Towering cumulonimbus clouds marked our slalom descent into Rotorua, the pilots making the most of clear air between these atmospheric giants above the north island. New Zealand will occasionally serve up extremes of weather, and so it was on my drive through the farmland toward Taupo after touching down. The long white clouds turned black and dumped some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever driven through on the short drive south. With hazard lights flashing and traffic slowed to a fast walk I wondered if I’d packed my riding jacket. I was here for the Lake Taupo Challenge and to make the most of the town and all it has to offer—from bike racing to jet boating.
The first things you notice about Taupo are the fresh air, clear skies and the impossibly clear water of the lake, which reflects the strong environmentally conscious approach of the town and indeed much of the country. After the smog of Sydney traffic and my industrial hometown, it is literally a breath of fresh air. Happily Taupo doesn’t have the sulphurous smell that you notice when you get off the plane in Rotorua.
The town itself sits right on the northernmost bay of Lake Taupo where the Waikato River begins. With some 27 tributaries flowing into the lake, the Waikato is the only outflow. The river has an attractive marina harbouring a flotilla of luxury cruisers and charter boats – the perfect place for a coffee and checking out your next maritime purchase. The river, which empties into the sea at Auckland, is relatively narrow at times especially where it flows at an astonishing 2,000 tonnes of water per second through Huka Falls just a few kilometres downstream.
Along the lakefront there’s a delightful promenade, perfect for that early morning constitutional or post-prandial evening stroll with views south across the water toward Turangi and the snow-capped Mount Ruapehu in the distance; truly a sight for sore eyes.
Lake Taupo was formed and has been reshaped by many volcanic eruptions over the past 27,000 years. The latest and one of the most violent was around 180AD when the volcano is believed to have ejected some 120km3 of matter into the sky, 30km3 of which was ejected in the space of just a few minutes! The resulting ash cloud is estimated to have been 50km high and caused the sky to turn red—this was actually reported in Rome and China. The volcano is considered to be dormant now as opposed to extinct.
The land was uninhabited by humans at the time of the eruption, since New Zealand was not settled by the Māori until about 1280 when they arrived. Originally from China, the Maori ancestors progressively moved southward through Indonesia, Fiji and Hawaii. The township of Taupo was first built in 1869 but didn’t really take off until the 1950s and now has a resident population of around 30,000 but more than 60,000 in peak holiday season.
I was keen to get on the bike and see some of Taupo and neighbouring towns. But while assembling my bike I found the steerer tube expander plug slipping. The section that binds was quite short on this unit, only 20mm or so high and just wouldn’t provide enough grip and tension to take the slack out of my headset. Next day one of the local bike dealers in town had me sorted in just few minutes with a plug that measured almost 60mm and provided plenty of grip. It’s a good idea to get your bike serviced before you leave home as they mechanics in Taupo are flat out around the time of the ride and you may be disappointed.
Handlebars straight and stable, I headed out for a cruisy scenic ride of around 60km, over the river and to the west and south had me passing through the dress circle of town, Acacia Bay. From here you get a view across the water back to the centre of Taupo. Heading further out you can ride along Mapara Road which will take you to Kinloch, situated on the sloping banks of the lake. This tidy little town is home to The Kinloch Club, NZ’s number-one golf course, designed by the golfing great, Jack Nicklaus. Green fees are $175 (!) per round and bookings are essential. The quiet country roads and gradual climbs make for a pleasant punt out of town through rolling farmland and there’s an easy MTB trail that runs closer to the lakefront if you’re that way inclined.
Backwards up Hatepe Hill
Looking for another ride before Saturday’s jaunt round the lake, the next day I checked out the ride towards Hatepe Hill, the ‘monster’ at the end of the Taupo Challenge, essentially back-tracking the route we would take on Saturday. It’s fairly quiet traffic-wise, even though this is the State Highway and the wide shoulders up the hills make it even more comfortable. The climb up Hatepe is quite long but not excessively steep and the road is well paved. If you are staying in Taupo you can get an out-and-back ride here of around 40km with the decent climb on Hatepe thrown in—and those expansive lakeside views as you head for home.
