Our road trip of the South Island drew to an end at Dunedin Airport, where we caught an Air NZ domestic flight to Auckland on the morning of 14 December 2019. Flight NZ696 departed Dunedin at 0955 hrs and arrived at Auckland at 1145 hrs. No onboard meal was served, but we were offered a cup of tea and a choice of either a cookie or a small packet of corn chips.
We picked up our rental Toyota Hiace from the Hertz counter, and quickly made our way to Pokeno. About 50km from Auckland, Pokeno is popular with tourists for their coned treats. Once you roll into the small town, you'll find 2 takeaway stalls right next to each other serving Tip Top brand ice-cream in a wide assortment of flavours. Their prices are the same, their menus similar, but the one named Johnson Takeaways has a little more ice-cream flavours and way better fish and chips. Yes, we ordered from both to compare.
People don't travel all the way to Pokeno for one scoop of Tip Top ice-cream though. What made them known as "the ice-cream capital of NZ" is their monster 12-scoop cone for NZ$14. That's a ridiculous amount of ice-cream to lick! We contemplated sharing one, but it would have been way too messy to handle, so we settled for double scoops each.
From Pokeno, it was a further 218km to Huka Falls. With our bellies full, we struggled to keep awake behind the wheel. We made a pitstop at the 125km mark at Tirau to visit The Merino Story shop. You can't miss it. It's in an unique building shaped like a sheep. We refueled at Tirau and stocked up on bottles of Barista Bros iced coffee. Tried different brands of bottled coffee in NZ, and this brand had the optimal amount of caffeine to keep us from falling asleep whilst driving and yet allow us to sleep restfully at night.
We arrived at Huka Falls at 1715 hrs. There was a sign at the entrance of the car park warning visitors that the car park would be locked at 1830 hrs sharp. The operation hours are shorter in winter, so do watch out. With 220,000 litres of water flowing per second, Huka Falls are the most powerful falls in NZ, and they consistently make the list of top 10 waterfalls to visit in NZ. Its 11 metre height pales in comparison to other falls we visited in the South Island though, so it didn't appear as impressive.
We made it out of the car park just in time, and went in search of Otumuheke Stream Spa Thermal Park, a geothermal pool where we could swim or soak our feet for free. The address of the park seemed to have been recorded wrongly in GoogleMaps because it kept directing us to turn into a gated residential compound. The correct way to get there is actually to key in County Avenue in GoogleMaps and keep driving down County Avenue till you arrive at the carpark. There was also a sign indicating that the car park would close at 2000 hrs. Not sure if the authorities adhere to that because there were still many cars in the car park when we left at 5 mins to 2000 hrs.
The sun set at Taupo at 2035 hrs on that day and we arrived at Lake Taupo in time to watch the sun go down over the lake. It was so peaceful and serene, but little did we know that Lake Taupo is actually the caldera of an active supervolcano called Taupo Volcano. According to Wikipedia, this "huge volcano has produced 2 of the world's most violent eruptions in geologically recent times". In fact, Taupo Volcano is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone; the very zone which Whakaari (White Island) is in. Whakaari erupted suddenly at 1411 hrs on 9 December 2019, when we were on the South Island. The eruption killed at least 19 people, and wounded 25. Coincidentally, the tourists involved in the Whakaari eruption had sailed there by Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas; the very ship we were on 3 years earlier.
That evening, we had a scrumptious dinner at Noodle Canteen in the town centre, picked up some groceries from Pak'nSave supermarket, before checking into our vacation home called The Lake House. We had booked The Lake House via Booking.com. It was a 4-bedroom 2-bathroom house with an outdoor hot-tub. There were a million twinkling stars out on the deck that night. Hubby and the girls even said they saw a shooting star. We had missed out on star-gazing in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve due to road closures, and were glad that we could do the same from The Lake House.
