The beautiful North Island was the setting for our first 2016 trip, as the location of Mitch and Sarah’s wedding. Michael and I had spent some time on the South Island in 2011 but this was our first trip further North.
Tauranga, meaning the place of rest and anchorage, is the fifth largest city in New Zealand. It sits on the water’s edge in the beautiful Bay of Plenty.
Once upon a time, a nameless mountain fell desperately in love with a beautiful hill called Puwhenua. Unfortunately, Puwhenua’s heart already belonged to Otanewainuku mountain with its tall trees and pretty birds. Losing all hope, the nameless mountain begged the Patupaiarehe (fairy creatures of the night) to end his misery. They plaited a magical rope and dragged him to the ocean, creating the Waimapu (weeping waters) River and the channel which flows past Tauranga City. They reached the ocean but the sun rose too soon and the Patupaiarehe fled back to the forests leaving the nameless mountain stranded, but not before they named it Mauao or ‘caught by the dawn’.
Mauao stands 232m above sea level and hosts breathtaking views of the Western Bay of Plenty. It takes about half an hour to reach the summit via an easy trail that takes you through the pohutukawa trees and past the occasional sheep.
McLaren’s Falls, a quick detour on the way back to the bed and breakfast, was well worth a visit. We took a short, easy walk around the river and up through the falls.
Rotorua is set on the banks of Lake Rotorua, or Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe, meaning “The second great lake of Kahumatamomoe”. It is known for two things: geysers and hot springs, and the related smell of sulphur. Formed in a caldera (crater caused by a volcanic eruption) about 200,000 years ago, the area is one of the most active geothermal regions in the world. The caldera is circular in shape and about 16km in diameter. The eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 moulded the area to what it is like today.
A tohunga (priest) named Ngatoriangi guided the Te Awara waka (canoe) to New Zealand from Hawaiki (the mystical homeland of the Māori). As he walked through the land, he reached Mount Tarawera. Here he met a spirit in the form of a person named Tama-o-Hoi. The spirit was not happy about the new trespasser on his land but the priest’s power was too much for him. A magical spell forced Tama-o-Hoi underground for many years until he appeared, enraged, causing the deadly eruption of 1886.
Ngatoriangi continued onto the mountains that now form Tongariro National Park. As he climbed, he succumbed to the freezing cold wind but not before praying to his sisters back in Hawaiki for warmth. His sisters called upon the fire demons who swam across the sea and under the earth’s crust to bring him back to life. As they travelled, the fire demons left a trail of thermal activity and named Rotorua’s Te Awara tribe as its guardian.
Our experience started at Te Puia, where we wandered through mud pools and watched the Pōhutu (‘constant splashing’) Geyser erupt. Reaching up to 30 meters high, it is the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere and erupts once or twice an hour. Te Puia also contains a kiwi house as well as displays of traditional carving and weaving.
Our first day finished with a stroll through the beautiful Californian redwoods of the Whakarewarewa Forest. The redwoods were planted in 1901 to replace the native forest destroyed by both the 1886 eruption and the European settlers. They were selected over native trees as they were known to grow much faster. The largest redwood is now approximately 72 metres tall and 169 centimetres in diameter.
Keen for more knowledge, we started our second day in Rotorua with a highly recommended cycle tour by Happy Ewe tours.
Our first stop was Ohinemutu, a living Māori village home to the Ngāti Whakaue tribe, a sub-tribe of the Te Arawa waka (canoe) which journeyed from the Pacific homeland of Hawaiki to New Zealand around 1350. Ohinemutu became the main centre for the Rotorua region in the early 1870s. Today, the Te Papaiouru Marae and the Tama-te-Kapua meeting house remains an important place for special occasions, named after the paramount chief and captain of the Te Arawa canoe. It was first opened in 1873 but demolished in 1939 and rebuilt in 1943.
