A (good) bed-end to our New Zealand travels

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The cold and hot pools of the holiday park

This is our last night/day in New Zealand! After two weeks of driving around the country and sleeping in our tiny tent or in the not-so-ergonomic car, I’ve booked us a room at Opal Hot Springs Holiday Park to celebrate. We weren’t sure what to expect of a holiday park. We nearly missed the check-in cutoff of 9 pm, so the hours leading up to that were spent frantically driving just at the NZ speed limit and trying to call the place. Upon arrival, the guy working the front desk laughed and told us there was a bell to ring at night for check-in. He handed over the keys and asked if we wanted linens (they cost extra). We used our sleeping bags instead.

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Our room. Of note: BEDS

The room came with a parking spot out front, so a short drive later we were at our room. And by room, I mean paradise. THERE WERE BEDS. Real, mattress-containing, soft fluffy beds. There was a roof, and a table with chairs to sit in. There was even a sink and food prep area, complete with dishes and pans. We dropped our stuff, flopped onto the beds, and just didn’t move for several minutes.

Natalie: “Can we just not move until tomorrow?”

Stoytcho: “Can we just not move until forever?”

But we needed dinner. So we mashed together the rest of our tomato/beans/eggs/soup seasoning, ate like hungry hikers, and then collapsed and slept like kings.

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We also enjoyed our last Bundaberg soda to celebrate. It’s in a flavor that we’ve never even heard of in the U.S.

The next morning, we got a chance to enjoy the reason I had booked this specific holiday park: a hot springs pool. We pulled on our swimsuits and lazed about in the water’s warmth, interrupting our soak occasionally to swim some laps in the adjacent cold pool. In eight hours, we’d be on a plane bound for Australia. But for now, we were here, not thinking of our farewell to New Zealand’s shimmering sands, rolling green hills, and relaxing thermal springs.

A thermal valley and a hot river

Imagine a green and wide land, rolling hills on either side of the road and mountains behind those hills. The landscape is covered in fog and cloud and steam, obscuring everything but the closest hundred meters. As you get closer to the source of steam, the smell of boiling eggs, sulfur, gets stronger and stronger. Such is the land of Waiotapu, a trail of thermal springs in the center of New Zealand.

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One of the area’s attractions is the mud pools that form where there’s bubbling water and clay.

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On the map it’s call, very aptly, “Mud Pool“. There’s a small observation platform and a parking lot. Past that, it has the slowly bubbling cauldron of thick beige mud.

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It’s mesmerizing to watch, watching vapor float along the surface, interrupted by a shot of mud which lands with a heavy plop and ripples the surface.

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At the night mud pools are downright creepy. They’re mostly in the middle of nowhere, it’s pitch black and the visibility is lowered because of the steam. The only sound you hear is the boiling mud. It’s very easy to let the imagination run away with thoughts of bog monsters and other night terrors.

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Daylight brings beauty over paranoia. Conveniently near the mud pools and near the famous Rainbow Mountain trek is the Waiotapu Walking Track. It’s shorter than the trek and has an azure pool at the end. It’s quiet and not in the least crowded.

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The view of the pool is a nice reward, but the forest hike is really the gem here. The amount of diversity in flora is amazing. We happened to visit during a very rainy period and the plants were loving it. Every leaf and needle glistened, vibrant and healthy. The plants that grow in this area tend to be good at retaining moisture and because of the harsh soil conditions are smaller and more scrub-like than those outside of the thermal area.

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Here you can see the clean line between the pine trees and the plants around the thermal pools.

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Saving the best for last, the hot river. This is Kerosene Creek, and it is one of the very few free bathing spots in a valley rich in hot water springs. Most of the other viable pools have been staked and claimed as private resorts, but this land is owned by a logging company that apparently has no interest in collecting on their enviable tourist attraction. Mostly, they turn a blind eye to happy go lucky bathers, only requiring that you not sleep in the area at night and sending around a guard van to enforce that rule. Otherwise, swim free and happy.

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And happy we were. The footpath to the river is about five minutes long, slippery and thin in parts. The hassle is worth it. There are numerous deep spots in the river for soaking and even a few waterfalls for that hot-water massage. The water varies from very hot near the end of the footpath to lukewarm lower down the river. The main attraction is this massive pool near the center and it’s not really worth going farther than this – the water drops off in temperature quickly and the path gets rapidly worse. In the middle of the day tour groups pass through. There’s plenty of space, but it’s worth it to come early or late and relax with the quiet babble of the river.

Hot Water Beach

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The sign is not kidding.

New Zealand has many, many natural wonders. For me, Hot Water Beach was one of the best. As soon as I read about it I decided it would be on our itinerary. Upon our arrival, we thought we’d spend an hour, maybe two. We were wrong.

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Hot Water Beach is exactly what it sounds like. How water, on the beach. Very, very hot water. At the center of the hotspot, which moves around slowly, the water is hot enough to scald the skin off your feet in an instant. The nifty sign above explains what’s going on – two springs of thermally heated water emerge on the beach. When the tide is high the frigid ocean water keeps things cool, but during low tide the area turns in to a spa.

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My South American tan, gone.

You can see us lying in a dug out pool of hot water, borrowed shovel to the left, pale white skin threatening to burn. The trick is, dig a hole such that you can control how much water is coming in and leaving – the water near the center is boiling, and the water further away is pretty cold. Mix the two just right and your pool will be perfect. I personally prefer it very hot, which often turns into jumping out of the way of a nearly-boiling stream of water.

Since this place is rightfully very popular and people leave all the time, it’s common to wait for a pool to free up and jump in. This is especially useful for those of us who didn’t bring a shovel and didn’t want to rent one. The trowel really doesn’t do much, a small shovel at least is needed to move the sand quickly enough. Switching pools is also really the only way to get hotter water if you’re out on the periphery.

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The beach is a great place to go with friends in groups big and small. It’s hard to make a huge pool, so everyone splits off into smaller groups in the sandy tubs. Despite the large crowd of people, there are plenty of free spots and you rarely have to wait longer than ten or fifteen minutes to grab one. Notice the people-free zone to the right in this photo – the water there is scalding hot.

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The day is not particularly cold, but everyone huddles in the pools of hotspring water like monkeys on a snowy day.

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I am unabashedly one of the huddling people, wanting to soak in the amazingly hot water as long as possible.

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Some people relaxed and lounged on the sand. How they resisted the siren call of hot water I do not know. In the far center back you can see someone repairing their pool. Digging sand out to keep the pool deep and heated is a constant source of amusement and activity at the beach.

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One of the best parts of this beach is the waves. They’re mighty strong, enough to send you flying shoreward if you ride one, or kick you into the water if you’re not paying attention. It’s great to ride the waves until you’re numb – the water is refreshingly cold – and then run over to a hot pool and soak until you’re sweating and ready to cool down again. Swim, soak, repeat.

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As the day wears on and the tide starts to come in, the pools are eaten away and flooded with cold water. At this point, you have to move further up, away from the waves, to keep a warm pool going, and it won’t be as hot as it would have been during the earlier parts of the day.

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Eventually, all the pools are wiped out and flooded. The day of soaking in hot water on the shore is over. Six hours after our arrival we were kicking sand off our feet and driving to the next camp spot.

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A wrinkly adios! My hand was like this for hours.