Topic: From Napier to Taupo and Back, Overland - 1887 - Chapter 6

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Next morning I was awakened by the tramping of a team of horses driven past the house to breakfast. It is a peculiarity of much of this pumice country, if not the whole of it, that a heavy footfall shakes the ground a long way, and evokes dull hollow sounds. The porousness of the pumice everywhere underfoot is no doubt the cause of this. There was no sign of the sky clearing in the evening. What of the morning? A hasty glance round removed all anxiety. Lake and mountain, save the summits of snow – clad Ruapehu and his cindery neighbours, were bathed in the glory of an unobscured morning sun, while the sky overhead was but lightly flecked with dissolving clouds. The tearful mountains had applied their pocket-handkerchiefs and eau-de-Cologne with good effect, and were smiling blandly, giving promise of a glorious day, which cheering prospect deserved a mental “Hurrah!” and got it. It was just 6am – time for a visit to the “Crow’s Nest,” the “Witches’ Cauldron” and “Big Ben,” a bath in the Lofley’s glen, and back to breakfast; a portion of the day’s programme kindly sketched out for me by Mr Gallagher the night before, but with the last item first.

I was soon on my way to the Crow’s Nest corner, but if to get there had been my first duty, I should have deserved the punishment of Lot’s wife, for turning so often to look at the scene behind me. The whole expanse of the lake, except the broad north-west bay, hidden by intervening hills, lay spread out clear, distinct and gorgeous in the hues reflected from its glassy surface. All shades of blue, from that of the deep sea a thousand miles from land to the palest tint, were painted on its surface in broad bands, blending with each other most beautifully, and every here and there a sunlit cloud’s reflection added another beauty. Far away, a tiny speck of white stood for the sail of a becalmed boat, and beyond that lay the sun-tipped, solitary small island in all this inland sea. To west and south a high rampart of steep an rugged mountains, dwarfed by the distance, glowed in pinks and browns under the rays of the still low sun, with dense black shadows in their deep ravines and on their northern slopes. High upon the nest of giant peaks were piled still more gigantic mountains of cloud, in their density and whiteness seeming like great banks of snow. Nearer hills, fern-clad, in their rich browns and greys were no whit less beautiful in the clear light, while the shaded side of massive Tauhara near at hand, towered grand and gloomy toward the sun. The low dense manuka beside the road, hung with rain drops, gleamed and flashed again, and the grass was decked with diamonds. Altogether it was a grand picture, and if offered and accepted by the Royal Academy of London it would be the picture of the year. I wish I could afford to buy it and frame it properly. But the grapes are really sour; -these water-coloured sun pictures fade very fast.

I found my way to the Crow’s Nest without difficulty, thanks to a good “bump of locality.” The guardians of this and its neighbouring wonders had not done much lately to make access to them easy and pleasurable. The path was overgrown with broom and manuka, and but that I had put on a mackintosh – a quite remarkable exercise of foresight in respect of that very contingency – I should have got thoroughly wet in forcing my way through the rain-laden stuff. The tracks elsewhere are hidden by grass, and the ground everywhere sodden with rain, for want of a few trenches. This is not as it should be, and the guardians aforesaid will do well to note this remark. The cone of the Crow’s Nest, “biggest geyser in New Zealand” since the catastrophe at Rotomahana, is a dull pile shaped like a clumsy cottage loaf, and when at rest is a most uninteresting object, but for the possibility of its flaring up at any moment and scalding all and sundry who may be poking about it and criticising its outward appearance. As I did not see it in action I must be content to believe what I hear of its powers. One “guide” writer says it throws water from five feet to six hundred feet high, which allows a liberal margin for the effect of variations in the barometer. From fifteen to thirty feet is the commonest assertion. It does not throw up its fountain perpendicularly, but to one side, and on that side the ground is bare and looks as if it were subjected to tropical rains. The geyser as usual has built a rude cone (the clumsy cottage loaf before mentioned) of silica, but this is evidently withering under the diminishing action of the geyser, and the acrid epithets discharged upon it by disappointed visitors. Whatever beauty it may have had had departed. Burton Bros. Have published a good photo of the Crow’s Nest, but it would have been a better picture had they taken it with the river, which lies a few yards away, as a background. It only “works” twice or thrice a day now, for about 40 minutes at a time, therefore visitors who see its “play” must ascertain its habits for the time being from someone who knows them. I was not lucky enough to see its play at all. But one need not fret at missing the sight of this “biggest geyser in New Zealand,” at its best. There are plenty of wonders close by, warranted thoroughly staunch. The high, broken down bank of the river near it is steaming all over, not violently, not as if a lot of engine valves were blowing off, but small clouds of steam rise slowly through the low scrub, like smoke from dull fires.

