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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/July 1879/A Visit to the New Zealand Geysers

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | July 1879

A VISIT TO THE NEW ZEALAND GEYSERS.
By CLEMENT BUNBURY.

THE Geyser district of New Zealand is, at some future day, to be the great sanatorium of the southern world; meanwhile, it is so little known that some account of a visit lately made to it may not be uninteresting.

While "globe-trotting" with a friend, we found ourselves in April last year at Auckland, New Zealand, and where kindly invited by the Governor to join him in a visit he was going to make, with the Commodore and a large party, to the geysers.

The party assembled at Tauranga, a port about a hundred and forty miles southeast of Auckland, and the most convenient starting-point for Ohinemutu, the headquarters of the hot-lake country. The little town was gay with flags and triumphal arches, and crowded with Maories looking forward to a his: drink in return for the dance with which they received the Governor. I was disappointed to find the natives were broad-nosed, thick-lipped, tattooed savages, or at least so they appeared at first sight. The men are decidedly superior in appearance to the women, and among the young people tattooing is becoming unfashionable.

From Tauranga to Ohinemutu is about forty miles over a good road, except through what is called "the eighteen-mile bush," where the road possesses all the ills to which a bush-road is heir. About three miles from Tauranga the road passes through the celebrated Gate Pah, where English soldiers in a panic ran away from the Maories, and left their officers to be killed. The Pah is well placed on the top of a ridge looking out over Tauranga and the sea. Almost all traces of the earthworks have now disappeared, and the cluster of gravestones in the neglected little cemetery at Tauranga will soon be the only remaining evidence of that disastrous day. About eight miles beyond the Pah we had our first experience of a New Zealand bush. It was magnificent. I can not say the same of the road. A great part of it is what is called "corduroy road," that is, trunks of trees, about eight or nine inches in diameter, were laid close together across the track, forming a kind of loose bridge over the soft places. Some of the trees, especially the rimu, a species of yew, here called a pine, were of immense size and age; in places tangled masses of red flowering creepers completely hid the trees. The tree ferns were the perfection of lightness and beauty, the dark-leaved shrubs setting them off to great advantage.

At Ohinemutu we found two small hotels; the charges were very moderate, and the attention paid to visitors is all that can be desired. The land here still belongs to the Maories, who refuse either to sell it or let it; and the hotel-keepers, who are only tenants-at-will, are naturally unwilling to spend much money in building with such an insecure tenure. One creek of Lake Rotorua, on the banks of which Ohinemutu stands, is filled with boiling springs, which heat the waters of the lake for a considerable distance. This creek is a favorite bathing-place, but, as it is dangerous in the dark, my friend and I tried a natural bath, which has been inclosed by the hotel-keeper to keep out the natives. It was as hot as we could bear it, very soft, buoyant, and bubbling, and after our long, bumpy drive, perfectly delicious. When we had got thoroughly warmed through, I thought lying in the soft bubbling water the most perfect sensuous pleasure I ever experienced.

The next morning we visited the many boiling-water and mud springs in the immediate neighborhood of the village. On a small peninsula, between our hotel and the lake, there are a great many native dwellings, called whares (pronounced worries). A whole tribe formerly lived there, but one night the end of the peninsula suddenly collapsed and disappeared in the lake, destroying, of course, all its inhabitants. There is, in the midst of the village, a large native building called the "Carved House"; its sides are covered, inside and out, with intricate carving, chiefly of grotesque human figures. By Maori law, the carved figures may only have three fingers on each hand, lest any evil-disposed persons should mistake them for caricatures of their ancestors. This native settlement owes its existence to the many hot springs with which the peninsula abounds, the boiling water standing to the natives in the place of fire, and saving them an infinity of trouble with their cooking and washing arrangements. One desirable result of the abundance of warm baths is the undoubted cleanliness of the people.

About a mile farther along the banks of the lake, we came to what is called the Sulphur Point. It certainly deserved its name. The surface of the ground is literally honeycombed with pools of boiling water and mud-holes, impregnated with sulphur or alum. The smell was perfectly fearful. One mud-bath that we ventured into certainly did not look tempting; great waves of thick brown mud bubbled up in the middle of the pool, and rolled lazily toward its sides. It was just a pleasant temperature, very smooth and oily, and, notwithstanding its appearance, decidedly a success. We next tried a pool of thinner mud, and ended with a swim in the cold waters of the lake, feeling all the better for our strange experience. All the pools have been given stupid English names by the hotel-keeper; the one we first bathed in is known as "Painkiller," and enjoys a high reputation for curing rheumatism. It was here that a young Englishman lately nearly lost his life. A large bubble burst near his face, the poisonous gases from which rendered him insensible; and had it not been for a Maori, who happened to be standing near, he must infallibly have been drowned. The whole neighborhood is a dangerous one; the crust of the earth is in many places so thin that one may at any moment find one's self standing in boiling water. The guides take so much pleasure in recounting all the accidents that have happened, that I felt I should be conferring a personal favor on them if I fell in, and was boiled sufficiently to be worth talking about in the future. The surface of the ground is in places covered with masses of pure sulphur. We lighted it in places, and it began to burn freely, and may be burning still for all I know to the contrary.

