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Tuesday, 04 December 2007

Taupo, New Zealand on a Budget

Written by Lydia Horrex
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Taupo, NZEighteen hundred years ago there was an explosive volcanic eruption - the largest the world has seen in 5,000 years. The Chinese noted a ‘blackening of the sky’, and the Romans recorded ‘the heavens turning fiery red’. Much of New Zealand’s North Island was covered in a thick layer of pumice. Today we can still see the result of the volcanic eruption: Lake Taupo. The lake covers an impressive 622 square meters, an area the same size of Singapore.

Lake Taupo is situated in the center of North Island. It has been one of New Zealand’s favorite holiday destinations since 1950, when the North Island’s roads where made more accessible. Taupo village, on the north end of the lake, is a quaint little town with a population of 22,000. The village boasts stunning views, especially on a clear day when the three snow-capped volcanoes of the National Park (south of Lake Taupo) dominate the backdrop.

Taupo provides endless activities for those seeking challenging adventures and outdoor action. White-water rafting, quad-biking and bungy jumping are all available. If that doesn’t send your pulse racing there’s always skydiving, helicopter rides, and skiing down a nearby active volcano. But aside from the wild pursuits which will burn a hole in your pocket, Taupo offers a variety of excellent activities which are free of charge or relatively inexpensive.

Day One: Botanical Gardens, Mount Tauhara and Taupo Hot Springs

Taupo, NZA day should be devoted to the south-east side of Taupo. The morning is best spent browsing the tranquil botanical gardens (3 km from the center), at the Waipahihi Botanical Reserve along Shepherd Road. The gardens, founded in 1966, are completely maintained by dedicated volunteers and host many charming trails and spectacular views. It’s easy to lose yourself wandering in and out of the exotic and native themed gardens, the peace only disturbed by the distinct song of the Tui bird. Even if you’re only half-interested in plants, this is still a must for your time in Taupo. Entry is free but donations are appreciated. Taupo, NZ

A short drive from Waipahihi gardens is Mount Tauhara, aka ‘the lady of the lake’. This dormant volcano, 6 km from town, was formed 65,000 years ago and stands 1088 meters high. The name Tauhara (meaning ‘slow moving’ in native Maori language) was given to the volcano due to its sluggish, oozing lava.


On arrival, large trespassing banners and the absence of signs can make the path seem quite unwelcoming. However, don’t let this put you off. The start of the 2-3 hour hike leads up from the road and vivid soil marks give you a good idea of the path to take. For the first 15-minutes you’ll advance up and across the grassy mountainside, climb over a wooden stile, and arrive at two hissing water tanks.

From here you’ll head into thick shady forest. An ambiguous, untrodden track might make you wonder if you’re heading in the right direction, but keep going. The hike through the native bush is an unpredictable obstacle course. Be prepared to duck under branches, leap over ditches and take some very big steps. Since the mountain is so thick with forest it’s impossible to tell how far you’ve come or how much you have left to climb. Due to time restrictions I didn’t quite make it to the summit of this prominent landmark. However, a clearing of trees and resting bench halfway up proved to be an excellent photo opportunity.


Taupo, NZYou may not have come to Taupo to lounge by the pool, but after a long days hike it’s not a bad idea to release the tension in your muscles. Taupo Hot Springs (www.taupohotsprings.com ) is at the top of the ‘must do’ list when visiting Taupo. Located 3 km south-east of the center, it may be a fair walking distance, but certainly worth the trek. This out-door center has both public ($16) and private ($18) pools filled with therapeutic natural mineral water. It is open from 7.30am till 9.30pm, but best visited in the evening. It’s definitely worth the extra $2 to have unlimited access to the private spas where you can choose from a variety of water temperatures. Skin and beauty treatments are available, and children are easily entertained by the hydro slide and playground area, so be prepared to stay 2-3 hours.

Additionally, Taupo Events Center offers the warmth of thermally heated indoor and outdoor pools at their AC Baths swimming complex. Opening times are 6am till 9pm. Prices start at $6.50 for an adult swim, with extra costs for use of the slides, sauna, steam room, private pools and BBQ hire.

Day Two: Taupo Bungy, Huka Falls and Craters of the Moon

New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato River, gently flows downstream from Lake Taupo, heading further into the North Island. Just north of the lake is a first-class walk along the Waikato river valley that will lead you to Huka Falls and Craters of the moon, two of Taupo’s best-loved sights. Taking most of the day, this walk can prove tiring at times. Remember to take plenty of water and snacks, and prepare for unpredictable weather conditions.

Starting at i-SITE Visitors Center, located on Tongariro Street, follow the road heading away from town. After 10 minutes you will reach a crossing over the river; this is where the walk begins. Take the right hand side of the river edge, heading downstream. The noise from the highway will soon be replaced with flowing water and soothing birdsong.

After 40 minutes of peaceful walking along the river bank you will reach the splendid 45 meter-high white cliffs of Hell’s Gate. Cherry Island is one of the first things you will notice on this section of the river. Now barricaded up and uninviting, Cherry Island used to be a small island reserve open to the public, housing small animals, a café and an art galley.

Taupo, NZIt is from this spot where you can watch in awe as bungee jumpers make a leap of faith. In the height of summer it’s not uncommon to see jumpers every 3-4 minutes. To get close to the action, follow the path up the hillside where magnificent views overlook the Waikato River. Follow the trail up to the roadside where Taupo Bungy (www.taupobungy.com ) is located. From here you can enjoy a drink whilst watching jumpers take the plunge. Surprisingly, you can even walk out on the 20-metre long bungee platform to get a feel for the drop. If this happens to awaken the dare devil inside you, jumps are $100, with repeat jumps at $45. Taupo, NZ

From Taupo Bungy, take Spa Road followed by Country Avenue, a path winding you back down to the river edge. In this area, Spa Thermal Park, you will find Taupo Events Center (www.taupoeventscentre.co.nz ). This indoor sports, recreation, and exercise training facility offers rock climbing (priced at $10) for both new and experienced climbers. With parking on hand, the center provides a practical place to set off on a half-day walk to Huka-Falls (if a full-day doesn’t take your fancy).


