Guest review by Michele Specht.
If a mixture of geothermic activity and sulphuric mud baths are what get your blood racing, Hells Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Spa in Rotorua, New Zealand is the place for you! Nestled in the Bay of Plenty area of the North Island, Lake Rotorua and it’s surrounding area is a volcanic paradise. Bubbling mud pools and spectacular geysers seem to be around every corner of this otherwise lush and green region, and are also the reason for the areas famed sulphuric scent. In fact, while driving thru the rolling hills of the Tikitere region, you can smell the sulphuric aroma of Hells Gate long before you actually arrive. I was assuming that such simmering geothermal activity would be far off the beaten path of the main highway – but boy, was I mistaken! The entrance of Hells Gate Geothermal Park is not more than 30 feet from the highway. As I drove into Hells Gate’s small parking lot, before I even got out of my rental car, I could see the large clouds of sulphuric steam drifting high above from the more than 50 acres of boiling mud pools, steaming fumaroles, and rumbling sulphur vents that lay beyond. But what had my blood truly racing? Knowing that nestled inside was my REAL destination: the special area of the park dedicated to the Hells Gate Mud Bath and Sulphur Spa.
Local Maori have continuously occupied the Tikitere area and bathed in it’s medicinal waters and mud pools for the last 800 years. With European settlement occurring in the early 1800’s, many of the occupying Europeans became aware of the “special waters” of Tikitere. And since then, every other geothermal area and wellness spa has been taken over by the New Zealand Government – all EXCEPT Hells Gate. It is the only one that’s still controlled by the native Maori. Upon checking in at the very simple front window, I quickly realized that this would not be the kind of posh or excessively opulent spa experience that I’ve had before. Hells Gate Geothermal Park prides itself on keeping the natural beauty of the landscape and amazing beautifying and medicinal benefits of their mud and sulphur springs as the primary focus. The surroundings and amenities are kept as natural as possible and I was told that my experience on that day would be as close to the same experience the Maori Kings and Queens had over 800 years ago. The stunning tropical and volcanic landscape, authentic cultural heritage, and pure and heavenly muds and springs are all that is needed to have a spa experience fit for royalty. As soon as I entered the carved Maori awning of the entrance, I was greeted by my guide, Francis. A local young man of Maori descent, who lead me on the first part of my Hells Gate experience: the tour of Hells Gate’s Geothermic Park. As we walked the winding wooden planks that make up the narrow walking path thru the park, I was struck by the pungent scent of sulphur – drifting up from the pools around us in every direction. I have always welcomed the scent myself – knowing the clarifying and detoxifying benefits it brings to acne-prone skin, such as mine. I started feeling real excitement about being able to enjoy such benefits directly from the actual source at Hells Gate.
Francis informed me of the incredible diversity of this area. As I looked across the smoking and brightly colored bubbling pools around us, it’s astonishing that such extreme volcanic diversity exists in such close proximity. While standing on the first bridge, the five pools directly below us ranged in pH from neutral (pH7) to very acidic (pH1) – and these vastly chemically different pools are less than one meter apart. They are each fed underground from different reservoirs and it is the incredibly unique geothermal mud of Hells Gate that acts as a buffer, lining every one of the pools and keeping them separate. As we continued, Francis told me about the three muds of Hells Gate: White, Grey, and Black. We stopped at a small volcanic crater deemed ‘Devil’s Cauldron’, directly to the side of our rickety path, and I carefully climbed the low summit to it’s edge. Inside I saw a smoking, bubbling, black pool at it’s center: Black Mud. It’s hard to believe seeing it in this state, but this amazing mud can be used for the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. Once heated, a bag of black mud is placed over the aching joint or limb with the heat being evenly distributed at a constant temperature for up to three hours. Rotorua’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital carries out a number of mud based therapies for these two ailments with mud mined from this area.
Francis then stopped at a close cropped rock wall, scraped the white powder from it’s rocky surface, put it into my outstretched hands, and told me to rub my palms together. The friction of my rubbing quickly turns this white powder into a thick white paste – this chalky powder transforms into a liquid in a matter of seconds! I was then told to rub it directly onto my face, because it is the second amazing mud of Hells Gate: White Mud. Bentonite is the proper name for this kind of “White Mud”. It’s highly active clay surfaces absorb excess oils and fatty secretions from within the pores and, according to the Canadian Journal of Microbiology, bentonite clay can also reportedly absorb pathogenic viruses as well as herbicides and pesticides. This is why Hells Gate calls it “Magic Mud.” As I walked across the creaking wooden planks over the smoking, brightly colored bubbling pools stretched before us – white mud covering my face – I couldn’t help but feel the heartbeat of hundreds of years of Maori culture pulsing through me. Already Hells Gate was like no spa experience I’ve ever had before!