From Ohinemutu, we travelled to Kuirau Park. In early Māori times, there was a small lake in the park named Taokahu. A young woman named Kuiarau was bathing in the cold waters when a taniwha (legendary creature) dragged her to his lair below the lake. The gods were anged and made the lake boil to destroy the taniwha forever. From that time on, the bubbling lake and steaming land are named after the lost woman.
We cycled around the lake’s edge via Sulphur Point, a geothermal area on the edge of Lake Rotorua that smells bad (on a good day), and ended at Government Gardens. The gardens are lovely, with a beautiful old bathhouse that now houses the Rotorua Museum but once held one of the first mixed bathhouses in the world.
We rejoined our mates for dinner at the Tamaki Maori Village. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a traditional welcome ceremony before entering their traditional village to train as a warrior, dance the poi and the haka, and learn how a traditional hangi meal is cooked. Dinner was a hangi buffet meal. The evening was unsurprisingly touristy but interesting nonetheless.
Shires Rest, the home of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins and the famous Green Dragon Inn. This place might be touristy, but it is well worth the experience and so realistic. If you’ve not watched the movies, you’re missing out, and I was so excited to step inside a real life hobbit hole. Michael was pretty excited to try the ‘only in the Green Dragon Inn’ Hobbit Southfarthing craft brew, also worth a trip.
Taupō is on the edge of Lake Taupō, Australasia’s largest lake. The lake is approximately the size of Singapore, created nearly two thousand years ago by a volcanic eruption so big it was seen in both Europe and China. The lake empties into Huka Falls, where 220,000 litres of waters crash over a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock every second.
Our first stop was at Huka Falls, a fairly impressive waterfall just outside of town. Once in town, we cruised onto the lake to visit the Māori rock carvings at Mine Bay. The 10 metre carving of Ngatoriangi was carved by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, one of the last traditional Tohunga Whakairo (marae-taught carvers) in New Zealand. He had been asked by his grandmother to carve an image of her ancestor on a totara tree however no such tree existed. Instead, he found his inspiration on a trip across the lake.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Our second last day was the highlight of our travels, an eight-hour 19km hike across Mount Tongariro, known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
In 1984, Tongariro National Park became New Zealand’s first national park when Ariki (Chief) Horonuku te Heuheu Tukino IV of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa people enacted a tuku (act of customary lore) over the mountainous heart of the area. It now holds dual UNESCO World Heritage Site Status, recognising its Māori cultural and spiritual significance as well as its outstanding natural landscape.
Volcanic activity started here around two million years ago and continues to this day. Ruapehu (2797m) and Tongariro (1968m) date back before the last ice age and are two of the most active composite volcanoes in the world. Ruapehu last erupted in 1996 and Ngauruhoe (2291m) – geologically considered a ‘vent’ – last erupted in 1975.
The trail begins at Mangatepopo Valley near Whakapapa (pronounced Fakapapa). The track follows a stream and the edges of old lava flow. At the head of the valley the trail becomes steeper, climbing from the valley to Mangatepopo Saddle between the mountains of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
The trail leads from South Crater upwards towards Red Crater, the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The smell of sulphur is a reminder that this crater is still active.
From here you begin the descent, past the stunning Emerald Lakes. The brilliant colour that gives them their name is caused by minerals leeching from the surrounding thermal environment.
The trail continues over Central Crater to the old volcanic vent of Blue Lake, before it rounds the flanks of North Crater and descends to Ketetahi shelter. The final section is a long descent through tussock slopes to cool green forest, a refreshing change to the volcanic landscape.
Waitomo is a Maori word made up of two parts. ‘Wai’ which translates as water and ‘tomo’ which means entrance or hole. Waitomo can be translated as the ‘stream which flows into the hole in the ground’.
Our last adventure was a triple cave tour through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves where we learnt that the glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. I remember having a glowworm toy when I was little, so I had just assumed they were Australian. Views inside all three caves were fairly spectacular.