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Patty Cake in Hells Gate's hot pools

Adventure travel in New Zealand



Tom Petty was right. It does pay to stand at the gates of hell and not back down. In the case of Rotorua's Hells Gate hot pools in New Zealand, you'll want to take that stance a step farther. Jump right in and wiggle your toes in soothingly therapeutic hot mud, just as Pique did during a month-long exploration of the remote Pacific Rim nation's North Island.

Hells Gate — named by British playwright George Bernard Shaw when he visited the site in the early 1900s — bills itself as, "the beast of all geothermal parks." Upon viewing the terraced, silica-coated rock landscape dotted with pools awash in iron sulfite, Shaw, a renowned atheist, was quoted as saying: "Surely, this is the gateway to hell." In this case, one hell of a healing centre, especially as experienced by visitors who come to soak in the fresh geothermal mud that continuously oozes from below the surface, a unique feature compared to similar baths elsewhere in Turkey and Japan where the soft earthy matter used is dug from ages-old deposits. In particular, Hells Gate's Wai Ora Spa and nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital are recognized worldwide for mud-therapy treatments of arthritis and rheumatism. Whatever ails you, there's nothing like getting glazed in clay in the privacy of open-air cubicles that house shallow bathing pools. You and your inner child will be playing patty cake in no time flat. As Napoleon Bonaparte once observed, mud truly is the fifth element.

While geothermal activity abounds around Whistler along a seam that stretches south from the Lillooet Glacier to Harrison Lake at sites like Tsek and Meager Creek, that tally hardly matches the volume of natural hot springs that define the Rotorua region. And in more ways than one. The tell-tale odour of sulphur scents the air long before you reach the city. Think pulp-mill light. Set beside an expansive freshwater lake and cradled beneath tall peaks, Rotorua, population 56,000, was the site of the 2006 mountain bike and trials world championships. Guess where riders engaged in a little post-race recovery?

Should the air in Rotorua ever clear of its matchstick smell, head for the hills. The absence could only spell one thing: a volcanic vent has plugged, signalling an impending eruption. The last time this happened in 1886, all hell broke loose. The earth's surface ruptured, lava spewed, and subsequent thermal activity created a steaming landscape that endures today, including the world's largest hot spring — Frying Pan Lake — almost four hectares (10 acres) in size with a temperature range between 45-and-55 Celsius (113-and-131 Fahrenheit) sizzling degrees.

Got a road rash that needs healing? At 40 C (104 F), Hells Gate's Kakahi Falls, the largest hot water falls in the southern hemisphere, is just the ticket. Much like mountain bike racers, after battles Maori warriors would bathe their wounds in the sulfurous waters renowned for its medicinal pre-penicillin-age properties. While the lads were at it, they cooked dinner by steaming food sealed in fronds and suspended above bubbling hot pools, a technique still used in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa thermal-village neighbourhood where visitors are accorded a warm Maori welcome. What's not to like about artfully-tattooed folks whose idea of a greeting is to bulge their eyes, stick out their tongues, and rub noses with you while staring deep into your eyes?

Care to peer deep into the centre of a marine volcano the likes of which shaped Polynesia at large? White Island lies 48 kilometres offshore from the mainland in the Bay of Plenty. It takes two hours to make the journey by launch to the two-kilometre-wide island whose proper Maori name, Te Puia o Whakaari, means "the dramatic volcano." In 1769, Captain James Cook named it White as it was perpetually enveloped in a silvery cloud. Abutting the International Date Line, the island is a brimstone cauldron so toxic that those who venture ashore for a tour are issued face masks to counter hydrochloric acid fumes. (Similar vapours have been known to ambush unwary climbers on the upper slopes of Mount Meager at the northern end of the Pemberton Valley.) Given the volatile nature of volcanoes, hard hats are also mandatory in case of flying debris.

Nothing prepares you for what lies beyond the rusting dock where visitors haul themselves up out of small inflatable boats launched from the mother ship. Imagine a howling blast-furnace exhaust venting from a yellow-tinged maw in the earth's surface on one side and a lime-green lake with an off-the-charts acidity rating on the other. Tread carefully along the pathways that lead through the crater, laid down over the past century by various mining endeavours intent on removing sulphur from the cone for use as a fertilizer on mainland crops. It's hard to think of another place on earth comparable to this hellishly beautiful expanse atop an undersea mountain most of whose 1,600-metre-tall vastness lies hidden beneath the South Pacific waters. All this upheaval makes Hells Gate's tranquil mud pools look even more inviting. Patty cake anyone?

Access Rotorua lies 230 kilometres southeast of Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. For tourist information, visit www.rotoruanz.com. Details on the Hells Gate Geothermal Park are posted at www.hellsgate.co.nz. See www.whiteisland.co.nz for boat tours of White Island.

Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book. For details, visit jackchristie.com