Lake Tarawera: Under the mountain

By Sarah Ell

Sarah Ell — somewhat reluctantly — shares the secret of glamping at Lake Tarawera.

Totally Tarawera's Te Rata glampsite at Lake Tarawera. Photo / Supplied
Totally Tarawera's Te Rata glampsite at Lake Tarawera. Photo / Supplied

I have camped twice before at Lake Tarawera: once on an ill-fated school trip, and for a magical Easter about a decade ago, when a group of friends and I kayaked across the lake. Both times were unique and memorable, sleeping beneath the presence of the ominous mountain looming over the lake. This time I was experiencing it in comfort — quite a bit more comfort.

Water-taxi and tour operators Totally Tarawera, run by husband-and-wife team David and Karen Walmsley, have opened two glamping sites along the Tarawera Trail, a 15km walk that runs from near the Buried Village to the hot springs at the eastern end of the lake. We get the chance to experience both, with a night at each.

David picks us up from the Tarawera Landing in the late afternoon, and we head off by water taxi towards the violet bulk of the mountain. It's about a 15-minute trip before we are deposited gently on the beach just around a rocky headland from the small DoC campsite at Te Rata hot springs. The Walmsleys have worked closely with DoC
to gain a concession to establish a glampsite here and it has been well worth the effort.

We weave our way through low scrub and up to a small pumice plateau and our accommodation. No wrestling with tent poles and unrolling the sleeping bags here: there is a large central tent, with queen-size bed; a pup tent for the kids; a separate large, enclosed shelter with clear walls housing the kitchen (with sink), barbecue, hotplate and dining table and chairs; and a third tent with the boat-style toilet and gas-heated shower.

We have also opted for the dinner pack for our stay, so instead of burnt sausages and droopy lettuce we dine on porterhouse steak (from the Walmsleys' property) accompanied by two different salads, followed by chocolate puddings with Greek yoghurt. There's also an intriguing book of recipes for how to cook using the natural hot water at the beach — thermally heated s'mores sound like a damn good idea.

There's plenty of time in the long evening to explore the beach and walk a short way back up the Tarawera Trail through the bush, regenerated since the eruption 130 years ago. And of course we have to have a soak in the hot pools. Like the better-known Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel, here hot water — in some places extremely hot — oozes up out of the sand, and at one end of the main camping beach a hot stream has been diverted into two natural pools in the lakeshore. We watch the colour of the mountain move from orange to grey as the sun goes down, the lake's waters perfectly calm (and extremely cold when a wave makes an incursion).

Camping doesn't encourage kids to sleep in, so we are up early and frying bacon, before David returns to ferry us around to another hot pool, set in the bush just around the lake edge at Te Wairua. I am a bit embarrassed to admit to my pool-mates that we are living in comfort just metres away from where they are camping Kiwi-style, but they don't seem too hard done by.

"Don't worry about getting those sausages out for dinner," one of them tells another. "I've still got another big bit of venison we can all have tonight."

David takes my husband and younger child around to our second glampsite by boat, while my 6-year-old son and I go overland along the trail. It's only about 3km but by the time we have admired the forest, inspected the ferns, discussed the volcano, stopped for gingernuts etc., it takes us a couple of hours to arrive at our second home, the Kanuka glampsite.

Once again we are enchanted by our surroundings. This site, on Maori land, is tucked into the edge of the bush just a few metres from the lake, but is invisible from the water. Again, there is a large tent for sleeping, an ablutions shed and a little cookhouse with a barbecue and picnic table outside. It would be the perfect place for a complete getaway; David says the previous guests who stayed here spent most of their time asleep, soaking up the peace.

That night we go looking for glow worms, finding them lighting up a bank just centimetres from the main tent, and are a little startled to receive a nocturnal visit from a gang of possums, who hiss and growl alarmingly what sounds like just centimetres from the tent.

"Aw, listen to the tree bears!" says my husband cheerfully to our two kids, who have joined us in the main bed.

Another perfect morning breaks and this time we all sleep in, in the quiet and cool. All too soon David is back to collect us and we are quickly back in "civilisation".

Tarawera has again worked its magic, and we head home relaxed, clean and well-fed, despite our two days of "roughing it."

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Lake Tarawera is three and a half hours' drive from Auckland, via State Highway 27, or 20-minutes' drive from Rotorua.

Staying there: Totally Tarawera's glampsite season runs until April 30, then will resume on November 1.

- Spy.co.nz

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