On a good day, few destinations can beat Taupō for beauty and tranquillity. Driving in on a crisp August afternoon, my son Theo and I were so mesmerised by the lake that, rather than head straight to our accommodation, we kept driving south.
As the sun shone and the lake shimmered, we pulled over at several spots to take photos and skim stones. Regardless of what else we’d planned for the day, we decided it was okay to dilly-dally. Moments like these need to be cherished.
When we finally made it to our motel, we explained why we were later than anticipated, that we had been waylaid by the scenery. The woman behind the counter understood. “You can take your Amalfi Coast or your Riviera,” she said, “but I reckon the road around our lake is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.”
A geological wonder, Lake Taupō burst onto the scene about 180AD with an eruption so violent it was noted by astronomers as far away as China and Rome. At 616km2, the resulting lake is the largest in New Zealand and, due to the curvature of the earth, at some points you can’t even see the opposite shore.
Lake Taupō is also touted as one of New Zealand’s finest trout-fishing destinations. With the world’s largest natural-trout hatchery in nearby Turangi, apparently there are so many fish in the lake, anglers are obliged to catch them. To do our bit to prevent piscatorial overcrowding, we joined an expedition with Chris Jolly Outdoors.
Boarding our vessel at the marina at the head of the Waikato River, we chugged past what skipper Pete called The Golden Mile. We were most impressed by The Point Villas – such beautiful homes clinging to the cliffs. But, if we thought they were impressive, we were well and truly gobsmacked when we rounded the corner and saw the Mine Bay Māori rock carvings.
They were initiated by artist Matahi Brightwell’s grandmother, who suggested Matahi create a carving of their great ancestor, Ngātoroirangi. Matahi initially envisaged working with tōtara, but, in 1976, while paddling past Mine Bay, he had a vision of a tattooed face in the towering rock, and his epic project was born.
He worked with a talented crew of five sculptors plus his two daughters, who would all climb the scaffold wearing jandals and shorts. Together, over many years, the artists created 25 individual carvings, some large and magnificent, others more subtle, all of them remarkable.
The carvings tell the story of Ngātoroirangi, the famous Te Arawa navigator and explorer and I could’ve gazed at them for hours. But there was an ardent angler tugging at my sleeve. “Mum,” Theo said, bringing me back from the rock, “we’ve bought our trout licenses, don’t you think it’s a time to fish?”
Feeling good about fishing somewhere stocks are abundant, we started trawling using 4.5kg downriggers. Apparently, trout aren’t fond of sunlight, and when it’s bright, they prefer to hang out low. This meant we needed to fish just off the bottom, letting out up to 120m of line. “Too many trout?” we said, as we lowered our hooks, “let’s see what we can do about that.” And before long, we both had fish on the hook.
“Keep the reel steady, tip up. If it pulls, let it run.” With skipper Pete sharing his expertise about trout habits and habitats, we reeled in two beautiful trout. Theo landed his first, then confidently netted mine. Celebrating our catch with coffee and muffins, two fish seemed quite enough, and we motored back to base.
That night, instead of hitting the town, we were drawn to the pool at Lake Taupō Holiday Resort. It was huge, possibly bigger than Lake Taupō, (okay, that’s an exaggeration) and once we’d feasted on trout, we tiptoed into the dark, frozen night.
I needed a bit of convincing, but I’m glad my travel buddy is the sort who insists lazy mums get off their butts of an evening. The pool was beautifully lit and, just as we hopped in, the movie ended on the pool’s big screen, and everyone left. The swim-up bar was also closing, which meant we had the vast pool all to ourselves, including a magically lit cavern.
Another way to enjoy Taupō’s water features, but without needing togs, is by taking a spin with Hukafalls Jet. As we lined up at the jetty and donned long raincoats and lifejackets, the boat swizzed past at speeds of up to 80km an hour, passengers whooping enthusiastically.
This certainly helped whet our appetites and, when it was our turn, we stopped to perform a few 360’s at the base of the falls, where an estimated 220,000 litres are pumped out per second. It’s hardly surprising that this is New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction. While we were in Taupō, the locals were a bit miffed about a news story that had put Huka Prawn Park on a list of over-rated tourist attractions.
Because it was next door to the jetboat base, we thought we’d poke our noses in to make our own minds up – although I wasn’t that keen to fork out good money to feed a bunch of prawns. As if reading my mind, the woman on reception said that they were closing in 90 minutes, so entry was half price, and we were sold.
Theo and I headed straight to the prawn pools where we were issued with rods, bait and bucket. We baited the tiny hooks with minuscule cubes of meat, and, to my surprise, we got into it. In a short time, we’d caught half a dozen, and if we’d known it was such fun, we’d have come earlier and stayed longer.
Where to stay
There are several excellent places to park your motorhome in and around Taupō. Lake Taupō Holiday Resort and DeBretts Spa Resort are both excellent if you’re after powered sites. If you’re fully self-contained, Whakaipō Bay, Five Mile Bay and Hipapatua Recreational Reserve/Reid’s Farm are all popular spots.
Outdoor-activity organiser Chris Jolly Outdoors kindly swapped one of our fish for three vacuum-packed parcels of smoked trout. Skipper Peter suggested we mix the fish with crème fraiche, dill, salt, pepper, lemon and horseradish, give it a quick blitz in the blender and voilà. We gave it a whirl and it was delectable.
Cheap thrills: Opepe Historic Reserve and Bush Walk
If you’re looking for fun that doesn’t involve a financial transaction, Opepe Historic Reserve on SH5 is spectacular. Just 15km from Taupō heading towards Hawke’s Bay, the northern track is a 1.5km loop through mature podocarp forest of towering rimu, mataī and miro.
We were mesmerised by a morepork/ruru who sat on a branch and looked down at us. Because ruru are nocturnal, this is not something you see every day, and it felt like the terrestrial equivalent of seeing a dolphin. The southern loop is slightly longer at 3km return and features lush bush and a rich history.
Bargain hunters #1
Be sure to keep your togs and towel handy for when you pull over at Otumuheke’s Spa Thermal Park, where hot springs flow straight from the ground and into the cool river.
Bargain hunters #2
While we were on the road, the cheapest petrol in the North Island was sold at Gull Atiamuri. Time it right to fill your tank there and take advantage of the savings.