Terrific Taupō

February 4, 2022
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IN the middle of January, I visited Lake Taupō. This is the great lake near the southern end of the Waiariki region, an area of volcanic lakes, volcanoes and hot springs which runs from Mounts Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in the central North Island out to Whakaari/White Island, by way of Rotorua and Tarawera.

The Waiaraki Region (Taupō/Rotorua volcanic zone). NASA imagery with added markups showing active volcanic and geothermal areas, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. North at top.

Lake Taupō is the largest lake in the Waiariki and indeed in New Zealand, with a surface area of 616 square kilometres or 238 square miles. The lake's longest dimension, from the thermal resort of Tokaanu at its southern tip to the larger tourist town which bears the same name as the lake at its northern end, is about 40 kilometres (25 miles) as the crow flies.

Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe rising behind yacht on Lake Taupo. Photo by M. Rudland (20 June 2017), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like several of the lakes around Rotorua, Lake Taupō was formed by gigantic eruptions that scooped it out in comparatively recent geological times.

During the Oruanui Eruption of around 26,500 BCE, more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of magma was ejected in the form of ash, pumice and molten rock. By comparison, the widely publicised eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 ejected about four cubic kilometres of magma. So, the Oruanui Eruption was like 250 Mount St Helens going off at once.

There was also a mega-eruption from Lake Taupō in the days of the Roman Empire, the Hatepe Eruption, which ejected around 120 cubic kilometers of magma. The Hatepe Eruption accounts for the desert-like character of much of the central North Island, even now. For a long time it was thought that the Hatepe Eruption took place around 186 CE (AD), but science has lately pinpointed it to late March or early April in the year 232 CE, and even, judging from the types of insects that were out and about at the time of the blast and preserved next to each other in the ash deposits, that it was probably in the afternoon!

Nobody can say whether any part of this beautiful but unstable region, similar to the Yellowstone volcanic region of the United States but much more active, will still be there in a hundred years' time or even ten years' time!

But in the meantime, it is a popular tourist destination, drawing in visitors fascinated by its beautiful lakes, snowy volcanic peaks and incredible abundance of hot springs.

The Thermal Explorer Highway: the main route through the Waiariki

As I drove down from Rotorua, via the Thermal Explorer Highway, I passed by several of these hot spring areas, including the Orakei Korako Geothermal Park and Cave, which is as significant as anywhere near Rotorua, just a bit more off the beaten track, some way down a side road from the Thermal Explorer Highway. The name means 'the place of adorning', and it is reached by a short ferry trip across Lake Ohakuri. Websites quote Lonely Planet to the effect that "Orakei Korako is arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand." Here is its promotion video, which at twelve seconds is rather short and leaves you wanting more!

Another amazing place on the way to Taupō from Rotorua is the Wairakei Tourist Park, home to a geothermal power station, the Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk, and also the Wairakei Terraces geothermal pools. There's a freely accessible story about the Wairakei Terraces, with pictures, here.

A billboard with a map of most of the things to see at Wairakei

I camped at the Wairakei Thermal Valley Campground, which was really nice.

The Wairakei Tourist Park also contains the Huka Falls. Huka is Māori for snow, foam, froth, hail or frost, and in modern times also for sugar. At the Huka Falls, is significance is aerated, foaming water. And certainly, you can see why this mighty cataract of the Waikato River is called the 'foam' falls.

It really is a stunning cataract. Not a waterfall in the vertical sense so much as enormous forward gush of blue water, about 200,000 litres a second, over a nine-metre step in the river and with plenty of huka on top.

A sign warns against any temptation to try and go over the falls in a canoe, raft or barrel. Apparently, there's a good chance you'll never be seen again.

I could believe it, and you will too after watching my video.