Barnstorming Lake Taupo
When you think of the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge you are probably thinking of the solo single lap of the lake; the 160km Bike Barn Solo, however this is just one of some 17 events the organisers plan across the weekend. There are men’s and women’s categories, solo, relay and team, as well as road and MTB events, and even a five-kilometre ride for the kids. An interesting new category is the Accumulator wherein more riders of a team join in at designated points along the way and ride to the finish with the rest of the team.
There’s a real community spirit about the event perhaps because the weekend has been adopted by the town and around 20 per cent of the population volunteer in some way. The ‘ride’ has been running for 37 years so they have it pretty well down pat. Registration is staged superbly and well-staffed so it flows smoothly, with none of the delays you might imagine at a ride with some 8,000 participants. Even the actual race start, where riders are corralled into self-seeded bunches according to estimated riding time for the 160km, moved along well, and my group rolled out close to the time given.
Scenery around the ride is quite a treat. The first half has you rolling along fairly dead but well paved roads, through grassy farmland with short, steep, hobbitty hillocks and granite boulders picturesquely exposed. There are also sections through the pine plantations and some flat lakeside plains later in the ride. So far as hills go, there is nothing too steep, with inclines registering seven per cent at the most on my Garmin. The hills can be quite long, though at these low grades most riders won’t need any radical gearing changes to their bike to handle the ride. And they relentlessly keep coming; you become accustomed to expecting another climb as soon as you finish the downhill you’re enjoying. At about the 100km-mark, things flatten out for a while as you roll into Turangi. From here on you ride closer to the lake and the views are really special.
Hatepe Hill about 20km from home is as tough as it gets, but even this is not horribly steep and more of a bogeyman the marketers can hold up to inject a bit of interest rather than a real cause for concern. Still, it is 140km into a ride and depending on how hard you have pushed already looking up that long, straight climb might be enough to make you wince. I saw riders clearly enjoying the hill and others seriously suffering.
As I mentioned earlier we had some light showers and were blessed with a tailwind (at least for the first half of the ride), but it was a mild day and good for riding. Later in the day the sun came out, and as we headed for home the 40kph breeze we had earlier enjoyed became noticeable. The final fast descent to the lakefront coming off Hatepe was very blustery indeed and brought one rider to grief and the attention of the ambulance service. My ride was thankfully less eventful but memorable nonetheless, the 156.1km and 1,849m of elevation leaving me tired but happy. Riding up the finishing straight, there are crowds cheering and bands playing. You roll into event central where there are food and drink stalls aplenty plus the wide range of prize-donating-sponsor stands to check out once you’ve had a breather and parked your bike.
The prize draw that concludes the day is really something; with prizes from new bikes, to hot tubs, to cruises, to dazzling wristwatches and stand-up paddle boards all up for grabs in a random prize draw. First prize this year was a Holden Trax SUV! It certainly kept the crowd’s attention with literally thousands prepared to stand in the afternoon showers to see if their race number came up on the big screen, and then eagerly count down the 30 seconds the winner has to make themself known before a redraw
Travelling to NZ specifically for the Taupo Classic is well worthwhile; I have some great memories of this ride; climbing Hatepe Hill and Whangamata road—the friendly heckling of local riders as I passed, chatting with other Aussies along the way, father and son teams, groups of women and other random riders also horrified and amused by the transparency of the rain-soaked white rear panel of the official ride knicks and powering down long, sweeping slopes and along the lakefront. The memories don’t stop with the ride though; there is plenty else to do while you are there if you want to extend your stay, so the ride could easily form a small part of your itinerary and give your family the morning to themselves while you’re out on the bike. Taupo is a delightful town; picturesque and inviting and there is much to do whether you ride or not. I’d recommend taking on the Taupo Challenge and visiting the area for holidays.
No Australian has ever won the Lake Taupo Challenge. This situation cannot be left unaddressed. In the true spirit of Russell Crowe, Split Enz, pavlova and Trans-Tasman competition, that race belongs to Australia! So somebody…anybody…get on your bike, get over there and bring the bloody thing back!
