Arno Gasteiger

In hot water

Before the age of the jacuzzi, people sought the benison of natural hot springs, convinced that a soak in their mineralrich waters would bring not just warmth, but health as well. Promotion of New Zealand as a thermal wonderland wasthe start of this country’s tourism industry.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger and G R Roberts

“Tell Ross I’ve caught our dinner!”

John Dollimore has the two-kilogram brown trout flopping on the ground beside the lodge just in time, for with a flick of its head it snaps the line. I wasn’t expecting to be dining on trout, or to meet an old workmate out here in the middle of nowhere, but, as is so often the case in the back country, after two-and-a-half hours of solid tramping I opened the lodge door to be greeted by name.

My real destination lies another 30 minutes away: the Mangatainoka hot pool. A swingbridge over a roaring stream leads into the beech forest of the Kaweka Range. A well-marked path with bridges and duckboards brings me to two fibreglass tubs mounted in an octagonal deck. Water trickles off the cliff-face into the first tub through a drainpipe. Cooler, it then spills into the second.

Both have their attractions. The more tepid pool opens the sweaty tramper’s pores and prepares the skin for the glorious heat of the other. Strange brown flecks float in the water (as they do in many hot pools) and the bottoms of both tubs are covered in gravel. Not your idea of heaven? You haven’t been tramping hard for three hours, your age starting to show!

Floating in a hot pool offers a unique sensation: Earth’s own heat reduced to a comfortable level. Para­doxically for a country with a nuclear-free reputation, the ultimate source of the heat is radioactivity in the Earth’s core—fortunately separated from us by a heat-exchanger of molten rock. Whether bubbling at a riverside, seeping up through beach sands or steaming quietly in a bushy glade, hot pools, like wild berries, are gifts from the Earth, an encouragement to be at one with nature.

By the time I get back to the lodge it is dark. The trout, steamed with lashings of mixed herbs between two enamel plates on a billy, is just off-raw, but so fresh as to be succulent and superb.

The following morning, back at the roadhead, I anticipate a further soak in the soothing waters of the Mangatutu hot pool. A concrete dam clinging to the cliff-face like a swallow’s nest, the pool holds barely enough water for two people. When I reach it, however, I discover that it’s been closed by the Department of Conservation for safety reasons—but it has since built another pool on a gentler slope further up.

Maori and Pakeha alike delighted in bathing on the ledges of the glorious Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana—a joy forever lost when the terraces were destroyed in the Tarawera eruption of 1886.
Maori and Pakeha alike delighted in bathing on the ledges of the glorious Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana—a joy forever lost when the terraces were destroyed in the Tarawera eruption of 1886.

Ranger Charlie Janes had told me of a hot shower on the Ohane Stream, 10 kilometres north of Te Haroto on the Napier-Taupo road, but it was an hour’s walk up the creek. It probably is, as he said, “a sheer delight when you’re on your way out of the bush with a deer carcass bleeding down your legs,” but it doesn’t seem worth the two-hour round trip this time—especially with Tarawera just five kilometres further up the road.

This Tarawera is 90 km south of famous Mt Tarawera, scene of the 1886 eruption. Katherine Mansfield was here late in 1907 with her friend Millie Parker and Millie’s relatives the Ebbetts. We can glean some impressions from her notebook: “In the afternoon more perfect bush and we camp at Tarawera Mineral Baths—the old man—the candle in a tin—the scenery—the old shed—the hot water—the feeling—the road—How we sleep—”

Ninety years later, the Tarawera bathhouse is looking the worse for wear. The only working baths are two rough concrete tubs fed by a hose from a spring on the hillside. The tubs are Maori-owned, and the public can use them free. Their particular charm is their setting on a hillside overlooking the Waipunga River. Only 300 metres’ walk from the parking place, another 500 metres from the local hotel, they must be a favourite spot after closing time.

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Dozens of such off-the-beaten-track pools can be found throughout the country—if you know where to look. Some have crude structures associated with them, to offer a more satisfying bathe; others are unmodified.

On a remote arm of Lake Ohakuri, a hydro dam on the Waikato River, the Rotata (Rotorua, Taupo, Tauranga) Sun Club owns a tiny hot-water beach and has access to a hot stream that winds through a narrow chasm to a hot waterfall. Plans in the 1980s for a national nudist resort on the property fell through—interest in organised nudism waned with concerns about skin cancer.

Where feasible, though, nude is certainly the way to enjoy hot springs, especially if the water is at all efferves­cent. A sharp look-out is advisable, of course. I heard of two women trampers arriving at Ketetahi Springs—formerly a popular soak on the side of Mt Tongariro, now closed to bathing—who heard male voices through the mist. “No need to wear togs with all this steam!” declared one. Hardly had he uttered these words than a breeze sprang up and the mist cleared. The full monty!

Settings for enjoying Rotorua's hot pools have varied over the decades, from the basic Manupirua bath at Rotoiti, to the more generously appointed Duchess Bath (below, portrait).
Settings for enjoying Rotorua’s hot pools have varied over the decades, from the basic Manupirua bath at Rotoiti, to the more generously appointed Duchess Bath (below, portrait).