Before people arrived in New Zealand, there were comparatively fish of the ordinary sort in the country's lakes and rivers. Instead, these bodies of water were mostly full of eels, of which the local species breed in the sea. The juveniles swim back upstream to fatten in the rivers and the lakes. But so fierce is the cataract of the Huka Falls, which drains Lake Taupō, and so devoid of any side-passages the gorge through which it flows, that young eels cannot migrate upstream. As a result Lake Taupō is, in spite of its size, free of eels.

There are lots of walks and bike trails in the area around the Huka Falls, as well.

Huka Trails

Just to the north of the town of Taupō, on the brow of a hill that you approach as you are driving to Taupo from the north, there is a lookout where you can get sweeping views over the lake and the mountains and the town that you are now descending towards from that point on. It's a nice surprise for the visitor. Here's a video I shot from a spot near the lookout.

Just east of Taupō town, you can also climb Mount Tauhara (1,088 metres or 3,570 feet), which has even more epic views over the town, the lake, and the surrounding countryside.

The top of Mount Tauhara at Sunset. Source:

Mount Tauhara is sacred to the Ngāti Tūwharetoa people, the tribe of the Taupo region. Its legendary tales are told on a page of the Tauhara Geothermal Charitable Trust. The page describes the exploits of the ancestor, Ngātoro-i-rangi, an ancestor of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, who arrived on the canoe Arawa with his wife Tia, and his legendary exploits, which are reminiscent of the Irish hero Finn McCool and account for many local placenames:

"When arriving in the Taupō District, Ngātoro-i-rangi sought land for his descendants and ascended Mt Tauhara which this gateway now faces. Upon reaching its summit he thrust his staff into the earth and from the furrow flowed a freshwater spring, ‘Te Karetu Ngātoro-i-rangi ’ which still flows from atop of Tauhara to this day. Ngātoro-i-rangi then seized a Totara tree and threw it far into the distance to Wharewaka where it eventually landed with branches piercing the earth and its roots high in the air.
"He descended from Tauhara and headed toward the newly formed lake and as he reached the shore he proclaimed “this will be drinking water for my grandchildren”. He then tore a feather from his cloak and cast it into the water. Upon touching the water the feather transformed into an eel, however it did not survive. . . ."

That last bit is a reference to the fact that because of the ferocity of the Huka Falls, young eels have never been able to swim up into Lake Taupō. At any rate, that is the boring explanation! 

The area is also very popular for mountain biking: a perfect mountain biking holiday would combine the Timber Trail to the northwest of Lake Taupō, in the Pureora Forest, with rides nearer Lake Taupō such as the trails in the Craters of the Moon area.

The official tourism website of Lake Taupō is, the website of the Taupō iSite. It describes heaps of things to do in the area. You can also check out the Department of Conservation's guide to things to do in the area as well. And some on the wall of the Taupō iSite, just for good measure.

Here is a wider locality map that I spotted on display in the Taupō iSite. It shows the location of Mount Tauhara, Pureora, Wairakei, Orakei Korako, the Huka Falls and many other attractions, including the lookout to the north of Taupō town.

And also 'Maori rock carvings' in a bay just west of the harbour in which Taupō township is located.

These are known as the Mine Bay carvings, made in recent times by a sculptor named Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell and several collaborators. The main image is that of Ngātoro-i-rangi.

The Mine Bay carvings by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell

Here is an official YouTube video about the origins of the carvings. Nobody thought that they would become such a tourist attraction.

I went out on a boat to see them, and I will talk about that in a moment.

There is also an island in the lake called Motutaiko Island, but you can't visit it, as it is an old Māori burial ground. It rises vertically out of 100-metre deep depths, and is actually an old volcanic lava plug, with just the top poking out of the water.

The big map above includes sub-maps of other townships in the area, namely, Tūrangi, Mangakino and Kinloch, in addition to Taupō town itself. The first of these that I wish to describe is Tūrangi, just past the southern end of Lake Taupō and located on the Tongariro River, which flows into the lake a few kilometres to the north of Tūrangi.

