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May 2017 Issue
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Serendipity in secluded lakes and streams

Pihanga looms over Lake Rotopounamu's serene waters. Photo: Paul Rush
Turangi offers a unique walking weekend experience that combines solitude and exploration of the town’s unique thermal attractions

Discovering hidden gems in New Zealand’s diverse landscape is one of the joys of travelling. Wherever you go, there are memorable wilderness experiences to chance upon.

For those whose travels bring them to Turangi, the Ponanga Saddle Road (SH47), which runs from the township to National Park, is one of those roads that hold hidden treasures and wilderness delights.

Just over the saddle from Turangi, is a roadside car park where you can access a tranquil lake amidst a stand of pristine native podocarp forest.

The lake is nestled on the western flanks of Mt Pihanga, a 1325m volcanic cone of Maori legend. It is said that Taranaki fell in love with Pihanga, Tongariro’s wife. Taranaki was forced to retreat in a disconsolate state to the far western shores of Aotearoa.

The Walks

The well-signposted Lake Rotopounamu Loop Track winds uphill through lush virgin bush. It’s an easy 5km stroll but invites you to allow time for a picnic on a secluded beach.

After 20 minutes the left fork of a junction leads to Ten Minute Beach, where there’s a pleasant picnic and swimming spot.

Continuing on clockwise around the lake, mature rimu, matai and red beech are interspersed with young rimu and kahikatea on the moist lakeside terraces.

Along the northern and eastern shores, several tributary streams feed the lake but there’s no obvious outlet. Later at Long Beach, mysterious gurgling sounds give a clue to how this greenstone-coloured lake is released through sumps and crevices into subterranean aquifers that drain into Lake Rotoaira.

Long Beach is a broad sweep of pumice sand that’s ideal for a rest stop and a refreshing swim with the grey ducks, dabchicks and shags. On this eastern shoreline, giant kahikatea have fallen into the lake, lying in crystal-clear water like recumbent mythical taniwha.

A visit to Lake Rotopounamu can be combined with tranquil Lake Rotoaira just one kilometre down the road. From the historic Opotaka Pa site, there’s a superb view of a small round-top island that appears to float on the lake’s soft blue, mirror-like surface.

Paramount chief, Te Rauparaha, sought refuge here on his long trek from Waikato to his raiding base on Kapiti Island, when a hostile Ngati Te Aho war party tried to intercept him. He hid in a covered kumara pit on which the local chief’s wife sat nonchalantly weaving flax and was gripped with fear, knowing that he was effectively trapped.

When the woman moved away he thought his end was near, but his enemies had left. He emerged from the dark pit, chanting the haka loudly in triumph – Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora! – I am dying, I’m dead, No I’m alive, fully alive. Whiti te ra – We can make the sun shine.

The Tokaanu Thermal Walk has steam rising from a dozen fizzing, simmering hot pools, creating an atmospheric, ephemeral scene.

Matawai, the first pool reached on a clockwise circuit, is quiescent and simmers gently now, but in 1982 it erupted violently for four months, throwing water four metres into the air. Toretiti Pool has a murky grey surface, shrouded in curling wisps of steam. This medicinal marvel is reputed to have cured the ulcers of many Ngati Apakura warriors who migrated from the Waikato.

Turangi Township has the pulse of the Volcanic Plateau, with Lake Taupo on its doorstep and Tongariro National Park to the south. The town is the halfway point between Wellington and Auckland and regards itself as New Zealand’s  Trout Fishing capital.

The Kaimanawa Range has numerous tracks starting south of Turangi off SH1. For adventure seekers, it’s the perfect base for tramping, hunting, fishing, rafting, mountain biking and kayaking.