Mike White visits Lake Taupo and discovers an outdoors playground, from one end to the other.
Dave learnt to fish as a boy, but then life, kids, work got in the way and it wasn’t till 10 years ago that he really got back into it. Now he has a bach here in Turangi and goes down from Auckland as often as he can.
He caught his biggest fish ever just 20m downstream, “under that big tree”. An 11-and-a-half pound brown trout. Dave danced a wee jig on the riverbank when he landed that one.
It now sits on his wall where he dusts and polishes it and replays the memories. But he only takes about one in every 10 fish he catches. “I don’t actually like eating them.”
He smokes a few and his wife makes pâté from them, and he gives the odd one to family and work mates. But mostly it’s all about being out here, especially about now, as the sun slides behind the trees and “the rise” begins, trout nudging the river’s surface as they nose at insects.
“Where are these bloody fish?” Dave mutters, as he switches to another fly and launches it into the river’s flow. Truth be told, he doesn’t care too much. “If catching them was easy, it’d be called ‘catching’, not fishing.”
Dave has a lot of wise sayings. Maybe fishing gives you time to reflect and figure out what really matters. Because fishing is all about patience, he reckons. Oh, experience helps, luck might play a part, but really it boils down to patience. He’ll be out there till nine or 10 tonight, he figures, the sky having shed all colour, the river rippling around him.
Dave casts again and stares downstream, where the Tongariro disappears towards Lake Taupo.
“It’s peaceful,” he says.
Garth Oakden grew up on a farm but knew from early on that his life lay elsewhere. “I was always told, my brother would get the farm, my sister would get the shares, and I’d have to find my own way.”
That suited him, though. “Why would you go farming?” he says, backing his 4WD and raft down to the Tongariro River.
He started rafting and guiding as an 18-year-old, came to Turangi two years later, then set up his own rafting business two years after that. “I actually have to pinch myself that I’ve been able to do this as long as I have. It’s almost like being Peter Pan. Who’d have ever thought, as a young man coming out of school, there was a career in being a drifter, floating down rivers. It’s just stunning.”
For nearly 30 years he’s shown visitors the Tongariro, descending through country you couldn’t otherwise get to, and he never tires of seeing their enjoyment.
“You don’t go to the doctor because you’re well. You don’t go and see a lawyer because everything’s going fine. Whereas, pretty much, people come and see us because they want to have fun. Well, you don’t really need to say much more, do you?”
About 10 years ago Oakden decided he wanted to do something for the area he worked in, and a friend at the Department of Conservation suggested planting trees. “I said, ‘I don’t want to plant trees, it doesn’t do anything for me, and there’s heaps of trees. What about something else?’”
So the DoC guy said, how about trapping pests to help protect the blue ducks (whio) living on the river. “I looked at him and went, ‘God, a small project would be good!’”
But Oakden likes a challenge and started the Blue Duck Project. Now they have nearly 500 traps on the region’s rivers, and there are 22 pairs of ducks on the Tongariro alone. When he started rafting here, you’d hardly ever see them, Oakden says, pulling hard on the raft’s oars, and nosing down a small rapid while scanning the river.
“Here we go. There’s a couple of blue ducks down there. Ha! Look at that! Perfect.”
For Oakden, the real beauty of the area is how easy it is to enjoy the outdoors. “It’s such an accessible wilderness. It’s only 15, 20 minutes out of town, and away you go, and you could be in the middle of nowhere, couldn’t you.”
Despite this, he was aware of some people’s perceptions of Turangi as the poor cousin of Taupo. “People say, ‘Why do you live in Turangi?’ And my reply is, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ Everything I enjoy is here. I like to hunt, I like to fish. The mountains are there and we’re keen skiers. We’re the centre of the island, so going to Auckland or Wellington’s not a big deal.
“It’s one of those towns where you don’t actually go through it, you pass by it, so unless you’ve got a reason to stop, you don’t really know what it’s like. If you want a shopping experience, Turangi’s not a great place for you. But if you like to go walking and like nature and like to fish, there’s not a better place.”
