Whitewater & Fly Fishing Magic
When I have a long drive in front of me, I like to do it properly. I love inclement weather and a real motorcar. None of those namby-pamby, modern vehicles with effective window wipers for me. No, instead, give me my 1962 Triumph TR4 replete with a soft-top which consistently tries to detach itself and window wipers which are, well how can I put it politely, fairly useless! Water is washed around a bit, but the connection between the blade and the window is tenuous at best, there is one speed and it is slow. Certainly too slow for the howling rain and gale that follow us from Waiouru to Turangi via the Desert Road. It is hair-raising to say the least.
Five hours after we leave the capital, we arrive at our accommodation just outside of Turangi; Oreti Lodge in Pukawa Bay. We are so late nothing is open for dinner but we enjoy some cheese and cold meats we have picked up at the supermarket in Taihape. We are in a spacious two-story town house with two bedrooms and a full kitchen. Shattered, we hit the sack around 10 PM, because it is an early start in the morning for the first part of our Turangi adventure – white water rafting!
We get up and enjoy a very nice continental breakfast basket provided by the lodge. I have to admit being a tad apprehensive about the upcoming white water rafting. I have done said activity four times in my short life and every time I have fallen out of the raft into raging rapids and thought I was going to die. It is not a sport for the faint-hearted, but Garth Oakden from Tongariro River Rafting assures us when we arrive that it is only grade three rapids and family-friendly.
It is the beginning of winter and we get decked out in a highly sexy wetsuit with polyprop top over the top, hard hat, enormous raincoat and booties. I am feeling very attractive.
Garth has been in operation since 1990 and has guided more than 6000 trips. He says, in spite of this, he always takes the water seriously.
“I don’t take it for granted”, he tells me. He also says he never tires of the river, which today is churned up from recent rain.
“You should have been here last week when it was crystal clear”, Garth says.
“That’s what we always say in Wellington about the weather”, I laugh.
There are only four of us on the trip today and we have to carry the blow-up raft down a steep gradient over rocks. It is incredibly heavy, but I pretend I am fine even though I think my arm is going to fall off.
It is a mystical place, the Tongariro River, especially on a misty, damp day like today. I keep expecting a JR Tolkien character to appear.
We jump in the boat, grab our paddles and start on our journey which will take us through 60 rapids. It is freezing cold and my feet start to numb early on, but the fresh smell of the air and the excitement of the rapids make the discomfort worth it.
After about an hour Garth guides the raft onto the rocks and we all hop out to see the conservation work he has been doing. The river is the stomping ground of the endangered blue duck, or whio, and pests, specifically stoats, rats and weasels, are a major problem. We clamber over the rocks to get up to one of the traps set by the Blue Duck Project Charitable Trust which Garth is actively involved in.
I have done said activity four times in my short life and every time I have fallen out of the raft into raging rapids and thought I was going to die.
These traps use bait to lure the pest and then bonk them on the head to kill them, from what I can gather. Apparently the traps are humane and these introduced mammals cause so much damage to our native wildlife and fauna, there really is no other choice.
When we get back into the raft and head away again, we are lucky enough to see not one, but two blue ducks sitting on rocks most languorously.
“That’s the problem you see”, says Garth, “they have no fear, so they are easy prey for stoats and rats”.
I have to admit, I have never seen such a relaxed duck as the blue duck. The whio is a beautiful bird, not really blue, but rather a bluish grey.
Through my travels for NZTODAY, I am pleased to have seen so many wonderful conservation projects underway and not just by the Department of Conservation. There are many community driven projects as well, just like this one.
Like all good adventure tourism operators Garth leaves the best for last and the final couple of rapids are long and exciting. I get thoroughly drenched. As Miranda’s mum says on the telly, “such fun!”
Garth has it all sussed in terms of keeping us from succumbing to hyperthermia. We have a 10 minute ride back to base, seated on big plastic sheets in the van.
“I have learned the hard way”, laughs Garth. “it takes several weeks for the smell to leave wet car seats”. BACK AT BASE, we remove most of our gear, get back in our van and go to Nirvana… that’s right, a local, authentic, thermal hot pool. I cannot overemphasise the unbelievable pleasure of removing my wetsuit and dipping my frigid body into the warm, enveloping water. My toes start to defrost and I feel like a new woman. Magic.
