I wouldn’t call myself an adrenaline junkie by any stretch of the imagination but, when it comes to New Zealand, it’s one of those countries where it would be a shame to not include activities that make your heart beat a little faster.
While this post concerns watersports, which may not sound particularly daring to most people, for those that are a little afraid of water (like myself), we might beg to differ.
When we were back home in the UK planning our itinerary for the North Island, we knew that we really wanted to include Lake Taupo on our list. Not only because it’s the largest lake in the entire country but because we also heard about some very special features within the Taupo area.
There are many reasons why travellers should explore the Lake Taupo region – there’s a geothermal park, mesmerising rapids and plenty of walks – but there’s one attraction that can only be accessed from the water. Nestled within a small bay of the lake, you can find something unusual, and overwhelmingly photogenic.
You can see Maori carvings.
These carvings can, of course, be accessed by easy methods such as boat tours, but we decided on a more adventurous path. While the Maori carvings are undoubtedly the star attractions, more than anything we wanted as much time on Lake Taupo as possible. Boat tours might be kinder on the arms, but what could be better than being on the water for hours, and seeing everything at a slower pace?
We weighed up a few options, but, in the end, we decided to pursue our aquatic adventure with Canoe and Kayak. With their headquarters on Spa Road, Canoe and Kayak is in the centre of Taupo. After arriving there and meeting with Ben, our guide for the day, we hopped into the shuttle and made our way to the shores of the lake.
We were soon kitted up (complete with a corset-meets-dress kayak seal that had us both giggling at each other’s expense) and Ben took us through the ins and outs of kayaking. This is when it struck me that I was really about to strap myself into a boat and be partially responsible for getting said boat across the massive body of water in front of us. Before we knew it, we were seated in our two-person kayak and pushed into the water.
It took us a while to get into a good rhythm, but soon we were gliding through the water at a decent pace. And it was amazing. Since I was in the front of the boat, this meant that I got splashed a fair bit from behind, but the water, with only small swells creating by passing boats, was calm and clear. Just to disperse any initial concerns anyone might have about kayaking: yes, you do use your arms when you kayak, but you’re mostly relying on core strength for the correct paddling movement. And while you may be kayaking for an extended period of time, it does become easier when there’s a second person in your kayak so that you can share the workload.
After getting over my initial fear of the kayak tipping over or of my minuscule arm muscles giving up in protest, I started looking around and soaking in my surroundings. By going at a slower pace, we got to take in the shoreline of Lake Taupo in detail, with Ben pointing out the names of each bay or other physical features.
What followed was an hour full of interesting facts, stories and figures. Ben had plenty of knowledge about Lake Taupo and the surrounding region, from the fact that it’s New Zealand’s largest lake by water surface area (at a whopping 616 square kilometres), to the type of fish and animals that can be found in the area. Importantly, since our goal of the day was to see Maori carvings, we also learned of the local myths attached to Lake Taupo. The Maori people believe that a great serpent guardian lives in the lake and, if you don’t make an appropriate offering to it, catastrophe will befall those who venture into the waters of Lake Taupo. Even the mountains surrounding the lake each bears a story, and I loved hearing about these tales, all of which seemed to explain the natural elements occurring within the region.
I was engrossed in Ben’s stories and, after paddling past a few more dense tree-lined bays and rocky outcrops, he announced that we were getting pretty close to Mine Bay, the location of the Maori carvings.
Even though I had seen photos of these carvings back when we were booking the tour, nothing could have prepared me for seeing these up close. And this is precisely where the difference between a boat tour and kayak tour is most noticeable. A boat may get you within easy photographing distance of the carvings but a kayak allowed us to manoeuvre right up to the carved rockface itself.
The size of the main carving is the most surprising factor. A vast face stretching up above us, it took several summers for the work to be completed. At ten metres tall, this is the face of Ngatoroirangi, a great Maori navigator who guided the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes to Taupo. Ben took us through the carving in detail where each spiral (depicted as fern fronds) on the face correlates to a member of Ngatoroirangi’s family tree.
It may look like this carving has been here for hundreds of years, but, in reality, this was only created in the 1970s. Carved by John Randall and Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, the carving was initially a matter of controversy but, after they got permission from a Maori chief, they managed to complete the work in a few years. Fast forward to now, and this little bay has become a local attraction but it’s said that the carving was created to protect the lake from volcanic activities stirring beneath the water.
So much work and symbolism has gone into Ngatoroirangi’s face, yet there are other, smaller carvings located just to the left side of his imposing expression. The standout is a large lizard, who represents the lake guardian I mentioned earlier, but you could spend a decent amount of time trying to single out each individual carving and figure.
After taking seemingly hundreds of photos on our GoPro, it was time to paddle off to explore other parts of the lake.
We paddled on shore for a well-deserved break, and Ben magically produced hot coffee and biscuits. We pretty much inhaled these after our phyiscal pursuits, and, newly caffeinated, Ben led us for a walk in the area. Our visit was in early spring but, in summer, your kayaking tour may involve a spot of rock jumping and swimming. For us, we got to see Taupo’s oldest rock carving.
Rather unassuming compared to what we had just seen out on the water, not much is known about this small single carving or when it was created. But Ben told us that it was his new tradition to make people do their best haka faces next to the carving, and that’s when I realised I don’t have one. As he put it, it looked like I was taking a trip to the dentist, but I’m much more impressed with Chris’ efforts!
We also followed a trail down to a cave, which was once used by Maori sailors making their way across Taupo. Nowadays it’s filled with giant cobwebs and might be a popular spot for teenagers, but it was fascinating to visit a place that had been used as a rest stop for hundreds of years – and which we would have unlikely found if not for the tour.
All too soon, it was time to get back into our kayaks and head back to our launch site. I’m not sure whether we had finally gotten the knack of kayaking or whether the water current was working with us, but the paddle back seemed so much easier. Paddling in a two-person kayak is about teamwork, and apart from a few moments when we tried to turn and ended up paddling a perfect circle or the times when Chris conveniently filmed some videos without telling me (and therefore me doing all the work), I think Chris and I fared pretty well. Ben joked that he had nicknamed the kayak we were in as ‘the marriage-breaker’, so maybe that serves as a pretty good warning when it comes to choosing your kayak buddy!
Apart from getting to spend plenty of time at the Maori carvings and learning so much more about Lake Taupo, the best thing about the Canoe and Kayak tour is that you feel like you’re spending a relaxed morning exploring the area in the company of friends. Ben was an excellent guide, and I know that we chose the best way in which to discover Lake Taupo’s Maori carvings.
The tour definitely made me more curious about kayaking again and I’d highly recommend this tour for anyone visiting Taupo. Canoe and Kayak also offer float trips down the Waikato River for those not so keen to take on the lake itself.
Our tour to see the Maori carvings was the highlight of our trip to Taupo – nothing can compare to that moment when we steered our kayak around a corner and first saw the Maori rock carvings looming up above us in their entirety.
Have you been kayaking on Lake Taupo? What are some of your favourite things to do in the area? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: We experienced our Canoe and Kayak tour in exchange for a review but, as always, all opinions and lacklustre haka expressions are entirely my own.
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