Spas have made a huge comeback in the past decade, and our destination of choice today is Wai Ora Lakeside Spa at Hell’s Gate, home to New Zealand’s first mud spa complex. It’s a gloriously relaxing place where you can cake yourself with detoxifying mud, bake in the sun, and then take a long, hot soak in a warm thermal pool.
Hell’s Gate – a ‘violent acidic sulphate geothermal park’ its other descriptor – is the perfect place for a gentle stroll before succumbing to the temptations of the spa. Highlights include an accessible mud volcano and the beautiful Kakahi Falls, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere. My guide, Patrick Tamati, tells me that, unlike many of the other local spas, this park is owned and managed by the sub-tribe, Ngati Rangi Teaorere, which has always appreciated the extraordinary healing powers of the springs.
“In the 1880s, when spas became so popular, our people fixed a roof over the top of an open pool and called it a spa,” says Patrick. “Two shillings paid for your accommodation, food, and your laundry to be washed.”
These days, to spa here is a much grander affair – and in my case a highly anticipated treat. I slip into a hot private mud bath. It feels wonderful and as I begin to rub thick mud over my face and limbs, it’s strangely reminiscent of playing in mud puddles as a kid. Its oozing warmth is the ultimate decadence.
Hell’s Gate has always naturally pumped excess water and mud into Lake Rotorua. To create the mud baths, a dam was built to allow the purifying mud to settle, so in effect nothing is taken out of the park that wasn’t already on its way out. The mud, which I’ve caked on thickly, and which is now beginning to dry and crack, is totally natural and untreated, although the pH levels are monitored to ensure they remain at a steady 5.0 to 5.5. To create a comfortable temperature, geothermal water is diluted with water from freshwater springs located on site, or if heating is required, steam from the park is used.
After 20 minutes wallowing, my spa attendant and masseuse, Deborah, advises that it’s time to wash off. This is achieved using cold spring water – excruciating and liberating all at once. Immediately after this, with skin tingling from the mud’s moisturising minerals and whole-body exfoliation, it’s straight into a toasty non-chlorinated sulphur pool to unwind while listening to the soothing splash of a hot-spring waterfall. Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, it’s on to a relaxing full-body massage with aromatic manuka oil, followed by a refreshing cup of pure manuka tea.