Having returned to the base of Mount Ruapehu on Sky Waka, we followed the signs to explore Mead’s Wall, named for William Perrett Mead, the first to reconnoitre the Whakapapa valley and subsequently form the Ruapehu Ski Club in 1913. The wall didn’t look particularly impressive from a distance but the 25 metre high west face has eight rock climbing routes for those who wish to indulge.
We walked the easy trail to the side of the wall, wondering how (or why) anyone would climb it.
Looking back across the ski field, chalets dotted the barren landscape that becomes the beginners run, Happy Valley, when covered in snow.
The east face of the wall presents a sheer drop of 45 metres, a little more challenging for those thrill-seekers with ropes, helmets and jelly legs
We were more excited to be standing in the vicinity of memorable Mordor scenes from The Lord of the Rings. These volcanic rocks, cliffs and ash were the location of Emyn Muil, the mountainous area where Frodo and Sam become lost on their way to the Black Gates of Mordor and first meet Gollum.
Beyond Mead’s Wall, the river valley wends its way through the Whakapapa Gorge, toward the conical shape of Mount Doom, I mean Mount Ngauruhoe.
Back to reality, as we were leaving a solo rock climbing lesson was just beginning, I couldn’t bear to watch.
Tongariro National Park was a scenic forty minute drive from our haven at Motuoapa Bay. New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro was gifted to the people by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, the Paramount Chief of local Māori tribe Ngati Tuwharetoa, in September 1887. The 80,000 hectare park is centred around three sacred volcanic peaks. A lookout on the way to our destination, Whakapapa Village, rewarded us with views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, the latter (on the right) may be recognised by The Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom.
From this height, the sweeping panorama across the Central Plateau was spectacular.
We parked the car at the village and considered our options, deciding on the Sky Waka gondola ride and buffet lunch combo. Mount Ruapehu is the centrepiece of the national park, the North Island’s highest peak is home to the largest ski field in New Zealand. The terrain in March is quite different to that during ski season, it is hard to imagine the Rock Garden Chairlift conveying skiers on the advanced beginners run.
The $25 million Sky Waka gondola opened in July 2019 to transport 2,400 people an hour, a distance of 1.8km, up the northern slopes of Mount Ruapehu. It really didn’t feel as though we were travelling at 6 metres per second.
Back to The Lord of the Rings, scenes of Mordor were filmed on the rugged landscape of Whakapapa ski field and the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, including the scene where Isildur cuts off Sauron’s finger.
Our ride culminated at Knoll Ridge Chalet, a multi-storey eatery built in 2009 to replace the original café that was destroyed by fire earlier in the year.
The magnificent Pinnacles Ridge was shrouded in cloud when we arrived and it was a bit cool for alfresco dining.
The Pinnacles Restaurant was warm and welcoming, the extensive use of timber created the feeling of a traditional mountain chalet.
Lunch at the highest restaurant in New Zealand, at 2,020 metres above sea level, was delicious.
Mount Ruapehu is the largest active volcano in New Zealand and has three major peaks. There is a beautiful carving representing Paretetaitonga, the peak that wards off the southern winds.
By the time we finished lunch, the clouds had lifted from Pinnacles Ridge
I have mentioned previously that we are not really ‘big city’ people. When we travel, we like to take the back roads and stay in self-contained accommodation in quiet locations. Our wishes were certainly fulfilled when we arrived at the Lake House on the shores of Lake Taupo at Motuoapa Bay.
It is actually half a house but there were no occupants in the other half for the three nights we were there. The description of ‘a beautiful lakeside retreat with a twist of retro’ is something of an understatement. Stepping inside, memories of our childhood homes came flooding back as we explored the wonders within.
The well-equipped kitchen was reminiscent of our 1970’s lives, right down to the crockery.
The theme continued down the hallway
and into the bedroom.
I don’t think I have ever seen wall art created from carpet before.
I love the idea of using a shower curtain to make bathroom curtains.
We don’t usually take time out to relax and regenerate on holiday but we were feeling the need and Sunday was the perfect opportunity. A stroll to the local café for lunch took us past some lovely homes and very well behaved children
before returning for an afternoon of reading, napping and soaking up the view.
