Waipu cave entrance

Explore Waipu Cave

A glow worm galaxy awaits
Waipu cave

We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, cavers. If you were to ask us what we think of when you say the word ‘fun’, crawling around in wet and muddy caves is not the first thing that comes to mind. That said, we’re always up for adventure, particularly if there are glow worms involved.

Waitomo is of course the North Island’s most well known commercial cave system, offering a range of experiences from gentle boat rides through glow worm filled chambers to adrenalin pumping abseiling and cave river tubing. That’s all great if you want a guided experience but if like us you like to go it alone sometimes and you’re looking for a relatively safe caving environment (the usual caveats about multiple torches etc. apply) then Waipu Cave is just what you’re looking for.

As far as we’re aware, Waipu is the North Island’s largest uncommercialised cave which means you can go in there any time you like and stay as long as you like. And that’s pretty handy if you’re planning on photographing glow worms as you’ll be in there for several hours as we found out.

Waipu Cave is situated about 12 km off Highway 1 just west of the ‘highland’ village of Waipu. Although the last few kilometres are gravel with a few narrow sections, it’s an easy drive to the Waipu Cave Campground where you can’t miss the well signposted path to the cave. The cave entrance is just a minutes walk from where you park, and the first thing that’ll most probably cross your mind as you step into the cave is ‘I’m going to need a bigger torch’. While the entrance chamber is not particularly high, it is quite vast, disappearing off into the distance, taking the stream with it into the dark.

You’ll want to follow the stream to the left. While you can go to the right, you’ll pretty soon find yourself standing in water with nowhere to go. And speaking of water, you’ll want to wear some water shoes or a least shoes you don’t mind getting wet and muddy.

The other tip is – take your time. While we were there, we saw several groups of people storm into the cave, shine their torches (or phone LED lights) around furiously and then trudge back out with a look of disappointment. Instead, once you’re far enough away from the entrance, stop and dim, or even better turn off your torch and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. After about 10 minutes, carry on walking, keeping your torchlight as dim as possible. We found it easier to walk through the stream rather than along the extremely muddy cave floor. You might want to do the same, just mind the eels. No really!

After a few minutes you’ll enter a high-ceilinged chamber. You’ll know you’re about to miss it if you reach the point where the stream continues on under an overhanging rockface. While the cave does continue further and there’s lots more to explore, if the thought of crouching down and continuing on through the stream doesn’t excite you, don’t worry, just stand there, turn of your torch and wait. Soon, a mini universe will reveal itself, so bright that you’ll be able to see your own outline and a reflection in the water from the light of the glow worms alone. Spectacular!

Waipu cave glow worms
Waipu cave glow worms

As we said, the cave does continue on for quite a way beyond this chamber and there’s lots to see. Unfortunately when we explored, some way on from a second, even larger chamber, our way was blocked by some debris and large tree trunks which looked liked that been recently deposited there. That obviously means this usually gentle cave stream becomes a raging underground river at times. A bit of a sobering thought, but one that was soon forgotten on seeing the glow worms for a second time on our way out. Spectacular x 2!

Waipu cave entrance

The Coromandel Walkway

Walk or cycle The Coromandel Walkway

Rugged coastline views
The Coromandel Walkway

With its pinnacles, canyons, beaches and forests the Coromandel Peninsula is a true outdoor adventure playground, popular with both tourists and locals alike. This does of course mean that you need to be prepared for crowds in summer, particularly at some of the favourite tourist hotspots like Hot Water Beach (which is literally hot) and Cathedral Cove.

But if you’re not one for crowds, don’t be put off because the further north you head along this gradually narrowing peninsula, the more isolated it becomes, and although it’s a little way to travel, on windy and often times narrow gravel roads, the Coromandel Walkway makes it all worthwhile. This 10 km (6 miles) walking track and cycle path offers spectacular views of the Coromandel coastline with rocky cliffs and azure blue bays, together with views of Great Barrier Island ‘just across’ the Colville Channel.

The Coromandel Walkway
Stony Bay

Where to start – Stony Bay or Fletcher Bay?

The walkway runs between the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites at Stony Bay on the east coast and Fletcher Bay on the northernmost tip. Getting to either end involves a 1.5 hour drive from Coromandel Town which itself is about an hour north of Thames. So which is the best end to start from? Our suggestion, and this is how we chose to do it, is to start in Stony Bay. Not only is Stony Bay more scenic (at least we think so) but it’s also a good place to end your walk or cycle if you choose to do the route both ways as this is not a loop walk.

And in case you’re thinking that a 20 km return walk or cycle is your only option, don’t worry, there are tour operators that will drop you off and collect you again at the other end. More details on those at the end of this article.

Walk or Cycle – You Decide

The walk is rated by DOC as easy, with a return time of 7 hours, making it a perfect day walk, especially since you’ll be stopping many times along the way to take in the amazing views. It’s also a great cycle path, but not to be confused with the Coromandel Mountain Bike Track that also starts/finishes in Stony Bay. More on that later.

Starting from the Stony Bay end, the well formed walkway climbs gradually and then gently undulates along the coast. There is however a bit of a sting in the tail. Have a look at this elevation profile and you’ll see what we mean. That little ‘dip’ around 3.5 km out from Fletcher Bay is where the path makes its way down to a scenic spot called Poley Bay. We challenge anyone but the most superhumanly fit to cycle this section of the route so chances are, like us, you’ll be pushing some of the way down and all of the way back up… twice. It’s a bit of a tough slog but it’s worth it.

Stony Bay

If you’re walking, at about an hour out from Stony Bay you’ll reach a sign pointing to a lookout. You’re not going to want to miss this as a few minutes walk will lead you to a viewpoint that offers spectacular views north towards Sugar Loaf and south over Shag Bay and beyond. For us, this really was the highlight, and if you’re short on time and don’t want to do the full walk all the way to Fletcher Bay, this makes a good point to turn around.

The Coromandel Walkway - Shag Bay

We of course had yet to encounter Poley Bay so after enjoying the view from the lookout, we continued on our way in blissful ignorance.

The Coromandel Walkway
Poley Bay

Fortunately, after Poley Bay it’s mostly downhill so, enjoying the effects of gravity, and after a brief encounter with a few friendly cows (the path crosses farmland) we made our way to Fletcher Bay where we stopped for a well earned lunch break.

Fletcher Bay
The Coromandel Walkway

The first half of the ride back from Fletcher Bay is obviously the toughest. There’s a slow and steady climb followed of course by the joy that is Poley Bay round two. But at around the 6 km mark you reach the highest point on the walkway and from there it really is pretty much a 4 km gentle downhill run back to Stony Bay. The other nice thing about finishing in this direction is that this downhill run is mostly in shade, something you’ll appreciate on a hot summer’s day.

Stony Bay

After 20 km and having worked up a good sweat, we headed down to the water for a refreshing dip and then relaxed in the shade of a Pōhutukawa tree to contemplate another day well spent on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Stony Bay

Coromandel Mountain Bike Track

Depending on which direction you’re tackling it from, the Coromandel Mountain Bike Track also starts and finishes in Stony Bay. DOC describes it as ‘more challenging’ than the Coromandel Walkway itself and that was confirmed by the local ranger who we spoke to before heading out. On our ride, we actually met two other mountain bikers who, like us, had cycled along the walkway from Stony Bay but chose to return via the mountain bike track. We met them back in Stony Bay later in the day and they confirmed that this track is steep and you really don’t want to start from the Stony Bay end unless you like pushing. They seemed pretty fit and experienced to us so we’ll take them at their word. Don’t say we didn’t warn you ?

