Ever since I had a particularly inspirational geography teacher at high school I have been fascinated by volcanoes and geothermal activity, so of course I visited two Geothermal parks on my trip to New Zealand in 2017. These were the Orakei Korako Geothermal Experience and the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. I enjoyed both immensely, but how did they stack up against each other?
Orakei Korako Geothermal Experience
The Orakei Korako Geothermal Experience is located around 25 minutes outside Taupo (45 minutes from Rotorua) and is easy to find and park at. I bought an adult ticket for $36 NZD (about £20) and jumped on the little tender boat which takes visitors across Lake Ohakuri to the thermal park.
This park looks like a large steaming glacier, or volcanic floe running from high in the hills down to the lake, but is in fact a silica terrace filled with gushing geysers, bubbling mud pools and rocks formations in every colour imaginable. I particularly enjoyed the belching mud pools at the very far end of the park. Orakei Korako is known for having more active geysers than any other thermal park in New Zealand, including the very British sounding “Diamond Geyser”, but unfortunately I was not lucky enough to see any erupt dramatically while I was there.
Orakei Korako was free from crowds, peaceful and I managed to enjoy most of my time there undisturbed, taking lots of pictures without lots of other tourists getting in the way (or me getting in their way!).
There are solid wooden footpaths throughout the whole site for you to follow and you must stay on them at all times for obvious safety reasons. It took me around an hour and a half to navigate around the park. It was a very hot, sunny day during my visit and by the time I was waiting for the tender to bring me back, I was pouring with sweat. There are A LOT of steps here and even I found it hard going (and I’m pretty fit). This is not for anyone with mobility or health issues.
I just had time to buy a drink in the cafe and use the ladies room (I very much enjoyed the ‘guysers’ and ‘galsers’ toilet signage).
Orakei Korako Tips
Free Wi-Fi is available in the main building before you cross the lake.
There isn’t much shelter so if it’s a sunny day be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen, a hat and drink plenty of water on your way round.
When you get to the top of the park visit the cave before the mud-pools. I did it the other way and ended up walking alot further because I had to go back up the hill to see the cave.
There is no need to book in advance but if you do you will receive a 10% discount by booking online.
Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland
I knew I had to be at Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland early if I wanted to get a good view of the Lady Knox geyser being set off at 10:15. It was about a 40 minute drive to the park from Taupo (20 minutes from Rotorua) and I headed straight inside to buy my ticket. I paid $32.50NZD (about £18) for an adult ticket. I still had plenty of time, so I had a quick breakfast in my car, before driving a few minutes down the road to the spot where the geyser is located. Note: this is outside the main park, but you do need a ticket to view it. The geyser is not particularly well signposted, but follow the road down (right as you face outwards from the main entry building) and a minute or so drive later you will see the geyser signposted on the right. If you are arriving after about 9:30am just follow everyone else! You are not able to walk to the geyser.
The first thing you notice is the smell. There is a much stronger smell of sulphur here than at orakei korako the previous day. This was definitely on par with my volcano visit in Nissyros. I would later find out this smell was not confined to the park… indeed the whole of Rotorua definitely has an “eggy farts” stench about it! I’m sure you’d get used to it eventually though!
I picked a spot to the right of the geyser which I thought was good… until the sun came out and was in my eyes and spoiling my photographs, but you live with the choices you make! The seating area quickly filled up and by 10:15am it was standing room early. The park tour guide, Bruce, arrived and told us the very funny way in which Lady Knox was discovered… some prisoners on an work camp in the area had found the hot pool and bought their clothes to wash in it. When they added soap to the water it suddenly started to foam and then their clothes were blown sky high as the chemicals in the soap caused a reaction which resulted in the geyser erupting. So scared they all went running into the bush naked! The chimney column you see today is the result of the prisoners pushing rocks around the geysers as they found it funnelled the jet and caused their clothes to be blown higher to much entertainment. The build up of residue around the rocks causes the rather ant hill look we see today. Bruce poured the trigger chemical into the spout and after a few minutes we saw it start to rabidly foam at the mouth. It was around five minutes before we saw the full effect with the spectacular water jet shooting around 20 metres high. The jet subsided again after about a minute and the crowd quickly started to disperse.
Now here’s the drawback… at this point everyone who has just watched the geyser, probably a few hundred people now got in their cars and made their way to the main thermal park en mass. This meant it was a very crowded walk through the park. There was a lot of waiting for others to take pictures which hadn’t been an issue at Orakei the day before. This was a bigger park, with much more to see, but Orakei was much quieter and peaceful.
Having said that I still enjoyed my time immensely in the park. The Champagne Pool, Devils Bath and Artists Palette were particular highlights, with such stunning colours running through these surreal landscapes it was hard to believe we were still on the same planet. Mudpools bubbled away merrily, craters gurgled ominously and plumes of sulphur spurted out from every nook available, staining the earth an iridescent yellow as they did. I did wish there were more signs around explaining what everything was as it was tricky to keep reading the guide whilst carrying a camera at the same time. However, there were knowledgable guides dotted around to answer questions which was something Orakei Korako was missing… staff! As I came to the end of my visit there was the obligatory gift shop and then back out into the car and on my way to Rotorua.
Tips to avoiding the post-geysers rush – 1. Watch the geyser, go away for a couple of hours and then come back to see the rest of the park later. There is no time limit on a day ticket, come back when the worst is over. 2. If you’re an early bird, the park opens at 8:30am… it took me around an hour and a half to navigate the entire route. I was slowed down a lot by the crowds. If you arrive super early you can probably do the whole route, missing all the crowds and still make it to the geyser in time for the whoosh. 3. My final option if you have to go with the masses is to try walking the route in reverse… there is no reason you can’t. You will meet everyone coming the other way, but they should hopefully be a bit more spread out by the time you do.
If you don’t fancy walking up a massive hill and back down with no real rewards then skip the section on the yellow loop with sites 19 & 20 on. Head out anti clockwise to point 18 and then come back the same way… there’s not really much to see on the missed section other than an awful lot of steps!
If you are watching the Lady Konow Geyser and wish to get good photos stand on the left hand side (as you look at the geyser) or you will have the sun behind the geyser and in your eyes.
The winner – Wai-O-Tapu.
If you only see one of these parks make it Wai-O-Tapu. It is bigger, has lots more to see, has great guides to answer all your questions, and on top of that, it is cheaper! However I would probably skip the geyser and go later in the day if I was to go again to hopefully avoid the crowds, as they were the main downside here.
I would also be more likely to visit Te Puia, which is not a park I came across while I was looking up places to visit before I set out. I didn’t really manage to experience any Maori culure at all while I was in New Zealand which I regret and it looks like Te Puia would have given me a thermal park experience and the Maori culture I was missing. You can also see live kiwis which I would have liked. Te Puia is more expensive than the parks I did visit, with prices starting from $46.80 NZD (about £26), but that is for a guided tour and I suspect you get a lot more for your money there.
Top Tips for visiting Thermal parks
Wear decent shoes in the park, sandals are not advised. Stick to the paths for your own safety. There are a lot of steps in the park and it is not wheelchair or mobility friendly.
If it is very hot, do remember to take suncream and lots of water to drink.