According to Maori tradition, Ketetahi, the southernmost hot spring of the Bay of Plenty thermal region, was the first hot pool to be used by a human—a superhuman, in fact. Ngatoroirangi, the mighty tohunga of the Arawa canoe, lay alone and freezing on Tongariro due to the disobedience of his followers. In his extremity, he called on his sisters in far-off Hawaiki to send fire and save him. They came under the sea, surfacing at Whakaari (White Island), Motuhora (Whale Island), Rotoehu, Rotoiti, Tarawera, Orakei Korako, Taupo, Tokaanu and other thermal regions, bringing sparks and embers in baskets. According to Tuwharetoa tradition, the fire spilled from all but one of the baskets, and when they reached Ngatoroirangi he exclaimed, “Kotahi ano to kete!”—Only one basket! Hence Ketetahi.

When paramount chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV gifted the first 2630 hectares of Tongariro National Park to the country in 1887, he withheld an area of 48 hectares containing the springs. For many years, the owners gave tacit approval to trampers wishing to bathe at Ketetahi, but in 1996 they decided the privilege was being abused, with the area becoming commercialised and the owners getting nothing in return. This material consideration was intertwined with the spiritual value of the springs. Arthur Smallman, chairman of the Ketetahi Trust, described it in terms of the owners’ ancestors using the waters, and implied that by spending time there discuss­ing matters of moment, the descendants were imbued with their mana.

One of the issues for the trust is the danger to visitors and their responsibility under the occupational safety and health legislation. In places the ground hisses and bubbles where you walk, and everywhere it is crumbly and flaky. Steam vents roar like locomotives, and on foggy or rainy days threading your way around the boiling pools requires caution.

The pungent smell of sulphur is everywhere. Arthur Smallman says he once picked up a Canadian hitchhiker on the Desert Road, and knew where she’d been by the smell. She had soaked overnight, looking at the stars and drinking wine, and afterwards claimed her aches and pains had evaporated.

The trust is considering the future use of the area, including whether trampers will be allowed to use the springs again. In the meantime, signs ask people to stay away.

Tokaanu, on the southern shore of Lake Taupo and just an ember’s throw from Ketetahi, is part of the same geothermal system that gives the volcanic plateau its activity. Given the prodigious amounts of hot water bubbling up to the surface, early innkeepers here saw no reason to provide guests with indoor baths. Equipped with towels, they were led to the best that nature had to offer. One visitor in 1874 recorded his impressions:

. . . like Homeric heroes we were led to the bath . . . [past] great boiling vats of mud and of water . . . The ground was as hard as stone, covered with a rock-like deposit of silica, which formed a sort of platform. As if scooped out of this were three almost circular basins, of about 12 feet in diameter, and immeasurably deep. The right and left pools were nearly boiling—the central basin just right for a dip. In this cauldron were 48 persons ‘hitched’ on around the edges, shoulder to shoulder, and with heads just out of the water, or sporting in the midst. We soon decided what to do and immediately there were 50 persons instead of 48, smiling, laughing, and shaking hands or rubbing noses in the water . . . There were old tattooed grandsires, some babies hardly able to walk; there were fathers of families and mothers of the same; young men and maidens, boys and girls all laughed together. The most perfect decorum and propriety was observed. Little brown babies nestled in their fathers’ arms; and the latter, to amuse us, pitched the little things into the middle, to show how they could swim. They would sink for a second, then disclose a little brown solemn face above the waters and strike out for their fathers’ arms again.”

The northern end of Lake Taupo was also well endowed with geothermal activity, including pools more or less suited to bathing. Auckland merchant Robert Graham purchased 1897 ha at Wairakei in 1881 and erected a distinctive hotel to accommodate those taking the waters.

According to one visitor, the place looked like a haystack with its thatched roof and walls, and was lined with raupo inside. Although the establishment was light and airy, “we suffered somewhat from the cold at night, the moon shining down through the crevices in the roof,” wrote one guest.

Rotorua's half-timbered bathhouse, which opened on August 13, 1908, was seen as an antipodean rival to the great European spas, but within years the sulphurous atmosphere of Rotorua had corroded the building, and with it the dream.
Rotorua’s half-timbered bathhouse, which opened on August 13, 1908, was seen as an antipodean rival to the great European spas, but within years the sulphurous atmosphere of Rotorua had corroded the building, and with it the dream.

Nearby was the Kiriohinekai Stream (one meaning of which is “food for the skin of a young woman”). The water was said to contain such a high level of silica that it imparted a tangible silkiness.

Less pleasing was the Sulphur Bath down in Taupo proper, where the Armed Constabulary had built a small bathhouse. One bather reported: “We groped our way through the copsewood that fills the uncultivated part of the glen . . . A small shed has been built over the stream where the sulphur spring rises; and the bath itself is contained in a coffin-like trough. The water was so hot we remained in but a moment; it was long enough, however, to incrust the skin with a thin coating of sulphur that made you feel like a two-legged lucifer match.”

The Armed Constabulary had formerly patronised a nearby, where they quaffed unlicenced beer while they soaked. When the owner raised the price of a draught, they rebelled and got permission to build their own baths. The forerunners of what are still known as the AC baths at Taupo came into being in 1883.

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Rototua, further north again, is, in a sense, a monument to New Zealand’s most iconic hot pools, the Pink and White Terraces. In 1872, our foremost bad poet, Alfred Domett, wrote in his foremost bad poem, “Ranolf and Amohia” (now remembered only as the names of Rotorua streets), about Te Tarata, the White Terrace:

Upwelling ever; amethystal

Ebullient comes the bubbling crystal!

Still growing cooler and more cool

As down the porcelain stairway slips

The fluid flint, and slowly drips,

And hangs each basin’s curling lips

With crusted fringe each year increases,

Thicker than shear-forgotten fleeces . . .