Coromandel Walkway tour and shuttle services

If you can’t or don’t want to take the drive all the way out to Stony or Fletcher Bays, there are two local operators that can get you there:

Roys Peak

Hike to the summit of Roys Peak near Wanaka

Stunning 360 degree views
Roys Peak Track

Driving into the beautiful town of Wanaka with it’s bustling lakefront bars and cafes it’s very easy to miss Roys Peak. Your eyes will almost certainly be drawn to the distant snow-covered peaks of the southern alps and Mount Aspiring National Park, but an unassuming ridge to the west of the town offers some of the best panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding area. Of course, as with most good views, there’s a price to be paid and that price is a 15 km (9 miles) return walk on a track that climbs just over 1,240m to the 1,578m summit of Roys Peak. So is it worth the climb? Without a doubt, yes!

The Roys Peak Track starts at a carpark on the left hand side of Wanaka-Mount Aspiring Road, about 6.5 km outside of Wanaka. It’s worth mentioning that this parking area is fairly small and we can see how it would fill up quickly in the peak summer season (December to February) so you may want to consider getting there via a shuttle or taxi depending on when you intend to climb.

Alternatively, if you’re in no rush and a ‘mere 15 km’ is not challenging enough, you could walk to the Roys Peak carpark via Waterfall Creek Track. This easy walk, actually a tiny section of New Zealand’s 3,000km (that’s not a typo) Te Araroa Trail, starts in Roys Bay and follows the western shore of Lake Wanaka. Along the way there’s an opportunity to catch a photo of That Wanaka Tree as well as a chance for some wine tasting although you may want to save that for the walk back. Bear in mind that this option will add another 12 km return from the carpark at the western end of Roys Bay. You may want to consider arranging a shuttle back, possibly via the cellar door you would have passed on your way to the start of the track. ?

Roys Peak shuttle services & taxis

Ritchies run regular shuttle services from their Wanaka depot but you will have to stick to their schedule unless there are enough of you to justify a special charter. You can check their schedule and get up-to-date pricing here.

Private hire shuttles or taxis are the way to go if you want more flexibility and can be quite affordable if there is a group of you. Check out Yello! Cabs.

The above operators also provide shuttle services from Queenstown.

Distance:15.6km (9.7 miles) return, via the same track
Walking time:5 – 6 hours return
Fitness level:Moderate to High
Start elevation:336m
End elevation:1578m
Elevation gain:1242m (4074 feet)
Track type:Dirt farm road/track becoming single gravel track. Well formed and easy to follow.
Track start coordinates:44°40’24.5″S 169°04’18.4″E
NTZM: 5045810N 1288640E
Google Maps: -44.6734826,169.0717873
GPX file:Download Roys Peak GPX file
Track map:View Roys Peak topographic route map and elevation profile
  • There is not much in the way of shade along the track apart from low scrub. Start early if you can and hats and sunscreen are a must.
  • There is no water along the track.
  • There is a toilet near the carpark.
  • When is the best time to do the Roys Peak hike? For those incredible magic light moments you really want to start early in the morning or late afternoon. Mornings, which is when we climbed, are best in the Spring, Winter and Autumn months while in Summer you can take advantage of the late evening light as the sun sets around 9pm in December and January.
  • The track is closed in October and into November each year. If you’re planning on doing the walk around this time, check the DOC website beforehand to confirm the exact dates.

Sunrise over Wanaka

Chasing Dawn

On the day that we chose to hike Roys Peak we weren’t really too concerned about parking or crowds considering that a) we were aiming to be on the summit for sunrise and b) it was late March and supposedly a ‘quieter’ time of the year. So imagine our surprise when we got to the carpark in the dark at around 5am to find about a dozen cars there already, and based on the procession of fairy lights way up on the mountain, some of them had been there for several hours. ‘So much for being the first on the mountain today’ we said to ourselves as we strapped on our headlamps and started our race to be on the summit before dawn.

Dances with Sheep

One of the advantages (or perhaps disadvantages depending on how you look at it) of walking in the dark is that you can’t see just how far you have to go. All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other as you chase a small pool of light on the ground ahead of you, the sound of your breath and the crunch of gravel underfoot both calming and peaceful. Peaceful that is until you unexpectedly encounter your first sheep in the dark with it’s rather scary looking reflective eyes. Yes, we’re city folk, so coming face to face with sheep on the track was a little unnerving, but they simply looked at us and then carried on doing whatever it is that sheep do under the cover of darkness – most likely the same thing they do the rest of the time, eat and crap.

So yes, like us you may encounter sheep on the first section of the track as it passes through a working farm. What this means is that besides the staring reflective eyes and occasional sheep-nugget surprise along the track, you’ll need to bear in mind that the track is closed in October and into November for lambing. It’s always worth checking on the DOC website for the most up to date information about this when planning your walk.

Roys Peak

Zigs & Zags

The track itself is easy in the sense that it is well defined and not technically challenging, but you’re going to want to be reasonably fit for this walk as it climbs with little respite in a seemingly endless series of zig zags for the first 6 km. At this point you’ll reach the top of the undulating ridge for the first time where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Wanaka to the southeast and Mount Aspiring to the northwest as you look over Glendhu Bay.

For us, this first lookout was our undoing, certainly in terms of trying to reach the summit before dawn. We were so enthralled by the view that we couldn’t stop taking photos as the sky gradually came alive with oranges and yellows in the east, incredible pinks to the north and the sight of first light on Mount Aspiring.

Mount Aspiring from Roys Peak

Final Push to the Summit

From the first ridge lookout point the track continues upwards for another 1.5 km, first zigzagging along the eastern side of the ridge before crossing over to the western side where the track makes its final approach to the summit. If you have a head for heights and are reasonably surefooted, you may prefer to head straight up along the ridge itself. That’s certainly the more exciting option, and we chose to come down this way, but on the way up we took the main track.

Roys Peak
Roys Peak summit

There’s a last little push as you make your way up towards the communications tower and then… the view, and what a spectacular view it is. Lake Wanaka spreads out in every direction below you, disappearing northwards between distant jagged peaks. In the northeast, nearby Lake Hawea just makes an appearance and of course to the northwest, at just over 3,000m, Mount Aspiring stands tall. So yes, you may arrive on the summit a little worse for wear as this is quite a tough climb, but trust us, it’s well worth it.

Roys Peak

Roys Peak weather

One of the things we’ve learnt in our time around New Zealand is how quickly conditions can change on any given day and on the South Island, even in summer, it gets cold at altitude so take a warm, windproof layer. It was a clear day with little wind when we climbed but we ended up using all our layers on the summit. Maybe we’re just soft ?

We always keep an eye on the weather a few days out from our activities and rely on a number of sources of information. For the latest Roys Peak Track weather forecast check the following:

  • The New Zealand Metservice report for Wanaka.
  • For a general weather outlook of the wider area, Metservice’s National Park forecasts are handy. In the case of Roys Peak, that falls within the Southern Lakes forecast area.
  • While MetService does provide rain forecast maps, these cover the entire country. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.

As with all things weather related, the usual caveats and common sense should apply as no forecast is 100% accurate.

Hiking the Roys Peak Track in winter

The Roys Peak track is possibly even more beautiful with a dusting of snow. But the more snow there is, unsurprisingly, the more challenging this track becomes with whiteouts and even avalanches possible. Winter is officially from June to August but there can be snow any time from late May to early November. Avalanche warnings are usually posted at the start of affected tracks, but it also pays to visit the official avalanche advisory website before climbing, not just for Wanaka, but for any alpine climb in New Zealand.

Roys Peak crowds

Ok, so we’ve told you lot’s of good stuff about the Roys Peak Track but here’s a bit of a reality check. Remember how at the beginning of this article we were saying how the parking area can fill up in summer? Well, like many places in the world that have become ‘Insta-famous’, you’re going to have to deal with crowds. So if the thought of standing in a queue on Roys Peak fills you with dread, you may want to give this hike a miss. Or start walking in the dark like we did.

Roys Peak or Ben Lomond, which is harder?

