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Wonderful Whakapapa

Published
January 28, 2022
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This post was updated on 14 April 2023.

THE Whakapapa area of Mount Ruapehu lies on the mountain's northwestern flank. You can go from lowland forest with scenic waterfalls such as Tawhai Falls (the site of Gollum's Pool in the LOTR movies) past the Chateau Tongariro and the nearby Taranaki Falls, and on up by the Sky Waka cable car to The Pinnacles restaurant, the highest eatery in Aotearoa/NZ at 2,020 metres (6,627 feet), and hike the Skyline Walk to 2,300 m. And even, if you are skilful enough, climb to the summit at 2,797 m (9,177 feet).

The Whakapapa area of Mount Ruapehu, and environs. Map data ©2022 Google, north at top.

From most directions, you arrive via the township of National Park at the intersection of State Highway 4 and State Highway 47 – National Park is also served by rail, over the picturesque Makatote Viaduct, which you can see in the map above – or alternatively down SH 47 from the north-east past the Mahuia Rapids.

Here is a more close-in map showing more of the attractions in the area, including the camping grounds on State Highway 47 and the location of The Pinnacles. Bookings are essential for these campgrounds, in spite of what some older posts on the internet might say. The Mangahuia Campsite is fairly basic, while Discovery Camping, Discovery Lodge and the Whakapapa Holiday Park have permanent accommodation as well as campsites and all the facilities. There is also the Skotel Alpine Resort at the Whakapapa Village, along with various other huts and ski lodges in the area. But perhaps the most historical accommodation was to be had at the Chateau Tongariro, of which a bit more below.

Map data ©2022 Google. Information about Mangatepopo Hut and the Tongrariro Alpine Crossing added for this map. North at top.

In December 2021, I began a journey up to the Whakapapa skifield with a trip to Tawhai Falls, the site of Gollum’s Pool in the Lord of the Rings movies. When I was there, the river was so flooded that nobody would have been able to find the Ring, that is for sure!

Tawhai Falls

Tawhai means silver beech, Nothofagus menziesii. Tāwhai, with a tohutō (macron), means to stretch out; but I think the name refers to the locally abundant beech trees.

The environment is all quite verdant in this part of the national park, the great Tongariro National Park which encompasses all three of the main volcanoes of the central North Island, but it gets a lot more barren further up! The national park was the gift of Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, paramount chief of the local Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi (tribe), who feared that the area, sacred to Māori, would simply be chopped up by white farmers otherwise.

A statue of Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, in the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre at Whakapapa Village

Māori lore holds that the volcanoes of the central North Island are spiritual entitles, and that the similar-looking Mount Taranaki, some 130 kilometres or 80 miles due west, once lived among the volcanoes of the central North Island, but was exiled after a romantic quarrel, gouging out the course of the Whanganui River as he moved westward. This is one of the most famous of Māori legends; you can read about it, along with a dramatic illustration, on this webpage from the government's online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Te Ara. There is also a more detailed version of the legend in the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. The occasional eruptions of the central volcanoes – which, like Mount Taranaki, are by no means extinct – and their steady emissions of steam between eruptions, are said to reflect their anger and disgruntlement.

The Road to Whakapapa Village

Heading on uphill, I got to Whakapapa Village and the amazing Chateau Tongariro, completed in 1929. Here’s an aerial photo and map of the village, showing some of its attractions and places to stay that were open that summer, including the Chateau.

Whakapapa Village. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

The Chateau Tongariro is modelled on the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada. A tourist road into the Whakapapa Valley was created in the early twentieth century, at the instigation of local climbers. Auckland City Mayor James Gunson drove the first car to Whakapapa in 1925. The next step was to create a hotel of international quality. The Chateau was commissioned by the New Zealand Government and operated by the Government for most of its history. The national electric power grid did not make it into this part of the country until the 1950s, so the Chateau had its own hydro-electric power station! Many of its windows have panoramic views.