In 1884, a rather more convincing description of Otukapuarangi, the Pink Terraces, appeared in Maoriland, published by the Union Steam Ship Company: “Here is probably the most delightful bath in the whole world. Nature has supplied a dressing room within a few yards of the baths—a recess amongst the green scrub—sheltered from wind or sun by a screen of tall manuka. Undressing here, you are in the water in two seconds. You may choose your basin; but it is safest to go low down and work gradually up, since in this way you can bath of a comfortable and luxurious blood-heat to water almost on the boil; and when the flesh is suffi­ciently red and tender you may tumble back from one basin to the next lowest, till at last you taper off with a gently warm bath which, after your experience nearer the cauldron, seems almost cold.

“Such a bath! The smooth and rounded edges on which you rest your hands or head as on a cushion, the polished sides soft and tender to the limbs as walls of alabaster; the finely powdered silica on which the foot rests as on the finest silver sand, and the warm blue water lapping the body in Elysium . . . .”

“They were probably the most delicious bathing in the world,” says historian Ian Rockel, author of Taking the Waters, a comprehensive book on New Zealand spas, and first curator of the Rotorua Museum. Visitor after international visitor said they had never known anything like them. Unofficially, they were the eighth wonder of the world.

When the Tarawera eruption of 1886 annihilated the terraces, it was a disaster for tourism, and especially for Rotorua. Government and tourist operators tried to compensate. One way was by keeping the myth of the terraces alive: perhaps they were merely buried (vain hope—we can now be sure they were obliterated). The other was by building up Rotorua as a spa.

Mineral-rich waters were once considered efficacious in setting to right a vast array of ailments from skin and joint problems to liver disorders and high blood pressure. Bathing, drinking and "Aix massage"—with fine water jets—were supplemented by stranger treatments such as electric, light, and heat baths at Rotorua and other spas.
Mineral-rich waters were once considered efficacious in setting to right a vast array of ailments from skin and joint problems to liver disorders and high blood pressure. Bathing, drinking and “Aix massage”—with fine water jets—were supplemented by stranger treatments such as electric, light, and heat baths at Rotorua and other spas.

In Europe, thousands of affluent people frequented spas—health resorts built around springs of mineral water (often cold). Taking the waters, by both drinking and soaking, was a medically approved remedy for almost any ailment you could shake a thermometer at. Treatment of different disorders required exposure to waters contain­ing different arrays of minerals, so it wasn’t just a matter of going down to the nearest pool. A whole science of bathing (called balneology) sprang up, with resident specialists at major spas prescribing and overseeing the treatment of ailing visitors. Matching symptom to spa meant travel, and travel created tourism.

Spas became great social—even cultural—centres, since cures might take many months to effect, and one couldn’t spend all day immersed, especially in cold water. Hence entertainments, particularly casinos, became associated with the spas. Writers penned their works at spas, composers their music. Dostoevsky, Byron, Shelley, Jane Austen, various Strausses, Franz Lehar (The Merry Widow), Beethoven, Goethe and Dvoiak were among those who frequented the spas. Handel, Haydn and Liszt all played at Bath, in England, a spa which dates back to Roman times. Spas were very big business, and in the 19th century they reached their zenith.

New Zealand was endowed with a rich variety of mineral springs—”from those strong enough to dissolve a galvanised iron bucket to the mildest saline diu­retic,” as the first medical officer at Rotorua observed. And most of them were hot—a big bonus. Surely we could tap into the lucrative spa business.


As early as 1874, the Hon. William Fox had suggested to the Premier, Julius Vogel, that develop­ing volcanic plateau hot springs as health spas could prove of great financial benefit to the country. Under Minister of Lands William Rolleston, the 1881 Thermal Springs Districts Act was passed, whereby only the government was entitled to buy land bearing hot springs. The Crown then promptly purchased the Rotorua area from the Ngati Whakaue.

Maori had long made use of the area’s thermal resources, for cooking as well as bathing, and had colourful names for many of the springs. Not all were as inviting as “food for the skin of a young woman.” At Ohinemutu was Waihunuhunukuri: “water for scalding a dog.” Indeed, during its early years, Rotorua seemed more like a dog-scalding sort of place than the replica of a posh European spa. Consider this description of a soak in the Coffee Pot pool: “The mode of using this bath is to make a line fast to two stumps on opposite sides of the spring … The patient lets himself gradually down in to the bath by the rope … A wash in the lake is necessary after this bath as the muddy nature of the spring precludes the use of a towel.” Nearby Cameron’s Bath had its drawbacks, too. The sanitary officer noted: “Bathing in the spring itself is to be deprecated as fainting is often induced and loss of life might be occasioned.” Poisonous gases welling up through the pool were to blame.

The first bathhouse in the district, the Pavilion Baths, opened in 1882, followed by the drab little Blue Baths in 1885 and the Postmaster Baths in 1895 (erected where a Wellington Post Office official is said to have received great medicinal benefit). These last baths contained such a level of sulphuric acid and emitted so much hydrogen sulphide that “a more or less heroic type of procedure” was required, and patrons were advised to “sit quietly in the water so as to avoid any unnecessary disengagement of gases.” In later years, several people died from hydro­gen sulphide inhalation at this pool.

The more imposing Duchess Bath—named for the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), who declined to enter the waters—was opened in 1901. A small hospital or sanatorium had been established near the baths in 1885, only to be destroyed by fire in 1888. It was re­placed in 1890 and controlled in turn by the Lands and Survey Dept, the Colonial Secretary’s Dept, the Lunacy Dept, the Railways Dept and the new Dept of Tourist and Health Resorts.

