Sometimes, travelling into the heart of a country reveals its true beauty.
One year ago, my Dad and I packed our bags and set off to Birmingham airport. Twenty-six hours later, through stops in two countries and flying over twelve time zones, our plane touched down in New Zealand.
The holiday which followed took me into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and gave me a love of travelling which promised to change my life forever.
In remembering one year since the journey, over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some of my favourite stories and sights, and I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour around the sights of North Island, including Auckland, Rotorua, Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park, and showing you why New Zealand really is the most breathtaking country in the world.
In the final part of my series covering New Zealand, I’ll be looking at Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park, the heartland of New Zealand’s North Island. I’ll also be looking back on some of the surrounding area, including the towns Taupo and Turangi, where I stayed during the final days of my New Zealand travels.
If you haven’t seen the previous posts in my New Zealand Travel Guides series, talking about Auckland and Rotorua, you can read them here!
The idyllic and striking heart of New Zealand’s North Island is the massive Lake Taupo, surrounded by both the peaceful lake-side towns of Taupo and Turangi and the towering mountains of Tongariro. Driving to this seemingly remote spot was a massive change after the bustling tourism of Rotorua and the crowded city streets of Auckland, but even here were the signs of New Zealand’s largest industry: Lake Taupo is the adrenaline-chasers paradise, with activities catered for on the lake itself and in the surrounding mountains. If your interests are in hiking, paragliding, sailing, skiing (in winter) or bungee jumping, then the area surrounding Lake Taupo should be on your list of must-sees.
But Lake Taupo isn’t just for the more adventurous (or else I would never have come close to it). It’s also a place of astonishing natural beauty. Whilst not as varied as the thermal pools and thick jungles surrounding our last stop, seeing the lake itself for the first time is a striking moment: the land drops away towards the shores of the lake, with one side covered with rolling hills that I’d become accustomed to, and the other showing great mountains and a vast desert landscape. The lake is a marvel to behold as it stretches far beyond your view, blending into the mountains beyond which seem almost a deep shade of blue at a distance.
The first stop, if your road takes you from Rotorua, is the roaring Huka Falls, which sports the accolade of being the “most-visited natural attraction in New Zealand”. Like most of New Zealand’s most beautiful sites, it’s hidden deep in the jungle on roads which seem the go deep into the wilderness, only to open up on a massive tourist site.
Following the stream of tourists, we passed a bridge which was suspended over a small chasm of rock, with the fast-flowing waters of the Waikato River rolling underneath and heading towards the roaring falls behind us. Steve, my Uncle and our tour guide on our journey, told us that the real beauty was upstream, away from the tourists. Whilst the main track curved to the left, a small opening in the jungle foliage opened to the right and Steve set off down it, with me in-tow.
The track ran parallel to the river, and our only company were a group of Australian backpackers (who took a massive interest in why two Brits and a Yorkshire-accented Kiwi-Brit were walking against the tourist track). Steve pressed on, informing me of some of the local lore and stories surrounding the river, which had carved a course through the rocks over thousands of years. It flowed from Lake Taupo, which was the crater of a massive volcanic eruptions tens of thousands of years ago, and eventually opened out into the Tasman Sea. Our path eventually opened up to a much calmer stretch of river, far from the falls, where massive mansions sat on the far side. Steve (ever the adventurer) scaled a rock, wearing little more than slippers, and pointed out the mansions whilst perched over the flowing waters.
Unlike his experience in Rotorua, Steve kept his footing and didn’t end up showing us the temperature of the water first-hand.
TAUPO AND TURANGI
On the banks of the lake, stretching from the shore into the hills beyond, is the picturesque town of Taupo. Although a small and relatively quiet destination when compared to Auckland and Rotorua, it is nevertheless a beautiful spot, and a necessary break on the road from the winding road which carves its way around the lake.
Taupo seems almost like a seaside town, with paths running down to the lakeside which flows at the base of small cliffs. At the top, there is a small white pathway, with painted wooden benches where you can sit and look out over the vast waters from the town’s vantage point. Along the lakeside are various little activities, including a game of golf where the holes were perched on little islands out in the lake. I’ve never been a fan of golf (since I can never hit the damn ball), but Dad and Steve made a line for the game and tried their hand at chipping the balls onto the islands. After a few close calls, which Steve blamed on his golf swing, we decided to call it a day.
Metres behind you, over the road which goes on toward the rest of the lake, the town of Taupo continues. A small pack of restaurants, cafes and shops face the lake, and behind them the beautiful townhouses stretch onward. We stopped in one of these cafes for lunch, as our journey around the lake was just beginning. We picked a cafe at random and found ourselves in a beautiful little bistro with a long window opening up into the kitchen beyond. Talking amongst ourselves about what to have out of the (let’s just say) extraordinary menu, the owner of the cafe suddenly spoke up with a British Midlands accent and excitedly asked us where we were from. Dad and I informed her that we were from Lincoln, and she instantly replied that she was from Louth, a town only 30 miles away.
