After completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the atmosphere in the van changed. I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. We were making our way towards Auckland to return to our respective homes and I think the idea of our journey coming to an end put a doused our spirits. We drove towards Lake Taupo in full agreement that a relaxing stroll along the lake front to stretch out our legs would be a good way to spend the morning and keeps our bodies from stiffening up after the unusual amount of exercise from the previous day.
Dad started to ask questions as we drove along the lake. As the navigator I was up front with him and had to search my brain for all the GCSE geography knowledge I could find on tectonic plates, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Why were the volcanoes around Taupo now dormant while those of the Tongariro National park are still burning? I struggled through a desperate attempt to explain hotspots and how they shift with the moving tectonic plates. I think we both struggled to understand the movements of the Earth, how can it stay in the same place and move at the same time? I don’t think I’d object to a quick trip back to school for a refresher!
We pulled over on the shores of Lake Taupo and found a small beach of soft, grey sand covered with thick green weeds baking in the sun. The smell was unbearable. We opted not to walk and drove into Taupo, Sunday morning in another nowhere town in the North Island of New Zealand. Taupo looked like a major settlement. Driving through the suburbs, it felt sprawling compared to the townships we’d passed through before. There are still no signs of industry beyond agriculture, hospitality and tourism, I’m still struggling with what people do. Lisa and Mum were still filled with the desire to visit every souvenir shop they could find so we walked the empty streets. Nothing of any interest was open, a few bars and cafes. It didn’t take long before we left Taupo in favour of the Waikato valley.
There’s a free campsite by the side of the Waikato river called Reid’s Farm. A popular spot, we had to do a few laps before we found a spot that would do for the night. Tents, camper vans and some rather haphazard tarpaulin structures filled the flat ground. The mix of mud, long drop toilets and scattering of open top bins cooking in the sun filled the air with another delightful concoction of aromas. The varied ages of people wandering down to the river completed the appearance of a grubby British music festival. All we needed was a little rain and six inches of mud.
After spending much of the afternoon lounging around the campsite, the need to do something, anything, took over. We took a walk downstream towards Huka Falls, it might have been pleasant to walk along the river’s edge but there were no crossings before the falls to the walking track on the opposite shore. The path meandered through the valley, passing beneath the shadows of giant redwoods. I wondered how far away the falls were, when I’d last looked at a map they had looked close by. At least we were getting that short walk we’d discussed in. We eventually emerged back on the road and strolled into an almost empty carpark.
The quick, calm waters of the Waikato river were forced into a narrow chasm to form a turbulent stream of white water. Dad and I discussed how we’d get on in kayaks. The rapids are intense, frothing and foaming with each sudden change of direct. Further upstream is apparently a popular spot for introductory lessons to kayaking. I wouldn’t have been especially keen of learning with the risk of accidentally getting sucked into the falls just a short paddle away. Dad and I reckoned If you went fast enough and could stay relatively straight, you might make it through to the drop at the end. Who knows what would happen once you popped out into the plunge pool. In general, we concluded it would be a bad idea regardless of how well experienced you thought you were.
220,000 litres of water apparently pump through the chasm every second. I’d need some convincing on those figures. It’s no doubt impressive, but it looked empty. The falls are another New Zealand landmark which is worth seeing at the start of spring when melt water floods the valley, the churning rapids are probably even more impressive then. From a tourism perspective, New Zealand does an excellent job at encouraging a repeat visit.
The popularity of Huka Falls has led to the conversion of large areas of the surrounding Waikato valley into a questionable collection of attractions. The next morning we escaped the campsite early to visit Crater of the Moon. A small office in front of the craters collected our money in exchange for a walk through the supposedly lunar landscape. The craters are covered with a thick lush green shrubbery which makes them look anything other than lunar. If I was employed by the Department of Conservation, I’d push for a rebrand, The Cloud Factory sounds much more accurate.
The craters are impressive none the less. There are sections of the boardwalk where you can feel the heat rising directly out of the ground. The air was free from the noxious sulphur gases I’d expected to find in an area of high volcanic activity. Fumaroles, explosion craters and deep shafts allowed heat and steam to escape from deep in the ground. The mud pools were baked dry with only a few tiny pools bubbling away down in the depths. The barren rims of the craters were stained red with algae growth thanks to the chemicals being released with the steam. At certain heights in the bowl the steam rises in thick columns like clouds, it doesn’t seem right to have these huge outbursts of heat without a trace of fire. There’s a power under the earth here that can cause destructive eruptions, traces of the unpredictable nature are seen everywhere with old pathways closed off and replaced with new tracks to avoid the danger zones. Signs on every fence, next to every bench, on every lookout reinforced the importance of keeping to the marked paths.
Beyond the craters we stopped at a honey shop. I was expecting to find vast numbers of bee hives considering the number we’d seen on the side of most roads, especially whilst driving in the South Island. Instead it was little more than another souvenir shop. Still, I can’t really complain about free samples of honey beer and mead. Just about every product you can imagine was available with honey in some way incorporated, they had a good selection of honey ice creams as well. There are helicopter tours, adventure playgrounds and plenty of water based activities that can be engaged in, the trail we had followed to Huka Falls formed part of an extensive mountain biking trail through the region. Further down the valley was a prawn farm, the geothermal activity in the area keeps the waters warm enough to support large, tropical species of prawns. This was to be the turning point in taking advantage of the tourism in the area. The prawn farm was overpriced, particularly when you consider most of the activities involved were essentially prawn fishing. I thought it was a shame that the area hadn’t been preserved with the popularity of the falls. We bought a bag of prawns regardless and decided it was time to head towards Rotorua.