Central North Island: Snow in July - you can rely

By Paul Charman

Paul Charman on the joys of a weekend driving around the Central Plateau.

A snow-capped Mt Ngauruhoe makes a stunning backdrop for a journey through the central North Island. Photo / Christine Cornege
A snow-capped Mt Ngauruhoe makes a stunning backdrop for a journey through the central North Island. Photo / Christine Cornege

I left Auckland full of anticipation, late on a rainy first day of the ski season. This was an opportunity to get some stories for the paper. I would be interviewing deer hunters, inspecting fascinating old cars at Smash Palace in Horopito, sampling pre-ski season celebrations at Ohakune and maybe have time for a bike ride. The weather always came right, I reasoned.

Wet winter motoring and lots of delays on the Southern Motorway couldn't dent the enthusiasm, nor that of seemingly thousands of others on the same trip.

But not too long after Gordonton, SatNav, on some idiot setting, began directing me all over the place.

"Straight ahead 1.2 km, then turn left; 6 km, then turn right; 8 km, then turn left..." she crooned. On and on it went all in pitch blackness and driving rain.

Enthusiasm dissipated as I gassed up in rainy Cambridge, so not much buzz was left as I arrived late in Taupo.

Checking into the Wairakei Resort Taupo, a whole lot of deer hunters were making a racket in the bar.

I should have got contacts for my hunting story, but in a black mood now, headed for bed.

Oh great, forgot my book - an exciting story about salvaging gold from the Niagara - so tried TV, then fell into fitful sleep.

But "Joy cometh in the morning", as the Psalm open on my bedside table reminded.

Wairakei is maybe five minutes from Huka Falls, where watching the Waikato River roar through a 100m gap (at 220,000 litres-a-second) is always a tonic.

Huka Falls' rampant roar and negative ions set me up for a great day. Then came one of those typical central North Island weather changes - for the better. Rain gave way to high cloud, chilly wind and persistent rainbows. To really feel alive, just motor down the eastern side of Taupo on a mid-winter's day.

Famous villages whiz past - Waitahunui, Motutere and Motuoapa - and they're all at their best under high, bright cloud. The lake is all blue-black white-caps stretching to misty headlands, and rainbows follow.

Keep your postcard perfection - give me a rowdy Taupo like this one, I thought, as Turangi came alongside and slipped past.

The car was soon climbing Te Ponanga Saddle Rd into the Tongariro National Park.

With so many rainbows around I stopped for photos beside the mysterious little Lake Rotoaira, just south of Lake Taupo. A great spot, close to where - while on the lam in 1820 - Te Rauparaha composed the famous Ka Mate haka.

Back on Highway 47, and heading towards National Park, I usually turn left to Whakapapa village to visit the incomparable Chateau Tongariro.

But today I eschewed Whakapapa village. With snow still too little for lifts to be operating, lots of people had long faces.

A wee rhyme known to every tourist operator here, came to my mind:

"Snow in May - doesn't stay"
"Snow in June - too soon"
"Snow in July - you can rely"

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts and businesses such as the Chateau take on hundreds of extra staff in anticipation of the snow, and they sweat it out until it arrives.

But maybe these days the rhyme needs another verse, something like:

"With a bike - profits hike".

The central North Island runs on year-round adventure cycling these days, not just on winter snow. And I'd soon see why.

My rental was nearing one of the most famous stages of the New Zealand National Cycle Trail - the Mountain to Sea run from Ruapehu to Whanganui.

At Horopito Vintage Car Dismantlers, the largest vintage car wrecker in Australasia, the bikes began arriving.

Featuring wrecks from 1920 to 1970, this place fascinates car buffs and featured in hit Kiwi movies Smash Palace and Goodbye Pork Pie.

But as I parked to inspect a Rover, Rolls and Humber - all in a line - my reverie was shattered by mountain bikers who had breezed in from Ohakune via the Old Coach Rd.

It was too noisy at Horopito so I left for Ohakune, where I met Visit Ruapehu general manager Mike Smith.

The weather was still quite chilly so I thought we'd be chatting beside a fire at some cosy cafe, but Mike had other ideas.

He introduced me to father and son Mike and Ben Wiggins, whose ski shop has transformed into a ski-bike shop in the past five years, gaining three additional permanent staff in the process.

I was soon pedalling Ben's $10,000 cycle and trying to keep up with Mike Smith.

As we cycled along the riverbank and into the bush, Mike related how Ohakune folk had pulled together, following the economically devastating eruptions of the late 1990s.

Among other projects, they had restored the historic Old Coach Rd and the Hapuawhenua Viaduct (1907).

Once on the viaduct I saw first-hand how popular cycling had become in these parts. A large group of young Aucklanders were out on their bikes and enjoying the astonishing scenery.

At times I reached my limit, such as when hurtling down the windy track below the viaduct, but even that felt about 100 times safer than my daily cycle commute in Auckland.

Following a 12km cycle (just a short taste of what was there) I headed back to Taupo.

The next day, I met and interviewed deer hunters who had spent lifetimes stalking the prolific populations of deer living in this part of the world.

Calculating tourist dollars flowing into the economy, it's easy to dwell on the ever-popular trout fishing, forgetting the tourism that hunting generates.

I had more central North Island adventure than anyone really has a right to in just two days.

And here's the lesson: when contemplating a weekend on the volcanic plateau, the weather often looks bad to start with.

But since one side of wonderful Mt Ruapehu may be stormy while the other may be calm and sunny, since you never really know how it will work out in such a changeable part of the world, and since hotels and motels have hot showers - why not just go?

Paul Charman was a guest of Wairakei Resort Taupo.

- Herald on Sunday

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