Stunned and confused about how small the world was, we took her recommendations from the menu and sat down to eat. She came out laden with three plates which seemed to be a cross between a chilli con carne and a full English breakfast, in what she described as a traditionally Mexican dish. Dad and Steve seemed perturbed, but I wasn’t going to be phased by something topped with a fried egg. I tucked in, and they followed on.
I’ll never forget the taste of that dish. It was only after we’d bid our goodbyes to our new friend (having been introduced to every member of staff as “my Lincoln friends”, much to Steve’s annoyance), and climbed back into Steve’s Holden, that each one of us realised that we’d forgotten her name and the recipe.
If any of you find yourself in the FRIENDS cafe in Taupo, and are served by a woman from Louth, ask her if she remembers a group of Brits from Lincoln.
Our journey continued onward around the lake, where we stopped in some breathtaking spots for photo (or, in Steve’s case, cigarette) breaks. I noticed that floating on the waters of the lake and dotting the cobbled beaches were white oval-shaped pieces of rock. This was pumice, the leftovers from the massive volcanic eruptions that had carved out the lake. I pocked a small piece, and still have it today: a lasting reminder of an utterly incredible place.
As day began to wane, the road led to a small town nestled between the lake and the river: Turangi. Famous world-wide for its Rainbow Trout, it was our final stop before the long drive back to Auckland. We stayed in a wooden hut on the grounds of a massive park, with each hut having its own stone-brick barbecue for the guests to use. Not wanted to waste the opportunity, we bought an array of fish and meats and cooking the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted. We sat out long into the evening, completing our meal with a trip to a local bar to meet some of the Kiwis. We stayed in that hut for three days, and every day we sat out with the barbecue and beers under the warm evening sky.
TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
Spanning far across the lake, and taking up the middle of North Island, the mountainous Tongariro National Park is the hiker’s dream. Three massive peaks, Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, dominate the skyline for miles around, and look out over a desert and inhospitable landscape. In winter, this is a wonderland of snowdrifts and ski resorts, with tourists bustling around the little towns and villages with their ski-shops and motels. But for the rest of the year, this is a different landscape. The tourists all migrate south, towards Wellington and South Island, or north, back towards Auckland and beyond. So, as I drove down the Desert Road between this colossal mountains, I really did feel like I’d travelling into a different world from the jungles and lakes that had preceded it.
The park served as the location for Mordor in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as we scaled Mt. Ruapehu it was easy to see why. The we climbed higher, and the view over the landscape became more spectacular, the land around us became more and more blackened. These were the scars from innumerable volcanic eruptions, and made the area seem devoid of life when it was’t covered in snow.
Reaching the lowest peak of Ruapehu, we found ourselves at the ski lodge and resort. Now nearly completely abandoned, the ski lifts seemed out of place among the scorched rocks without the thick layer of snow which came in the winter. The whole place was like a ghost town, but the view was perhaps the most stunning look over New Zealand that I’d seen to date.
For anyone feeling adventurous enough to venture into Tongariro National Park, a trek along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an absolute must. We took the first steps on this day-long trek, which takes hikers into the otherworldly sights of the three peaks and is a challenge for even the most experienced hiker. Even from the base of the crossing, where we paused whilst streams of walkers passed us on their way over the volcanoes, the views were outstanding. The flat desert landscape, adorned only with small shrubs and ferns, bled into the peaks and troughs of the mountain terrain, with the path soon disappearing off into the distance where small specs of movement were the only signs of life. If I had the time, I would pack a bag and take the walk for myself. If my travels ever take me back to New Zealand, it will certainly be on the list. Until then, the memory of its beauty is enough.
Travelling to Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park is no easy feat: wherever you enter New Zealand from, the road is long and difficult. But the beauty of this unique landscape, which seems to change instantaneously as you cross further south, is truly unforgettable and worth the journey.
This look back over my time in New Zealand, one year ago, has taken me from the skyscrapers of Auckland, to the thermal pools of Rotorua, to the mountains of Tongariro, and back again.
It was a journey like no other, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed sharing each moment with me. I hope that, if you ever do find yourself in New Zealand, that these guides have given you a glimpse of what the country has to offer. Of course, I can’t do all the work. The only way to see New Zealand’s beauty is to travel there yourself, and walk in the footsteps of millions of travellers before you.
Trust me, you won’t regret a moment of it.
Until next time,
~ Ross M. F. Firth
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You can read my previous blog post (TRAVEL GUIDE: Rotorua, New Zealand (The Kiwi Home of Tourism)) here.
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