In today’s age of microbes and antibiotics, spring water is valued more for the heat and the buoyancy it pro­vides to patients needing physical therapy than for any mysterious healing powers.

When English balneologist Arthur Wohlmann was appointed to Rotorua in 1902, he ordered a new bath­house to be built. (All the bathhouses suffered from premature decrepitude due to the corrosive nature of the steam.) Wohlmann planned 14 deep baths, 42 shallow, 12 mud and several more unusual varieties (light, electrical, massage and vapour baths).

Hanmer Springs went from being a one-man-and-his-hut operation in the wilderness (pictured at right in 1878, with John Fry, the builder of the shed, on the bank) to having one of the most elegant hotels in the country, the Lodge (ca. 1950).
Hanmer Springs went from being a one-man-and-his-hut operation in the wilderness (pictured at right in 1878, with John Fry, the builder of the shed, on the bank) to having one of the most elegant hotels in the country, the Lodge (ca. 1950).

Owing to cost overruns, only 25 baths were com­pleted, each sunk into the floor of its own room, with an hourglass on the wall to time the soaking.

The electric baths, which looked like something out of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory, applied shocks—to literally galvanise the muscles of invalids into action. Dr Keith Ridings, an anaesthetist appointed as the last balneologist in the late 1950s, recalled the arrangement:

“They had four lamps on the wall [to regulate the current]. I don’t think anyone could ever stand four lamps on, but I had a bath one day with three lamps on, and it nearly jolted me out of the bath!”

Bathhouse patients were also treated with water “activated” by exposure to radium borax. The liquid was reported to be very good at tightening loose teeth and lowering sugar levels in diabetics. At the time, radio­activity was considered something that imparted vitality and freshness.

Rachel water (named after a fraudulent 19th-century London cosmetician) was supposedly good for skin conditions, and was available for use in “Aix massage”—often in conjunction with mud. There were steam baths and, for the supremely hardy, hot-air baths, where limbs or portions of limbs were immersed in air electrically heated to between 200 and 250°C.

Wohlmann’s swanky new house of balneological wonders opened in 1908 to a fanfare of publicity. “Take the train to Cureland,” exhorted the advertisements. Overseas, the health message was packaged with the rest of the nation’s attractions to create an immigration-boosting image: “For the home-seeker, the health-seeker, the wealth-seeker, and the pleasure-seeker, there is no better coun­try than New Zealand.” In reality, the health spa movement was an idea whose time had already passed. Science was steadily chipping away at the Old World concepts on which medicine had been founded, as surely as Darwin was eroding the certainties of the natural world.

In Rotorua, the minerals themselves helped to erode the future of the “Great South Seas Spa.” Even before Wohlmann’s bathhouse opened, the sulphur-loaded atmosphere had turned lead-based white paint black, and lead pipes quickly developed what looked like ulcers. The problems continued, exacerbated by poor ventilation.

Much later a newspaper was to note: “Tourists shudder under the conditions in which they bathe . . . Dim electric light bulbs struggle to pierce an interior darkened by blackening walls and decaying plaster . . . Gaping holes augment the murky appearance of the bottom of the bath, to give a forbidding and repulsive atmosphere.”

Wohlmann’s building was last used as a bathhouse in 1965, and is now the Rotorua Museum.

Bathers enjoy a sparkling Hanmer Springs morning while cocooned in the comfort of the a thermal pool. The charming old Garden Teahouse (at right), built in 1904, covers the pumproom where spring water is filtered, chlorinated and circulated.
Bathers enjoy a sparkling Hanmer Springs morning while cocooned in the comfort of the a thermal pool. The charming old Garden Teahouse (at right), built in 1904, covers the pumproom where spring water is filtered, chlorinated and circulated.

Commenting on the demise of the spa, Dr G. A. Q. Lennane, director of physical medicine with the Health Department, stated in 1949: “The old-fashioned spa conception . . . which has been responsible for the delayed knowledge of the treatment and causes of the rheumatic diseases, had to be abandoned, and the further exploitation of the mineral waters of Rotorua as miraculous cure-alls could not be condoned by the Health Department. A more rational and scientific outlook required to be developed. . . . The use of mineral baths is now regarded as merely an adjuvant to these more effective measures: physiotherapy, splinting, drugs, remedial exercises, occupational therapy. It is not considered that any mineral waters applied externally or taken internally have any action on arthritis. The benefit gained by mineral waters is now considered to be due merely to heat and moisture, and with some waters, to a counter-irritant effect.”

But many would say that the efficacy of spas—testified to by countless people over many generations—cannot be dismissed as easily as that. In Rotorua’s peak periods, 1908-1914 and 1920‑1930, 60,000-80,000 baths per year were taken, plus 30,000 “special” baths. According to Rockel, recent Japanese research on ionisation has demonstrated that the chemicals in spa water do, in fact, penetrate the skin, and Ridings thinks the measured pace of life that was part of a spa holiday, with lots of exercise and rest, and no stress or worry, did patients’ joints a world of good.

Indeed, the most recent back-to-nature movement has prompted a revival of interest in spas. Rockel recalls that when he was curator of the Rotorua Museum, Americans would often inquire about buying the local hot springs, with a view to setting up a New Age spa.