If you’re exploring the Queenstown and Wanaka area and interested in climbing Roys Peak, you might also be interested to climb Ben Lomond. While Ben Lomond does offer some spectacular views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, it’s important to note that this climb is significantly harder than Roys Peak. While Roys Peak does climb steadily, it’s not particularly steep or dangerous if you stick to the main track.

The Ben Lomond Track on the over hand starts out relatively easily until you reach the Ben Lomond saddle where the track splits. From here, this climb becomes increasingly steep and the track is rough and rocky. Caution is advised. It is however worth the effort if you’re fit and well equipped for both the climb and the weather, which can be very different on the summit compared to the lake shore.

Roys Peak helicopter flights

Let’s face it, a 15 km hike isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to enjoy the scenery in other ways, like a helicopter flight. Heading back down from our climb we saw two helicopters landing on the ridge above us and at that point, with weary legs we thought, ‘wouldn’t that be nice’. If a helicopter flight around Wanaka and the Southern Alps is more your style then check out Wanaka helicopter tours.

Roys Peak Track route map and elevation profile

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Roys Peak Track elevation profile

While every attempt has been made to provide useful and accurate information, OutThere.Kiwi assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information and cannot be held responsible for any direct or indirect damages resulting from the use or misuse of this information.

Topographic map data on this page is sourced from the LINZ Data Service https://data.linz.govt.nz/ and licensed by LINZ for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence. Elevation data is sourced from NASA’s SRTM1 (Space Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) database.

Roys Peak may be the most popular walking track close to Wanaka but a 15 km climb may not be for everyone. A good alternative is the Mount Iron Track. This 4.5 km loop track is a lot shorter and easier and while the summit is only 548m, it still has some pretty spectacular views.

Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Wanaka region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Wanaka.

Mount Fox tarn

Walk the Mount Fox Track

Epic glacier views from this
Mount Fox route

“This track has limited formation and steep grades. It is suitable for fit, experienced and properly equipped people. Snow and white out conditions can occur at any time.” This is the sign that will greet you at the start of the Mount Fox Track. You may think that it’s just the Department of Conservation (DOC) being overly cautious with their signage but that’s not the case, as we found out first hand when we hiked this challenging but very rewarding route.

While the popular, and significantly easier, Fox Glacier Valley track will get to you to within a few hundred metres of the glacier’s terminal face, you really won’t get the full scale and impact of Fox Glacier until you see it from above. Fortunately, there are a number of local helicopter operators offering a range of scenic flights, from short hops to longer flights with snow landings. Alternatively you can opt for a fly-in, fly-out heli-hike experience with Fox Glacier Guiding, something we highly recommend by the way.

But if, for whatever reason, a flight is not for you, or if you’re simply up for a challenge, the next best option is to climb Mount Fox. Just be prepared for a muddy, sweaty climb that will at times require the human equivalent of 4 wheel drive as you haul yourself upwards with the help of branches and vines. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Still reading? Well then, since you’re obviously up for adventure, here’s what you need to know. The start of the track is approximately 3 km south of Fox Glacier township. It’s quite easy to miss the DOC signboard if you’re not looking out for it, but heading south along Haast Highway you’ll first cross the Fox River bridge before continuing on for another kilometre until you’ll reach a small gravel carpark on your righthand side. The track starts just across the road from there and to begin with follows the southern bank of Thirsty Creek, winding its way gently through the thick podocarp forest. But don’t let that fool you. Whoever cut the modern-day track clearly wasn’t thinking ‘how can I make this easy?’. You soon start to climb and from that point it’s pretty relentless for the next 3 and a half kilometres. ‘What, less than 4 km to the summit?’ we hear you say. Yes, 3.6 km to be more precise (according to our GPS), but in that distance you’ll climb just over 1170 metres. That’s a whole lot of up.

Don’t Get Lost in the Forest

The forest is dense and since this is not a popular route, the track is a little hard to follow in places. There are of course the usual orange DOC markers along the way but some of them can be difficult to spot. In fact, as we were heading up, a young, enthusiastic hiker raced past us, only to pass us again later on, still heading upwards. It turns out it he got lost and said that it was only thanks to his GPS that he managed to backtrack and find the route again. You definitely want to keep your wits about you as you tackle this first section. And you know how previously we said there’s some clambering involved. The photo below will you some idea of what we’re talking about, as well as what you can look forward to on the way back down.

Mount Fox

Trig with a View

At around 1,000m, the forest finally gives way to smaller trees and alpine scrub and for the first time you’ll get a sense of how high you’ve climbed. Continuing on a little way you’ll reach the trig beacon which technically, according the official topographic maps, marks the summit of Mount Fox at 1,020m. Your reward at this point will be an expansive view of the coastal plain and the Fox and Cook rivers as they merge and make their way to the sea. But what about that Fox Glacier view we promised? Yes, well, about that… for those panoramic views of the glacier and the southern alps you’ll have to continue along the ridge to the summit above you. But having come this far, what’s another kilometre or so? Not to mention another 325m elevation gain.

Mount Fox
Mount Fox

Having said that, for us, from the trig beacon onwards really was the best part of the walk. While not as tough as the forest, it’s still a fairly steep climb as you head along the ridge, following the orange and blue DOC marker poles. Along the way you’ll pass pretty alpine tarns (small ponds) and on your left, the glacier eventually comes into full view with the southern alps as its beautiful backdrop.

Fox Glacier - West Coast, South Island

Mountain Hide & Seek

Speaking of southern alps, we were really hoping to get a good view of Mount Cook but the mountain was having none of it, hiding behind a continually shifting blanket of cloud. Despite this, the view was no less spectacular with Mount Tasman standing proud and tall, doing it’s best stand-in for Mount Cook as the peaks of the Cook Range extended southwards like a row of jagged teeth.

Mount Fox
Mount Fox

Making good use of the extra layers we’d brought along, we waited optimistically on the summit above Mount Fox in the hope that the clouds would pass. But it was not to be and what blue sky we did have gave way to even more cloud which moved in surprisingly quickly from the west. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d seen all we were going to see and reluctantly started to make our way back down.

Southern Alps

The Descent

We started our descent with renewed energy having rested and snacked on the summit but whatever energy we had left was soon sapped from our weary legs. In many ways, the descent is just as brutal as the climb, especially in the forest where it’s a battle of both body and mind to stay focussed and not lose your footing on the slippery branches and rocks. So while the descent was somewhat quicker, we finally reached the bottom with legs aching and hearts pounding from both the effort and the exhilaration of completing what, up until that point, had been one of our toughest New Zealand hikes. Fortunately we didn’t have far to travel after our hike as we spent the night in a comfy room at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park before heading to Queenstown the following day.

A tough, sweaty scramble to the top of Mount Fox may not be everyone’s idea of fun. Fortunately there are a number of gentler walks in the area including an easy 1 hour return walk up the valley which will get you to within a few hundred metres of the glacier’s terminal face. Alternatively, a stroll around nearby Lake Matheson is very popular and particularly photogenic on calm days. You can read more about this and other tracks in the area on the DOC website.

If you’re short on time but keen to get on the snow at either Fox or Franz Josef glaciers, consider a helicopter flight and snow landing with Glacier Helicopters.

Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the West Coast region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in the West Coast.

Mount Ngauruhoe

Climb Mount Ngauruhoe

Tread lightly as you climb
Mount Ngauruhoe

A World Heritage site, Tongariro National Park is dominated by three volcanoes, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. Ruapehu may be the highest peak in the park (and the whole North Island) and Tongariro might share its name with the park, but Ngauruhoe will have you transfixed from the moment you lay eyes on it’s near perfect cone shaped outline.

Although technically a cone of the broader Tongariro volcanic complex, if ever there was a mountain that screamed ‘volcano’ this would be it. Now if you’re anything like us you may be wondering to yourself, ‘Can I hike up that there volcano?’ The short answer is yes, technically you can. But the real question is should you, and while it’s not for us to tell you what you can or can’t do, the answer is no you probably shouldn’t. Read on to find out why.