From the Crow’s Nest, and from the track to it, can be heard a regular sound as of churning in a monster churn when “the butter has come,” and to see the whence of this noise will be the next step of a visitor left to his own devices. The whence is a small pool of hot water, say twelve feet in diameter, overshadowed by a semicircular wall. But exactly where the sound comes from cannot be seen; it is somewhere back in a cavity under the wall, and the cavity itself can seldom be seem for the steam cloud on the pool. I had seen more water, and hotter water – the pool is not at boiling heat – and had heard louder and uglier noises; but standing there alone, in the hot vaporous atmosphere, confined as it is by surrounding vegetation; with the heat radiating from the hot pool and climbing through my boots from the stones I stood upon on the margin; with a villainous smell in the air (oi sulphur they call it); and with that queer, steady , churning throb caused one cannot see how; well, I didn’t feel scared at all, but a suspicion of the uncanniness of the whole thing began to steal over one, and I felt I must either go away or plunge into the pool and find out its weird secret, and come out content, and parboiled. I decided on the former alternative, I cannot now remember why. No one could sleep beside the Witches’ Cauldron. That everlasting thus and splash, more regular than one’s pulse, would make anyone walk off in his sleep, a raving roving somnambulist. Burton Bros’ No. 3724 is a capital photograph of this spot, but it does not give the most remarkable features – the peculiar sound, the smell, the heat, nor the delicious green of the tropical ferns (they are tropical ferns) that are growing over and around the steaming pool. The Witches’ Cauldron, planked and roofed over, ought to make an enticing vapour bath. It might be medicinally valuable too; the vapours smell nasty enough to provoke faith in them.

A chain or so away, and close by the river, is the “Little Crow’s Nest,” which may crow over the big one in the matter of industry. Night and day, summer and winter, rain or shine, it throws up its little splash of water, the highest drops to a foot and a half or two feet high, pauses to gather them and then shoots them up again. If its namesake in the largest, surely this is the smallest geyser in New Zealand; quite a bantam of a Crow! The river is so close to it that a nervous person standing on that side, and surprised by an unusually good effort, might easily step backwards into about 20 feet of cold water. It has been done, so there is no doubt about the possibility of it. Burton’s photo of this tiny water works is a “sell.” He must have run the bows of his camera right on the rocks, to make so small and affair fill so large a picture.

Round a corner, down-river-ward, there is “Satan’s Glory” and a lot more hot property belonging to the same proprietor, but these I missed. A little upriver from the Crow’s Nest, under a cliff, is a hole about a yard across full of something like dirty milk, which is kept constantly churned by an ebullition quite fascinating in its regularity and the hollow thud accompanying it. It is a small affair, without any beauty to recommend it, but – I don’t know why exactly – I could have watched it and listened to it for hours. The face of the cliff above it, and for many yards on each side, is coated with deposited silica. There was some lively geyser work going on here in the long long ago!

While standing beside this pool, on a slope of stuff that has slipped from above and half buried the old geyser wall, I found the soil quite hot a few inches below the surface, - an unexpected piece of information. The spot where I was poking was too far above the spring, 15 feet at least, to be heated from below. Why was it hot? The country hereabout was all pumice, but around the hot springs it is decomposed into clay, and the clay often hardened into a solid fine-grained stone. We are told that the vapours issuing from the hot springs decompose the rocks. Is not the heat in the soil an effect of the decomposition, far underground, of the pumice the waters percolate through, rather than to any volcanic heat remaining in a bed over or through which the waters pass? The latter is the common explanation, but it does not seem to account for the heating of the soil near some of the springs. It is quite time the heart of Tauhara (the only volcanic hill these waters could have come from) was cool, so that any waters flowing through its arteries and veins should not come out hot. But if the decomposition of pumice into clay by the action of something dissolved in the water, gives rise to heat, there you have a simple explanation of the hot springs at once. The decomposition is unquestionably going on in certain places, and heat as certainly accompanies the process. Some think sulphur is the agent that breaks down the pumice, because where the breaking down goes on most rapidly much sulphur appears. But the sulphur may be a result of the process, not the cause of it.

