New Zealand’s North Island is only half the size of Victoria, Australia. But despite its relative size, the island brims with natural lures that make it one of the world’s preeminent nature attractions.
That’s thanks to underground rivers lit by glow worms, steaming hot springs that bubble up out of rock, prehistoric rainforests, stunning snow-capped mountains and gushing waterfalls and geysers. That’s to say nothing of its rich alluvial soils, pristine beaches, freshwater rivers and seismic action just under the surface. Oh, and Hobbiton.
It’s an appropriate place to begin any adventure in New Zealand. Starting in Taranaki, here’s a guide to top-tier nature spots to hit when considering a trek across the North.
Pouakai Crossing Seeing New Zealand on foot allows you to truly appreciate the size and scale of this awesome landscape. Here on the western corner of the island, the Pouakai Crossing is an 18.4-kilometre, seven-hour (one-way) daytrip that certainly puts things in perspective. Setting off from North Egmont, crossing the Ahukawakawa Swamp – a vast sphagnum bog – will have you traversing a plateau bristling with golden tussock and onto the tarns, all the while the cloud-topped cone of Maunga (Mount) Taranaki looking on. The day finishes with a stroll through the forest in the lower ranges. Unless you’re forging on, you’ll need a car to get home. But there is also a three-day circuit along the coast and up to Mount Ruapehu if you just wanna keep on walking.
Wilkies Pools A gentler approach to viewing Mount Taranaki is from Wilkies Pool, a series of natural plunge-pools scratched out from the lava by the force of sand and rock. Getting there is less of a trek than Pouakai – it’s only a two-kilometre stroll through the spectacular gnarled trees and thick moss of Goblin Forest, aka Kamahi Loop Track. The New Zealand Department of Conservation’s official website says “bring your togs” – that’s particular thanks to crisp, crystal clear waters and naturally formed rock slide.
Whakapapa Village Short Walks Whakapapa might be known for its skiing in the winter but it’s also the jumping off point for several brilliant shorter walks on well-serviced tracks. There’s the 30–40 minute Ridge Walking Track, on which you can soak up views of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the surrounding landscape (try this one at sunrise or sunset), a two-hour-return walk to the spectacular Taranaki Falls, which plunges over the edge of a 15,000-year-old lava flow; or spend a day climbing to view the Tama Lakes, which occupy several old craters on the Tama Saddle between Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.
Huka Falls A five-minute drive from greater Taupo, Huka Falls is an intoxicating demonstration of nature’s power. Funnelling in from Lake Taupo at an astonishing rate of 220,000 litres per second, the rapids here are sprayed out across the Waikato River 10 metres below. It’s one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions (for good reason). It’s also worth exploring Taupo to see the smaller – but no-less-spectacular – Otupoto and Tieke falls.
Otumuheke Stream Just downriver from Huka Falls is the Otumuheke Stream, an oasis of warm spring water in the nippy Waikato River. Managed by Patuiwi Maori Reserve Trust, Otumuheke is a conduit for Maori spiritual life force that literally seeps out of the island. But even though it’s sacred you can jump in for a dip: the iwi graciously invites all visitors to have a wash in the restorative waters. New Zealand is rightly famous for its hot-water beaches such as Otumuheke, and other local versions are dotted around the region at places such as Taharepa Baths and the Tokaanu Thermal Pools.
Maunga Hikurangi When Aotearoa emerged from the ocean, it was Maunga Hikurangi that saw the sunshine first. It's the same today here on the North Island’s eastern fringe, with planet Earth's first sunrise hitting the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island each and every morning. Maunga Hikurangi is sacred to the Ngati Porou, whose ancestors arrived on the island via whale. Visitors here can take guided tours to the summit among the carved wooden figures to witness the world's first light.