After our diversions to Huka Falls and Craters of the Moon, we eventually arrived at Taupo in time for lunch. The lovely town has a peaceful setting on the north-eastern shore of Lake Taupo, the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, measuring 616 square kilometres. The lake is in the caldera of the Taupo Volcano and has a perimeter of approximately 193 kilometres and a maximum depth of 186 metres. It is enormous.
We strolled along the lakefront perusing the fare on offer at various establishments and decided to dine at Lakehouse. Coincidentally, the name of our next accommodation was The Lake House, we took that as a positive sign along with the intriguing advertisement, presumably for a local beverage.
We claimed a seat, alfresco, to observe the activity on and over the water as well as an unusual art installation comprising a series of red bicycles parked along the esplanade.
We were enthused to discover an extensive range of local wine and craft beer to complement the stone grill meals and gourmet dishes, with food sourced from local producers.
Mata Brewery started off in 2004 with a passion for home brewing and, after positive feedback from friends, soon became a family affair. Students created the Mata brand and with the fortuitous find of second hand brewing equipment for sale, the first brewery was set up in Kawerau, Eastern Bay of Plenty. The enterprise grew over the next 12 years and in 2017, moved to Whakatane where new creations and seasonal releases augment the original beer styles.
The Epic Brewing Company from Auckland and Te Aro, a small batch brewery in Wellington offer more choices on tap.
The eye-catchingly named Rocky Knob presumably refers to Mount Maunganui where craft brewers, Bron and Stu Marshall, started their business as a hobby.
Set amongst vineyards in the Marlborough region, multi-award winning Moa Brewing Company is one of the pioneers of craft beer in New Zealand.
I couldn’t resist a glass of the rhubarb cider (or two) to enjoy with the delicious bacon wrapped chicken breast with asparagus.
Unfortunately, Lakehouse closed their doors in April 2021. With the lease up for renewal, the sudden passing of a family member and the effects of a certain virus on tourism, the decision was made to cease trading.
Leaving Huka Falls, we were intrigued by signage to ‘Craters of the Moon’ and thought it warranted a closer look. This fascinating steamfield is part of the Wairakei geothermal field, the largest in New Zealand.
When the geothermal Wairakei Power Station was built in the 1950s, underground water levels were lowered and the hot water from deep within the field rose to the surface, emitting steam through any vent it could find.
Wooden boardwalks have been constructed along the 2.4km walking trail to protect human feet from the heat of the soil and they are regularly moved as new vents emerge. Gravel tracks lead to viewing platforms for a closer look at the bubbling cauldrons.
As I soon found out, it is important to be aware of the wind direction when taking photographs. Being enveloped in a cloud of sulphurous steam is neither good for camera nor operator. There is a wide variety of thermal features but three main ones. Fumaroles are openings through which steam and volcanic gases escape and can vary in size and intensity.
The pressurized steam makes whistling, hissing or roaring sounds depending on the size of the vent.
The craters are most impressive. They are formed when the pressure beneath the surface increases due to a blockage of a steam vent. The resulting eruption of hot water, steam, mud and pumice causes the surrounding soil to collapse, leaving a deep hole or crater.
The condensed steam and acidic gas chemically alter the pumice soil giving it the stunning orange and red colours.
It seems that mudpools are not technically pools of mud. The steam, containing hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide, reacts with the surface water to form sulphuric acid. This eats away at the surrounding rock and turns it into a soft clay that bubbles and belches as more steam and gas tries to escape.
I hadn’t expected so much vegetation on a lunar landscape, few species can survive the steamy ground. There is a plant endemic to New Zealand, prostrate kānuka, that only grows in geothermal areas and the hotter the ground temperature, the more prostrate the plant. Numerous ferns, mosses and lichens that would normally only grow in the tropics thrive in these conditions, adding colour to an otherwise barren place.
Toward the end of the walk, there is a fabulous view of Mount Tauhara, a dormant volcano overlooking Lake Taupo less than twenty kilometres away.
Soon after, a steep track to a lookout rewards with an impressive vista of the geothermal field.
Being so close to a restless earth was somewhat disconcerting, especially with the White Island disaster, only three months before, still fresh in our minds. Visitors are reassured that the thermal activity is monitored regularly by scientists from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science.