When European settlers came, they populated the eel-less lake Taupō and its tributaries with trout, which have flourished in the absence of competition from eels. The area is now one of the most famous trout fisheries in the world, with Tūrangi the local capital of trout-fishing. There is a bridge, there, from which tourists can feed multitudes of trout in the Tongariro River.

Unfortunately, this has also meant that some rare species of native fish, hitherto safe from being devoured by eels in the Taupō catchment, have instead been devoured or had their food stolen by the trout the settlers introduced, and thus become rarer still.

According to the official tourism website 100% Pure New Zealand,

"As the unofficial trout fishing headquarters of New Zealand, Turangi invites you to call in and drop a line. . . . For the ultimate trout experience visit the Tongariro National Trout Centre(opens in new window), a hatchery and educational centre run by the Department of Conservation.
Turangi’s visitors don’t all come to fish; the town is an ideal base for hiking adventures into the Tongariro National Park, with shuttles to the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s also just 40 minutes from the Whakapapa ski area on Mount Ruapehu and about five minutes from Tokaanu’s thermal hot pools.
Turangi is also home to the Tongariro River Trail, which is one of the region’s most picturesque mountain bike trails. . . ."

Also, there was a map of Mangakino, northwest of Taupō:

According to 100% Pure New Zealand, once more,

"Mangakino is great for mountain biking; it sits in the middle of two of the North Island's best tracks - the Waikato River Trails and the Timber Trail that run alongside rolling farmland and through beautiful New Zealand native bush.
"Nearby are the Whakamaru, Maraetai, Waipapa, Atiamuri and Ohakuri hydro lakes and dams, which are all popular for swimming, boating, fishing and hiking. . . ."

And Kinloch:

100% Pure New Zealand notes that:

"Located 20 minutes' drive from Taupō township, Kinloch is a cosy settlement with spectacular views of Lake Taupō and the mountains of Tongariro National Park. Its sandy beach and relaxed vibe make it a lovely summer holiday location or the perfect base for mountain biking the popular Great Lake Trail– a 71km grade 3 (intermediate) trail that will take you deep into native bush surrounding Lake Taupō. . . ."

While Rotorua, with its pink and white terraces, was one of the original must-see New Zealand tourism destinations as far back as the mid-1800s, Taupō was only developed for tourism much later on. In a 1990 book by the historian Neil Rennie called Power to the People: 100 Years of Public Electricity Supply in New Zealand, we read that:

"Anyone visiting the bustling tourist and holiday centre that is Taupo today would find it difficult to believe that the borough had no public supply of electricity until December 1952. The town, then, had a permanent population of only 1600 and was surrounded by thousands of acres of unoccupied, scrub-covered pumiceland. Its startling growth since then is linked directly to the availability of electricity and the discovery of cobalt as a cure for bush sickness [a local deficiency disease], enabling the land to be farmed." ('Transforming Taupo', p. 173)

And the roads, too. There probably wasn't anything but a gravel road to Taupō until around the same time as the power was hooked up. Things would have been very sleepy in those days, compared to the way  they are now!

Downtown in Taupō township, there was the Great Lake Centre, which is a sort of convention facility, and the Taupō Museum, which had lots of displays about local Māori culture, which I hadn't seen too much evidence of in some other local signboards on the way. Ngāti Tūwharetoa is the local iwi or Māori tribe, and according to the museum website, the Ngāti Tūwharetoa make up almost thirty per cent the population of the area still. Like the peoples of the Rotorua area, Ngāti Tūwharetoa trace their ancestry to the Arawa canoe.

In the Taupō Museum

While I was in Taupō town, I paid for a ride on Chris Jolly's boat out to see the carvings at Mine Bay. They really are a popular attraction and there are other providers as well.

The Marina at Taupō. Actually, the main reason I included this picture was because of the amazing ice-clouds! You are fairly high up, and the area is often chilly and breezy, even in summer.

The water is very clear, and you can see a long way down below the carvings.

Taupō is also famous for its scenic floatplane rides, and I would like to go on one those one day as well.

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website


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