Living in Auckland, as much as we’d love to do the Mount Ngauruhoe hike every weekend, it’s a 4.5 hour drive via Taumarunui and Highway 4, a far more scenic route than heading down on Highway 1 – at least we think so. And that’s 4.5 hours on a good day, not factoring in Auckland’s Friday afternoon rush hour traffic which can add another hour or even two to the journey.

The most common approach to Mt Ngauruhoe is from the Mangatepopo end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC). The Mangatepopo car park is at the end of a short stretch of gravel just off Highway 47, 13 km from National Park or if coming from the Taupo side via Turangi, 36 km from Turangi.

Ngauruhoe views

No matter what direction you’re approaching from, Ngauruhoe is hard to miss and we guarantee you’ll be reaching for your camera in no time. We never get tired of the view. In fact we still take photos every time we visit and one of our favourite views, dare we say it, the best view of Mount Ngauruhoe is from Bruce Road which snakes its way up Mount Ruapehu towards the Whakapapa ski fields. One of our ‘rituals’ whenever we visit is to drive up and watch the sun setting as we contemplate our time on the mountains.

Some of our other favourite views of Ngauruhoe are from the Tama Lakes and Taranaki Falls tracks, both highly recommended, or, if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, you can have a meal at the iconic Chateau Tongariro Hotel with its ‘Ngauruhoe window’ – you’ll understand if you go there.

And just so you don’t get any funny looks when you visit, it’s worth knowing that the ‘g’ in Ngauruhoe is effectively silent. It took us a while before we stopped mangling the word ourselves, and while we’ve seen and heard various pronunciations, the best pronunciation for Ngauruhoe that we could come up with is ‘Nah-roo-ho-eh’. Don’t worry, the locals will know what you’re talking about ?

Summer or winter, which is best?

We tend to visit the Central Plateau area at least twice a year, usually towards the end of summer/early autumn (February/March) when it’s not so hot (or so busy) and again towards the end of winter/early spring (August/September) when there’s still a decent covering of snow and less risk of avalanches. As a result, we’ve been fortunate enough to climb Ngauruhoe a few times and it’s a totally different experience depending on the time of year. So when is the best time to climb Ngauruhoe? Well the view is stunning no matter what time of year but our personal preference is winter. In summer it’s a hot, sweaty scramble up loose, jagged and crumbling scoria. Coming back down is no less challenging although you can choose to ‘ski’ down the loose scree which is certainly quicker if not a little riskier. In winter it’s no less strenuous but personally, we find snow easier to climb. That is of course as long as you are properly equipped with crampons and an ice axe and equally importantly, know how to use them. We say this because we’ve seen equipped climbers on Ngauruhoe lose their footing and, not knowing how to self-arrest, slide several hundred meters down the mountain. Fortunately, when climbing from the Mangatepopo Saddle side, there are no gullies or steep dropoffs so the mountain is fairly forgiving but even still, meeting an exposed rock during an uncontrolled slide is unlikely to end well.

View from Mount Ngauruhoe

That’s not to say that climbing in summer is without its hazards. Because there is no clearly defined or maintained path, people tend to haphazardly make their way up the mountain, often dislodging loose rocks and boulders which hurtle down towards unsuspecting climbers below. In fact, not a year goes by (no exaggeration) without somebody being airlifted off the mountain after having been hit by a falling boulder. For this reason it’s always recommended to wear a helmet when climbing Mt Ngauruhoe, even in summer.

So, all of this is our way of saying don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s not a casual stroll and it’s tougher than it may look at first sight. Oh and another thing, in case you’re hoping for a Lord of the Rings Mount Doom ring-tossing moment – don’t, you will be disappointed. Despite being an active volcano, there are no hidden chambers or fire-spitting pits on Ngauruhoe – at least none that we know of. You’ll be far better off visiting Hobbiton to get your LOTR experience.

Heading towards Mount Ngauruhoe

It’s a devil of a climb

And that’s before you even begin to hike up Ngauruhoe itself. From the Mangatepopo carpark the track meanders gently up the valley towards Soda Springs. It’s a great way to ease yourself into the day, especially if you leave before sunrise as we usually do. We love the crunch of frost underfoot and the crisp morning air (it was -5 degrees C the last time we climbed). Beautiful early morning colours and seeing first light on Mount Ruapehu are just some of the added bonuses.

First light on Mount Ruapehu

But don’t let any of this fool you. At around the 4.5km mark the track starts to climb quickly from 1,400m to just over 1,600m in less that 2km. This section of the track is aptly named the Devil’s Staircase – enjoy! Although the track is well formed at this point, it’s a bit of a slow hard slog, giving you ample time to enjoy the view back down the valley towards Mangatepopo.

At the top of Devil’s Staircase you’ll reach a saddle. From here the signposted Tongariro Crossing heads east across South Crater but you will be heading to the right, making your way up through the lava field towards the base of the mountain. There is no formed track as such and you’ll need to follow the blue DOC markers that will guide you (assuming they haven’t been removed) towards a distinct ridge and from there you will pretty much be one you own.

Mount Ngauruhoe

A not so perfect cone

While there is no formal track, in warmer months when there is little to no snow, there are a number of fairly well-worn routes that follow the ridge towards the summit. In winter it’s a different story entirely and while you can still use the ridge to guide you, the best route will ultimately depend on the condition of the snow and ice. And it’s the icy patches where many climbers come unstuck, especially if they try and climb without crampons. We’ve seen people charging up the snow in trainers or running shoes, find themselves in a band of ice with nowhere to go but back down, and then watched as they slowly inch their way back down on their bums, looking rather sheepish.

Mount Ngauruhoe
Mount Ngauruhoe

As you climb, you’ll have the summit in sight, or at least what you think is the summit but is in fact the edge of a plateau. Once you reach this plateau you’ll realise that the summit of Ngauruhoe is not as perfect and cone-shaped as it appeared. Continuing upwards you’ll reach a saddle and at this point you’ll see that there’s actually a shallow valley that heads south. Directly ahead you’ll see a large rocky outcrop and that marks the actual summit of Mount Ngauruhoe at 2,287m. To your left you’ll see (and hear) another outcrop of rock, no doubt steaming, and to your right will be another summit. This is the actual crater edge and where most climbers will head.

Mount Ngauruhoe
Mount Ngauruhoe

It’s a short climb up to the crater’s edge and you will be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of the entire area. In fact, on a clear day you’ll be able to see all the way to Mount Taranaki, some 140 km to the west. In winter, the crater can seem fairly calm and peaceful but in summer, the scorched-looking crater walls and sulphurous steam are a stark reminder that this is an active, albeit ‘sleeping’ volcano.

Mount Ngauruhoe

Recent Ngauruhoe eruptions

Since we’re on the subject of steaming sulphurous pits, you may be wondering how active this volcano really is. So when did Mt Ngauruhoe last erupt? At around 7,000 years old Ngauruhoe is the youngest and also the largest cone of the Tongariro complex. It also happens to be one of the most continuously active volcanoes, not just in the region, but in the whole of New Zealand, with the most recent eruptions occurring between 1973 and 1975. Since then there have been no eruptions but there have been periods of increased unrest (earthquake activity) which saw raised alert levels(1 on a scale of 0 to 5).

So could the mountain blow again at any moment? Given that it is an active volcano, technically anything is possible, but the mountain is constantly monitored and any changes to the alert level are published on the Geonet website. The Department of Conservation also posts notices at the start of the Tongariro Crossing and you should always pay attention to these and any other signs before you head out.

A rapid descent

What will typically take 2 – 3 hours to climb from the Mangatepopo Saddle can be a rapid descent of under an hour depending on whether or not you choose to ‘ski’ down the scree slope. In winter, many people choose to glissade which looks like fun but can also end painfully. On one of our climbs we watched as someone slid down on a piece of plastic, only to come to rather abrupt and uncontrolled stop on a rock. He hobbled his way back down to the main track with, no doubt, a bruised bum – a nice souvenir to take home after his climb.