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As Rotorua is to the North Island, so Hanmer is to the South,” declared Prime Minister George Forbes, but in some respects he couldn’t have been more wrong. Hanmer, for instance, has no Maori imprint; the streets are named after English spas—Cheltenham, Harrowgate, Leamington, Scarborough and Bath—and the baths are surrounded by tall exotic trees. Its regular patrons have always been primarily Canterbury people, not the over­seas tourists who flock to Rotorua.

Although the development of the springs goes back to 1883, Hanmer first came to public attention during World War I, when the Queen Mary Hospital was built for soldiers suffering from mustard-gas inhalation and shell-shock. Two octagonal wards could sleep nearly 200 patients arranged in concentric circles around the nurses’ stations. Hanmer Springs became a town attached to a hospital, for the facility provided the town’s electricity (until 1940), water supply and most of the employment.

The medical superintendents virtually ran the town—on military lines—and they tended to stay a long time. Dr (Lt. Col.) P. Chisholm was in charge for 23 years until his death in 1943, when Dr Archibald Wilkinson took over for another 21.

After World War II, Queen Mary began accepting people with alcohol and drug addiction, and that has become its stock-in-trade. For a long while its military atmosphere was maintained by a 24-hour clock in the dining room and a steam whistle that was blown every morning at 8 A.M.

At Ngawha, near Kaikohe, some of the springs are more mud than water, one such being the Tiger Bath. Yet mud is not without its devotees, and Ngawha mud is particularly rich in mercury, an element useful in treating some skin disorders.
At Ngawha, near Kaikohe, some of the springs are more mud than water, one such being the Tiger Bath. Yet mud is not without its devotees, and Ngawha mud is particularly rich in mercury, an element useful in treating some skin disorders.

The other pillar of Hanmer Springs was the Lodge, located on the other side of the pools from the hospital. Built in 1898, it was greatly enlarged in 1932, becoming one of the grandest hotels in the country. The lounge carpet, an exact copy of a 9th-century Persian rug, measured 21 by 11 metres and weighed half a tonne. People danced the Palais Glide on the terra cotta tiles of the terrace. But on the afternoon of July 3, 1958, it all went up in smoke. Although the fire station was only a short distance away, the hydrants had iced up, and noth­ing could be done to save the hotel buildings.

Until 1978, Hanmer’s pools were segregated, and costumes were forbidden. Various reasons have been given for this arrangement. It was because the mineral water destroyed woollen bathing costumes, my aunt, a Hanmer regular, maintained. No, it was to prevent anyone concealing a skin disease, which could be trans­mitted in the warm water, says Sharon McGuire, general manager of the Thermal Resort, now an arm of the Hurunui District Council. Still others say the real reason was just to give the Edwardians an excuse to escape from the prohibition on nakedness.

Not everyone liked the idea. “I went there once as a girl, and was so mortified by what I saw that I told my mother I’d never go again,” says Hanmer historian Rosemary Ensor.

Shortly after the changeover, one old regular forgot himself and burst out of a changing room starkers. Today, quite the reverse can apply: parties of Somali refugees come from Christchurch and book all the private pools, as Islam forbids them to bathe in public. Even then, they bathe fully clad.

Mineral water issues from the Hamner bore at 53°C—too hot to bathe in—and nowadays a titanium heat exchanger is used to cool it and at the same time warmthe fresh water in the large main pool. The thermal water feeds a series of 11 smaller indoor and outdoor pools. An hour away, at Maruia Springs in the Lewis Pass, the managers are proud that their water is “more natural” than that of Hanmer. It is unfiltered, straight from the ground, and small black flecks settle on my chest as I soak in the Japanese-style bathhouse. Outside are two rock‑lined thermal pools, plus one that is cold—which must prove bracing when it’s snowing.

Devotees of modern thermal complexes, such as the one at Waiwera, 40 kilometres north of Auckland, care little for minerals, and less for mud. It is cooling Coke and ice-cream that reign over this urban playground.
Devotees of modern thermal complexes, such as the one at Waiwera, 40 kilometres north of Auckland, care little for minerals, and less for mud. It is cooling Coke and ice-cream that reign over this urban playground.

The resort hotel and springs are one-third Japanese-owned and extensively promoted in Japan, although a growing proportion of the clientele is Korean. A Japanese father- and son-in-law-to-be who joined me in the bathhouse told me it is very like a sento in Japan, except that there they are usually built of wood. Maruia’s is made of concrete.

You leave your shoes in an ante-room, then change in a spacious area fitted with handbasins, each with a cheap plastic chair. “This room used to be full of cane furniture, but it all got stolen—by New Zealanders,” says co-owner and manager Mark Denham. “We used to put out sham­poo and soap, and baskets for people’s clothes, but it all went.”

A Japanese bath is a social occasion, and with limited English my bathmates told me of their honeymoon plans, admired the view of the river and the Freyberg Range (through sandfly-proof screens), and told me of the vast publicity given to Princess Di in Japan.

Maruia has been accessible by road only since 1928, and initially only from Reefton. The first hotel was built in 1932 for two Misses Morris of Reefton. That edifice burnt down in 1968 and was replaced by the present building. The current baths were built in 1991.

Until 1956, guests had to cross the river on a swingbridge to reach the pools, which were seedy in the extreme. Before that, shovels were provided to dig out one’s own hole on the river bank. Floods were a hazard until the bank was strengthened. Now a lack of water is the main problem: more than two weeks without rain and the spring dries up.

