I have a confession to make. Leaving from Napier on Friday afternoon, I did a bad thing: I took photos through the window of my car. While I was driving. Now to be fair it was a long straight road with barely anyone on it, and it was obscenely gorgeous outside, and there wasn’t really anywhere for me to pull off… but it’s true. I tempted fate (and I survived!). Aren’t you glad I have insurance?! Thus with the act of putting my life on the line for the sake of a good photo op, began my journey into the adventure capital of New Zealand: Lake Taupo.
My brief time in Hamilton had been plagued by gray skies, but on this particular afternoon the skies were bright blue with only a hint of white clouds. The countryside stretched out around me in that brilliant green I have come to expect wherever I go, but it was punctuated by fields of dense yellow flowers that made the blue of the sky and the green of the hills that much more rich. Large swaths of land were covered in huge pine forests, and even the parts that gave way to areas of clear-cut timber yards couldn’t seem to dull my mood. There weren’t even that many cars that were forced to pass me when they got tired of my stubborn determination to strictly obey the 100km/h speed limit! (That, and my car beeps at me incessantly whenever I go more than 2km/h over. Did I mention it was fate?)
I finally arrived in Taupo late on Friday afternoon, and the sight of their massive lake (the largest in New Zealand, and the second largest in Oceania!) was enough to make me change into my bathing suit and head straight out to the water’s edge. Sailboats dotted the water, golfers with inflated egos (or reckless gamblers, or both) were putting away at the Hole In One Challenge, and families were just starting to pack up their bags and head home for the day. I grabbed a seat at a park bench along the water, and even made a duck friend! That is, he at least stuck around for a while after he realized I wasn’t going to feed him. I also stared down some particularly evil-looking seagulls. Ugh.
The area around Lake Taupo is famous for its geothermal activity, which resulted in all sorts of hot springs and cool silica formations like the Pink and White Terraces (the eighth wonder of the natural world!). They’re also famous for being the self-described “Adventure Capital of New Zealand” (though Rotorua and Queenstown hotly dispute that title). While most people come here to jump out of planes or jet boat around the lake, there are also lots of beautiful things to see just a little outside of the city, like the Hidden Valley of Orakei Korako and the modern Maori Rock Carvings. So much to see, and so little money!
While I really wanted to see/experience all of Taupo’s famous attractions I was also feeling a little penniless at the time, so I decided to focus on the more budget-friendly options instead. Since the local museum was closed for the day I checked into my unremarkable hostel instead (which did have remarkably inflated inernet prices), and decided to spend the night planning my budget touristing plan. I made up for my lazy evening the next morning, when I decided to take a four-hour hike around the Huka Falls and Aratiatia Rapids instead!
At Huka Falls in nearby Wairakei Park (5 mins drive from Taupo), the Waikato River (normally 100m across!) squeezes itself into a narrow 15m gorge and transforms into foaming, thundering rapids before it drops off and spreads into a wide, silent giant again. (‘Huka’ is the Maori word for foam, so it’s a pretty appropriate name!) Seeing the falls is totally free (definitely budget friendly!), and if you get there early enough you can also avoid the hordes of Asian tourists that seem to descend upon everything here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie you can even indulge your addiction and take a jet boat ride right up to the falls! Standing on the bridge over the Waikato (‘A very considerable stream,’ as one surveyor called it) as it thunders through the valley just a few meters below you is really quite a remarkable sight, and the water is an amazing blue-green color that photographs really can’t do justice…
A two-hour hike through the woods and hills along the bank of the river took me to the Aratiatia Rapids, a by-product of the dam built along the river by the Mighty River Power company. Every day during the summer the spillway over the dam is opened every couple of hours to let the water flow naturally, and people gather by the hundreds to watch it thunder down into the gorge below. I took the walk at a fast clip and made it in a little over an hour, which meant I had time to sit on the bridge over the spillway and eat some lunch (and maybe get some photos, too) before everyone else arrived. It was a gray, misty day, which wasn’t so great for photos, but made for quite refreshing walking conditions! It also meant that not too many people showed up that afternoon, which I appreciated :)
The empty gorge under the dam is a testament to the power of water, which is filled with huge tumbled boulders washed into position and worn away by the river over hundreds of years. It’s also beautifully colorful – the rocks are covered in green moss, and the the shallow water left in the gorge has the most amazing deep blue teal tint to it. Since I got there early I extended my walk just a little further to get the “Upper Vantage Point” above the falls, which was even more deserted and gave me an even better view of the valley. The sun even made a brief appearance! None of my photographs were even remotely good enough, but I did take a video of the spillway opening (which I might be able to upload once I finally figure out how!).
After soaking in the all-too-brief rays and catching my breath I eventually made the trek back to the Falls (which felt even longer the second time around), but at least I felt a little less guilty about sitting in my car for so many hours over the past few days! Along the way I also figured out that it wasn’t me that smelled like eggs – I’d had them for breakfast, and I’d gotten whiffs of egg everywhere I went since – rather, it finally occurred to me that the sulfuric hot springs in the area were to blame. Nothing like a brisk walk to wake up the mind!