Mount Ngauruhoe

So why shouldn’t you do the Mount Ngauruhoe hike?

Given that we’ve just shared our experience of climbing Mount Ngauruhoe you may be wondering why we’re advising you to think twice before doing this hike. There are a number of reasons for this, practically, environmentally and culturally. Let’s start with the practical.

With the ever-increasing popularity of the Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s official Great Walks, parking at Mangatepopo has become something of an issue, so much so that as of October 2017 the Department of Conservation (DOC) has put a maximum 4 hour parking restriction in place for effectively six months of the year. So while parking remains free (as at the time of writing), if you did want to climb Mount Ngauruhoe between 21 October and 30 April, given that you’ll need at least 7 hours, you would have to make alternative parking and transport arrangements.

While there are a number of shuttle services in the area, they are mostly geared towards people walking the Tongariro Crossing from end-to-end so finding a shuttle that will both drop off and collect at Mangatepopo may be a challenge. DOC has now made it clear that they no longer want people to climb to the summits of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and given that DOC manages shuttle concessions in the area, operators will be reluctant to go against this.

So why has DOC introduced these restrictions? Ultimately we feel it’s about trying to manage the environmental impact of the ever-increasing number of visitors to the area as a whole. But concerns have been raised by the local Māori about visitor safety as well as protecting the sanctity of Tongariro, particularly the lakes and mountain summits which are considered ‘tapu’ or sacred. It’s generally accepted in New Zealand that many of the mountain summits are sacred and while climbing them is ok, standing on the actual summit is deemed culturally insensitive. We’ve always been mindful of this but from experience have found that not everyone feels the same way. Add to that the fact that more and more visitors are leaving rubbish and even worse behind, you can see why locals get irate. It’s a complicated issue, and not one we want to debate here.

Maybe in future you will be able to climb Mount Ngauruhoe as part of a paid guided experience, in the same way that you can climb Mount Tarawera which also has restricted access. Personally, we will respect the wishes of DOC and the local iwi and avoid the summit in future.  We’ll leave you to make your own considered decision on whether or not to climb Mount Ngauruhoe based on your skills, the weather conditions and your cultural perspective.

Mount Ngauruhoe

Taranaki Falls

Walk the Taranaki Falls Track

Not where you think it is
Taranaki Falls Walk

If you’re new to New Zealand or planning your first kiwi roadtrip with a map laid out in front of you, the first thing you need to know about Taranaki Falls is that it is nowhere near Mount Taranaki, or even in the Taranaki region for that matter. The falls are in fact situated in the Tongariro National Park and that’s a good thing because no trip to New Zealand’s North Island would be complete without visiting this spectacular central plateau region, home to Mount Ruapehu, the island’s highest peak.

  • The total distance of the Taranaki Falls walk is 5.4 km (3.4 miles) and it’s a loop track.
  • How much time should you allow for the walk? At a leisurely pace and allowing lots of time for photos expect to spend 2 to 3 hours.
  • The track is easy and family-friendly but not suitable for wheelchairs. Baby-buggies/strollers will also prove tricky in places, especially the steep stairs near the falls.
  • There are no toilet facilities along the track. The nearest toilets are at the DOC visitor centre near the chateau.
  • There is no water available along the track so make sure you take plenty with you, particularly in Summer.
  • There are no shops or petrol stations in Whakapapa so best to stock up with your picnic goodies and fuel in National Park Village (15 minutes away) or Turangi (40 minutes away).

Chances are you may already be considering doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC), arguably one of the country’s best day walks, and so you should. However, being an alpine crossing, weather can be a factor so ideally you should allow for some flexibility to be able to choose the best day for your walk. This means spending a few days in the area which in turn means having time to explore some of the parks less famous walks.

Our personal favourite ‘warm-up’ to walking the TAC is the Tama Lakes Track. This 17 km (10.5 miles) return walk is not particularly strenuous and rewards with some epic views of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and of course the lower and upper Tama Lakes. The track also happens to go past Taranaki Falls. But if 17 km is not really what you had in mind as a warm-up, you can opt for doing the shorter falls loop which is just over 5 km in total and will take you around 2 hours.

Chateau Tongariro Hotel

The Taranaki Falls track starts in Whakapapa Village, nestled at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. The village, which serves as the gateway to the Whakapapa ski area, is a 15 minute drive from nearby National Park Village, a popular base for many visitors to the region. National Park itself is approximately 4 hours drive from Auckland and an hour and a half drive from Lake Taupo, the largest town in the region, and another popular tourist destination.

Driving towards Whakapapa on Highway 48, you can’t help but notice Tongariro Chateau with its distinctive green roof, and the turn-off to the start of the track at the end of Ngauruhoe Terrace is immediately after the Chateau. Bear in mind that there is limited parking at the start of the track itself so unless you’re there early, you’ll be better off parking in one of the nearby parking areas off the main road (free as at time of writing) and then walking the short distance to the track. At the same time you should pop in at the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre. There’s lots of really interesting information on the local area and the friendly staff will be able to assist with any questions you might have, including the all important weather outlook for the coming few days.

Tama Lakes Track

Feeling Loopy?

Being a loop track means you have a choice on which way around to do this walk. Personally, we prefer to go anti-clockwise, heading out on the upper track which after a short forest section opens up to reveal an epic view of Mount Ngauruhoe as you meander gently through alpine tussock. An easy 2.5 km walk will get you to a wooden bridge (a second one) which crosses over the Wairere Stream just above the falls. Like many, you may be tempted to explore the well-worn channel that the stream has carved through this lava flow over many millennia. You may even decide to take a peek over the falls but carefully – those rocks can get really slippery, especially in Winter, and a 20m fall onto the boulders below is unlikely to end well.

Just after the bridge the main track heads up and right towards Tama Lakes but you’ll want to turn left at the marker post, heading down a steep set of stairs (another reason why it makes sense to do this walk anti-clockwise). Shortly after the stairs you’ll reach the first lookout. Don’t try and head down to the bottom of the falls from here. Just a few meters on is another lookout and from here you can more easily get to the boulder-ringed pool.

The walk back towards Whakapapa along the lower track feels altogether different as you follow the Wairere Stream through the dense beech forest. There’s an abundance of birdlife, and the stream presents a few interesting sights along the way – we won’t spoil the surprise. When you reach the junction with the Mangatepopo Track you’re just over halfway back. Just make sure you follow the sign towards Whakapapa otherwise you’ll end up several hours later near the start of the Tongariro Crossing. A little way past the Mangatepopo junction you’ll emerge from the forest and from there the track heads back towards Whakapapa through open tussock with the Chateau ahead of you and the almost perfect cone of Nguaruhoe behind you. All in all, it’s a great little walk that will have you primed and ready to do the Tongariro Crossing, or loosen up those stiff legs if you’d done it the day before. Chateau Tongariro high tea anyone?

Taranaki Falls

Lower Tama Lake

Walk the Tama Lakes Track

Two lakes and two mountains
Tama Lakes Track

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC) is high on the to-do list of most visitors to the North Island and for good reason. Unfortunately, its popularity is also its undoing and in peak season, unless you’re prepared to start really early or after the morning rush hour, you can expect to join an orderly queue that makes its way across an undeniably stunning landscape. Ok, maybe a queue is a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not far off – you get the picture. While the landscape may not be as dramatic as the TAC, nearby Tama Lakes Track is a good alternative.

At around 17 km (10.5 miles) return, the Tama Lakes Track is a little shorter than the Tongariro crossing and, apart from a bit of a climb from the lower lake to the upper viewpoint, it’s far easier. It has lakes (obviously), stunning mountain views and a photo-worthy waterfall. Best of all, it tends to be a lot less crowded than the TAC.