At the other end of the lake, bigger, shinier Taupo is waking up. Dew steams from roofs of beachside houses, and steam rises around the lake’s edge where thermal waters seep in. Signs warn of scalding temperatures, but a father and son paddle in a shallow pool. “Oooh, luxury, luxury,” the man goes.
The walkway that runs around the town’s lakefront is soon full of dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, kids on scooters. Boats ease out of the harbour and track in front of the mountains – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – standing sentinel on the horizon.
Ducks edge ever closer hoping to be fed. The swans are more graceful but no less greedy. Shags bob, herons watch from rocks.
As the day warms, people loll on grassy areas above the lake. They picnic, they snooze, they swipe at cellphones, they idly read real estate magazines and dream. Couples sling arms around each other and saunter. Later, tourists fill cafes and stare out to the lake and mountains, twilight glinting off their sunglasses.
For anyone who suggests Taupo is crowded or touristy, it’s worth remembering it has only one set of traffic lights and parking is still free. So is access to its wonderful waterfront. So are any number of activities around the lake. Prime among these are the cycle trails built by local volunteers over recent years.
Pete Masters began mountain biking in the 1980s, figuring it was a great way to get into the backcountry, and that you could see as much in an hour on a bike as you could in a day’s walking. He helped found Bike Taupo, a community organisation that aims to represent cyclists and develop trails. “We recognised the only way things were going to get done was if we did them ourselves.”
Initially they built a 5km cycle trail between town and Huka Falls. Then when a business innovation group raised the idea of a walking track around the lake, Masters suggested it should be for cyclists too. “And the guy said, ‘Well, if you’re so bloody clever, why don’t you do it?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, well, we probably will.’”
Masters, a rescue helicopter pilot, “stepped off the world for a year” and organised the funding and building of the 25m W2K track – from Whakaipo Bay to Kinloch.
They got a digger, a power barrow and a quad bike. They got a $350 chainsaw from a supporter who owned Cash Converters in Rotorua. They got a van for $500 from a backpacker, and traced their progress in felt pen along its side. And with the help of dozens of people, they built the track across DoC land within a year. They then upgraded another track from Kinloch to Kawakawa Bay, and now their trails are ridden by 230,000 people a year.
“The evolution wasn’t planned – the evolution just bloody happened,” says Masters. “We’ve sort of just got this attitude of JFDI-ing things – just fucking do it. We dot the i’s and cross the t’s, we’ll do everything properly, but we’re very unbureaucratic.”
One time, they were contemplating funding a track and someone suggested they do a feasibility study. “Another guy said, ‘Yeah, it’s feasible – right, the study’s done.’ It’s really simplistic – but it has to be.”
There must be something in the air, or perhaps the water, here. Reg Alexander used to holiday round the lake and decided to shift here in the early 80s. On May 15, Alexander turned 100.
He still lives in his large two-storey home and still drives his little yellow Hyundai. A friend pops round once a week to check on him, but otherwise he sorts himself out. He does his own shopping and there’s a chunk of corned beef sitting on the bench ready for tonight’s tea. “Chuck it in a pot, put a bit of vinegar in, she’ll be away. A few spuds and things like that, a bit of cabbage.”
He even cuts his own hair: “It’s all done by mirrors.”
Alexander swears he’s not remarkable and says turning 100 isn’t that big a deal. When the sun comes up over Lake Taupo on his birthday, he reckons it’ll just be another day, and doesn’t want any fuss. “I’d like to go away and just have a bit of bread and cheese. I might have a rum and Coke – but it’s got to be a quiet one – half a cap, maybe.”
Holidaying in Taupo was what brought Simon Dickie to the area, too. His family had a launch on the lake and it was here he learnt to fish for trout. When he finished school, in the summer of ’69, Dickie started guiding fishermen on nearby rivers and on the lake in his 16-foot boat. “Essentially, I never left.”