In the afternoon we saw, for the first time, a body of water thrown any considerable height into the air. It was at a place called Whakarewa-rewa, about two miles from the hotel, amid the finest hot springs of the Rotorua district. The geyser had been dormant since 1869 until this particular week, and each day it seemed to gather strength and volume. The mighty fountain has formed for itself a fine circular base, about thirty feet high, of silica, roughly resembling white marble. After being quiescent for a few minutes, the water began to leap up through the circular cavity at the top of the cone, and, rising higher and higher at each leap, at last culminated in splendid volumes of clear bright boiling water, thrown fully forty feet into the air. Dense masses of steam floated from the water in mid-air, but the column of water itself fell so nearly perpendicularly that we were able to stand as near to it as the intense heat would permit. After playing for about five minutes, the fountain gradually subsided, to take a rest, lasting about eleven minutes, before its next display. The geysers are curiously intermittent in character, and according to all accounts are, on the whole, less active than formerly.

Two of the baths here deserve mention. One called the oil-bath has water so oily as hardly to adhere to the skin enough to make a towel necessary on coming out; the other is a very warm creek opening out into a fast-flowing river of cold water, and affording the most delightful gradations of temperature between the two. All the pools have their distinctive character: some are very active, others sullen; some pretty, bubbling, shallow basins, others dark deep blue of endless depth; some bright and clear as crystal, others milky, or of mud of various consistency; some blowing off steam like fifty steam-engines, and many, alas! very many, smelling beyond the power of words to describe. It is curious how quickly one gets accustomed to the ceaseless sound of boiling water, or the dull, soughing sound of boiling mud that one hears on all sides, often without being able to see the hole whence it comes.

In the evening the natives treated us to a haka, or dance, in honor of the Governor. It took place in the carved house I have already spoken of, the weird, grotesque carvings of which added to the strangeness of the scene. There were about a hundred dancers ranged in five rows, the front one consisting of about twenty young women gorgeously apparelled in tight-fitting red or white calico bodices, and flaming-colored rugs worn like kilts. When the Governor entered they greeted him with the most awful noise, shouting, yelling, laughing, and in some diabolical way imitating the noise of the beating of tin cans, the barking of dogs, and rapid hand-clapping. From one or two of the specimens that were translated to us, it was as well, perhaps, that their shouts of welcome were expressed in Maori language. The young women certainly seemed to enjoy, and to make the most of, the opportunity for saying naughty things. The dance lasted about an hour; it was curious, and as a novelty amusing, but rather monotonous. There was but little movement of their feet; it consisted chiefly of swaying their bodies and arms about, going down on their knees, imitating rowing and gathering crops, slapping their own legs and then their neighbors'. The men then took the place of the women, and went through very similar performances. The whole dance was accompanied by a noise that would have put pandemonium to shame; it sounded like a mixture of beating of trays, dogs fighting, gigantic snoring, and a very full, deep bass rumbling in the throat. At times there seemed to be a kind of rhythmic song, interspersed with yells and short, sharp cries of "Hue, hue!" "Ha, ha!" "Pakeka!" The young women winked and grinned and twisted about beyond what was strictly correct; but they seemed to enjoy the really hard work of the dance most thoroughly. There was always a chief running up and down, dancing, and declaiming in the foreground, bidding defiance to all the world apparently, but in reality, I believe, merely suggesting that he would like to drink his Excellency's health. Far the most comical feature of the dance was a naked little imp who stood in front of the first row, exactly opposite the Governor, and imitated playing the fiddle with his little thin arms, all the while thrusting out his tongue, rolling his eyes nearly out of his head, and making the most fearful faces and contortions. A little girl who tried to do the same had not nearly the same real genius for making herself hideous and grotesque. At last a liberal supply of beer was promised them; the dance came to an end, and the Governor departed amid an uproar if possible more awful than before. The natives were very well-grown, friendly, and cheery, with a perfectly childish delight in making a noise. Their noses are too wide and their mouths too big for them to be good-looking; but, with large bright eyes and white teeth, many of them are very pleasant-looking.