Dive Tatapouri The Gisborne coastline teems with so much life you only need to wade offshore a few metres to come face-to-face with creatures from the deep. Capitalising on the Pacific Ocean’s unusual accessibility, Dean and Chris Savage from Dive Tatapouri carefully lead visitors here through the local reef by foot. A former skipper and underwater cameraman, Dean and his crew kit guests out with boots and waders to wander around in the water and gaze upon the short-tailed and eagle rays that soon thread between your feet. Tip: it’s a particularly extraordinary experience at sunrise, when the planet’s first light creeps over the horizon to illuminate the rockpools.
Waka Voyagers The incredible distances travelled by the first Maori in their custom-built craft to settle Aotearoa are the stuff of legend – but they’re also completely legit. Waka Voyagers in Gisborne takes visitors out in its ocean-going vessel the Tairawhiti, a historically big canoe. It's no pleasure-cruise, though: all crew are expected to paddle, learn how to hoist the sail, and steer. Along the way, you’ll learn the history of Maori ancestors who navigated their way from Polynesia using only ocean currents, birdlife and the stars.
Mt Tarawera Crater Hike Part of the reason for New Zealand’s remarkable scenery is its geological activity, which continues underground today. It’s what geologists describe as a young landscape, where the fissures and lines along the tectonic plates continue to clash, pushing mountains and hot magma up from the earth. The most vivid example of this volcanic reality is Waimangu, the world’s freshest geothermal valley, created when Tarawera erupted on June 10, 1886. When the mountain exploded, it revealed a stratum of hypnotic pink and white terraces, which these days is speckled with green trees. Kaitiaki Tours in Rotorua hosts guided walks up the mountain and offers an optional crater-run for the foolhardy and the brave.
Hell’s Gate As legend has it, spa culture began in New Zealand when warrior Tamatea called on the volcano to save his party from freezing after shipwrecking their canoe. Ariki answered by exploding the Whanganui River all the way to Nelson, giving Tamatea an unbelievable place to take a dip. Seven hundred years later, the place is still run by Tamatea’s descendants, who continue to welcome cold and weary travellers. Clean your skin by lathering it in mud, before exfoliating and cleansing with a soak in the sulphur spa. If getting your hands literally dirty isn’t your thing, there’s also a one and one-and-a-half hour walk where you can witness erupting waters, an active mud volcano, land coral and a hot waterfall.
Canopy Tours Lots of the interesting stuff going on in the forest happens up high. Thankfully, the crew at Rotorua Canopy Tours has come up with a nifty way to explore this environment. A series of ziplines, swing bridges, cliff-walks and tree-top platforms usher you into and over this stunning prehistoric native forest.
Guided by two knowledgeable and experienced Kiwi guides, the experience is as much about thrill-seeking as it is learning about the importance of forest preservation and restoration.
Waitomo Caves This underground cathedral on the western flank of the island was created from the bones and bodies of clams, snails and trilobites some 30 million years ago. That said, it’s been a tourist attraction for only 130 years, with travellers from around the world flocking to be guided across the dark underground waters to see imposing stalactites and stalagmites, hot-water geysers and, of course, Waitomo’s glowworms. These little larvae have bioluminescent tails, and light up the place like the entrance to the next life.
There are two levels here. The upper is dry and dotted with delicate cave formations, while the lower consists of stream passages, glowworms and the Cathedra – the tallest chamber in the cave. As well as steer you through the dark waters, the guides – many of whom are direct descendents of the Maori chief who first explored the cave – bring storytelling and a sense of history to your visit.
Hobbiton Tours Hobbiton, of course, isn’t strictly “nature”. As convincing as this tiny town might be, the barrel-shaped dwellings dug into the Hamilton hillside aren’t “real”. That the recreation of film sets from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit aren't natural barely matters when you're standing in the very spot where Bilbo first puts on the ring.
A movie-set tour of this magical landscape runs two hours, while an evening tour including a banquet dinner runs four. Each is by an experienced guide.
Refer to the New Zealand Department of Conservation website for more information, and updates on trail maintenance and weather.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism New Zealand. Stop dreaming about New Zealand and go.