Climbing out of the river bed, I steered next for “Big Ben’s” steady column of steam, four or five hundred yards from the river, on the upland. I had wished Mr Gallagher to take me over to this wonder the evening before, but he was sufficiently a guide philosopher and friend to decline. “There are too many holes about,” he said. There are. It is no easy matter to avoid them in daylight. It is as full of sweating pores as the human skin, and the orifices and “glands” are large in proportion. A piece of country about a third of mile wide (at a guess), and reaching from the river towards Tauhara, I don’t know how far, is as great a curiosity, in my opinion, as any Taupo offers. It should be quarantined for solicitous small pox. It is sulphur-rotted to death. The pumiceous surface seems burned by the fever that has rages, but is now abating, beneath it, and very little vegetation cares to grow upon it. Every few yards there is a hole, a few inches or a foot or two in diameter, in the crust. Beneath the crust the hole widens out from a few inches to three or four feet, and as many deep, with crumbling sides and soft bottom of vividly coloured clay. From most of them this wreaths of steam arise, for the clay at the bottom is warm, - hot at depths to which one can force a stick, and damp. The vapour smells of sulphur or some villainous sulphurous mixture. In some spots steam may be seen issuing from the ground where no aperture is visible. The deficiency would probably be supplied by any incautious visitor who stepped on such a spot. In places there are ranges of holes ten, fifteen, to twenty feet deep, and as many across, packed close together, running into each other, which seem to be places where this land-scrofula has worked itself out, long ago. The sides of these are gaudily painted with sulphur and other mineral deposits in all the colours of the rainbow and a great many more. One needs to be wary in traversing this country in daylight. After dark it is a veritable Potter’s Field, - a place to bury strangers in. Only strangers would then venture upon it. Yet it is dull and tame compared with the sulphur fields near Rotokawa, at the back of Tauhara from Taupo. There the subsoil is suffering from its strange disease in its most virulent form. To put one’s foot through the cool surface there is to get it scalded, for which there is little consolation to bring up one’s toes a glistening mass of beautiful sulphur crystals. The larger holes contain water of various brilliant colours at the bottom, and sulphurous and other vile smelling vapours almost displace the atmospheric air. “See Rotokawa and die” might be the Taupoans’ variation of the Neapolitan saying. With reasonable care one may see it and not die; in fact, may live all the longer for seeing it. “Rotokawa,” by the way, is the name of a bitter lake near the sulphur fields, but when people talk of seeing Rotokawa they usually mean, I find, the sulphur fields. I have wandered away from Big Ben to Rotokawa, several miles away, and where I never was, and must go back at once, or be late for breakfast.

“Big Ben” is an underground geyser, in the midst of the “bad lands.” Down a black, narrow, crooked hole, that can be seen down 18 or 20 feet, there is hot water a little below the lowest point visible and it is Ben’s business to continually splash some of this water up into view. The regularity and the noise of it are very like the splashing of a big light-laden steamer’s screw, going slow ahead to start her from moorings. The ground about vibrates with the force of the lift, with the blow of the falling water, or with the condensation of steam under water, - I do not know which. This throbbing engine works night and day, never stopping for repairs, for lubrication, or for coals. Whatever may become of us, it will be all the same a hundred years hence! Close by are many of the larger dry sulphur holes above mentioned. Will Beg Ben share their fate some far off day? Dry up? Or blow itself away like Te Tarata?

I should like to state somewhere in these notes, and it will fit in here as well as anywhere, my opinion that to get the fullest enjoyment out of an inspection of this country, one should “do” it alone, without a guide. Get some braid general directions, where to go and so forth, and then fossick out the details for yourself. A guide knows the tracks, keeps you clear of all risky spots, and robs you of the pleasure of skilfully piloting yourself between Scylla and Charybdis, and of finding afresh all the curious things small, and great, that had been found before. The captain of the Endeavour, I’ll be bound, enjoyed his first trip up the East Coast far more than did the captain of the Rimutaka, and Dante would have written a more thrilling “Divina Comedia” if he had been left more to his own resources in the Inferno. Anyone who merely wishes to see the wonders of Taupo had better get a guide to show them; he who would enjoy them, should go seek them for himself.


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From Napier to Taupo and Back, Overland - 1887 - Chapter 6 by jochubb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License