has been united to Ngauruhoe, more than a thousand feet higher than it, by lava overflows. Tongariro's active craters, Te Mari and the Red Crater, incessantly expel steam, often with noisy force. In places Tongariro's slopes are riddled with fumaroles, in scoria cavities are hot pools, and more than four thousand feet above the sea are the steam-canopied Ketetahi Springs.

The Ultima Thule, or, according to legend, the portal, of New Zealand's thermal wonderland, is White Island, twenty-seven miles off the coast of the Bay of Plenty. White Island is a queer place. It is a sulphur pit, an acid tank. On it sulphur boils like treacle, and from a warm lake acidulous waters pour into the sea.

On White Island one must tread carefully, and test the treacherous ground as one goes. This quaking pile of rock and clay is a sibilant, roaring pandemonium of steam. Add to this the harsh screams of thousands of sea-birds, and the imaginative visitor can readily fancy himself at the entrance of an abysmal, fiendish world where ghoulish vultures wait to strike and tear.

Seldom does White Island have visitors, for its terrifying shores are inhospitable and difficult of approach. "Keep off! We do not want you here," its threatening fumaroles seem to say. Its rocks provide no sheltering harbor in time of storm, and landing places are few. In one place only can even a small steamer put passengers ashore, and often this is impossible. Once each year an Auckland steamship company advertises an excursion to White Island, usually in February, but for four consecutive years it was unable to land passengers there. Occasionally launch parties reach the island, but they frequently have to wait weeks for a favorable sea. Years ago a Tauranga sulphur company operated a sulphur mine on the island, but it finally abandoned the work because its boats could not make landings often enough to keep its factory supplied with sulphur. In 1912 another company ventured to exploit the island's sulphur, but with what success I have not learned.

The only life on White Island, aside from scrubby vegetation, is that of birds, chiefly gannets and mutton birds. By the Maoris the young mutton bird is regarded as a delicacy, and every year parties of natives go to the island to capture these creatures in their underground nests. Thrusting a stick into a bird's burrow, the Maori bird-catcher twists it about in the bird's down until it is firmly fixed, and then pulls the titi out.

White Island is a volcano in the solfatara stage, and so active is it that on clear days its steam clouds can be seen fifty miles or farther. From the mainland its lofty pillar of steam looked to me like the outpourings of a great factory chimney. Although the island usually is noisy,—so much so that one must shout to converse near its roaring vents,—there are days when it is comparatively quiet. In its worst mood it is so alarming that sulphur miners once fled from it in affright.

One of the most remarkable things about this top of a submarine mountain is its acidified crater lake. Lying between high rocky walls, this lake has an area of about fifteen acres, and its surface is only a few feet above the sea. At times it rises and falls from two to three feet, but there is no connection between it and the tides, for, I was told, it has been high at low tide. Its waters have a temperature of one hundred and ten degrees, and they contain hydrochloric and pentathionic acids and boron.

The strength of these waters was once singularly shown by the collapse of a boat that had been left on the lake. As strange, too, are the eroding effects of the acids present in crevices and holes around the lake's shores, and apparently permeating the atmosphere. An iron tramway used by sulphur miners long ago became streaks of rust, and a metal bucket left outside a camp building was reduced to a heap of ruins by the same uncanny agencies. Strange tales told me of acid-eaten shoes and clothing also testify to the presence of acid in unexpected places.

White Island shows its hostility to its visitors in peculiar ways. It does more than awe them—it plays tricks on them. When the wise embark for the volcano, they wear old clothes and shoes. The more like tramps they look, the better for their wardrobes. On White Island a man sits down in an innocent-looking spot to rest. The next day he may need another pair of trousers. Or perhaps he plants a foot in an equally harmless-appearing place. Before he leaves the island he may need the services of a cobbler.

"I have seen tourists returning from White Island with heels and soles clattering," said an Opotiki man to me.

"A friend of mine," another man informed me, "told me he was going to the island, and I advised him to wear old boots.

"'Oh,' said he, 'the boots I have on will do.’

"'Be careful, or you'll lose them,' I warned him.

"The very next day the soles of that man's boots fell off as he walked along the street, and where he touched his clothing in acid-soaked spots it crumbled. Another man accidentally stepped into a pool of water, and though he at once stepped out, all the clothing on one leg was eaten away to the flesh and the leg was blackened."

White Island is not the only active island in New Zealand waters. There are four other sea-girt "steamers," three of them in the Bay of Plenty; Rurima, Whale, and Mayor Islands. The other island is the Great Barrier, nearly one hundred and fifty miles north, which has a few hot springs. On Rurima are fumaroles; on Whale Island are hot springs and a stretch of hot sandy beach; and on Mayor Island are hot springs and a glistening crater of black obsidian five miles in circumference and nearly thirteen hundred feet high.