Summer read: How Waiwera Hot Pools went from New Zealand’s most visited water park to dereliction and decay.
First published on January 23, 2021.
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Many who grew up in Auckland likely have fond memories of Waiwera Hot Pools. Like me, they remember summer days spent racing down the slides and playing in the naturally hot pools. But how did this small town just over the hill from Orewa become home to a nationally famous attraction, and what caused it to be abandoned and left derelict?
In te reo Māori, Waiwera means “hot water” – a reference to its beach, where some digging in the sand would cause natural hot springs to appear. In 1845 Scottish immigrant Robert Graham was in Waiwera sheltering from a storm when he noticed people sitting on the beach in pools of hot water. Intrigued, the would-be tourism mogul set about buying the land. For a price that some sources claim included “26 blankets, four spades, one cask of tobacco, four double-barrelled guns, one bag of shot, four cartridge boxes, three casks of powder, five shirts, two cloth caps, one coat and £16 in cash”, Graham purchased roughly 40 acres of land in Waiwera. Within a few years, New Zealand’s first tourist spa had been launched.
By 1875 the property had a hotel, cottages and baths created by digging out holes in the sand and lining them with tin sheets. The spa was first advertised to the public later that year in the Auckland Star. The advertisement read: “To the sick and debilitated… follow Shakespeare’s advice, throw physics to the dogs and visit Waiwera hot springs… for healing virtues of painful diseases, sores, stiff joints, paralysis and more restored to perfect health.” The popularity of Waiwera soared as people took the hour-long journey from central Auckland to Waiwera via boat. In 1905 a 400m wharf was built to accommodate the throngs of arriving tourists.
In 1913 the hot springs, hotel and 40 acres of land went up for auction and Wenzel Schollum bought the property for an undisclosed amount. It appears that Wenzel and his son Herman kept the property pretty much the same. A 1927 newspaper review of the property called it a “beautiful place of retreat in nature” offering “sub-tropical luxuriance”.
On the 27th of September 1939 a large fire destroyed the hotel and much of the surroundings. A coroner was sent to investigate the cause of the fire and deemed it non-accidental, alleging that Wenzel and Herman had planned the fire in hopes of an insurance payout. It was later discovered that the father and son were struggling to pay for upkeep to the property and in 1936 brought on investor Donald Edmund Connel to shore up the business. This only helped for a short amount of time as neither the Schollums nor Connel could afford to put any more money into the property; soon they were selling its furniture to make ends meet. While it seems clear that insurance fraud was committed, it is unknown what happened to the trio after the inquest. They were apparently never seen or heard from again.
The now burnt and abandoned Waiwera was seized by local officials and sold at a private auction. Over the next 20 years work began on restoring the pools and hotel. In 1957 the hot pools were reopened to the public. Redevelopments continued in the ’60s during which more pools and luxury services were installed. Throughout the years more upgrades were made, ultimately transforming the hot pools into a thrilling water park. The ’90s and 2000s were the glory days of Waiwera Hot Pools, with up to 350,000 people visiting the park every year. By 2005 the park boasted numerous water slides – The Black Hole, Twister and Speedslide, among others – and 25 pools including a movie pool and adults-only pools. There was also a successful water bottling plant on site that had begun to sell to Auckland restaurants, bars and shops.
In 2008 Russian Billionaire Mikhail Khimich was dining at Kermadec restaurant on Auckland’s waterfront when he tried Waiwera Artesian Water for the first time. He was so impressed by it that he visited Waiwera to see the production for himself. Over the next 20 months, Khimich reached an agreement with the New Zealand government to lease the land and businesses within it, including the waterpark and hotel. However, it was clear from the start that Khimich was only interested in the water bottling plant. Under Khimich’s control, Waiwera went global, with the water being sold in restaurants and supermarkets across New Zealand, and shipped to retailers internationally. The brand even won an award for ‘the world’s best water’.
The water park itself wasn’t so lucky. Neglected and underfunded, it began receiving negative reviews online. One Trip Advisor user described the park as “filthy dirty… absolutely terrible” and that they “would not recommend it”. It appeared as though the park needed help, and fast, to avoid another disaster.
By this time Khimich had moved his attention to a premium vodka line using Waiwera water and appeared to have lost focus on his other businesses. But it seems someone was listening to complaints, and much-needed renovations were made to upgrade the park. As well as general maintenance and modernisation, a lazy river was opened in 2012 and management promised two new slides would soon be added. After the upgrades attendance picked up – but not for long, with many visitors complaining that the upgrades were too little, too late. In 2017 plans emerged for major renovations of the park including new pirate-themed water slides, a cafe and improvements to the existing pools. In December 2017 the park closed for renovations that, the public was told, could take up to two years to complete. The park never reopened.
In early 2018 Khimich made all of the park’s employees redundant while construction was taking place. Construction workers were seen in the park up until September 2018. Yet, instead of upgrading the park, it appeared as though they were dismantling it. In March 2019 the Derelict NZ Facebook page published photos of the park derelict and in disarray. All of the slides had been removed other than The Twister, and the park had been left to rot. It turns out that former billionaire Khimich had gone bankrupt and had unpaid bills on the resort dating back over two years. He fled the country shortly after abandoning the property, leaving behind over $1 million in debt. He returned to New Zealand to appear in court for a drink driving charge dating from 2013, and the high court took the opportunity to order him to pay back the money that he owned from his venture in Waiwera.
Today the resort is back in the New Zealand hands of Urban Partners, the longtime owner of the land which now holds the lease to the park and bottling plant as well. The company has big plans for the site, including a total rehaul of the resort including a wellness spa, hotel, apartments, microbrewery, slides and pools. The project is set to cost $250 million and the company warns it may take 10 years before the park opens its doors once more.
Whether Waiwera will ever be restored to its former glory is still an open question. As someone who spent many happy summer days there, I’m hoping it will.
See more pictures of the current state of Waiwera Hot Pools at the Derelict NZ Facebook page.