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“Get into hot water!” urges a sign at the entrance to sleepy Te Aroha, on the eastern edge of the Hauraki Plains. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, picnickers sprawl in the leafy shade of the town domain, while the nearby museum, entry by $1 donation, has just opened for the day. A pair of 13-year-olds skate along the concrete paths beside bowling greens. At the information centre, an exhibition of scenes by local artists is uncluttered by visitors.

You would hardly suspect that in the 1880s and 1890s, Te Aroha attracted more visitors than Rotorua. Accessi­ble from Auckland by rail or water, the town boasted no fewer than 22 springs, 15 of them hot, each with slightly different properties.

The waters were generally mildly alkaline, from bicarbonate, and some were rich in iron. Few were sulphurous (and corrosive), like most of the Rotorua springs. Indeed, several were pleasant tasting, and provided water for bottling. Lemon and Te Aroha once vied with Lemon and Paeroa as the nation’s soft drink.

Promotion and Information Association co-ordinator David Hoskins says that the therapeutic nature of Te Aroha’s waters was what attracted people. “With their bread made from fibreless flour, the goodness boiled out of their vegetables, and wearing those tight whalebone corsets, no wonder the old ladies were forever taking the waters. They came here, drank the waters, which have a mild purgative quality—the flatulence must have been frightening—and took a well-deserved holiday.”

There were sights to see, as well as pools to enjoy. Within the 44 ha domain garden surrounding the springs was the Mokena geyser, named after Mokena (Morgan) Hau (or Hou), the chief who donated the land for the domain. It played irregularly up to 30 metres high, and could be seen all over town. The geyser’s water source was natural, but its formation into a geyser was not. Periodically its mouth chokes with silica and has to be rebored.

Waiwera was the first hot spring to be developed in the country, the area having been purchased from the local Maori in the early 1840s by businessman Robert Graham.
Waiwera was the first hot spring to be developed in the country, the area having been purchased from the local Maori in the early 1840s by businessman Robert Graham.

In Te Aroha’s heyday, hordes of people would visit the spa each day, numbers of them staying at the huge Hot Springs Hotel, demolished in 1971. Te Aroha ceased to be an attraction in the 1960s, a casualty of changed leisure habits and improved transportation. For a hot soak, Aucklanders drove to Waiwera or Parakai, return­ing home the same day.

Te Aroha’s fortunes may yet be renewed. The Matamata-Piako District Council plans to revitalise the spa. “Where else can you park in the main street, walk into a beautiful garden, take in a hot pool in a perfectly preserved late-Victorian building, then go for a stroll in a forest?” asks David Hoskins, speaking of the near future rather than the exact present. A 20 m pool is under construction, and several theme spas (Nordic, Japanese, Korean etc) are planned to complement the existing spa pools.

The Cadman bathhouse, built in 1898 at a cost of £3000 by the government and named after the Minister of Mines and Railways, is maintained as a museum, its wood considered unlikely to withstand a return to a damp environment. It is still an architectural delight, with tiled floors, detailed woodwork and such treats as blue-and­white floral lavatory bowls and tanks. One of the 19 bathrooms is kept in its original condition, though not functional. It displays pairs of swimming trunks and costumes with “Government Tourist Department” woven into them—bathers were required to be modestly attired even in the private baths.

Competing with Te Aroha for a slice of the turn-of-the-century spa market were establishments at nearby Matamata and Okoroire, north of Tirau—all making use of hot springs on the Waihou River.

Local pioneer J. C. Firth built the first bridge across the Waihou, and threw the Matamata springs—Opal (Okauia) and Crystal (Papahuia)—open to the public, who claimed the usual miracle cures. Opal Springs derives its name from the exceptionally clear, pale-blue water, while Crystal Springs, on the opposite bank, was so named because small diamond-like crystals could be found in them.

Today, Opal Springs’ most appealing feature is the original pool, Ramaroa, named after a canoe. It is said that a chief and his wife were paddling up the river, but were warned to be out of the area by dusk. Growing cold, the two lit a fire. Night fell, and the canoe turned into stone—a stone which is still in the pool—and it is the long-burning fire that is said to warm the waters still.

In the 1880s, water is said to have flowed through Ramaroa at 200,000 gallons a day (10.5 litres/sec), seven times as much as today. The flow was so impressive that one reporter commented, “Were a dozen of the dirtiest or most diseased persons to bathe in this grand bath, so great is its volume that ten minutes after, the most fastidious could dip into its pellucid waters without fear of taint.”

Crystal Springs was developed in 1905 by Auckland land agent J. C. Garland as Garland’s Hot Springs. The river was dammed and a 36-metre rectangular pool dug out. Lined with wood and surrounded by vegetation, with hot water coming up through the gravel bottom, it proved a perfect medium to culture Naegleria fawleri, the amoeba that causes amoebic meningitis (see sidebar, page 70). Four of New Zealand’s eight fatal cases were con­tracted at Crystal Springs in the 1970s and 1980s, so the pool was closed.

Okoroire, the third of the Waihou River spas, also had the backing of a businessman, L D. Nathan, but the sprawling hotel and its pools are now only a shadow of their former splendour.

What these pools have lost in popularity, Auckland’s two main thermal resorts, Parakai and Waiwera, have more than gained. Today they are entertainment outposts of urban culture, concerned more with adrenalin than restful therapeutics.

