I left Wellington very early in the morning after two fantastic days in New Zealand’s capital. I wanted to get an early start on the drive to Taupo which was 370 kilometers (230 miles) away. I very easily could have seen myself spending another day or two in Wellington, but I had been moving my itinerary up a couple days hoping to do something special near the end of the trip.
After 4.5 hours of driving, I was ready for a break. Passing through the town of Waiouru, I made the spur of the moment decision to stop and have a short look around the National Army Museum.
Anyone familiar with history should know of the valiant sacrifices of the New Zealand Army in the conflicts of the 20th century. I figured the museum would mostly cover this time period, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The museum turned out to be one of the best museums I have ever been to. The fact that, going into my visit, I had not heard about how awesome the museum was shocked me.
It did cover the history of New Zealand’s fighting forces in the World Wars as I had expected, but it covered all the military actions they had been involved in, starting with The New Zealand Wars with the Maori and the Boer Wars, all the way through Korea and Vietnam.
There was a remarkable number of artifacts, all displayed in a chronological order that was easy to follow around the museum. On top of being a great museum, it is also a memorial to the courageous men and women of New Zealand’s armed forces. I’ll have a photo essay from the museum later this week.
A few miles north of Waiouru, I passed the fringes of Tongariro National Park. I was able to pull over and take some pictures of two of the park’s most famous peaks, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe.
I turned on to the Tukino Mountain Road, an unsealed, mostly 4 Wheel Drive road that approached the mountain’s ski field from the east. I had no intention of driving all the way there in my campervan, I just wanted to get better positioning for pictures than I was getting from the side of the road.
The road that I was traveling to Taupo, State Highway 1, is know as the Desert Road through this stretch. At over 1,000 meters above sea level, it is the highest point on New Zealand’s state highway network.
Mount Ngauruhoe is most famous for being used as the model for the fictional Mount Doom, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d been near many of the sites that were used as filming locations for the movies, but had, as of yet, avoided them. The above picture was the one concession to ‘movie sightseeing’. I wasn’t a huge fan of the movies (but loved the books) and I also was mildly annoyed with the fact that all anyone ever seemed to know about New Zealand before I left is that the movies were filmed there. I was shocked that the Kiwis didn’t seemed bothered by this at all, instead the majority seemed to embrace being such a beautiful land that some of it could be used as a fictional landscape.
Mount Ngauruhoe looks the most like an volcano, with the classic cone shape known as a stratovolcano. A few months after leaving New Zealand, Mount Tongariro (which was barely visible from this viewpoint) had a minor eruption that covered State Highway One in 2 inches of ash. Residents in Taupo could see the ash cloud, and people in Wellington, Auckland and Hastings reported being able to smell sulfur.
I continued north on State Highway One, passing through forests then farmland on my way toward Lake Taupo. I wasn’t surprised to see farm and grazing land in this area, as volcanic cover often works well as fertilzer for crops and grasses.
Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest freshwater lake, and the 2nd largest in the Pacific region. It was formed by a supervolcanic eruption that took place over 25,000 years ago. Today the caldera is considered doormant, no extinct, and there are a few areas of active geothermal activity below the lake’s surface.
There were many options for cruising Lake Taupo, but the one that I really wanted to do was a cruise aboard the 1920s yacht known as The Barbary. I’d read about this in a couple of guidebooks and the tourist brochures for the area I’d picked up on the Interislander ferry between the North and South Islands, had made this a must-do activity, and the main reason I had left Wellington so early in the morning.
I was running a little late for the cruise, so I called and pleaded with the nice woman on the other end of the line to give me a couple minutes to get there. As with all the Kiwis I dealt with, she was extremely nice and accommodating letting me know not to worry about it, and that they were still waiting on a couple of the other guests. I arrived just in time, quickly paid and boarded the boat, and we headed out on to the lake on an idyllic afternoon of blue skies and bright sunshine.
One of the highlights of the cruise was the visit to the Maori Rock Carvings in Mine Bay, on the lake’s northwest side. These intricate carvings were done by a pair of artists in the 1970s, and have been attracting admirers ever since. They are designed to pay tribute to, and tell the story of Ngātoro-i-rangi, a famous navigator who legend says first explored the area and gave many of the area’s features their Maori names.
The cruise was another one of those moments of bliss. The Barbary is an electric yacht and sailed peacefully (not to mention noiselessly and environmentally-friendly) around the perfect blue waters of the lake. On our way back, we were able to see some skydivers parachuting to the ground (an activity the area is known for) on the lake’s southeastern shores, south of the village of Taupo itself. (I’ll have many more pictures from this fantastic cruise in an upcoming photo essay.)
We arrived back at the dock as the sun was setting. I’d asked the skipper of the boat, another extremely affable gentleman named Jamie, where would be a good place to watch the sunset and he suggested any of the parks along the lake’s eastern shore. I drove there, opened up the back of the campervan and cooked the leftover Crayfish I’d gotten outside Kaikoura a few days earlier. It was a beautiful setting and a great way to cap off another amazing day.