Warmed up and dressed we head back to base again for hot tomato soup (which the Upholsterer spills all over the couch… how ironic). In summertime the hot pools and soup are replaced by sandwiches and salad.
What an utterly terrific experience I have had and I am so glad, because to be honest, I have been wary of white water rafting for the past few years after the experiences in my youth and I feel I have got my confidence back.
We have been recommended Lakeland House for dinner, which is on the shores of Lake Taupo in a village called Waihi, not to be confused with the coastal town of the same name near Tauranga. Apparently it has amazing views but unfortunately it is dark by the time we get there. The food is great, but with Auckland prices, which seems to be standard throughout New Zealand these days. Smaller town restaurants are miles better than 20 years ago when, if you were lucky, you got a pie.
I can highly recommend Lakeland House for a special dinner and we had the most remarkable 15-year-old waiter who I think will go far. It is rare that you find someone working as a waiter who treats the job as a vocation. He plans to travel with his skills when he is older.
WE CRASH QUITE EARLY again because we have another big day planned. We will hopefully be hiking to the top of Mount Ruapehu and looking at the crater lake. However, the weather is looking very dodgy so when we go to sleep we have no idea what the day is going to bring.
What it brings is snow, snow and more snow, in spite of it being April. There is a saying in the skiing fraternity, “snow in May, stays away”, so who knows what happens to snow in April, but if you are lucky enough like we are to be there when it is actually snowing you can be fairly sure it will stay around for at least the day.
RAL Marketing Development Manager Alistair Haydock picks us up bright and early and we head off in his 4-wheel drive towards Whakapapa. Unfortunately it is now highly unlikely that we will get to do the guided walk to the crater lake, but he has other plans for us. Alistair has only been in the job for 9 months, leaving the storied climes of Auckland to head south. “We wanted a lifestyle change”, he tells us. We start heading up the Bruce Road into a winter wonderland. It is snowing heavily but the snow is soft and fluffy and I beg to get out of the car to take a few photos. It is absolutely freezing.
Lots of fun making snow angels is had at Lorenz’s café on top of the blanket of snow on the outdoor tables. I can’t remember seeing this much snow on Ruapehu, even during the season!
Sitting down to a cooked breakfast, we meet Annah Dowsett, RAL’s Customer Relation Manager. She is beaming.
“The snow today, I couldn’t have paid for it”, she laughs. It’s the 29th of April, the day before the discounted season passes expire and she’s expecting a bit of a run on sales.
“We even ended up on Breakfast TV with Rawdon Christie”, she adds.
Annah reminds us, however, that they are trying to promote the Ruapehu area as a year-round attraction.
“Guided crater lake walks in the summer, biking to the Bridge to Nowhere in the spring and autumn and of course, skiing and boarding in the winter”, she says.
The advent of the season pass has transformed skiing from an elite sport to a much more accessible one, but it is still, for most local families, unattainable. I am so pleased to hear the work that RAL is doing with the community to help children have a chance to learn to ski.
“RAL runs many different fostering programmes for the kids around here”, says Alistair, “it is so great to see them develop and some children even compete”. After gorging on eggs and bacon we realise we need to do a bit of exercise. First up is posing for some photos on top of the mounds of snow on the outside table, but even better is putting on some rental skis and climbing up the Rock Garden piste and having the first ski of the seas on!
The Upholsterer is in shorts, but no matter, he is a bit of an expert on the slopes. The snow is deep and soft and difficult to ski, but what a buzz it is. What isn’t so good is realising how incredibly unfit I am. My lungs are burning from climbing up the slope. Note to self, go for a run.
Our two guides, Hari Smith and Alex Petherick have a great time taking photos and videos of us. We must look a real sight. Hari tries to sled down the slope but it isn’t steep enough.
There is a saying in the skiing fraternity, “snow in May, stays away”, so who knows what happens to snow in April?
AFTER ALL OUR HIJINKS it is time for some serious stuff. Hari and Alex take us down to the DoC site at the bottom of the Bruce Road, next to the Chateau, to tell us a bit about the history of Tongariro National Park before we embark on a walk to see the Taranaki Falls.
Hari animatedly explains the history and Maori folklore of the area. The park is 78,000 hectares and is managed by DoC, with the three peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe having been gifted to the people of New Zealand by the Paramount Chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku Te Heu Heu Tukino in 1887. Tongariro is New Zealand’s first national park and only the fourth national park in the world. In 1993 it became the first dual world heritage area because of its physical and cultural significance. The ski areas are managed by Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) under license from the Department of Conservation.
