In the tradition of going away for birthdays I had planned Guy’s birthday weekend around a trip to Taupo, at the very centre of the North Island. Luckily his birthday fell near the Queen’s Birthday weekend (yes, we get a day off for the Queen’s birthday in New Zealand but not in the UK!) so I had booked us a little bach in town, Bell’s Cottage.
Taupo is a bit of an adventure centre, with a huge lake and surrounded by rivers and mountains for all manner of activities, so we were looking forward to our long weekend here. Somewhat worryingly Lake Taupo, is the huge caldera of a supervolcano, having erupted in the past it has produced some of the world’s most violent eruptions. The upside to this being the geothermal activity and landscape that draws us to the area now.
Arriving in time for lunch we grabbed a bite on the lake front and set off for the Spa Thermal Park at the edge of town. The park is a lovely open space that sits on the bank of the Waikato River, and we followed the Huka Falls track upstream. The river is up to 100m wide, fast flowing, wonderfully clear and a beautiful teal in the sunlight.
The track gently undulates along the bank, providing all manner of views, and as we neared the falls the path diverted away from the bank and through small bushes and trees. We could hear the roar of the water before we emerged out of the tree line to see the spectacle of Huka Falls. There is also a cheat route via road and there were plenty of people already here via this, but the walk was so worthwhile it made the end attraction that much better. Huka Falls has 220,000 litres of water flow over it every second which to put into perspective is an Olympic sized swimming pool every 11 seconds!
That explains the noise then! As well as the power of the falls the thing that strikes you most is the colour, bright light blue water cascades through the gorge it has cut down into the rock and churns out the other end into the river in a frothing white mess of bubbles, certainly not one to try kayaking down although I’m sure some have!
After taking in the sight and sound of the Huka Falls we returned along the same track back to the Spa Thermal Park. As the name suggests this park has a few hidden gems, at the point where the track meets the main part of the park you find Otumuheke Stream. This thermal stream winds down the park through a number of small natural pools before merging with the Waikato River. The large pool next to the river was pretty busy with bathers, luckily I had spotted a pool a bit higher upstream and just big enough for two. It took a little scrabbling up the hill to get to but was a perfect little secluded pool. We stripped off to our togs and hopped in… or rather gently eased ourselves in as not only is the water about 30+ degrees the algae on the rocks is treacherous! It’s a pretty awesome experience to sit in a natural thermal stream, and not that many places in the world you can do it, so we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. We enjoyed a good soak before we got too hot and headed back to Bell Cottage as the sun went down.
The evening consisted of ambling into the town centre, just a short walk from our quirky little bach, and I had booked us in to the Lakeside for dinner. Great casual dining here and I had an incredible fish burger. Plus great craft beers, including the locally brewed Lakeman beer, is a must try. They were also showing Lions game! What more could a boy want?!
For our second day in town we wandered the shops and lakefront, Guy smashed some golf balls onto a pontoon on the lake with surprising accuracy, and we made our way to the wharf for the main event of the day…sailing!
We joined the entertaining crew of Barbery II, in glorious sunshine, as we took our seats on the 47ft yacht and headed out onto the lake. Unfortunately to accompany the glorious sunshine there was also almost zero wind however, this did not dampen the experience one bit and our skipper Jamie was brilliant. We motored (electric) our way across the lake, past Acacia Bay and around to the Maori Rock Carvings.
As we cruised along we were told the Maori story of how the mountains of the North Island were created (I’ll give you just the jist). Mountain warriors all living alongside one another around Lake Taupo went to war over a beautiful maiden mountain, Pīhanga. After much fighting Tongariro won and he and his new wife rested on the edge of the lake, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe were respectful of the victory and were allowed to rest nearby. The others however, were banished and told to get as far as they could by dawn. Pūtauaki headed east and by daybreak reached his present position at Kawerau. Tauhara travelled slowly, all the time looking back longingly at Pīhanga and only reached the opposite side of the lake. Taranaki went west to drown himself in the Tasman dragging his injured leg, which formed the river. Where they reached at dawn their bodies now lie as the mountains of the North Island.
At the rock carvings we heard how they were meticulously carved in the eighties, to honour the artist’s whakapapa (genealogy). The carvings include the Maori face as well as smaller carvings all down the surrounding rocks of dragons, lizards and even a mermaid. The rocks were the cherry on the top of a lovely day of sunny sailing. We slowly made our way back to the wharf, listening to music and enjoying the sun setting behind the neighbouring hills. Back on dry land we found a cosy bar in a trendy restaurant called The Vine, enjoying a couple of beers before a relaxing evening at the bach.
With the long weekend drawing to a close we checked out and headed off to visit the Aratiatia Rapids. Fortuitously, we arrived just in time for the show, as the dam opens every day at 12pm to drain water from the reservoir above. Whilst the dam is shut the channel is pretty dry with just a few turquoise pools sitting tranquilly. There are three viewpoints to watch the cascades from, the bridge directly in front of the dam, a middle point at the end of the narrowest part of the channel, and the furthest, highest point giving a view of the whole spectacle.
We opted for the latter so we could see the main channel, pools, dam and the river beyond, in hindsight though we think the middle viewpoint would give better dramatic effect. We were expecting a flash flood scenario when we arrived but actually, although the sluicing from the dam is impressive, the pools fill up pretty gradually. At full flow we had more the effect we were expecting and the rapids through the middle were pretty impressive, you can actually see these in the The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug; The scene shot is part of an escape where Bilbo rescues the dwarfs from the elves by hiding them in barrels which float downstream.
Next stop was the Orakei Korako Thermal Park, we were apprehensive about visiting another thermal park having been to the impressive Wai-O-Tapu in Rotorua, but we needn’t of been worried as it was so different. Orakei Korako is unique as you have to take a boat across the Waikato River to get to it. We drifted across toward the chemically coloured salts and rocks, seemingly plunging into the lake below, all surrounded by forest that looked like it was on fire because of all the steam rising out of it. A pretty amazing sight, we felt like we were walking into Jurassic world!
The loop through the park takes around an hour and a half and we seemed to be the only ones there which made for unintentional exclusivity, always a bonus! At the beginning of the loop were Diamond Geyser (all puns welcome!) and Sapphire Geyser.
These are an unpredictable pair but we were lucky enough to see Sapphire erupting later in a series of horizontal spurting outbursts, creating great cascades of water and steam down to the river below.
Beyond the geysers is a large plateau of orangey-purple crusted rock, pock marked with bubbling pools, and above this a handy viewpoint that overlooks the entire park making for an otherworldly panorama.
Across a white crusted flat and through the words a hidden cave gapes at the sky, created by a huge thermal eruption blasting through the surface. The cave rock is full of a spectrum of colours, reds, oranges, greens and purples.
Back on the path the bubbling and plopping of the mud pools became audible and when they came into view we were treated to expulsions of mud bubbles that we find oddly satisfying to watch!
Walking back through the silver ferns, that New Zealand has emblemised, we made our way to the boat and with our departure from the park, the end of our weekend at Great Lake Taupo.