boiling mud story continued from John’s Rainbeaus Profile

The “boiling mud” reference in my profile was just intended to be a “hook,” to grab the reader’s attention to read on. But when tamsen proofed the profile, I was reprimanded for leaving her on the edge. So here is that story for anyone who wants it.

Champagne Lake, outside of Rotorua, New Zealand
a typical mud burp

  One summer when I was a professor at CSU, I did not have to prepare for any new courses or teach any summer classes. I decided to do some solo adventure traveling to a part of the world I had always wanted to explore. I spent some extended time in Tahiti, visiting my French friends who were living there at the time. I took advantage of being in that neighborhood to also spend time in Bora Bora, Moorea, The Cook Islands and I also spent a month in New Zealand.

  I planned on hitchhiking through New Zealand but when I arrived, the New Zealand dollar had plummeted to half of the US dollar. I felt guilty, but not guilty enough. With everything half priced, I decided to rent a car to cover more ground in the time I was there.

One of the places I stopped at was Rotorura on the Northern Island. Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity. There are many geysers, boiling mud pools, boiling lakes and streams throughout the region. Everyone’s house is heated by radiator from the thermal water under the city, as well as many heated sidewalks. The mineral deposits in the lakes are magical. I was particularly fascinated by the boiling mud. On the beaten path, there were many signs warning everyone not to go near the boiling mud pools. Most of the pools were large and of obvious danger. I assumed it was because they erupted without warning and could seriously burn you.

 One day I drove to a National Forest in the Waiotapu geothermal area near a large lake called Champagne Pool. The water under the lake is 500ºF and on the surface 167ºF. It is called Champagne Pool because it constantly emits little bubbles of CO2, like bubbling champagne. 

  It was a beautiful day and the park was empty. I headed up a little trail next to a stream of crystal pure boiling water. Soon I ran into a small clearing with a small mud burp in the middle. I was photographing a lot of circular forms in a square format with my Hasselblad in those days, and a picture was irresistible. It appeared dormant and still. I figured if it were to erupt, I could get out of the way quickly and in all probability it would not erupt.

  All the boiling mud burps in the tourist areas had fences around them and here was a very small one, in the wild, in the middle of a little clearing. I walked over to it, and as I was ready to raise my camera, the earth beneath my feet collapsed, and suddenly I found myself navel deep in a quicksand pit of boiling mud, slowly sinking. I then realized the danger – the earth surrounding a boiling mud burp was a crust of solid earth covering a larger area of boiling mud – similar to ice on a frozen lake.

  My first thought was to rescue my Hasselblad! – I laid it carefully aside. My next thought was, “This is absurd. I am being boiled alive in boiling mud. My epitaph could read, “He was boiled alive in mud.” My next thought was, “This is like a scene out of a late night B-rated adventure movie.” Then I realized that I needed to do something fast, as I was slowly sinking and was being burnt badly. There was enough of me above the crust that I could bend over and spread my arms out to stop from sinking any further. There was a small vine within reach that helped me to pull myself out and spread myself evenly over the surface, like on a sheet of ice. I pushed my camera towards the edge and made it out.

  As I sat there trying to assess my situation, I realized that my biggest danger was the shock creeping in, as it was beginning to stun me – I needed to keep my mind focused. I made it onto a rock and carefully took my hiking boots and shorts off. The mud was thick and tended to cling like burning honey, some continuing to burn.

  All the skin on my legs was melted off into sagging sheets and mud was everywhere. I knew I needed to ignore pain, repress shock, and somehow clean the mud off. My tee shirt was fairly clean and there was a stream close at hand. The only problem was that the stream was literally boiling hot water. I forced myself to dip my tee shirt in and wring it out, my  hands burning all the way through. I was slowly able to clean the wounds and just sat there. I needed to somehow get to the road as it was getting harder and harder to fight shock from setting in. I couldn’t walk or get up, nor could I crawl on my knees. I managed by doing a crab crawl on my butt and moved a yard at a time with my clothes and camera. I finally got to the paved road and let shock set in. 

  It was at least thirty minutes, perhaps an hour, before a car came up the road. New Zealanders are by far the friendliest and most trustworthy people I have ever met in all my travels. After helping me into their backseat, one drove me to the hospital while the other followed with my car.

  Most of my burns and skin loss were contained in the epidermal layers. The few areas that burned through all the layers of the skin were mostly my ankles, as that is where the mud got caught in my boots until I could get them off. The hospital cleaned and dressed the burns and I stayed over night. 

  The doctors told me they wanted me to stay for a full week, but I was not about to spend the rest of my New Zealand adventure in a hospital. They couldn’t keep me, but gave me crutches and made me promise to stop into a hospital each day to have the dressings changed. I needed the crutches to walk and it was difficult getting in and out of the car, but I was able to wear my Berkenstocks loosely and carefully manage to drive. After a number of daily hospital visits, I knew enough to change my own dressings and continued on my journey.

  When writing this story, I can’t help but think of describing an ending that could have been – a vision of someone eventually coming across that mud hole with my red ball cap sitting on top and my Hasselblad camera off to the side. Instead I have another great story to add to the repertoire. 

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