Down on Bonithon Ave, New Plymouth's unique mineral baths are now 68 years old, but the water in them is a whole lot older. Try 29,000 years.
It continues to bubble up from a kilometre below ground, and as well as being perfect to bathe in, it's particularly good to drink.
"Experts say this is the best drinking water they have ever tested," business owners Michael Fahy and Coral Lambert say.
But back in the early 1900s it wasn’t mineral water the drillers were looking for. The watery vein was discovered by accident after the Bonithon Petroleum Freehold Company bored for oil.
Monument to the oil men
For seven years a lonely derrick marked the spot of their disappointment, and millions of wasted litres of a different, precious resource ran from a swampy patch of ground out to sea.
Finally, a Mr R.C.Cook of Molesworth Street recognised its value, and built the first public baths there.
Compared favourably to the famous Kreusnach Tonic Springs in Prussia, both were credited with miraculous cures of rheumatism, gout, sciatica, goitre and nervous ailments, as well as being touted as a general tonic for good health.
Run by Mr H.Reedman, who marketed himself as an 'Egyptian Herbalist', the local Tarawhata Mineral Baths comprised a blue swimming pool, 12 private plunge baths, herbal vapour cabinets, dry heat baths, sponge tables and electric ray massage.
Nothing so bizarre today as a massage by electric current, but under the calm and creative eye of its latest proprietors, the recently re-named Taranaki Thermal Spa has regained a splendour that locks in the old and the new.
Yet, as Coral laughingly points out, they might just as easily have been farming prawns. "Yes. We could have been Taranaki Prawn Farms Inc. The water comes out of the pipe at 28 degrees, the ideal temperature for prawn farming."
If the original source of the water was found by accident, then it was sheer natural curiosity that heralded in the new renaissance.
Coral and Michael bought the property as a rental investment in 1993, after the years had taken their toll on the buildings, much of which were beyond repair.
"We paid a good price for it," Michael says, "but it was very run down. It was in four flats. I think half of New Plymouth had lived in those flats."
The plan was to knock down some of the old and add two units to rent out. But what started out as an ordinary affair became something quite different when curiosity overcame him. Michael, with 25 years in the oil industry, began playing around with the Bonithon 1 bore.
"We just thought the well had been capped. We'd run the flats for six years and then one day, we came down here and started turning on valves. Bang. The water kept coming out. The smell of it was awful.
"The first thing we did was put a line inside the well, a tube down below it where it was leaking, fixed that up, and once we had the pressure there, we had something to go with."
Suddenly, oilman Michael found himself reinvented as an artesian alternative to Jed Clampett of Beverley Hillbillies fame. After two years of research the idea of re-establishing the old mineral bathhouse a bygone era leapt back into life.
A new bathhouse begins
It took nine month's hard labour and hijacking friends to help (two of who earned lifetime rights to the pools and drinking water), the Taranaki Mineral Pools opened to public applause in September 2000.
Today, as well as offering a soothing, therapeutic soak in a variety of pools, massages and beauty treatments, the owners sell more than 3000 litres of drinking water each week for local consumption.
The water percolates slowly through the ground from Mount Taranaki to an aquifer in what is known as the Matemateonga Formation.
The mineral-stacked alkaline water that results is capable of washing out a body's acidic wastes. Pure One carries a pH of 8.42, which is much higher than the neutral pH of 7.
"It's estimated that one litre of this water has the same mineral value as 750 litres of town water, or 1000 litres of rain water," Michael says.
"The business is constantly receiving feedback on the health-giving properties of this special Taranaki water.
"In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration requires that any water must have a total dissolved solids content of 250 parts per million to be classified as mineral. The figure with our water is 807. Our future market will be in glass, to the United States and Europe."
A full breakdown of the mineral content is available when you book in or buy.
Putting the past in place
While selling the mineral water off by the jugful seemed a brand new concept, the opening of the baths proved how much people delighted in being able to visit the historic pools again.
Today, after being gutted and completely redesigned, the five private soak pools, group spa and six massage suites are utilized by many people a day.
Coral says the photos of the old layout are still a thrill and turn up in unexpected places.
"People still ring me up excitedly to say they've found another one in an old book or magazine. There was a big balcony upstairs, where you could look down over the pools.
"The access was straight off the street into the sun room. There used to be a little shop there and you paid as you went past."
A Grand Opening
When the new complex was finished, an opening ceremony spilled onto the street.
"We blessed the whole place and Albie Martin walked through with all his whanau," says Michael.
"He said they all used to come down here in the early days when it was just a spring in a swamp. I know one elderly man who talks about coming through on the way to school in the winter and warming his feet up in it."
Members of the local iwi were also called in to lay an ancient presence to rest. "Apparently, it was a place of great sadness at one time," Lambert says.
"We think somebody lost a loved one here. Manu McGrath and Roy Komene came and moved the spirit on."
Goodness for all
Today, revamped and resplendent in cool Mediterranean style, a colourful Waldo Hartley mural covers a main internal wall.
The Taranaki Thermal Spa is once again a thing of beauty where music washes the soul as surely as mineral water washes the body.
At the entrance squats an unfinished rock sculpture by a local artist. Adrift, a work in progress, is surely a good luck water nymph if ever there was one.
Six years after turning Bonithon 1 back on, both Michael and Coral say there is plenty of money to be made in mineral water.
But for Coral, long a sufferer of arthritis, the 'essence of the earth' carries more than mere financial gain.
Staying in the business
Though the partners say they might one day lease the place out, they're adamant 'they'll never sell the farm'.
"In the pools, stretching out…well, it cleanses you and cleans your aura as well. The water brings a chill-out factor and helps stress-related illness."
The water continues to ease pain, physically and spiritually, they consider themselves simply the guardians of it.
"If we sold up, someone might rip all this out, put in a bottling factory and Taranaki would lose out," they say.
Right now, enjoying the water is still a choice for all.
First published 21 February 2007
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All Aix and No Pains
PLACES TO VISIT
Taranaki Mineral Pools, 8 Bonithon Ave, New Plymouth for a bathing experience.