Later in the evening two chiefs of another tribe sought an interview with the Governor to invite him to visit Wairoa, the village nearest to Rotomahana, the gem of the hot-lake country. They were very jealous that he should visit Rotorua and not pay them a visit. I never knew two men less willing to take "No" for an answer, or much readier in meeting all objections; but the Governor was obdurate, and they had to be content with the Commodore, whom they called "the king of the sea," and apparently regarded as very small beer compared to "the king of the land." One of the chiefs was called Major Kemp, having been given the title for services rendered to us during the last Maori war. He was an intelligent, courteous man, of splendid physique, certainly over six feet high, and strong and active as a tiger.

Next morning we rode over to Major Kemp's village of Wairoa with the Commodore, Mr. F——(the member of the Ministry in attendance on the Governor), and Captain Mair, the resident magistrate, who, from his knowledge of the country and language, proved himself an invaluable cicerone. On our Way we passed through a lovely piece of bush, in which we found a specimen of the curious natural phenomenon "the vegetable caterpillar." It appears that the caterpillar, when it buries itself in the ground preparatory to changing into a chrysalis, is attacked by a fungus, which kills it, and sends out one or two shoots, something like the seed-bearing fronds of some ferns, several inches in length, from the head of the unfortunate caterpillar. Farther south we came across a tract of bush where they are by no means uncommon. The caterpillar is a large one, and, as far as I could judge, of the goat-moth species. At Wairoa we presented some gaudy-colored rugs to Major Kemp's wife and one or two other important ladies. They gathered together by the roadside trying on their new things, inside and out, and seeming immensely pleased with their finery. We visited a pretty waterfall and cascade, and then embarked in a boat, rowed by four stout young Maories, to cross Lake Tarawera. The lake is very beautiful; the shores are well wooded, in many places coming sheer down steep and rocky several hundred feet into the water, and backed by fine mountains. At the end of the lake a stream of warm water runs into it from the Lake Rotomahana, but the stream is so swift that progress against it is very slow; we therefore left the natives to bring the boat up, while we walked on with one of them for a guide. A walk of about a mile brought us to the top of some high ground, whence we got our first view of the glorious white terrace of Rotomahana.

It was a sight that never can be forgotten. It is impossible to imagine anything more lovely than the appearance of that marvelous marble-looking terrace, lying, set in a green frame, on the mountainside, and reflected again in the glassy water of the lake, as we first saw it in the rosy light of a calm autumn sunset. To get to the terrace we had to cross the warm stream; the boat had not yet appeared, and we were impatient. After a slight hesitation, the guide thought he could carry us across. The stream was deep and swift, but the man took us all safely over without a single false step; only when it came to Mr. F——'s turn, the Maori wanted to have a little preliminary practice

with him on dry land first, Mr. F——being about three times as big as his porter. Captain Mair then took us under his charge to explore the wonders of the white terrace.

The general appearance of the terrace is that of a gigantic staircase on the mountain-side. It is about one hundred and fifty feet in height, and at the top nearly three hundred feet across, and fully twice as much round the lowest steps. The steps are roughly semicircular in form, varying from two or three to ten feet in height, more or less smooth on their horizontal, but on their perpendicular faces carved by the trickling water into the most delicate representations of flower and fruit carvings, or soft, white, coral sprays. At the top there is an immense caldron of pale-blue boiling water of unknown depth; even the steam rising from it in clouds was quite decidedly blue. This caldron in all probability is the crater of an extinct volcano which has been invaded by water. The idea that the origin of the terrace is due to volcanic agency, and not to deposits by the water, is supported by the fact that where the silica crust has been knocked away a formation of coarse tufa and pumice-stone appears. The depositing power of the water is, however, very great, and articles exposed for curiosity to its action become very quickly covered with a delicate white coating. On each step there are holes of various sizes filled with the most lovely blue water, slightly milky, of the most perfect turquoise-blue, looking, oh! so beautiful in its coral cups. The water from the caldron pours down, steaming and bubbling, overflowing from hole to hole, losing its heat by degrees on the way, until it reaches the lowest steps quite cold. These lowest steps were especially beautiful; the pools on them were larger and bluer than on the others, and the absence of steam left them in perfect peaceful beauty; the steps, too, though generally of a purer white than the upper ones, had in places large black markings on them that brought out to great advantage the contrast between their delicate pale-blue water and that of the dark-colored lake that lay at their feet.

