Some amazing parts of Waimangu Volcanic Valley are best visited on foot, but others can only be seen by boat. On the Lake Rotomahana Boat Cruise, you’ll be swept around a large lake near Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty Region of New Zealand. The lake was created after a volcanic eruption in 1886 and the area is still geothermally active. The boat gets close to steaming vents and geysers right along the lakeshore. This is definitely not your average boat tour. The 45-minute cruise can be the centerpiece of your visit to Waimangu Volcanic Valley or taken in combination with the walking track down the valley, which passes the world’s largest hot spring and other impressive geothermal features.
Seeing Lake Rotomahana now, in its well established wild surroundings, you might never guess how drastically this area changed about 130 years ago. In 1886, Tarawera Volcano went off, in an eruption event that could be heard as far away as Christchurch. Twenty-two craters exploded and changed the landscape forever. Mount Tarawera lies to the northeast, and the craters burst along a sixteen-kilometer long chasm running southwest across the lake and up what has become Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Seven of the craters are in a rough line between the visitor center and the lake. The other fifteen craters were filled by rainwater and became Lake Rotomahana. Prior to the eruption, two smaller lakes were located in the same spot as the current lake, including a different Lake Rotomahana with silica terraces that were a hot eco-tourism attraction in the 1800s. A sign near the boat jetty explains that:
Before the 1886 Tarawera eruption, two small lakes existed here within part of the area now occupied by the present Lake Rotomahana. They were name Rotomahana (warm lake) and Rotomakariri (cold lake). On the shores of the original Rotomahana lay the famous silica formations Te Tarata and Otukapuarangi, widely known as the “White Terraces” and “Pink Terraces” respectively.
The beautiful pink and white terraces were destroyed during the eruption, with parts of the terraces remaining intact at the bottom of the lake. However, Lake Rotomahana still has appeal to visitors, which you will discover on the boat cruise. A scenic walk leads to the boat jetty (consider this 4.75-kilometre route) and you can also take a less scenic 3.5-kilometer shuttle bus from the visitor center down to the boat. Ideally, you’ll take a walk down the valley before the cruise and ride the bus back up afterward.
The boat captain will lead you down a short jetty and onto the ship, which has a main cabin with covered seating as well as seating on the deck at the front and back of the vessel. As the boat churns across the lake, the captain will make announcements over the PA system describing the lake’s history and features. Depending on where you sit, these announcements may be difficult to hear over the sound of the engine. A guide for the voyage is available on board that covers the same topics and includes a wealth of information.
Cruising east across the lake, the boat passes rock walls on the south shore. Looking back, you’ll see Waimangu Stream joining the lake at the bottom of Waimangu Volcanic Valley. From the middle of the lake, and even before you get on board, your gaze will be drawn to the northeast toward Mount Tarawera (Tarawera Volcano), a massive 1,111-meter (3,645-foot) tall volcano that built up over several grand eruptions, including the blockbuster burst of 1886. The eruption locked off the valley and with no outflow, the level of Lake Rotomahana rose by forty meters and the surface area increased by a factor of 20.
The boat swings alongside Patiti Island, which was a hill near the two smaller lakes before the current lake was made. Aiming north, the boat crosses the old site of Lake Rotomakariri and enters an interesting cradled bay. The bay is almost a complete circle with a rock-wall framed entry that connects to the lake. In these parts, a bay shaped like this can only be a crater. This one, called Starhill Crater, is right on the edge of Lake Rotomahana.
After doing a small rotation inside Starhill Crater, the boat heads back closer to the north side of the lake. Steaming Cliffs line the northwestern shore where hot water springs, vents, and geysers emit puffs of steam along the shoreline. It seems more like Hollywood magic than a natural landscape. The boat gets close enough to the shore so that you can admire different columns of steam rising from fractures in the cliffs. A geyser near Fumarole Bay erupts about every 16 minutes, shooting water up into the air like an out-of-control fountain. Below the geyser, a sinter-walled flume channels the high-flying water down to the lake. It’s a blast to see from the boat!
The boat drifts down the shore, toward the Donne Cliffs, which are colored a distinct red by iron oxide. A small geyser at the water’s edge erupts every few minutes. Other hot springs bubble away, including one with a bizarre fin-shaped sinter structure.
The boat churns away from the steaming cliffs and heads back to the jetty. Though hot springs line the lake and there are even more along the bottom, Lake Rotomahana is too large for its temperature to really be effected by these geothermal additions. Lake Rotomahana has no outlet, so the lake can vary in depth by over a meter through the year based on rainfall and evaporation levels. The cruise is a loop covering about 7.5 kilometers and takes about 45 minutes. When you are done, walk a couple hundred meters from the jetty back to the road where a bus will take you back to the visitor center (you could also elect to walk back up the trails through Waimangu Volcanic Valley). The bus ride up lasts about 15 minutes.
If you take the bus to and from the boat cruise, the whole outing takes about an hour and forty-five minutes. It is worth noting that the impressive features seen from trail can’t be seen from the bus, so you will be missing a lot if you do not also walk through the valley. A posted sign indicates that the boat leaves the jetty each day at 9:25 a.m., 10:25 a.m., 11:25 a.m. 1:10 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 2:50 p.m., and 3.40 p.m., but the departure times may change, so confirm with the visitor center. Tickets should be purchased in advance, but if you walk down there before deciding to take the cruise, you can also get tickets from the boatman (assuming there is space on board).
The price for just the cruise is $42.50 for adults, $12 for children six to sixteen, and free for younger children. Reserve tickets online or purchase spots on a cruise when you arrive at the visitor center at the top of Waimangu Volcanic Valley. The price for both the boat cruise and the walk through Waimangu Volcanic Valley is $78.50 for adults, $24 for children six to sixteen, and free for younger children (all prices in New Zealand Dollars as of 2015). When combining the walk and boat cruise, be mindful of the time as you venture down the valley so that you arrive at the jetty in time for the cruise. There should be no need to rush.
Directions: From the center of Rotorua, take State Highway 5 (Thermal Explorer Highway) south from the intersection with State Highway 30A. Drive 18.3 km kilometers on SH 5 and turn left onto Waimangu Road. Drive just under six kilometers up Waimangu Road to a large parking area near the visitor center for Waimangu Volcanic Valley.
Address: 587 Waimangu Road, Waimangu, Bay of Plenty, 3073, New Zealand
Coordinates: -38.2857, 176.387 (38° 17′ 08.51″S 176° 23′ 13.20″E)
Use the map below to view the track and get directions:
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