It’s Not Only About the Bike
While in NZ, one of my objectives was to scope the place out, to see if it was a good choice for a family holiday. My wife enjoyed a motorhome holiday on the south island as a youngster with her family and would like to bring our kids over to see NZ for themselves. Eating out and things to do would be high on their agendas, and some good riding would rate well in my book. Tourism NZ is shouting about their cycling, both on and off road, and I soon found out they have plenty to shout about other than riding.
I had a series of places planned out to visit – one being the Orakei Korako café. The café is on Lake Ohakuri which is part of the hydro-electric power scheme, and one of the highly active geothermal areas of the region. A short drive through the farmland north of town, the café seems a million miles from anywhere; a tranquil hideaway amidst the pine forests which feed the sustainable timber industry in the area. The picturesque riverside café has indoor and outdoor seating; its modern timber deck, shaded by sails, sits over the water providing views up and down the river. They serve great coffee and mudcake for morning or afternoon tea, or freshly made sandwiches for lunch before or after your geothermal experience. Orakei Korako operates a couple of small punts that will take you across the river to a boardwalk through the bush. The pathway leads you past boiling springs and between geysers and mud pools. It’s an interesting geography fieldtrip that will take an hour or two, something that you just can’t get in Australia. Café owner and operator Craig Gibson told me there were regular cycling groups passing through. Surely it is a glorious location to ride but some of the country roads are narrow so you should take care if venturing out this way.
After lunch I felt the need for speed. The remedy? The NZ Riverjet ‘Beast’ with its 900hp heart pumping 100kg of water per second through a single Hamilton jet. This purpose-built rig can run in just 15cm of water and seat a dozen or so game visitors with a taste for adrenaline. This is a jet boat tour with a difference. It’s longer than what the other operators offer and includes a few stops along the way where the pilot will give you a run down on Maori tribal history of the area, local industry, flora and fauna including where to spot some of the big rainbow trout of the river. Trout are a cold water fish and generally not happy with the higher temperatures caused by the slower water and hot water that feeds back into the river from geothermal power stations. Local knowledge helps to locate such fish, and we stopped at the mouth of a small cold water stream to see rainbows of several kilos cruising the shallow crystalline current. Another piece of info on local fauna I came away with was about one of the local breeds of duck, the ‘papa nua’ which can fly at over 100kph, fast enough to outrun us in the beast! Our skipper had a way with other bird species and after regaling us with tales of tribal ambushes and cliff-side burial sites, had a little to and fro with another feathered friend in the treetops of the otherwise silent river gorge. The Riverjet will take you to Orakei Korako café where I had stopped for morning tea. Instead of more coffee I took the extension trip to ‘the squeeze’, just a short jetboat ride beyond the café. Erosion has formed a very narrow gorge in the rock—not much more than a crack really, where a shallow stream runs from some hot springs into the river. It’s possible to walk in the waist deep water up the gorge (which does get quite tight in some places, hence the name), to a small rock chamber beneath a comfortably hot waterfall. It must have been quite something for the ancient Maori tribes to have their own sauna and spa. Apparently they rarely had to light fires due to the availability of hot water that was used to cook food.
The jet boat ride home is where your typical adrenaline experience kicks in, flat out skimming past rocks and overhanging trees, 360-degree power turns and high speed drifting through corners is where the Beast comes into its own. This boat has no strakes and will slide sideways like a drift or speedway car. It’s quite a feeling after the direct steering of a car or bike. Even though jet boats have an ‘extreme’ reputation the trip is accessible to virtually anyone; we had a young lady in a wheelchair from Scotland aboard who enjoyed the ride immensely. The kids will love it.
To round out this day I stopped in at the Wairakei Terraces hot springs for a soak; something tranquil to soothe the senses after dealing with the Beast. The spring water here has a blue tinge; a tell-tale sign of its high silica content. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the tiered pools of Pamukkale, Turkey with the distinction that you can soak in the 38-degree waters here surrounded by landscaped tropical gardens instead of blazing Mediterranean landscape. Perhaps this drizzly evening was the perfect time to come; silence, lush foliage overhanging the blue pools, steam rising from the waters creating an eerie atmosphere. The high mineral and salt concentration is vaunted here, as it is at many mineral-rich watery locations across the globe, as having healing properties and being great for your skin. It provides great buoyancy too—it’s almost possible to doze off while floating on you back. This would surely be a great place to visit after the race to soothe those tired legs.