We camped for the night close by the terrace, cooking all our provisions in one of the natural boiling springs. During the night an ill-natured rat jumped into our spring, and compelled us to seek another cooking-place for breakfast. While the Commodore and I were lying in a warm pool, smoking a last cigar before going to bed, Mr. F——proposed to join us; we warned him that the pool was very shallow, but he was not to be dissuaded. When the moon shone out from behind a cloud it revealed, as we expected, a round white island in the middle of our bath. After trying in vain to make waves big enough to cover our newly-discovered island, we induced Mr. F——to roll over; the result was very comical, but it could hardly be said to be an improvement. We found it no easy matter to get to sleep; the ground was very hot, and every now and then jets of hot steam would find their way through the thin earth-crust and parboil us and soak our blankets. All night there was the sound in our ears of boiling water, so that it was difficult to get rid of a feeling of insecurity natural to so uncanny a sleeping-place.

We began the next day with an early bath in the basins on the white terrace, beginning with the hottest we could bear, and working our way down to the cold water: mortal man surely never had a more magnificent bath-room. After breakfast we crossed the lake in canoes to the pink terrace. It is not so large as the white, but of smoother and more regular form; none of the steps are more than six feet high, so that the baths in them are all shallow, but the steps, covered with a bright salmon-pink incrustation, run more evenly right across the terrace. Some of our party, who had visited the terrace two days before, had, I am sorry to say, written their names in pencil on the smooth pink steps. The warm water, instead of washing them away, had even in so short a time covered them with a transparent film of silica, and there they will remain, along with the names of hundreds of other cockney-souled tourists, enshrined for ever. The water here is perfectly clear, and of a much deeper blue than at the other terrace; that at the top is of a splendid bright deep blue, but the steam is very white. The setting of the two terraces is quite different; the white one lies against a hill of moderate height and gentle slope, appearing from its countless jets of steam to be a hill of fire. The pink one lies against a fine bold hill some two thousand feet high, from which it runs like a steep staircase directly into the lake. They are rival beauties, both deserving many worshipers—the white one, I believe, having the most.

Some of the small mud geysers behind the white terrace were curious; they were growling, and throwing mud of every variety of color about. One of pale gray mud was said to be eaten by the Maories as medicine; it had a decidedly acid taste. One big hole was blowing off immense volumes of steam with the noise of a dozen steam-engines shrieking in friendly rivalry. A little farther on was a pool of cold vivid green water—greener far than the leaves of the shrubs near it, and strongly charged with sulphuric acid and iron. The wonders of Rotomahana really seemed endless, but, alas! it was Saturday afternoon, and we had to get back to Ohinemutu that night, and, however unwillingly, we were obliged to bid the place farewell.

Strolling about after our evening bath on Sunday, we came across a pool in which there were two Maori young women bathing. When we found they had their pipes with them we sent to the hotel for some beer, and sat down to have a chat with them, and found one of them understood a little English. They said they had been in the water an hour before we came. I wonder they were not boiled, the water was very hot and nasty, and we kept them in at least another hour. This was, I think, the pool which Mr. Trollope speaks of having found himself bathing in with three young women; if so, it has now deteriorated very much, and nothing would have tempted us to venture into its dirty waters.

On Monday we rowed over Lake Rotorua to an island called Mokoia. Sir George Grey told me that at one time he lived on the island; it is, in consequence, still rich in fruit-trees and cultivated ground. A legend of this island reminds one of the story of "Hero and Leander." Hinnemoa, a maiden living on the mainland, one day, on hearing the flute of her lover, Tutanekai, the chief of the island tribe, jumped boldly into the lake and swam across the intervening five miles in safety. Tutanekai scarcely deserved his good fortune, he having a few days before made an attack on the mainlanders and destroyed all their boats. On the highest peak of the island I found myself in a small native burying-ground; it was surrounded by a deep ditch and bank. There were some forty or fifty graves, each marked by a small headstone, but I had not much time to examine them closely, having a proper fear of the unknown penalties incurred by the violation of anything tapu or sacred. On our way home, Captain Mair showed us his beautiful collection of native weapons, carved boxes, and wonderful cloaks made of native flax, and feathers, most of them presents from grateful natives, or, as we enviously suggested, bribes.