What I find most romantic and mystical about Hari’s talk is the Maori folklore about the location of the mountains in the area. Naturally, it came down to the love for a woman. That woman was Tongariro and all the mountains in the area fought for her, with Mt Pihango the ultimate victor. The position of the other mountains in the area is a reflection of who gave up the soonest and who fought to the bitter end. Interestingly, Ngauruhoe was not around at the time. It is only 2000 years old and is a parasitic vent of Tongariro. I didn’t know that.
I am a bit nervous to see tourists peering over the falls from the top. The boys don’t know of anyone who has fallen over, but I still wouldn’t risk it.
AFTER THIS FASCINATING HISTORY lesson we don our hiking boots and head off on our two hour round trip to the Taranaki Falls. It is a beautiful walk, over the open alpine floor with Tongariro and Ngauruhoe in front of us and then through the lush, damp forest covered in ferns and mosses.
We arrive at Taranaki Falls and are able to get up close and personal with its majesty.
“People swim in the pool at the bottom in summer”, says Alex. It is hard to believe this, as it is a very cool day and I imagine, even in summer as we are so high above sea level, the water must be rather chilly. The falls spill 20 metres over volcanic lava flow, formed when Mount Ruapehu erupted more than 15,000 years ago.
I am a bit nervous to see tourists peering over the falls from the top. The boys don’t know of anyone who has fallen over, but I still wouldn’t risk it.
On our return to base we are greeted with the most spectacular views of the Chateau from our alpine meadow track. And speaking of which, it is here, where we will enjoy the next part of our trip.
Call me old-fashioned, call me greedy, but nothing appeals more to me in the afternoon after a challenging hike, than a high tea looking out at Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhohe through the picture window of the Chateau’s main reception area.
I have been to several high teas before and sometimes I find them a bit stingy for the price. Not this one; there are cucumber sandwiches, (phwah phwah), petits fours, salmon sandwiches (yummo), scones with jam and cream and sundry other goodies for us to enjoy. All of course with tea or coffee in fine bone china.
Only trouble was the boys and I weren’t exactly dressed for the occasion, being in hiking gear and boots, but the hotel is very understanding and I hope we don’t offend the other guests too much! I imagine the Chateau is reasonably forgiving with its dress code compared to other top hotels, because of the fact it is often catering to people partaking in the great outdoors.
We bid the boys adieu and Alistair drives us back to Oreti Lodge where we will be dining that evening and interviewing the assistant manager Fleur Ashford, that is after a most luxurious and therapeutic soak in the fabulous Tokaanu Thermal Pools, just down the road. I have been there several times over the years, when the mountain has been closed for skiing but today is the first time, I have tried the private pools. I manage only about 15 minutes, but the Upholsterer says he could stay soaking all afternoon! Oreti Village Restaurant was built seven years ago, although the accommodation has been around a lot longer. The selfcontained apartment style units are all privately owned but managed by the lodge. They really are tucked away gems and a fantastic location to enjoy all the Ruapehu/Turangi area has to offer.
But what Oreti Lodge is most well-known for are its weddings. “It’s one a weekend during the season”, says Fleur. “We have accommodation for 80 guests and often clients will hold a rehearsal barbecue onsite, the night before”.
Ceremonies are usually held by the dead tree, which is right in front of our apartment. Apparently the tree has been dead for years but hasn’t moved an inch.
Our dinner is top notch, again a reflection of the huge increase in the quality of restaurant food in the country’s smaller towns. We retire early after a full-on day and to prepare ourselves for our final day of activities.
We are up and at ’em bright and early. Garth at Tongariro River Rafting also rents out mountain bikes and we pick two up to do one of the local trails.
Just like the white-water rafting, I am a very hesitant mountain biker as well. If you read my Rotorua story a couple of issues back, you may recall that I had a rather nasty fall while biking in the redwood forest which resulted in an enormous bruise to my left thigh and my ego.
Zelia from Destination Great Lake Taupo.
Excitement as the fish bites.
Tongariro River rafting fun
The elusive and endangered blue duck.
I told you about the sexy outfits!
Demonstrating the rodent trap.
Good to see he’s got some quality reading.
Who needs ski pants in April?
Tongariro with its parasitic vent, Ngauruhoe.
Hari explains the finer points of Tongariro’s history.
Heading to high tea.