Crossing a wooden bridge takes you back down to the path, where you will notice the natural hot spa pools which gave Spa Thermal Park its name. The hot mineral water flows down the stony terrain, creating a cloud of steam most visible in the winter months. Many entranced by the concept will shed their clothes for an invigorating dip, yet this is probably best ventured on a different day when you have your car and a pile of fresh towels parked back at the Events center.

Taupo, NZA pleasant 45-minute bush-walk through native forest will lead you to Huka Falls, the largest waterfall on the Waikato River. Previously calm waters now begin to roar louder with every step closer to the falls. At this point you can see and hear the full force of the Waikato River. This great body of water narrows down, picks up speed, and sends 400-tonnes of water plunging over an 11-meter drop every second. A foot bridge over the falls captures the sheer force and speed of the flow. Around the falls, look-out points have been constructed to create the perfect photo opportunity, as well as to provide information about the river.

In 1950, after the construction of the Wairake geothermal power station, an area close by started to produce geothermal activity. This area, now called Craters of the Moon, was created by the decrease in underground water pressure caused by the station. Craters of the Moon is a 40 minute walk from Huka Falls. The entrance is off the main highway opposite the red Helistar helicopter. An adjacent café makes for an excellent lunch stop.Taupo, NZ

Craters of the Moon (entry $5 for adult, $2 for children, cash only) is now a 2km trail of bubbling craters, mud pools, and steam vents. A wooden walkway has been constructed to make the area wheel chair friendly, and protect visitors from the heat of the soil.

The 45 minute track has several viewing platforms. From the edge you can witness huge craters puffing out warm steam that is slightly sulfurous, creating an egg-like smell and eerie atmosphere. Vents and crates are constantly changing and non-native plants have sprung up around the area due to the steamy -hot conditions. An optional loop, providing excellent look-out points, can be accessed near the end of the track, adding another 20 minutes to your journey.

Getting There

Taupo is easily accessible. For those with little time to spare, Air New Zealand flights are quick and convenient. www.airnewzealand.co.nz offers flights to Taupo from plenty of destinations. Make sure you view ‘grab a seat’ special offers, as bargains can often be found. Car hire is probably the most convenient form of transportation. Depending on what you want to see in Taupo, having a car will make moving from attraction to attraction a breeze.

Stray Travel is a tour company providing travel passes for specific routes around New Zealand. For example, a travel pass incorporating Auckland, Hahei, Hot Water Beach, Raglan, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua and Taupo will cost around $285. Your pre-booked pass allows you to hop on and off at your chosen destinations. Great for the independent traveler, Stray Travel gives you the opportunity to meet fellow explorers and learn a little about the culture and history from your bus driver guide. More information can be found at www.straytravel.co.nz


With deals such as Auckland to Wellington for $10, it’s worth looking into coach travel around the country. Intercity (www.intercity.co.nz) and Newman’s coaches (www.newmanscoach.co.nz) offer efficient service and fantastic prices if booked early (for the best deals, book 2 months in advance). The journey from Auckland to Taupo (278km) is around four hours, with prices varying from $14-$60. From Wellington, the journey is a little longer (380km), around five and a half hours, with prices ranging from $30-$60.

Getting About

Once in Taupo, there is no need to feel bound to your vehicle. It may be helpful for those out-the-way places, but chances are you’ll miss out on the hidden treasures that give Taupo its individuality. This is a great opportunity to get out your walking boots and leave the car behind. The town is easy to get around by foot, and plenty of Taupo’s attractions are within walking distance from the center.

Although there is no specific transportation system in Taupo, local bus timetables can be collected from i-SITE Information Centre (07 376 0027) on Tongariro street. Taxis are readily available; the two main companies, Taupo Taxis (07 378 5100) and Top cabs (07 378 9250), both operate from Taupo bus station. Renting a bike can also be a great way to get out and experience some of the amazing views around the lake.

Where to Stay

Regardless of your budget, Taupo maintains a high standard of accommodation. This includes anything from the world-famous Huka Lodge (www.hukalodge.com), from $600 a night, to basic backpacker hostels.

It is advisable to book your trip well in advance. Popular months are December through March (New Zealand summertime), with January being school holidays. For example, even for a weekend in September, I was unable to book my room of choice with Berkenhoff Lodge Hostel (07 378 4909), and that was making reservations over a month in advance.

Sunset Lodge (07 378 5962) proved to be a pleasant enough hostel to spend my vacation. A private room costs $30 a night, and is cosy enough. Although a 45 minute walk from town (and a scenic one at that), Sunset Lodge is a stones throw from the lake edge, and nearby the previously mentioned activities on the south-east side of Taupo.

Taupo, NZA love for the outdoors is something all visitors to Taupo share. Whether you are in need of a relaxing break, wild adventures or getting closer to nature, this is an all-round favorite Kiwi holiday destination. Thrill-seekers will be pleased to find widely advertised and easily available ways to dispose of their holiday spending money. For the traveler on a budget, however, trekking through the scenic landscape or soaking in a thermal bath can provide a vacation just as memorable.


Please note all prices are in New Zealand dollars.

© Lydia Horrex

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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