My friend and I, after saying good-by to the others, started the next morning with the guide Fraser to visit the more southern limits of the hot-spring country. A ride of about thirty-five miles brought us to the Waikato, a large swift-flowing river, the scene of much bloodshed during the war. The canoe that we had expected to cross in was not forthcoming, so that we had to camp where we were; luckily the night was fine, and we had plenty of provisions. We had a fine lunar display: round the moon, for a breadth of about twice its own apparent diameter, there was a ring of bright white light; then came a ring of light brown, deepening outward to purple; then came blue growing into green, that melting into yellow, that deepening through orange into a beautiful red. The series of rings was very perfect, about sixteen times the width of the moon, and lasted, apparently without any change, for several hours.

After crossing the river at daybreak we soon came to a native settlement of Orakei-korako, and there got a native to guide us to the alum cave, for which the place is famous. The entrance to the cave is completely hidden by creepers and magnificent tree-ferns with heavily silvered fronds fully twelve feet in length. Descending the cave some eighty or ninety feet by almost regularly formed steep steps, we found a beautiful pool of clear blue water at the bottom. Of course we bathed in the pool; it was warm, strongly impregnated with alum, and when we were swimming with our backs to the entrance it had, curiously enough, exactly the appearance of getting its light from below. The Maori name for it is "the looking-glass," so called, probably, from its power of reflecting light. The floor and walls of the cave were thickly covered with deposits of pure alum, and the roof was colored in parts with pretty variegated patches resembling marble frescoes.

Soon after leaving the cave my horse broke down, and it was with the greatest difficulty that I got him to the high-road before he succumbed entirely. While waiting to see if he would recover I saw three people riding toward me: one was a smart-looking native in the uniform of the armed constabulary, the second was a lady, and, to my surprise, she too was a native. She wore a tall black hat and dark veil, a dark-blue well-fitting riding habit, a dainty pink-and-white necktie; I afterward saw she wore a pair of French-looking boots, and black-and-white stockings. She was, in fact, a "real dark swell." She talked a little English, and, after hearing of my plight, she made the third rider, an ordinary-looking native, dismount, and give me his horse, he remaining to do what he could for mine. We rode on to a native village, and there had some boiled potatoes and dried peaches for lunch. My fair riding companion soon afterward appeared without the riding habit, but with a dirty clay pipe in her mouth; I fear her civilization, like her dress, was only a new habit, whose greatest charm was the ease with which it could be discarded. I had eventually to walk to Taupo, a township on the biggest lake in the country, where we intended staying a few days.

Major Roberts, the head of the constabulary, who had been asked to help us, kindly provided us with horses, and an orderly as a guide. We first visited the falls of the Waikato; the great broad river is contracted into a narrow channel, not more than thirty feet wide, with precipitous banks, between which the immense volume of water rushes along, one mass of waves and foam, for a distance of about two hundred yards; it then makes a mad leap of about forty feet, and dashes tumbling over rapids with frantic fury for some distance, and then suddenly resumes the quiet dignity of a great river. It is said that a party of sixty stranger natives were once taunted by the residents into trying to shoot the falls in a canoe, and were, as might have been expected, all drowned. The hot springs were much like those we had before seen; the only remarkable one is called the Crow's Nest. The water has formed a perfect hollow cone of silica about ten feet high. On looking into the cone from above it appears to be built of regular layers of large sticks bound together by incrustations of silica. These sticks give the cone its name of the Crow's Nest, but how the nest came to be so made is a mystery.

In the afternoon I took advantage of a doubt as to whether the game laws apply to game on Maori land to shoot some cock-pheasants, although the shooting season does not begin till May. It is very hard on the natives if they are affected by the game laws, for they would have no means of killing the pheasants, which are increasing so rapidly as to threaten to become a perfect plague to them and their small corn cultivation.

In Taupo Lake, besides carp, there is a most excellent little fish resembling whitebait. They, like everything else in this country, have their legend. Some five hundred years ago a chief with a long name came to Taupo, and grieved to find none of his favorite fish in the lake. After failing to introduce them by natural means, he was driven to have recourse to that most enviable power of obtaining whatever he wished that chiefs seemed to have had then, and have so completely lost now. He accordingly took his cloak, tore it up into small pieces, and cast them into the lake, commanding them to become little fishes, and little fishes they became, and there they are in myriads to this day. Fastidious people think they still have a slightly woolly taste, and I know of no better evidence to support the legend.

Our visit to the hot-lake district came to an end at Taupo. We drove thence some seventy or eighty miles to Napier. We were sorry to leave our friends the Maories with the conviction full in our minds that their days will not be long in their land. I devoutly hope that it may never again be necessary to change our present "sugar and flour" policy for one of "blood and iron."—Fraser's Magazine.