Many of the Chateau Tongariro's windows have panoramic views, as in this historical image that looks as though it was taken in the 1930s.

Mount Ngauruhoe seen through a picture window at the Chateau Tongariro. Archives New Zealand image, reference ABIN W3337 Box 259, CC BY 3.0 via Te Ara.

Another old photo, hand-coloured, shows the magical qualities of the Chateau in the snow season.

Lantern slide of the Chateau Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe in Winter - Negative Number 5352, Archives reference: AAPG W3878 Box 3 / D25, CC BY 2.0 via Archives New Zealand. The overhead wires, which otherwise detract from the view, have since been replaced with underground services.

Here's a picture of myself inside the sumptuous lobby of the Chateau Tongariro.

Surprisingly enough, the Chateau was not all that expensive to stay at. You could get a double room for NZ $130 a night if you timed it right. Of course, you could also spend more if you wanted!

Though I did not realise it then, I was to be one of the Chateau’s last guests. On the fifth of February 2023, the Chateau was closed after an engineering investigation found it to be well short of today’s earthquake standards. Perhaps some future owner or the government will spend the sums needed to renovate it, but otherwise, the closure will be permanent.

This, plus the climate change that is the most likely cause of three years of bad snow lately, may be bringing down the curtains on a skiing trade that once flourished in Tongariro National Park. I’ve embedded a film from 1960 called ‘Skiing at Chateau Tongariro’, here:

There is a fascinating slideshow of old photos and posters about skiing in New Zealand on a Radio New Zealand gallery. One of the posters, contrasting a snowy mountain with a subtropical Polynesian landscape at its base under a baking sun, unwittingly foreshadows the vulnerability of our North Island skifields to global warming.

Poster issued between 1953 and 1960, most probably by the artist Leslie George McCullough and the former New Zealand Tourist and Publicity Department, National Library of New Zealand, Eph-E-TOURISM-1950s-03, https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22732838

Perhaps the end of competition from the Chateau will help to revive the nearby Whakapapa Village, which is heavily oriented to the ski trade though pivoting like another tourist village in the area, National Park, toward hikers and mountain bikers.

Skotel, Whakapapa Village

Also not far from the Chateau are the Taranaki Falls, accessible via the Taranaki Falls Walk. It takes about an hour to get to the falls from the Chateau.

I visited these falls when I returned in April 2023, hiking to the falls with some companions. The Taranaki Falls Walk is lovely in itself.

And after an hour, we got to the falls.

The author by the Taranaki Falls

Down at the base of the falls

In 2021, I stayed at the Whakapapa Holiday Park, in the Whakapapa Village, close to the Chateau. Even this high up, around 1,000 metres, the forest is still quite green.

There are lots of walks and hikes leading away from Whakapapa Village, and information signs advertising them. They include trails that form part of the Round the Mountain Track and the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk, as well as local hikes. One trail, the Mangatepopo Track, forms part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk. It leads to Mangatepopo Hut and the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

(You can also get to Mangatepopo Hut, and the beginning of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, by way of Mangatepopo Road, a bit further northeast up SH 47 after the Whakapapa access road. There are shuttles to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at the end of Mangatepopo Road, if you don't want to hike all the way from Whakapapa. The shuttles are also quite convenient if you are camping nearby in a van, and don't want to move the van or risk driving it up a rough road.)

I continued on up the gravelly mountain road to the village at the foot of the Whakapapa ski field, a village known, confusingly, as Iwikau Village. There are three ski fields on Mount Ruapehu: Tūkino, Tūroa, and Whakapapa.

Here's an aerial photo and map of Iwikau Village, which is a lot more alpine and barren than Whakapapa Village lower down the mountain, and part of the Whakapapa skfield as well. It shows the many lodges in the area, and includes the Sky Waka gondola, or cable car. Waka is Māori for canoe: the Sky Waka was developed with the financial backing of Ngāti Tuwharetoa.

