Is there nothing that New Zealand can’t make into a theme park? Look I get the draw of Hobbiton for people fascinated by Middle Earth and all that but a park based around prawns? But there we were, on the last activity of our last day in the Taupo region, enjoying the Huka Prawn Park. We fished for prawns (Does one fish for them?), we worked up a sweat in the rain trying to shoot water from a pedal powered fountain and had as much fun as a fresh prawn dancing under a new moon.
I’d taken the family over in 2 by 2 formation – 6 of us from 3 generations – for a week loosely based around skiing the volcano that is Mt Ruapehu, the highest peak on New Zealand’s North Island. Tongariro National Park’s Mt Ruapehu, and its two resorts Whakapapa and Turoa, has rarely registered on the snow radar for most Australians. Occasionally you’ll hear a mumble about ‘snow….volcano….lava rocks’ but then we tend to go back to extolling the delights of the resorts around Queenstown and Wanaka (or for real aficionados, the mad fun to be had on the club fields of the South Island).
With my grandkids Anna and Anders stood next to me at the top of a Whakapapa T-Bar, we stared in awe across the long white cloud below our feet. Above and beyond the Pinnacles, the impressive rocky ridge that forms the eastern boundary of the resort, rose the perfect volcanic cone of Mt Ngauruhoe floating on a cloud sea. We whooped at the view and then some more on the long ski down, all very much appreciating the allure of skiing on the North Island. Oh, for those Middle Earth types, Mt Ngauruhoe is the Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.
VOLCANO'S SECRET WILL SOON BE REVEALED
With Whakapapa and Turoa in the midst of a huge investment in new lifts, facilities and snowmaking we’re going to hear a lot more about them on this side of the Tasman. About the fact that they have the highest elevation and longest runs in NZ. About the fact Whakapapa’s new Snow Factory can make snow in temperatures up to 25 degrees. And perhaps not about the fact you can sit on the toilet high in a mountain café and read the posters about what to do in the case of a Lahar. This, my granddaughter informed me, was a volcanic debris flow, not a spicy South East Asian dish.
It was actually at this point I felt fully justified in taking Anna out of school for a week. Her main project that term was on volcanoes and she’d selected Ruapehu even before she knew we were heading there. Nothing beats field research.
As with most ski areas in NZ, on mountain accommodation is a rarity. The nearest places to stay for Whakapapa are at Whakapapa Village, 6km below the resort or National Park Village, about 25 minutes away. I thought Australia was the master of obvious naming – ‘These mountains with snow on them; what do you reckon we call them, The Snowy Mountains?’ but the Kiwis can play the same game too it seems. We split our week with a few nights at Turangi, 40 minutes from Whakapapa and the nearest town of any size, and Taupo, a further 40 minutes from the resort. Turoa is accessed from the cute as a button town of Ohakune, 20 minutes below, which has plenty of accommodation.
A SKI SLOPE FOR ALL THE FAMILY
Despite being on the same mountain – Whakapapa on the north side, Turoa on the south west corner – the skiing is quite different. Whilst both are high above the treeline, Whakapapa is all bowls, valleys and rocky volcanic ridges stretching some distance across the mountain, whilst Turoa has wider runs on a face of Ruapehu that drops down from the true summit, 2797 metre Tahurangi, the high point of the North Island. Certainly our mixed ability family group were able to enjoy skiing together on the open faces at Turoa whilst some of us also enjoyed exploring the more complex topography at Whakapapa. At one point the term sticking together took on a new meaning as skiing too fast grandson caught an edge and tumbled down a slope. Mum rattled into him in an attempt to arrest his slide. They tangled together and slid on together. With grandfather heading in the for the rescue he joined the rolling party and ultimately dad, hero of the moment, brought us all to a stop, legs and skis everywhere, laughs and tears in tandem.
TWO RESORTS, ONE PASS, VARYING WEATHER
Chatting to the locals including Couchy, Turoa’s resident weather forecaster of 40 years experience who also doubled as owner of Fire, the resort’s Search and Rescue dog, it was apparent that the weather could be very different at the same time at the two resorts. ‘Ensure you compare both resort forecasts’ said Couchy as Anna and Anders patted the lava black coloured Fire. One important similarity though – the same ski pass works for both resorts.
For beginner skiers Happy Valley at Whakapapa is definitely the place to be. This sheltered, easy angled, wide valley right at the base of the resort, is a newbie skier’s paradise. It has received much new investment to include a series of four covered carpet lifts and a double chairlift. It also has the the aforementioned Snow Factory as well as its own elevator to take you up and down to the main resort base.
SNOW-FREE ADVENTURES ABOUND
It certainly wasn’t our plan to ski every day as, apart from the pleasures of the prawn, there were other family adventures to be ticked off. On Lake Taupo itself we skimmed stones across the mirror calm waters of what is New Zealand’s largest and deepest body of water. And whilst in most similar latitudes only the brave would swim in mid-winter, this geothermal wonderland ensures there are plenty of places in or near Taupo to get into hot water. Ask the locals where the best places are on the shores of the lake or surrounding creeks. A number of operations have naturally tapped into the hot springs to offer spas and everything that goes with them. At Taupo Debretts, as adults soaked sore ski muscles in a hot pool, kids we thought we’d tired out on the slope came back to life when they saw waterslides dropping into the warmth.
Back on the lake, despite some cold rain showers, we all took off in double sea kayaks on a 10km return paddle to the Maori rock carvings with Taupo Kayaking Adventures. It’s a very doable paddle from Acacia Bay near Taupo and is well worth it to view cliff carvings that, whilst only 40 years or so old, depict Maori stories that go back 800 years or more. The sun timed its appearance perfectly as we paddled up to the cliff in perfect late afternoon light.
TAUPO, WE ARE FALLING FOR YOU
Near Taupo, the power of Huka Falls never fails to impress and never more so than if you’re lucky enough to see a kayaker disappear over the edge into the maelstrom. On this trip we didn’t get to paddle rapids (although Garth from Tongariro River Rafting runs whitewater trips all year round as he has for nearly 30 years now) but I buried some guilt under grandchild pressure and found myself careering crazily through rapids on a Kiwi staple - a Kiwi invention no less - the jetboat. We spun, bumped, screamed and generally got a bit wet with Rapids Jet at up to 80 kilometres per hour and 1 litre per kilometre.
There is nowhere in New Zealand that has not been caught up in the love of mountain biking (and, I kid you not, that includes the actual Road to Nowhere). The Taupo region has made a substantial investment in trails with its jewel in the crown being the Great Lake Trail which winds around sections of the north western lakeshore for some 60km in total. The grade is low but very enjoyable for all levels of riders and we took off one morning to ride the classic 13km W2K section. Well we actually rode K2W – Kinross to Whakaipo. Never super technical, but fun for sure, it was a perfect outing for keen riding families and 9 year old Anders managed it well enough.
I’d mountain biked down a volcano, Mt Etna in Italy, but had never before skied on one before this trip to Mt Ruapehu. There was certainly a special vibe that came from linking turns down an active volcano. The whole geothermal nature of the region added to that atmosphere and of course it meant a natural hot spa was never too far away to soothe ski weary limbs. Add to this the myriad of adventures available year-round and there’s much to be gained from a winter holiday with friends and certainly with family up on the ski slopes of Mt Ruapehu and down around the shoreline of Lake Taupo.
Now where did I put that prawn rod?
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The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.