The Lake Taupo Region
Mount Tauhara Climb
Tuesday, February 9
After completing our visit to the Craters of the Moon geothermal area, we returned to our rental house for a mid-day break. Those wanting to extract some extra exploration out of the day were keen to do a bit more, and I suggested a local mountain hike upon which I had done some research prior to the trip. The peak, called Mount Tauhara, is a dormant 3,570 foot (1088m) volcano only a few kilometres to the east of town. A rustic but well-defined hiking track leads to the mostly-vegetated top.
Caroline, Jenn, Pu, Brian and myself were interested in the outing, and we set off in one of the vans shortly after 2pm. The trailhead was quite close to the house - perhaps only 10 or so kilometres away, so we reached it in short order.
Tauhara Track Trailhead
The forested slopes of Mt Tauhara rose directly in front of us. Although the earlier drizzliness had stopped and the weather was starting to lift, the summit was still in the clouds. Hopefully, we thought, it would clear away by the time we got to the top.
Mt Tauhara is stewarded by a couple of local trusts, and the approach to it crosses a functioning, private farm. The whole of the upper part of the mountain is significant to the local Maori.
Back in December of 2014, some vandalism in the form of unauthorized forest clearing (apparently someone tried to cut a helicopter landing and hang-gliding clearing) caused the trust to close the mountain off entirely, including the track. This closure lasted well into the planning phase of our trip, and I had mostly discounted including it in our itinerary. Happily, though, just weeks before our departure, I noticed a news item about the re-opening of the track to the public - just in time for us. I promised to myself that I would be on the lookout for any nasty vandals.
Across Sheep Farm
Parking next to a brand-new sign at the end of Mountain Road, we climbed a hiker crossing over a livestock fence and started up through open pastureland towards the peak. White poles placed at intervals marked the route up an open grassy ridge, dotted here and there with livestock.
Carefully keeping as close as possible to the marker poles, we climbed up the grassy ridge, which was fairly steep in places. Views back across the Lake Taupo basin grew as we climbed, although off at the horizon, clouds and mist obscured the view.
Ever-expanding Taupo View
The grassy ridge curved slightly to the right as it climbed, angling ever more directly towards the peak. Now hiking upwards adjacent to a fence, we approached a line of vegetation marking the end of the farm and the beginning of the native vegetation on the upper slopes of the mountain.
At about the 2250 ft (700m) level, the farm ended and thick forest began. Wooden steps led over an overgrown cattle fence, beyond which a narrow forest track led upwards.
Now plunged into a shady gloom, we continued upwards on a moist, earthy path. Thick native New Zealand vegetation crowded all around us. It was definitely different than the typical forest vegetation of eastern North America - this felt pseudo-tropical. Lots of large tree ferns, mosses, and various native trees (podocarp, beech) grew in profusion. The earthy track was occasionally crossed by tree roots, but other than a constant uphill grade, was not that hard to negotiate. In places, foot traffic had eroded the trailbed into a deep groove.
With the exception of one large switchback, the trail mostly just led straight up the slope of the mountain. Views were virtually non-existent, except for one or two spots at about the 2750-foot (850m) level. We could see that we were nearing the base of the cloud deck in these spots; unfortunately, the hoped-for clearing of the summit had not yet arrived.
Mt Tauhara is a dormant volcano, long-ago covered by vegetation. The general shape of a volcanic peak with a summit crater is present underneath all that greenery, however, and the Mt Tauhara track enters this crater area via a narrow cleft on the mountain's western aspect. At this point we entered the cloud deck, and everything became very ghostly. The narrow forested passageway into the crater, the increasingly mossy and dense native vegetation - all combined to create a beautiful, ethereal scene.
More deep track
Once inside the crater, the track led upwards through some exceptionally deep sections of eroded trail, where the trail's groove was cut to a depth of about 2 metres or more. This was followed by a small clearing, some overgrown trail, and then an exceptionally wondrous bit of moss-drenched forest. The carpet of green extended even to the branches of large, gnarled trees that arched overhead. Definitely some Tolkien magic woods stuff going on here.
Minutes after the magical mossy forest, we arrived on the southern edge of Mt Tauhara's crater rim. There was an open, gravelly area here, with some sort of short metal tower in the center. All around us was white, unfortunately, with pretty much no views out to the wider landscape. At best we could see a hundred metres or so along the ridge crest and down the mountainside.