They call it the Taupo Trap. Not that New Zealand’s largest lake actually sucks you in like some Australasian Bermuda Triangle (although covering an area of 616 sq km, it is capable of subsuming Singapore); but because, once you visit, you probably won’t want to leave. Indeed, many don’t, as I found out on my brief but wonderful stay in and around this North Island gem.
Like most things in New Zealand, it’s worth starting with the geology and geography. As part of the volatile chain of volcanoes that lines the Pacific Ring where the Pacific plate slides under its Indo-Australian neighbour, the area has had its fair share of earth moving and shaking, and the lake was originally a volcanic crater. The last major eruption happened 1,800 years ago (making one 1,100 years overdue) and was so violent that it was recorded in Roman and Chinese history – both rather far away.
This has resulted in a dramatic location, offering far more than just a pool of water. The 170km of shoreline surrounds a glistening blue-green lake, fed by the Tongariro and Tauranga-Taupo rivers and 32 wandering tributaries, along with the Waikati River Outlet. It’s surrounded by a stunning backdrop of mountains looming over, including the lady-shaped Mount Tauhara and the vast Kaimanawa range, which shimmer in the waking light and glow in the setting sun. Along with access to activities all around as well as a bright town centre, Taupo has become a vibrant hub for people, places, holidays and happiness.
Most people in Taupo don’t start on the lake, but above it. Hurtling towards it even. Taupo is the skydive capital of New Zealand, and the bright pink planes of Skydive Taupo can be seen every day over the lake. Taupo is both one of the prettiest (and cheapest) places to leap out of a plane. I jump with Chris, who has done more than 8,000 jumps – the first when he was nine! – but despite the fact that he clearly knows what he is doing, free falling from 12,000 or 15,000 feet is still a little unnerving. It is unnatural – gravity pulling you through the air while you plummet towards the ground, having leapt from a 200km/h plane – but glorious. A thrill and rush during the initial jump, and then a graceful glide once the parachute opens. Watching the world unfold beneath you is a rush that seizes you with fear and excitement. skydivetaupo.co.nz
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Credit: Big Sky Parasail
At a lower height, yet with just as beautiful views, try parasailing with Big Sky Parasail. With the sunshine on your shoulders and a breeze in your hair, music pumping and the ridge of the mountains all around, parasailing is one of the nicest and most relaxing ways you can see the lake, while still doing something ‘different’. The multi-coloured swirls unfold behind you while you sit on the back of the boat, the winch starts, and suddenly you are off, legs waving as you gaze around. From here the translucent turquoise water is amazing; patches of shadow from the clouds only highlighting its colour. It looks as though you can touch the bottom – you can certainly dabble your toes as you come back to the boat after your 20-minute sail, just ask. bigskyparasail.co.nz
For those preferring to remain on dry land, Taupo is a relatively flat spot in which to amble on a bicycle. Hire one from Rainbow Lodge and take the easy Great Lake Trail down from the harbour to Two Mile, Three Mile, Four Mile (spot a pattern?), all the way to Wharewaka Point lookout. On the way back, paddle in the hot water lapping the beaches – you’ll spot the right places from the steam rising from the shoreline – but be careful, as it can reach over 65°C. Along here numerous rental spots for paddleboards, canoes, and windsurfs dot the banks, and prices start from only a few bucks for half an hour. Bringing down a picnic and lazing an afternoon away on the lake is an ideal way to spend time.
Taupo is also famed for something else other than adventure. Very cold water and abundant food sources mean that it is the home of clean and tasty trout. The only two native species – bully and kaoro – are uninteresting for sport and eating, so in the early 1890s rainbow and brown trout were introduced and since then the sport has thrived. It is illegal to buy and sell trout in New Zealand – the only way to eat it is to catch it yourself. Get out with Richard on White Striker, the boat he has owned for more than 20 years. Reaching up to 180ft deep, there’s plenty up for grabs making it an ideal location to fish for beginners. ‘Chardonnay fishing’, he calls it. Indeed, when he takes me out he treats me to a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc in the sunshine. Although at only 12lb my catch doesn’t rival the largest brown trout ever caught in 1904 at 52lb, but I am the most popular person in the hostel that night. troutcatching.com
On the lake you might spot Dave and his beautiful sailing boat, Fearless. Over two-and-a-half hours he will take you to Acacia Bay, past the ‘sleeping lady’ silhouette forged by the range of Mt Tauhara, out to contemporary Maori carvings. Designed and etched by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell in the 1970s, the 10m-high carvings depict Ngatoroirangi – the legendary Maori navigator who first led his people to the area – and smaller Celtic-inspired carvings depicting wind and a mermaid. When the wind is in the sails and the sun is setting, with a beer or wine in the hand, it is a pretty magical evening. And at only $35 (for life!) anyone can come back again, as long as they bring a bottle or biscuits. Bargain! sailfearless.co.nz
You can’t come to this part of the world without doing a bit of tramping. It’s easy to get from Taupo to the Tongariro Crossing, but I recommend Adventure HQ, mainly because Paul, the owner and driver, gives me lots of Dairy Milk to appease my mood when lost walkers hold us up. Notoriously one of the world’s best walks, and housed in the Tongariro National Park, the 19km track takes you up rocky crags and down sandy slopes, across stony paths and over narrow ridges, over vast dead spaces and dense forest. The variety of landscape is startling, as is the beauty.
The Emerald Lake remains one of those travel images etched on my brain, bright and deep from above, and the idea of traversing a live volcano is something that takes a while to accept, and delight in. Billowing smoke, sulphur aroma from the geothermal pools and wafting dust help. The last major eruption was in November 2012, when the Te Maori crater started to gas. No one was hurt, but passing the point, there is still a cloud of gas and steam being emitted from the fumaroles. For something only 19km long, it’s surprisingly tough, as these tectonic beasts tend to be, and a huge achievement. adventurehq.co.nz