Waikato: Wild thing, you make my heart sing

Elisabeth Easther goes in search of animal encounters in the untamed central North Island.

Rafting on the Tongariro River - in search of whio.
Rafting on the Tongariro River - in search of whio.

When the city starts to feel a little tame and domestic life means being domesticated, you need to head down country in search of wildlife.

Ever keen to go out for a duck, we were heading to the central North Island for an animal encounter.

First stop was Tongariro River Rafting where guide Garth took us in search of whio, or little blue ducks. These plucky little birds are an endangered species, now enjoying an increase in numbers thanks to people such as Garth and organisations like the Department of Conservation, Project Tongariro and Genesis Energy's Whio Forever programme taking predator control and bird monitoring to new heights.

Rushing along on the white water, we saw plenty of shags, paradise ducks and piwakawaka. Pockets of wader-clad anglers, thigh deep in the water, were flicking their lines in elegant arcs. Rafting along here is wonderful fun whether you see whio or not - we didn't spot any, but I'm told Marcus Lush got more bang for his buck when he visited.

After a quick refuel at Turangi's cute-as-a-button Thyme for Food Cafe - more 50s furnishings, Formica and chrome than you can shake a stick at - we were off to the Tongariro National Trout Centre.

The massive trout gazed up at us, keen to be fed. These enormous creatures clearly have their wishes regularly granted and they swam and schooled in search of treats.

At the Trout Centre you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about trout (and other freshwater creatures) and the exhibits of all things related to fly fishing are fabulous.

The aquariums are similarly riveting: koura, our native crayfish, full-grown whitebait whose lives weren't frittered away, as well as undulating long fin eels.

The highlight was being issued with a fishing licence and catching a rainbow trout - with a bit of assistance, my son caught a 1.1kg whopper. Pete, our friendly, informative DoC guide, smoked our catch using manuka bark peeled from a nearby tree and the result was delicious.

Keen for a little less wilderness and a bit more comfort, we were beckoned by the plush elegance of The Chateau. This chocolate box-building is a trip back in time; looking out the enormous picture windows to the mountains, it's fun to imagine being an intrepid explorer touring the colonies in style.

Sadly we couldn't completely do justice to the breakfast buffet because we were going caving. I'd have hated to find myself wedged between rocks on account of an extra hash brown. Feeling suitably svelte for spelunking, we drove with Brian, the DoC ranger, to Okupata Caves, 25 minutes from Whakapapa.

Spend a night in plush elegance at The Chateau.
Spend a night in plush elegance at The Chateau.

This unmarked network of underground passages is most impressive, but you do need to know what you're doing - or have Brian (who kitted us out with torches and helmets) and Jerome from Kiwis for Kiwi along for the ride.

We descended a sturdy ladder into a whole other world. Glowworms are native to New Zealand, which I didn't know. Also unique to New Zealand is the cave weta; colonies of them twitched their antennae, observing us as keenly as we watched them. Following Brian through ankle-deep water, we posted ourselves through a slot called the letterbox, a tight little challenge.

Next, kiwi. Jerome helped us locate nearby birds by scanning for their transmitters with a device that looked like a handheld television aerial to check for signals. No luck, disappointingly.

No longer city-tame, we were ready to return to town.

NEED TO KNOW

For further information see: Tongariro River Rafting, the Tongariro National Trout Centre and Chateau Tongariro Hotel.

Jerome and Brian are both part of Mahi Aroha, DoC's Summer Nature Programme, which includes hikes, fishing and cycling trips and an evening Kiwi in the Wild trip.

Elisabeth was a guest of Great Lake Taupo.

- NZ Herald

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