You probably wouldn’t ever think of going prawn fishing in New Zealand, much less with a baited hook, but it is possible in Taupo. The Huka Prawn Park is quite an attraction with school excursions and tourists to the area taking tours of the facility that breeds millions of the prawns for domestic and export markets. Unlike your usual king, tiger or banana prawns, these Malaysian prawns look like they have been crossed with a lobster, being much larger and having two menacing pincers. They prefer the tropical climes of Asia and wouldn’t survive in the cool Waikato waters so they’re made to feel at home using heat from water exiting the neighbouring geothermal power station. The farm has a series of huge shallow ponds positioned on the banks of the river, filled with these little fellas where you can try your hand at fishing for them; the simple rods and bait are provided free. If you prefer a different type of stick there is a driving range on site too for the golf tragics who can’t come at Kinloch’s fees.
It’s a quick drive to the Rapid Sensations office from the prawn farm, where you can choose from several kayak tours on the river. With my guide I paddled downstream for an hour on the Waikato, through quiet gorges, and towards the tumultuous Huka Falls with some trepidation. (I was relieved to find the Falls begin a good way beyond our destination). The ‘yaks are a brilliant way to experience the serene beauty of the river, a silent and non-intrusive presence in the midst of this natural splendour, and get an upper body workout.
A final tourist venture before I flew out of Taupo airport for Auckland was a great way to wind up the week. Chris Jolly Outdoors runs hiking, mountain biking, and fishing and hunting tours as well as their scenic boat tours from the marina out onto the lake. We took their large catamaran cruiser and headed for Mine Bay and the lakeside cliff carvings done by Maoris in the 1970s. Yes, the ’70s. The Maoris don’t have an extensive history of rock carving having primarily worked their art in timber. This cliff-face artwork was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth and while not historically significant by virtue of its age it is an impressive monument to the local tribal culture of the Maori people of Taupo.
The lake is famous for its rainbow trout, but it is illegal to sell them in NZ even in restaurants The only way you can eat one of these beauties is to catch it yourself, so the skipper suggested we might drop a couple of lures behind their hefty downriggers for a spot of trolling along the way home. It wasn’t long before we had a couple of thumping rainbow trout on board—and then straight into the galley for lunch! Absolument délicieux!
I stayed at the 4½-star Beechtree Suites just a short stroll from the centre of town and only a few hundred metres from the lake. It’s a great base location for someone visiting town to do the ride. There’s a convenience store across the road and a launderette. The owners are more than happy to have cyclists stay and can help you with delivery and storage of your bike. They’re not concerned about guests keeping their road bikes in their modern rooms either, recognising most roadies keep their bikes very clean and are mature, respectful, responsible types. The suites are modern and comfortable with all the mod cons, and there’s a business specific room available for patrons too.
Every style of accommodation is on hand from world renowned luxury lodges, to glamping by the side of a river or staying in a hostel—there’s something to suit every taste and budget. There are over 80 hotels and motels, and an array of bed and breakfasts, holiday homes and holiday parks. Huka Lodge is undoubtedly one of the world’s great luxury lodges, and is located only a short drive from Lake Taupo and the township. If fishing or hunting is your thing, you might prefer one of several famous lodges you can find on the banks of some world renowned fly fishing rivers. There is a selection of top quality hotels, from the only five star hotel in the central North Island to the largest resort hotel (even comes with its own nine hole golf course), and smaller boutique hotels. The range of self-contained motels and holiday accommodations is outstanding, and can be found throughout the region, in smaller settlements around the lake and rivers. You will find some funky hostels and some of the best holiday parks in New Zealand in Taupo too, with fantastic facilities and loads of great activities to keep families happy.
You’ll not go hungry in Taupo with more than 70 restaurants and cafés throughout the town, from super casual sushi bars to fine dining restaurants. There are plenty of ethnic food choices too, from Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian and Japanese, to great cafes serving delicious coffee, smoothies and food. There are also some outstanding restaurants where contemporary kiwi cuisine is matched with great local wine and craft beers. An added bonus is that parking is free and plentiful in the CBD.
Gary Hunt visited the Lake Taupo area as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.