Eighteen hundred years ago there was an explosive volcanic eruption - the largest the world has seen in 5,000 years. The Chinese noted a ‘blackening of the sky’, and the Romans recorded ‘the heavens turning fiery red’. Much of New Zealand’s North Island was covered in a thick layer of pumice. Today we can still see the result of the volcanic eruption: Lake Taupo. The lake covers an impressive 622 square meters, an area the same size of Singapore.
Lake Taupo is situated in the center of North Island. It has been one of New Zealand’s favorite holiday destinations since 1950, when the North Island’s roads where made more accessible. Taupo village, on the north end of the lake, is a quaint little town with a population of 22,000. The village boasts stunning views, especially on a clear day when the three snow-capped volcanoes of the National Park (south of Lake Taupo) dominate the backdrop.
Taupo provides endless activities for those seeking challenging adventures and outdoor action. White-water rafting, quad-biking and bungy jumping are all available. If that doesn’t send your pulse racing there’s always skydiving, helicopter rides, and skiing down a nearby active volcano. But aside from the wild pursuits which will burn a hole in your pocket, Taupo offers a variety of excellent activities which are free of charge or relatively inexpensive.
Day One: Botanical Gardens, Mount Tauhara and Taupo Hot Springs
A day should be devoted to the south-east side of Taupo. The morning is best spent browsing the tranquil botanical gardens (3 km from the center), at the Waipahihi Botanical Reserve along Shepherd Road. The gardens, founded in 1966, are completely maintained by dedicated volunteers and host many charming trails and spectacular views. It’s easy to lose yourself wandering in and out of the exotic and native themed gardens, the peace only disturbed by the distinct song of the Tui bird. Even if you’re only half-interested in plants, this is still a must for your time in Taupo. Entry is free but donations are appreciated.
A short drive from Waipahihi gardens is Mount Tauhara, aka ‘the lady of the lake’. This dormant volcano, 6 km from town, was formed 65,000 years ago and stands 1088 meters high. The name Tauhara (meaning ‘slow moving’ in native Maori language) was given to the volcano due to its sluggish, oozing lava.
On arrival, large trespassing banners and the absence of signs can make the path seem quite unwelcoming. However, don’t let this put you off. The start of the 2-3 hour hike leads up from the road and vivid soil marks give you a good idea of the path to take. For the first 15-minutes you’ll advance up and across the grassy mountainside, climb over a wooden stile, and arrive at two hissing water tanks.
From here you’ll head into thick shady forest. An ambiguous, untrodden track might make you wonder if you’re heading in the right direction, but keep going. The hike through the native bush is an unpredictable obstacle course. Be prepared to duck under branches, leap over ditches and take some very big steps. Since the mountain is so thick with forest it’s impossible to tell how far you’ve come or how much you have left to climb. Due to time restrictions I didn’t quite make it to the summit of this prominent landmark. However, a clearing of trees and resting bench halfway up proved to be an excellent photo opportunity.