Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Central North Island: Mountain jewels

For a big occasion, Jared Savage makes the most of some big scenery.

Mt Ruapehu's crater lake stands out like a jewel. Photo / Jared Savage
Mt Ruapehu's crater lake stands out like a jewel. Photo / Jared Savage

"People don't realise how big Lake Taupo is until they fly over the water in a single-engine helicopter."

Truer words were never spoken.

Our pilot, Adrian, may have been joking - he quickly followed that comment by reassuring us no helicopter has ever ended up in the drink - but he had a point. Even flying at 600m we have to squint to see from shore to shore of Lake Taupo, an area the size of Singapore. And is seems to take forever to cross.

We had hitched a ride with Helistar and were headed towards Tongariro National Park to view the spectacular lakes, bush, arid desert, rivers and snowcapped volcanoes from the air.

Lifting off from the Helistar base near Huka Falls, our four-seater chopper cruises south from Taupo straight towards the mountains - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. The lake was as flat as a pancake, its glassy waters clouded only by patches of low-lying mist.

After buzzing over the foothills skirting Turangi, we reached the desert plains.

Volcanic ash windswept from past eruptions means little can grow in the arid soil except hardy tussock. It seems strange that many New Zealanders have seen little of this amazing landscape, except the parts that border the famous Desert Rd.

From the air the area looks like it belongs on another planet: alien in contrast to the neighbouring lush bush, snow-covered mountains and expanse of lake. Climbing to 3000m, our helicopter skirts Tongariro, the first of the three mountains we will "climb" today.

Buffeted by winds that whip around the base of the mountain, the helicopter rocks from side to side in the turbulence, but we're calmly assured it's nothing to worry about. And I'm more interested in the poor sods we can see tramping through the ranges. From the warmth and relative comfort of our chopper I smugly imagine them, huddling together at night in one of the Department of Conservation huts dotted along the walking tracks.

As we circle the Tongariro summit, Adrian points out the volcanic vent where director Peter Jackson filmed the climactic scenes of The Lord of the Rings, where the One Ring, Gollum's "Precious" is destroyed in lava.

It reminds me of the real reason I'm here.

I have a girl in the seat beside me, and a pressing question to ask. I nervously pat the diamond Precious in my pocket to make sure it is safe.

But for now, we're done with Tongariro and move to the perfect cone-shape of Ngauruhoe.

Adrian, perhaps uncharitably, describes the volcano as "evil".

Maybe he's been watching too much Lord of the Rings.

Close up though, Ngauruhoe does look angry, a red, raw blister on the face of the Central Plateau, masked only by a low-lying cloud that gives it an air of menace.

The volcano hasn't erupted since 1975, but from above you can see the scars where lahar burst down the mountainside from the crater lake.

Finally it's on to Mt Ruapehu. The weekend we visited, the ski season had just opened at Whakapapa. But on that day Happy Valley looked anything but, with just a few spots of snow here and there in the rocks.

On the summit however, a thick carpet of white had been laid. The azure crater lake looked like a gem in the crown of this, the tallest mountain in the North Island.

Adrian points out an A-frame roof poking out of the snow - it's the hut in which climber William Pike was staying when the huge lahar burst 18 months ago.

An estimated billion litres of water gushed from Ruapehu's crater lake that day and when you see how close Pike was to the action, you understand what a miracle it was that he survived.

For us, the weather has turned sour, as it can do so quickly in this part of the country. Blue skies have been replaced by ominous clouds and we take cover.

A planned landing in the Kaimanawa ranges has to be canned and instead we follow the Rangitikei River, famous for its trout, weaving through the valley - Vietnam-style, as Adrian puts it - before heading back to base.

The final sweep over Huka Falls before landing is yet another incredible vista.

Lakes, deserts, mountains, forests and rivers: I can't think of a more romantic way to see the natural beauty of New Zealand.

PS: She said yes

- Herald on Sunday

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