One downside of the house though was the lack of non-stick frying pans and a proper working stove. We gave up frying eggs and bacon on the stove in the end, and used only the microwave to make scrambled eggs and brown our bacon. The house was much older than the other 2 houses we had stayed at during our trip, and it felt a little like the owners had just moved out of there and left behind some odd, mismatched utensils and crockery for the kitchen. Having said that, the hot-tub more than made up for those shortcomings.
After breakfast the next day, we made our way to Aratiatia Dam at 0920 hrs. Each day, the spill gates of the dam opens for 15 mins at 1000 hrs, 1200 hrs, 1400 hrs and 1600 hrs (1 October to 31 March only). The rapids formed by the opening of the spill gates are said to rival those of the powerful Huka Falls. It was an easy 5 min walk to the Lower Lookout Point, and a further 8 mins to the Upper Lookout Point. On hindsight, to experience the sheer force of the rapids, standing at the Lower Lookout Point would have been better. Our group had split up and we exchanged photos after. However, the Upper Lookout Point did reward us with a panoramic view of the area.
We stopped by Huka Honey Hive on the way back to town. Behind a glass wall, we saw live honey bees at work. There was free tasting of honey, and they stocked a myriad of interesting honey-themed souvenirs. However, if you're looking to purchase Manuka honey to bring home, you're better off buying them from Pak'nSave. It'll save you a very tidy bundle.
Taupo is also the only place on earth where you can climb on board a decommissioned DC plane and have a MacDonald's meal there. The plane is only open from 0900 to 1630 hrs; which was just right for our lunch. We had booked a whitewater rafting trip on the Tongariro River organized by Tongariro River Rafting via Viator, and they were picking us up from the house at 1300 hrs. We finished our meal quickly on the plane and rushed back to get ready.
We were picked up at 1300 hrs, and the bus made its way around town picking up other passengers before heading to the rafting base at Turangi. There, we were briefed and issued wetsuit, fleece, windproof jacket, life vest, helmet and booties to change into. We brought our own swimwear to wear under all that. After changing into our gear, we were ushered back onto the bus to be driven to the launch site.
Each raft could carry up to 6 plus the guide. With my in-laws sitting out this activity, my family occupied one raft. Together with our guide, Jade, we carried our raft to the river. Once there, my 2 girls were instructed to take the front row, Hubby and I took the middle, and my parents who're in their early 70s took the row closest to Jade. Jade passed us our paddles, briefed us on paddling, holding on, getting down, etc., and off we went!
This was my third whitewater rafting trip, Hubby's second, and it was the virgin run for the rest of the family. Sixty heart-pounding, roller-coaster rapids later, my mom was a changed person. Worrier her had started the day in apprehension, repeatedly reminding the rest of us about the dangers of hitting our heads against a rock, getting pinned under a boulder and drowning, etc. By the end of the session, she was screaming for more, and wanted to back paddle to re-start the entire course!
It helped that Jade was a star guide; a humorous, spirited individual who made sure we had the most fun we could, in the safest possible way. Throughout the 2.5 hours we had on the river, he told us interesting stories of the area, gave clear instructions on what to expect at the next rapid, encouraged us to take the plunge down the cliff, and gave the girls the opportunity to swim in the river. I had picked this tour over others because the operators were confident of taking kids as young as 10 years old on rapids which were graded up to 3. All the other whitewater rafting tours I looked at at minimum age requirements which my younger daughter could not meet. Even though the rapids we experienced were graded up to 3, not the highest I've been on, this trip was certainly the most fun I had because I was with my family.
Upon returning to the base at Turangi, we changed out of our wet gear and helped ourselves to the spread the operators had laid out for us to make yummy sandwiches. Rafting and swimming had worked up quite an appetite in us, and we polished off everything. Pictures of our trip were shown to us. It cost NZ$65 to purchase the photo plus video package, which we gladly paid for. Such great memories for the entire family! This was the one activity we talked about for weeks after the trip.
By the time we were dropped off at the house, it was already 1900 hrs. Whilst I prepared dinner for the family, the rest soaked in the hot-tub. A relaxing end to an exhilarating day.