On the day we walked this track, both Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe were in the clouds but a galeforce southeaster (70 km/h according to the weather report) meant that the Tama saddle between the mountains was cloud free. The wind around Tama Lakes is something you’ll want to bear in mind when walking this route. While it was warm, sunny and perfectly calm in Whakapapa village, once we headed up towards the saddle, the wind was biting, and at the lower lake itself was so strong it was hard to stand up at times. So always check the weather report before heading out and take the appropriate gear, but then you already knew that.

Tama Lakes Track

The start of the Tama Lakes Track is also the first section of the Taranaki Falls Track, a gentle 2 hour loop that’s well worth doing if you don’t have time to head all the way out to the lakes. We chose to start our walk via the upper Taranaki Falls section of the loop and returned via the lower Falls track. In hindsight this was a bit of a mistake as, by the time we got back to the falls, they were in shadow so not the best light for photos. Bear that in mind when timing your walk as earlier in the day is probably better for views of the falls. It will also be warmer if you decide to take a dip in the perfectly clear water. So, no stunning waterfall shots from us this time, but the top of the falls is also quite interesting as you can see below.

Top of Taranaki Falls

After the falls, the track makes its way gradually up towards the Tama saddle, and looking back there are great views of the central plateau. As you can see, the track is very well formed and well maintained, and continues like this most of the way.

Tama Lakes Track

Lower Tama Lake is a stunning shade of blue and although we knew what to expect, it really did stop us in our tracks. The wind may also have had something to do with it. Below you can see Debs getting her lean on. That wasn’t for effect, she was simply trying to stay on her feet. Fortunately, there are a few spots where you can shelter from the wind and relax a bit before tackling the path up to the upper Tama lookout.

Lower Tama Lake
Upper Tama Lake ridge

Now when we say ‘path’ to the upper lookout, we mean that in a fairly loose sense. It isn’t a properly maintained track. You simply head up the ridge towards the highest point through loose sand and rock. It’s nothing too treacherous or overly steep but the wind can be a factor, and on a few occasions heading up and back down on the day, Debs had to adopt her ‘crouching tiger’ pose to avoid being blown off her feet.

Upper Tama Lake

But the little puff up the ridge is well worth the effort, and from the upper lookout you’ll see Upper Tama Lake and of course the imposing view of Mount Ngauruhoe or Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans. Looking back the other way you’ll have amazing views of the lower lake with Mount Ruapehu in the distance.

We spent several hours at the upper lookout, simply taking in the amazing scenery and watching the clouds as they whipped around the summit of Mt Ruapehu. We were really hoping that Mt Ngauruhoe would reveal itself completely but it wasn’t to be. We weren’t disappointed though. This may have been our first trip out to Tama Lakes, but it definitely won’t be our last.

Tama Lake tarn

Raglan Pancake Rocks

Paddle to Raglan's Pancake Rocks

Hiding in plain sight
Raglan Pancake Rocks

It was never our intention, but we seem have developed a fascination with pancakes. Not the edible kind, although we are partial to a good breakfast pancake with maple syrup. The pancakes we’re referring to are the incredible layered rock formations made famous here in New Zealand by the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes on the west coast of the South Island.

We were pretty amazed when we first visited Punakaiki and, rather naively, thought that these formations were quite unique to the area. As we’ve since discovered, and continue to discover, they are in fact more widespread. If you’re north of Auckland and looking for a gentle walk, there’s an interesting little outcrop near Waipu, accessible via the Waipu Coastal Trail. But for those of you who enjoy more watery pursuits, Raglan offers a rather unique experience.

The interesting thing about Raglan’s pancake rocks is that they’re hiding in plain site. On previous visits to Raglan, like most, we sauntered down the main street towards the sea and the footbridge over to the small peninsula that’s home to Raglan’s airstrip. We enjoyed the view out towards the harbour mouth and of the surrounding hills, not knowing there was an adventure waiting for us just across the water. But each time we told ourselves that we must come back and explore Raglan on our paddleboards. Finally we have, and we’re so glad we did.

Raglan Pancake Rocks

We chose a relatively wind-free morning to explore the harbour. Those of you who paddle, whether it’s kayak or standup paddleboard, will know that wind is not your friend. Unless of course it’s on your back on the way home. In addition to the wind, we also paid attention to the tide. We weren’t sure what the tidal flow was like in Raglan Harbour but we figured it would be best to paddle on the incoming tide. It was still fairly low when we arrived in Raglan, but in the time it took to set up our boards and gear, followed by a little pre-paddle snack, the water had already reached the wooden boardwalk that runs along the harbour edge. So, with the early summer sun warming our backs, we set off, heading west towards the harbour mouth and what looked like the start of the rock formations on the opposite side.

Raglan Pancake Rocks
Raglan Pancake Rocks

From where we started at the Putoetoe Point end of Cliff Street, it’s about a 900m paddle across to a first set of rocky pancake ‘islands’ where, depending on the tide, there’s a secluded little black sand beach. From here you can paddle inland along the coastline, exploring all the interesting little nooks and crannies until you reach Marotaka Point. From here you have a choice, you can either head back across the harbour to where you started or, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can continue on towards Horongarara Point and then across the inlet towards another set of pancake rocks on the western side of Tokatoka Point. From Tokatoka Point you can paddle back across the harbour towards Aroaro Bay before returning to your starting point on Cliff Street. Altogether you’ll cover a distance of just over 5 km (3 miles), not bad for a morning’s paddle.

Raglan Pancake Rocks
Raglan Pancake Rocks

Guided and self-guided tour options

We’re fortunate enough to have our own paddleboards, a pair of inflatable Red Paddle Co Explorers which have served us well for a few seasons now. We really like the convenience and ruggedness of these exceptionally well made boards. If you don’t have your own boards or kayaks, or you’ve never paddled before, don’t worry, there are a number of operators in Raglan who can sort you out with equipment hire or fully guided tours. You can visit their websites for more details:

Raglan tides and weather

Given that Raglan’s estuary is tidal, it’s always worth paying attention to tidal flows when paddleboarding, particularly on the outgoing tide. You can check Raglan tide times here on the New Zealand MetService website.

You’ll also want to pay attention to the weather when paddling at Raglan, especially the wind direction and strength. For the latest Raglan weather forecast and to check detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.

Lake Taupo Maori rock carvings

Visit Lake Taupo's Māori rock carvings

A hidden gem
Lake Taupo Māori carvings

Lake Taupo (“toe-paw”) is one of the gems of New Zealand’s central North Island and a real adventurer’s playground which, luckily for us, is just three and a half hours drive south of Auckland. So it’s no surprise that we intend to spend more than the occasional weekend here as we work our way through our adventure to-do list, starting with a paddle to see the impressive Taupo Māori carvings in Mine Bay.

The main 10 meter high carving which was completed over the course of four summers in the late 70s, is not only an incredible sight but also an important cultural attraction. Only accessible from the water, most visitors will take one of the yacht or motorboat cruises that leave Taupo town itself but in true explorer style we wanted to get there on our own and see the carvings up close and personal. What better way than an early morning stand up paddle on Lake Taupo?

Lake Taupo sunrise

Rangatira Point Track

We’d driven down from Auckland the previous afternoon and camped the night at Taupo DeBretts Holiday Park, a popular resort that’s well known for its mineral hot pools – the perfect place to visit after a long day hiking or paddling on the lake we might add.

After a quick morning cuppa before sunrise, we drove the 13 km around the lake past Acacia Bay to our launching point at Te Kumi Bay, one of the small bays along the road to the private residential area at Whakamoenga Point.

We chose this spot to launch as the road is fairly close to the lake at this point so it’s easy to carry boards and other gear down to the water. It also happens to be the starting point of the Rangatira Point Track. This is an easy bush walk that follows the lake all the way around to Whakamoenga Point which itself is well worth a visit, particularly in the warmer months. You can find more info on this track at DOC NZ.