He got bigger boats, more boats, built a luxury lodge, and choppered tourists into remote river sites with the promise that if they couldn’t catch a 10-pound trout, he’d refund their money. Nobody ever got a free trip. “I started at the age of 18 to indulge my passion for fishing and shooting, and here I am, 66, nearly 50 years later and still able to get that same level of enjoyment that I did when I started.”
Dickie – who won two Olympic gold medals as a rowing cox – insists it’s a fallacy Taupo is a rich person’s playground, pointing out how many activities can be enjoyed at no cost. And you could still catch a fish, get a few sticks and cook it up on a beach, and have the place to yourself, just as he did as an 18-year-old.
“It’s an extraordinary holiday destination and it’s an extraordinary retirement destination, for those who enjoy all those special values of New Zealand’s outdoors. I don’t have any aspirations to live anywhere else. There’s no place in the North Island that’s better to enjoy the outdoors than Taupo – it’s that simple.”
Accommodation in Taupo and Turangi
River Birches Lodge
Beautiful lodge in a secluded location near the Tongariro River. Three luxurious, private rooms and a separate cottage for larger groups. Supremely comfortable and with lovely gardens. Exquisite dinners available also. From $600, breakfast included. 19 Koura St, Turangi, ph (07) 386-0445, www.riverbirches.co.nz
Set in bush beside the Tongariro River a few minutes’ walk from Turangi’s town centre. Wonderfully quiet and perfect for those keen on fishing. From $140. 183 Taupahi Rd, Turangi. ph (07) 386-8081, www.creel.co.nz
This two-suite lodge in a rural setting near Taupo was chosen as the country’s top B&B by the New Zealand Bed and Breakfast Association in 2016. But it’s the owners, Angie and Garth London, who make it such a memorable experience – fantastic hosts, cooks and company. From $295, including breakfast, pre-dinner drinks, use of mountain bikes and airport transfers. Dinner also available and recommended. 1/504 Mapara Rd, Taupo, ph (07) 378-9298, www.whakaipolodge.co.nz
Millennium Hotel & Resort Manuels
Superb setting on the edge of Lake Taupo, walking distance to town. Large and luxurious suites, a few metres from the water. From $170. 243 Lake Terrace, Taupo, ph (07) 378-5110, www.millenniumhotels.co.nz
There are a range of family-friendly options for white water rafting the Tongariro River from Turangi. A beautiful and fun trip, with a good chance you’ll get to see the rare blue duck.
Tongariro River Rafting, 95 Atirau Rd, Turangi, ph (07) 386-6409, www.trr.co.nz
More than 200km of tracks are available for mountain bikers near or around Lake Taupo and you can make it as easy or challenging as you like. Chris Jolly Outdoors can arrange guides, transport and information.
Ph (07) 378-0623, www.chrisjolly.co.nz
On the lake
Take a trip on Lake Taupo and make sure you don’t miss the remarkable Mine Bay Maori rock carvings, created in the late 1970s by Matahi Brightwell in a secluded alcove. The vintage replica steam boat Ernest Kemp has been taking tourists here for more than 30 years (www.ernestkemp.co.nz). Top Cat Cruises also offers trout fishing and sightseeing trips on the lake.
Taupo Marina, 65 Redoubt St, Taupo, ph (07) 378-9222, www.topcatcharters.co.nz
Turangi and Taupo are good bases for Whakapapa and Turoa skifields on Mt Ruapehu. Huge investments at Whakapapa have transformed the Happy Valley area into a snow park for this season. New machinery means they can now make snow in above-zero temperatures, allowing it to be the first field in Australasia to open, on June 3, and to remain open much of the year. There will be carpet-style surface lifts, high-speed access elevators and night-skiing from June 23.
After a day in the outdoors, you can relax in natural hot pools that have attracted tourists for over a century.
Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort, 76 Napier-Taupo Rd, ph (07) 378-8559 www.taupodebretts.co.nz
For more information about the Lake Taupo region and activities, accommodation and restaurants, see www.greatlaketaupo.com