Large-scale development started in the 1860s and 1870s, with one of the hotel buildings being barged over from Thames. Ship, lifeboat, then horse and buggy was the usual way of reaching Waiwera until an enormous wharf was constructed there in 1905.
Large-scale development started in the 1860s and 1870s, with one of the hotel buildings being barged over from Thames. Ship, lifeboat, then horse and buggy was the usual way of reaching Waiwera until an enormous wharf was constructed there in 1905.

Waiwera, an hour’s drive north of Auckland on the east coast, boasts the Coke Twister—a double-spiral hydroslide—and the Hibiscus Pool, where people can watch movies while they soak. It has the distinction of being the first of the country’s hot springs to be devel­oped as a spa. Robert Graham, a Scotsman, “discovered” the area while sheltering from a storm in 1842, and within a few years purchased land there. He is said to have been alerted to the area’s potential by the sight of Maori digging holes for themselves on the beach, where the hot spring waters originally came to the surface.

Advertisements for people to stay at the springs appeared as early as 1848, but major development didn’t commence until the 1860s and ’70s, when a large hotel was built. (Graham had an adventurous life, being ship­wrecked twice, once on the Wairarapa coast and once off Taranaki, when he saved the passen­gers and crew of the Lord Wolsley from slaughter. He bought and enlarged Lake House, Rotorua, before there was any township, the Rotomahana Hotel at Tarawera, and a large area of Wairakei, and so became known as “the Father of Tourism.”)

Reaching Waiwera used to be an adventure in itself. Wrote one visitor in 1882: “At present the method is for the steamer to run in as near shore as possible, cast anchor, and send her passengers and cargo off in boats. The boats, in turn, run as near the shore as is possible for them, and are met by a horse and cart . . . It was the first time I had been at sea in a carriage and the sensation was unique.”

In 1905, a 400-metre-long wharf was built, which simplified transport arrangements. Graham died in 1885, but his hotel—in expanded form—survived until 1939, when it was de­stroyed by fire. The modern complex contains 26 pools and a hotel. Bores now snare all the hot water before it reaches the surface, and the beach no longer bubbles with springs.

As at Te Aroha, Waiwera water is drinkable. A hand­out describes its properties as “totally extrasensory,” for “when you’re serious about health.” The elixir—or a close facsimile of it—is being exported to Fiji and the United States, as well as appearing in local supermarkets and hotels.

Waiwera has tended to overshadow its west coast rival, Parakai, largely for historical reasons. Waiwera was established in the era when spas were all the rage, whereas there were only meagre facilities at Parakai before the First World War. By the time Parakai was in full bloom—the late 1920s—the spa era was ending.

Another difficulty was the common one of access. With nearby Helensville less than 50 km from Auckland by rail one might have hoped for a trip of under an hour, but no, the train trip took three hours each way, and the absence of sleeper cars on the run was bemoaned. The Depression and World War II caused a decline in Parakai’s fortunes, but since the 1960s the area has been redeveloped into a popular resort and is visited by several hundred thousand visitors a year.

Kamo Springs, just north of Whangarei, was another turn-of-the-century attempt at a spa, frustrated by water that was too cold (only 25°C) and too scanty (about a glassful a second). Vast amounts of carbon dioxide bubbled up through the water, however, to create a very pleasant sensation on the skin, but the concentration of gas could grow high enough to be lethal.

Nonetheless, Kamo was not without its devotees. The balneologist Wohhnann considered Kamo to be the most desirable spring beyond the volcanic plateau, and many others testified to the efficacy of its waters. But the government, saddled with high costs and a lack of success in its Rotorua spa venture, would have none of it. Today the Champagne Pool is a small open pool in the grounds of the Kamo Springs Caravan Park.

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Nothing could be further from the Parakai or Waiwera experience of hydroslides and hot dogs than the serenity of a place like Welcome Flat. Reaching the spring is a solid day’s walk east from State Highway 6, 28 km south-west of Fox Glacier. It seems that interesting springs are often in remote locations. The track is good, and in many places trampers have added friendly, fragile little cairns of flat stones, like Japanese lanterns to light you on your way.

Facing the snowcapped Sierra Range (main peak is Mt Glorious, 2208 m), the springs nestle into a valley just before the climb to Douglas Rock and the Copland Pass leading across the Southern Alps to the Hermitage.

“A penny for your thoughts?” I ask a fellow soaker. “Just looking at the mountains.” Dunedin jeweller Nick Feint has the right approach: hot pools are for contemplation, not cogita­tion. Very hot (57°C) water bubbles out of a central pool and runs into four others at various warmths. The central pool is too hot for more than a quick dip. The two next in line are comfortable. The bottom of one is the colour and texture of guacamole; the other—well, let’s just say it’s brown. The coolest pool, blue-grey in colour, is filled by way of a golden miniature “Pink and White Terrace.”

An odourless gas bubbles from the bottom. Jason Peacock, a geology student from New Plymouth, sug­gests it is carbon dioxide. If so, then the spring’s chemis­try must have changed from the time of its discovery in 1892, when Charlie Douglas recorded that it “smells bad enough to be valuable,” and Freda Du Faur, the first woman to climb Aoraki, said it was “too hot to bathe in, and the smell was overpowering.”

It was probably in reference to this spring, too, that Douglas said, in 1896: “You smell as if you’ve been having tea with the Evil One inside an old gasometer.”

While Welcome Flat is the preserve of the fit and the keen, the springs at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula are accessible by anyone with a shovel and a tide table. Twice a day, at low water, visitors gather at the designated “hot spot” to dig shallow holes in the sand. Water at 60°C oozes in, providing in no time at all a soak on the strand.