Iwikau Village and part of the Whakapapa Ski Field. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

The Sky Waka is shown as closed in the aerial photo and map above, but that was only at the time the image was captured.

At the original time of writing (2022), the Sky Waka was open from 10 am to 4 pm daily, with the option of a buffet lunch at The Pinnacles. Current details about Sky Waka tickets and the buffet lunch are given here.

Whakapapa is also the biggest ski field in Aotearoa/New Zealand, with 44 kilometres or twenty-seven and a half miles of runs.

Here's a photo from the Sky Waka, looking down onto Iwikau Village.

Here are some more photos from the gondola, on the way up. The Sky Waka opened in 2019 and was developed, in more detail, with the input of $9.5 million from the Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board. Central North Island Māori are investing more and more in local tourism ventures around Mt Ruapehu and the other volcanos nearby, and also further north in the Lake Taupō area.

Here's The Pinnacles restaurant, moments before arrival. The building itself is called the Knoll Ridge Chalet. It boasts an award called the Design Curial Best Designed Café in the World, 2015. Along with the restaurant there is also a café called Pātaka/The Larder, and another eatery called Four Peaks Alley, which is temporarily closed at the time of writing. A short distance away, there is the New Zealand Alpine Club's (NZAC) Ruapehu Hut.

NZAC Ruapehu Hut and the Knoll Ridge Chalet. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

The next photo shows Mount Ngauruhoe past the pinnacles, technically known as the Ngā Tohu Pinnacle Ridge, after which The Pinnacles restaurant is named. It’s all pretty epic up here!

The Whakapapa Skyline Walk, up to 2,300 metres, is another thing that you can do from the top end of the Sky Waka route.

A sign describing the Skyline Walk and another route, the Waterfalls Descent, in April 2023

The Skyline Walk takes you up to the Skyline Ridge, where the views are amazing. Here are some photos I took while hiking the Skyline Walk in April 2023.

A view westward, showing the distant Mt Taranaki on the horizon at the far left, and the Pouakai and Kaitake Ranges just to its north.

A rocky outcrop with Mt Ngauruhoe behind

A chunky ooutcrop, with Mt Ngauruhoe behind

Another outcrop

Here is a short, professional video by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, the operators of the Sky Waka, that shows more of the Skyline Walk and why it is so worth doing!

Alternatively, you can hike the Waterfalls Descent to the base of the Sky Waka, rather than taking the cable car back down. There is a guide to all the short walks and hikes accessible from the top of the Sky Waka route, here. The guide includes some fairly stunning photographs!

Here's a video I made, of several scenes from the Tawhai Falls to The Pinnacles. I was planning to hike to the top of the mountain once again, by way of the Crater Climb, but didn't make it up in the end.

However, in April 2023, I returned and managed to do the Skyline Walk this time. Here’s a video of that trip, which includes the Taranaki Falls at the beginning.

Another hike I would like to do near the Sky Waka is the Knoll Ridge Loop, and from there to head up Knoll Ridge to the summit.

A sign showing the way to the Skyline Trail and the Knoll Ridge Loop, near the top of the Whakapapa skifield

I finished off by relaxing in the Tokaanu Thermal Pools, further on up State Highway 47, at the southern end of Lake Taupō!

Apps

There are several apps relevant to Mount Ruapehu. They include:

The 100% Pure New Zealand (NZ Government) Great Hikes and Walks App

The Mount Ruapehu Snow Report app, by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Ltd (best downloaded from the Google and Apple web store).

The GPSSkiMaps Whakapapa (Mt Ruapehu) Ski App and Tūroa (Mt Ruapehu) Ski App.

Other Blog Posts

Here are some links to other blog posts about Mount Ruapehu, the Tongariro National Park and nearby Lake Taupō.

a-maverick.com/blog/mount-ruapehu-you-can-make-it

a-maverick.com/blog/mount-tongariro-crossing-a-gem

a-maverick.com/blog/lakes-rotoaira-and-rotopounamu-between-volcanoes-taupo

Notes

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