Once setup, we took a moment to enjoy the sunrise, suspecting that was the last we were going to see of the sun that day and then headed south on the 3 km paddle to Mine Bay. At this point we were fairly sheltered from the wind, but looking out towards the center of the lake it looked like there was a bit of a ‘breeze’. Sure enough, by the time we reached Rangatira Point, it was clear that we were going to have a serious paddle on our hands but, ever the optimists, we soldiered on.

Okuta Bay

Rounding Whakamoenga Point and heading into the wind it was tough going. Anyone used to open water paddling will know the feeling where you take four strokes forward and feel like you’ve taken two backwards, but slowly we made our way towards Mine Bay and the rock carvings came into view. I have to be honest and say that at this point we felt a little flat – it was grey, it was windy and we were pretty tired. We’d really been hoping to take some nice bright photos of the carvings but this clearly wasn’t going to happen. But rather than simply turning around and heading back, we decided to continue paddling along Okuta Bay and find a place to go ashore and wait for the weather to improve… we hoped. We’re glad we did.

Okuta Bay

If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll notice a few lighter looking rocks along the shore. Being the inquisitive sort I just had to have a closer look. It turns out that these rocks were actually pumice which, as some of you will know, has a little party trick… it floats.

Floating pummice

Prior to this, the most pumice I’d ever encountered were the small, nicely packaged pieces you buy in bath stores. Supposedly you’re meant to use them to remove rough skin but I reckon they’re just the adult equivalent of rubber duckies, intended to keep us entertained while we soak in the tub. I only say this because I spent the next 30 minutes playing like a child with my head-sized floating rock. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the sun was starting to shine.

Seeing the Māori Rock carvings in Mine Bay up close

We secured our gear on our boards and with the sun on our faces and hardly a breath of wind, we headed back towards the carvings. Of course by this time, we were no longer the only ones on the lake and the morning’s solitude had been replaced by a steady stream of boats slowly chugging past in an orderly procession. Not that it bothered us, since we were in no hurry to leave, just one of the many advantages of paddling there under our own steam.

Over the next few hours, we watched the boats go by and in a gap, I took the opportunity to go for a little snorkel below the main carving. So what secrets are hidden in the water below? More carvings, a mystery Narnia-like door? Unfortunately I didn’t find any of those things although I did find somebody else’s snorkel, no doubt long lost given its slimey green state.

Mine Bay carvings with Sail Fearless
Mine Bay carvings paddleboard

As for the carvings themselves, they really are spectacular, not simply for the sheer size of the main face but also for their detail and rich symbolism. And notice how we keep referring to multiple carvings? That’s because to the left of the face are a number of smaller carvings including lizards and even a mermaid. So when visiting, take some time to admire these as well and then spare a thought for the artists who created them, led by Māori tohunga whakairo (master carver) Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell.

Update: February 2019
After more than 40 years, Matahi is returning to Mine Bay to refurbish and, in many ways, complete the work he started all those years ago. The video below will give you an idea of the refurbishment project and the story behind this iconic feature.

Whakamoenga Point

Eventually, after several hours spent lazing on our boards in Mine Bay, we decided to head back to Te Kumi bay but not before stopping off for a swim at Whakamoenga Point. Whakamoenga is interesting in that unlike the rest of the shoreline which is quite shallow and bouldery, this point is more of a rocky outcrop with interesting little channels and deep water that’s perfect for diving as you can see below. It also makes for a good pit stop after a few hours of paddling on Lake Taupo.

Whakamoenga Point
Whakamoenga Point

And so, after a long and rewarding day on the water, we finally made it back to our launching spot in Te Kumi Bay. Now here’s a little tip for you fellow paddlers. From the water, because of the trees along the waterline, it can be a little tricky to spot where to go ashore. So before you head off for your paddle, tie something bright and colourful around some branches as a little navigational ‘breadcrumb’ ?

Our paddle to the Mine Bay rock carvings was without a doubt one of our top adventures in New Zealand so far. While there’s lots to do in Taupo, if you’re visiting the lake but short on time and struggling to choose what to do, we highly recommend this experience. You can’t beat it on a calm and sunny day.

Guided and self-guided tour options

If you don’t have your own stand up paddleboards or kayaks contact Taupo Kayaking Adventures. You can either join one of their guided tours or hire kayaks for a self-guided tour.

If you prefer the comfort of a yacht or motorboat cruise then check out Sail Barbary or one of the other local tour operators here, Taupo cruises, sailing & water tours.

There’s more to Taupo than just the lake with everything from river rafting and sky diving to bungy jumping on offer. Mt Ruapehu and the Tongariro National Park is also less than an hours drive from Taupo and has some of the North Island’s best walks.

Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Taupo region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Taupo.

Hooker Valley Track

Walk the Hooker Valley Track and see Mt Cook

South Island’s best short walk
Hooker Valley Track

No visit to New Zealand’s South Island would be complete without visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, home to 19 peaks over 3000m including New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook (Aoraki being the mountain’s historic Māori name). Nestled in the Hooker Valley at the foot of the Sealy Range, Aoraki/Mount Cook Village is a good base from which to explore the area’s many scenic walks. Of those walks, the 10 km (6 miles return) Hooker Valley Track is by far the most popular.

Twizel on Highway 8 is the nearest town to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. From Twizel it’s a 45-minute drive (65 km / 40 miles) to Mount Cook along Highway 80 which follows the western shore of Lake Pukaki. That said, allow more time for this journey as we guarantee you that you will stop several times along the way to marvel at the incredible blue waters of the lake and distant views of Mount Cook. Keep an eye out for Peter’s Lookout on the right about 20 km from Twizel. And once you pass Glentanner and head further into the valley, the view just keeps getting better, giving you a good taste of what’s to come.

It’s worth mentioning that, as at the time of writing, there are no grocery stores in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. Also, while there is a self-service petrol station in the village, you are probably better off stocking up on fuel and provisions in Twizel.

If you’re travelling to Mount Cook from Christchurch, Twizel is close to 4 hours drive from Christchurch (285 km / 177 miles). From Wanaka, it’s approximately 2 hours to Twizel (144 km / 89 miles) and from Queenstown, it’s closer to 3 hours drive (200 km / 124 miles). Don’t forget you’ll need another 45 minutes to get from Twizel to Mount Cook Village. Also bear in mind that from both Queenstown and Wanaka you’ll drive through Lindis Pass. While this is a scenic stretch of road, it can become impassable in the winter months (June to August). It’s always worth keeping an eye on road snowfall warnings and road conditions when travelling over this period.

Distance:10 km (6.2 miles) return, via the same track starting from White Horse Hill campground. Add another 3.5 km if starting from the DOC visitor centre.
Walking time:3 – 4 hours return. Add another 1 hour if starting from the DOC visitor centre.
Fitness level:Low to moderate
Start elevation:763m
End elevation:887m
Elevation gain:124m (407 feet)
Track type:A well formed gravel track with a section of wooden boardwalk.
Track start coordinates:43°43’09.1″S 170°05’37.4″E
NZTM: 5155208N 1365891E
Google Maps: -43.7191851,170.0937197
GPX file:Download Hooker Valley Track GPX file
Track map:View Hooker Valley Track topographic route map and elevation profile
  • This track is definitely family-friendly but you most probably won’t go beyond the Mueller Glacier lookout with a baby-buggy or stroller.
  • There are toilets at both White Horse Hill and the DOC visitor centre as well as a self-composting toilet at the 3.5 km point along the track.
  • There is no water available along the track so make sure you take plenty with you, particularly in Summer.
  • There is no shade along the track and even in the cooler months you can easily get sunburnt so sunscreen and hats are a must.
  • Being so close to the mountains means that weather conditions can change quickly so always be prepared with some extra layers.
  • While this track can be walked all year round, snow and ice conditions can be treacherous if you’re not properly equipped. It’s always worth checking track conditions at the visitor centre before you head out.
  • Start you walk early to avoid the crowds.
  • Before visiting this, or any other walking tracks in New Zealand, always check the relevant track information page on the DOC website.