The relaxing effect of hot water seems to promote sociability, and Hot Water Beach has developed its own patterns of etiquette. The local storekeeper (who hires out shovels) notices that people, especially young women, often go to the beach separately, but end up in one big hole and return together.

According to resident Phil Dawson, local people go along “just to watch the sport. You have to keep an eye on your shovel or it goes wandering—or paint it with fluoro. We only go there to show visitors now.”

No one can “own” a hole, so some cuckoos—perhaps those who didn’t bring a spade—invade the nests of others, first putting just their feet in, then sitting, stretching out, and finally calling their friends over, till less-dominant personalities, hunched up in a corner of their own pool, may consider discretion the better part of valour and look for “a better ‘ole.”

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The name Waingaro may mean hidden water, but compared with Hot Water Beach the spring west of Ngaruawahia is just a mass of concrete. Nevertheless, it’s surprisingly popular. The pools are attached to a motor camp, and announcements on the PA, such as “Dirvali, could you come here for a minute while I do the linen?” add a homely touch.

There’s a hot pool for soaking and a warm one for playing. Nine-year-olds stage nonstop battles on a slippery pole across the warm one. There is a straight hydroslide for speed and a winding one for thrills. A cold pool has tractor-tyre aquatic dodgems powered by motor-mower engines.

Despite the fact that hot pools are often filled from near-boiling springs, the waters are still chlorinated to kill micro-organisms. One of the few non-chlorinated pools is at Waikite Valley, 20 km south of Rotorua. Here they pull the plug every night, clean the empty pool and refill it from a nearby spring which issues from the ground at 98°C. Until a few years ago, the pool was filled through a hose that sprayed in a great arc to cool the water. Even so, it was generally too hot to enter until late afternoon. Now the incoming water is cooled to body heat by being passed through a series of artificial basins before reaching the pool, so swimming can take place any time.

Unless you have your own boat, you can only reach Manupirua, on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua’s sister lake, Rotoiti, on a Monday, when Ted and Gael Boucher make their weekly run in the Hinekura. The pools have been managed by a non-profit incorporated society since 1914. There is an honesty box on the wharf, and a video camera pointed at the honesty box. It’s $4 if you come on your own boat, but the Hinekura ‘s fare of $18 includes the pools.

Waingaro, west of Ngaruawahia, was on the route to the Waikato's original port of Raglan, and springs here have been popular for recreation.
Waingaro, west of Ngaruawahia, was on the route to the Waikato’s original port of Raglan, and springs here have been popular for recreation.

Geologist Lynette Clelland recommends going there at night. “What you’ve got to do is sit in the hot pools and then dive into the lake, and then you sleep extremely well afterwards.” The five square concrete pools, all of different temperatures, are fed by one spring spouting from beside the stump of a giant pohutukawa tree that crushed the changing sheds when it fell about 10 years ago. Part of the charm of Manupirua is that it is right on the water’s edge: you can cool off in the lake or sit in the hot water watching the black swans swim by and enjoy­ing the bushclad shoreline opposite.

Around 1840, Sir James Clark Ross predicted that, “Whenever this country shall have become thickly populated with Europeans, [Ngawha] springs will become of equal importance to the colonists with the most celebrated baths of our own country or the spas of Germany.”

These hot springs, near Kaikohe, are the largest and most active in the country outside the Taupo-Rotorua area, but they are not close to any urban centre, and were not developed until the 1950s. As late as 1948, a Health Department official described the area as “desolate,” with “various bubbling mud pools of a most revolting aspect.” There were many minerals in the mud, includ­ing mercury, which was mined nearby, but little actual water in which the therapeutic mud could be rinsed off.

Today the water of the Waiariki Pools is grey or black, the sides are wooden and the bottoms are shingly. Yet for ambience they are among the best in the country, espe­cially on a starry evening, when locals soak and socialise.

The adjacent Domain pools, each named for its medicinal purpose, were closed when I visited. A Swiss couple were horrified when I told them one is Maori-owned, the other Pakeha-owned—but of course every­one is welcome at both. To me, they’re a microcosm of the North: Waiariki poor and friendly, like the Hokianga; the Domain upmarket, like the Bay of Islands.

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“Hot pools?” asks Matthias Kiibler incredulously. He and his wife Christiana from Diisseldorf have parked their campervan at Sylvia Flat by the Lewis River, with no inkling that New Zealand’s worst-kept secret hot pools are only 150 metres away.

“Don’t tell anyone,” several people urged me, but the unmarked pools have their own built-in deterrent—swarms of oversized sandflies. Matthias and Christiana decide against using the pools that warm September day, but candlewax on the rocks indicates that others have avoided the flies by bathing at night. Visitors re-form the pools afresh each year from rocks by the riverside. This year there are three pools; two years ago there were five.

They are almost a mirror image of the pools by the South Island’s Wanganui River near Harihari, just past the Amethyst River bridge. From both you look up the river towards a handsome mountain, Avalon Peak (1798 m) at the Wanganui, Mt Trovatore (1736 m, one of the operatic mountains of the Libretto Range) at the Lewis, but the rivers flow in opposite directions.

There are said to be better pools an hour’s tramp up the Wanganui, but I’m beginning to suspect that with hot pools the best is always around the next corner or over the next ridge.A student at Hatherley’s Art School in London once asked the writer and former South Island runholder Samuel Butler if New Zealand was the place where hot water grows wild. I hope Butler replied: “Yes, it is.”

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