Friday, 20 January 2012

The Great Lake Taupo

At the geographic centre of New Zealand's North Island lies a volcanic crater. Spanning the size of a small country, the crater is the site of one of the largest documented eruptions in human history, darkening the skies of ancient China and even Rome. Today, the basin formed in these cataclysms is submerged beneath the hundred and ninety metre deep waters of Lake Taupo.

It is almost inconceivable to imagine that the small waves that lap the shores of Taupo have been swept over a dormant caldera that last exploded as recently as 2190 years ago. The vast body of water seems more like an ancient sea than a crater lake; its deep blue waters are framed by coves and beaches softened with white pumice sands that formed during one of the massive volcano's many eruptions, while in every direction the steeples and turrets of volcanic vents stand as brooding sentinels in the edge of the landscape, reminding you that this is most definitely inland.

Fed by the glacial streams and filtered rhyolitic rivulets of Tongariro National Park, the water has the incredible clarity of a mountain stream: a window into the depths of North Island before it tears itself into the mighty Waikato - New Zealand's longest river. Our visit to Lake Taupo began here, at its outlet, where the lake's restive soul detonates into some of the world's most stunning rapids - Huka Falls. Here, the Waikato is forced from being a hundred metres wide to just fifteen. The falls aren't the biggest, nor the tallest, nor the widest, but there is something spectacular and terrifying about seeing such a quantity of water writhing and churning its way down a narrow gorge with an almost supernatural, sentient ferocity.

There's no real way of grasping their power or volume without seeing them properly. Telling you that there is the equivalent of five olympic swimming pools pouring out each minute does not them justice. Huka Falls are a thunder of bright aqua green and bright white foam, the whirling waters never making the same pattern twice. Then, after a few hundred metres, they crash out of their canyon into a maelstromic plunge pool eleven metres below, where their rage swirls back into a calm, resuming the journey to the country's west coast.

Needless to say, we played extreme Pooh Sticks on the bridge above.

I won.

After our visit to the falls, we made our way to the lake itself. The town of Taupo is small but busy; a hive of tourists and thrill seekers booking their jetboat trips to Huka Falls, their skydiving and their bungee jumps. Meanwhile, the locals sun themselves on the lakefront as jetskis, speedboats and yachts slice and skim their way over the surface of the water. The bright blues and greens of Huka Falls gave a strange sense of invitation, so we were itching to get into/onto the lake. We made a short journey away from the busyness of Taupo to a sheltered cove on the Western edge, Acacia Bay. The waves became ripples here, and our kayak ownership meant we could explore further out. The clarity was startling. Even a long way out, shafts of light were reaching the bottom metres and metres below with no hint of murk or silt to obstruct them. The submarine landscape was just as mesmerising as the hills and cliffs above the water line.

We spent the evening with a friend of Amy's and were stoked to be given the opportunity to borrow their housemate's paddleboard the following morning. As a sport neither of us had ever tried but always wanted to, we were out on the water early on. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up and the chop grown bigger during the night, but we were unperturbed and spent a few hours clumsily wobbling from side to side in hilarious slapstick fashion before finally getting the gist of it. We both came away from the lake smiling, and made another addition to our already overfull arsenal of hobbies.

We had the intention of kayaking our way around Lake Taupo's western shoreline to view a unique piece of Maori craftsmanship: thirty foot carvings in the cliff sides of Mine Bay, reachable only by boat or kayak, but the strength of the prevailing wind took the appeal off the idea, so instead we went to visit something equally fascinating...

Downstream of Huka Falls, the Waikato River is held back by the concrete and metal of Aratiatia Dam. Below the dam, the exposed gorge has been carved into curvaceous grooves and soft, alien formations by the power of the river, but for much of the time, the rocks are dry, with just an iridescent pool of azure blue resting in the valley floor. Then, three or four times a day, the river is unleashed.

Sadly, there are no cries of "Break the dam! Release the river!" save for those in my head, but a horn sounds through the valley as the gates slowly crank open just enough to transform a trickle to a torrent. The effect is strange: like the sunset, it's barely noticeable through a constant gaze, but look away for a moment and suddenly the difference is colossal. Water leaps up with such a force that it's easy to see why the adjacent rock faces are so smooth, ground down by the blasts of current that strike them.

The incumbent great lake of Taupo makes it hard to imagine that it hasn't always been there. And, while the the plethora of colourful volcanic valleys, terraces and geysers are fascinating, they're simply little reminders that Taupo's creator is sleeping; dormant, but still very much alive.

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