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April 2014 Issue
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Secret hot pools

A kayaker paddles onto Lake Tarawera from Hot Water Beach
4-5hr. Water taxis available for return if booked in advance
Hot Water Beach camp site (30 sites, must be booked in advance at
Te Waiora car park, off Tarawera Road (15min from Rotorua)

Tarawera Trail, Lake Tarawera Reserve

I’d been itching to try the Tarawera Trail ever since it opened in December last year. Once that ribbon was cut, the public could, for the first time, reach Lake Tarawera’s Hot Water Beach by foot.

I knew before I started that the beach didn’t contain the only thermal fun on the lake shore. But it was only from chatting to locals that I learned there’s a superior pool – clean and perfect for bathing – which you can also reach by track, if you know where to go.

I set off from the car park and followed the track as it descended the Wairoa Valley to the lake shore. According to the trail map there’s a waterfall lookout but, although I could hear the falls, I could at no point see them.

The next hour of the walk undulated close to the coastline and there were several opportunities to nip to the shore for a breather or a dip. The landscape on the opposite side of the lake looked wild, with Mt Tarawera’s bulk dominating the skyline.

At Oneroa, the track took me over the top of the peninsula. The grade was always easy and the path cut through dark, enclosed little valleys. As I headed down the other side, I’d never seen as many ferns as on the hillside opposite – a stunning sight in such vast numbers.

At the bottom of the hill is Wairua Stream, where there’s a toilet, and where I was told to look for an unofficial track heading left. There are two of these. The one not to take (I discovered) is the track just before the stream.

The one shortly after the stream is easy to follow and takes you firstly to a hut (keep an eye out for wallabies in this area). Aim for the far corner of the hut and follow the track that continues in the same direction as before. In just a few metres you’ll arrive at a pool with steps leading into it and a small wooden platform to one side. Rocks at the outlet raise the level of the pool a little and a dam made from earth and stones where the water enters the pool keeps the gunk out.

The result is a perfectly clean, relaxing, knee-deep natural tub big enough for 10-15 people. The water would have been around 35-degrees at a guess and it’s in a shaded spot meaning you could bask there for hours without fear of sunburn.

Alas, my late start to the walk meant I had to leave this luxurious spot, slap on my pack and climb to Rotomahana lookout point. Although the grade of the track is good, I found this section slightly arduous with a heavy pack, especially as there seemed to be easier ways over the hill. But soon I was heading down the steps to Hot Water Beach.

The beach is aptly named, with warm water leaking into the lake most of the way across. Just east of the campsite is a warm pool far murkier and less enticing than the one I’d bathed in earlier. The western end of the bay has the most aggressive activity, with scalding streams causing steam to rise from the lake. Wading through the lake here is like a game of Russian roulette, as a wave of cool water can well be followed by a wave of shriek-inducing pain – not recommended. Bathing in the warm shallows is also tricky, as your bum tends to sink into the sand where hotter water lurks and bites.

But it’s a beautiful place with the large volcanic scar on the southern end of Mt Tarawera clearly visible. It’s also quiet out of holiday season – there were just two other tents the night I was there.

I chose to pitch my tent on the site closest to the hot springs at the western end. At around 1am I awoke in a sweat. I’d never been so warm while camping and I had to climb out of my sleeping bag completely. It confused me for a while until I realised the thermal activity meant my camping spot came with under-floor heating – a perfect incentive to return in winter, though next time I’ll remember to keep my chocolate away from the ground – it had melted to gooey mush by the morning.

– Matthew Pike