This well-defined, family-friendly track is a real treat for the senses, complete with views of two glacier lakes (with a good chance of mini icebergs), beautiful alpine flowers in the summer months (December to February), three suspension bridges (all solidly built) and of course, incredible mountain views, with Aoraki/Mount Cook taking centre stage. In fact, the end of the Hooker Valley Track is the closest you can get to Aoraki/Mount Cook without a challenging climb or a helicopter. If you’re lucky you may even get to hear some ‘mountain thunder’ (this caught us by surprise) as avalanches occasionally roll down the sheer slopes of Mt Sefton high above the Mueller Glacier.

It’s no surprise then that the Hooker Valley walk is high on New Zealand visitor to-do lists and as much as that’s a good thing, one of the consequences is that this track gets really busy. So if you’re hoping to experience the untouched beauty of New Zealand in solitude, this track is probably not for you. That said, if like us, you’re prepared to start your walk early, you won’t be disappointed. Just bear in mind that because of the surrounding mountains, the sun doesn’t reach the valley floor until later in the day so early mornings can be quite crisp. ?

National parks & reserves

DOC Visitor Centre & White Horse Hill Campground

The official start of the Hooker Valley Track is from the White Horse Hill campground and carpark. Alternatively you can start at the DOC visitor centre in the village which will add another 3.5 km and approximately 1 hour to your walk. There’s nothing particularly interesting about this connecting walk but even if you do choose to start at White Horse Hill we would definitely recommend visiting the DOC visitor centre at least once. It’s a stunning building inside, almost an artwork in itself, with lots of interesting information and displays and there’s no entrance fee. Our personal preference would be to park at White Horse Hill, especially when it’s busier in the village as there’s more parking available. And in case you are wondering, there are toilet facilities at both the campground and the visitor centre and you’ll most probably prefer them to the self-composting toilet along the track itself.

Mueller Glacier Lake Lookout

From the White Horse Hill carpark, the track climbs gradually towards the Mueller Glacier Lake lookout. Along the way, you’ll pass Freda’s Rock as well as a branch off to the Alpine Memorial, erected as a tribute to the over 200 climbers that have lost their lives on the surrounding peaks. It’s a scenic although somewhat sobering spot.

As for Freda, the signposted rock marks the spot where this pioneering mountaineer posed for a photo following her ascent of Mount Cook in 1910. She was the first woman to reach the summit and what’s more, she did it in a skirt! You can read more about Freda Du Faur over here.

The Mueller Glacier Lake lookout offers a spectacular view of the glacier lake with Mount Sefton as a backdrop. Unfortunately, the glacier itself is a distant view, having receded significantly over the past decades despite being fed by the numerous hanging glaciers that surround it. The steep, stratified moraine ridges on either side of the valley give a real sense of the size of this glacier in years gone by.

Hooker Valley Track bridge

From the Mueller Glacier Lake lookout, the track drops relatively quickly down to the Hooker River and the first of the walk’s three suspension bridges. Don’t worry, this is about as steep as the track gets. Crossing over the river for the first time you’ll notice the bluish grey colour of the water. This is due to ‘rock flour’ suspended in the water, basically a fine dust that’s created as the glacier grinds its way through the valley.

From the first bridge, the track undulates gradually up the valley, parallel to the moraine ridge before reaching the Hooker River for the second time and the second suspension bridge.

Moraine Diversions

After crossing the second suspension bridge the track follows the western bank of the Hooker River, making its way up the valley. However, being the inquisitive type we noticed, just after the bridge, a path heading left up onto the moraine ridge. While not part of the official Hooker Valley Track, this well-worn path does allow you to walk a little way along the moraine for better views of Mueller Glacier. But don’t be tempted to go too far. The moraine is unstable and we found this out when the path suddenly ended at a massive slip.

Having explored the moraine, we continued along the main track as it heads north into the valley which gradually opens up for an unobscured view of Aoraki/Mount Cook. From this point, your camera will be clicking non-stop if it wasn’t already.

Hooker Valley Track
Hooker Valley Track

Stocking Stream Shelter

At around the 3.5 km (2.2 miles) mark the track reaches a small wooden bridge that crosses a stream to what’s called the Stocking Stream Shelter. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a shelter, or at least wasn’t when we last visited. All that remains now is the foundation and some low rock walls. There are however toilets situated nearby.

Shortly after Stocking Stream, the track turns from gravel into a well-constructed boardwalk where, once again, your camera will be working overtime to capture the iconic Mount Cook boardwalk photo that will have all your friends and family green with envy. That’s assuming, of course, it’s not too late in the day in which case the boardwalk starts to look a bit like a travelator in a busy airport.

Hooker Valley Track

The Final Approach

Shortly after the boardwalk, you’ll reach the third and final suspension bridge. Previously, the Hooker Valley Track continued straight up the valley from here, ending on the western shore of the lake. Since this new bridge was built, the track now heads east which ultimately offers better views of Mount Cook and the glacier itself.

Hooker Valley Track
Hooker Valley Track

From the third bridge, there’s only another kilometre to go and the track climbs gradually to the top of the moraine ridge before reaching a lookout point with picnic tables. And so you’ve arrived, the lake stretches out below and Mount Cook towers above you but where is the glacier you might ask? Well, if you’re expecting to see a pure white glacier snaking off up the valley you will be disappointed, especially if you’ve just come from visiting Fox or Franz Josef Glacier. Unfortunately, rock from the constantly crumbling moraine walls covers the top of the glacier making it a little less dramatic but hey, that’s just geology in action in an ever changing environment. It still beats sitting at home on the couch in front of the TV. ?

Hooker Glacier Lake

Hooker Valley weather

Prior to doing the Hooker Valley walk, we’d spent three days in the area, waiting for the weather to clear. The forecast on the day we walked was for some morning cloud which was scheduled to lift later in the day, which it did. We always keep an eye on the weather a few days out from our activities and rely on a number of sources of information. For the latest Hooker Valley Track weather forecast check the following:

  • The New Zealand Metservice report for Mount Cook.
  • For a general weather outlook of the wider area, Metservice’s National Park forecasts are handy. In the case of the Hooker Valley, that falls within the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park forecast area.
  • While MetService does provide rain forecast maps, these cover the entire country. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.

As with all things weather related, the usual caveats and common sense should apply as no forecast is 100% accurate.

Mount Cook scenic flights

As spectacular as the Hooker Track might be, if you’ve got the budget for it, there’s no better way to see Mount Cook than from a helicopter or aeroplane. Mount Cook Airport is just a few minutes south of Mount Cook Village and from here you can catch one of a number of scenic flights that will give you the best views of Mount Cook, Tasman Glacier and the surrounding area. There are also Mount Cook scenic flights from Queenstown.

Hooker Valley Track route map and elevation profile

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Hooker Valley Track elevation profile

While every attempt has been made to provide useful and accurate information, OutThere.Kiwi assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information and cannot be held responsible for any direct or indirect damages resulting from the use or misuse of this information.

Topographic map data on this page is sourced from the LINZ Data Service https://data.linz.govt.nz/ and licensed by LINZ for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence. Elevation data is sourced from NASA’s SRTM1 (Space Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) database.

If at all possible, you should really try and spend at least two to three days in and around Aoraki/Mount Cook as there is just so much to see besides the Hooker Valley walk. A boat trip on Tasman Glacier with Glacier Explorers is highly recommended or at the very least, take the short walk up to the Tasman Glacier lookout. For a more adventurous option, walk up the valley to the left of the glacier along the Ball Shelter Track. There are a few spots along the moraine wall where you can get a closer view of the glacier’s terminal face. But be careful, the moraine is very unstable in places.

Another of the popular Mount Cook National Park walks is Sealy Tarns. It’s pretty steep but the views are worth it. You can read about this track on the DOC website.

Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Christchurch & Canterbury region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Christchurch & Canterbury.