As we rounded the last bend, I saw that we had come back to where we started, and were about to begin what I’ve really been waiting for: a private soak in the third and final of Hells Gate’s wonderful muds: my very own private Grey Mud Bath! Now, even though these are “private” mud baths, each of the small private mud pools are situated outside and are directly fed from the mud right there in the park. They, and the facilities around them, are very simple and rustic. I was given a large plastic tub in which to put my clothing, and then directed into a very simple restroom/changing area to put on my bathing suit. I then met Francis outside, handed off my clothing to him to store for me, and was directed around wooden partitions to my mud pool. It is a small rectangular rock lined pool with a metal handle to step in and out of it. As I stepped in, I realized it is definitely not straight-up solid mud (or how in the world would I be able to get out once I sank in). It is a mixture of the warm sulphur spring water with a heavy amount of their purest grey mud mixed in. As I slowly stepped down into the 3 foot deep warm mud pool, feeling my fingers and toes sink deep into the fine grained pure sulphur mud at it’s bottom, I felt like I was in HEAVEN. This mud was so different than I was expecting! It is not thick or clumpy – it is smooth as silk. It is so pure, so soft, and the sulphur scent is wonderful! I could feel it gently clearing out my nose and lungs as I breathed in. I did as I was instructed and spread the mud all over as much of my skin as I could – my face, arms, legs, chest – everywhere! And then I sit back, look up at the beautiful clear sky above me, watch the smoke from the nearby craters and bubbling pools float across the sky, and feel like a Moari QUEEN.
After soaking in the mud for about 20 minutes, one of the wonderful staff members came to get me: it was time to rinse off and soak in the warm water of the sulphur spring pools. But here’s the deal…I was told that the sulphur mud had opened my pores so much, that it was necessary to close them rapidly to clear the toxins that had been removed and maintain all the wonderful clarifying effects the mud had just given me…and how do I do that? A VERY cold shower! Yikes! I was taken around the corner to their outdoor shower area – a few shower heads running into a large center drain. And they all only give cold water. My body was shocked by the strong cold water, yet I was happy knowing that it was rinsing away all the toxins that the beautiful mud had just pulled out of me. I made this part as short as possible, and was immediately directed to the first of the two outdoor sulphur spring spa pools. The sulphur spas are kept at slightly different temperatures, regulated by pumping geothermal steam through at either end. I was told that it’s better for my pores to slowly be opened up again after the shock of the cold water that closed them to prevent the toxins from reentering.
The first pool that I crawled into is kept at a delicious 100 degrees fahrenheit. It is a bit larger (being shared by other spa goers), also rock lined, about four feet deep, and is out in the open air. And even though I intellectually knew that this sulphur water has many positive therapeutic benefits and wonderful detoxifying effects, and even helps with rheumatism, arthritis, and asthma…all I could think about in that moment was how wonderful it felt. My skin felt baby-new! It had been gently exfoliated, completely detoxified, and was born-again SOFT. As someone who has battled blemish-prone skin my entire adult life, this spa is truly heaven! As my pores opened further, I crawled out and walked two short steps, right into the second bath…kept at a slightly warmer 104 degrees fahrenheit. And because the sulphur pools are right next to the park’s entrance, I could sit in the soothing, steaming water and look out across the 50 acres of thermal volcanic wonderland that surrounded me…truly feeling a part of this area’s history. Knowing that I just experienced the same spa of Maori royalty from 800 years ago!
When I finally finished with my soak, I was given the big plastic tub full of my clothes and entered the changing area again. Although they have fresh water showers there with shampoo and body wash available, I was advised by Francis that a shower would wash away many of the benefits of keeping the sulphur in and on my skin. The light sulphur smell was well worth it for the way it made my skin feel, so I left myself alone to enjoy the benefits of the spa. I wanted to have softer, silkier, smoother skin for as long as I could! Besides…I liked the idea of leaving Hells Gate Geothermal Park smelling a bit like a Maori Queen.
A huge thank you to Bryan Hughes, Francis Setters, Heather Lawson, Kerry Pearson, and all the wonderful staff at Hells Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Spa for their kindness, hospitality, and amazing service!