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An alternative to Rotorua is the “Hidden Valley” Orakei Korako, about 30 minutes drive north of Taupo town.
It truly is a hidden valley, the drive from Taupo taking you through rolling paddocks replete with sheep and deer farms, to a small valley. There is a visitor’s center/ gift shop, and a large carpark, and on arrival you may notice puffs of steam rising from the bush on the other side of the river.
A small boat ferries you across to the thermal area, where you are free to make your own way along the well kept boardwalks and well marked bush tracks to explore the area. (A rough map with descriptions/ explanations of the key features is available free at the visitor’s center.) You may take as long as you wish – providing you are back at the jetty in time for the last ferry (check times with the driver).
Thermal features include small geysers (unpredictable but frequent enough that you should have a chance to see at least one), hot springs, silica terraces and bubbling mud pools, as well as a beautiful cave pool with turquoise water. Look closely here and you’ll notice a moving memorial to two brothers killed in WW2, who grew up here.
There are several lookouts, and along the boardwalks and trails there are plenty of benches where you can rest or just sit and watch, or wait for an eruption. A rumbling sound – something between a boiling jug and a distant freight train – signals something is about to happen, so follow the sound to the nearest feature and get your camera ready. There might be a lot of steam before anything more happens, so be patient! You may also find the steam obscures your view for photography, but you should still be able to see the action, even if you don’t manage to bring home any good photos of an eruption!
I visited on a winter weekday when there were few other visitors and really enjoyed it, despite the rain (but if rain puts you off, NZ probably isn’t for you anyway!) It could have been “the land that time forgot” - at some moments it felt like all that was missing were dinosaurs, the landscape being so ancient and unreal. I don’t recall it being smelly, although I had expected it would be.
The ferry driver seems to keep an eye on the jetty, and will soon pop across to collect you when you are ready.
Adult entry (Sept 2010) was $NZ36 and includes the short ferry ride to the thermal area. Prices in the visitor’s centre/ gift shop were up to half the price in other tourist shops I visited in NZ. I bought a proper fleece jacket here for $NZ25 – less than the going rate for a souvenier T shirt in most other locations. There is also a café here with a sunny, enclosed eating area overlooking the lake, however I did not eat here so cannot comment on the food. I found the staff to be friendly and helpful, and I thought this was great value all round.
Updated Oct 1, 2010