“Wow, Wow, Wow. Look Papa” were the only words Anders could get out.
The two of us had just caught the Knoll Ridge T-Bar to the top of Whakapapa ski resort. Anders had just spotted the classic crater summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings) floating on a cloud sea beyond the Pinnacles. Its jagged rocky ridge forms the eastern boundary of the resort.
Anders’ words were spot on.
Australian skiers and boarders have long been been scooting across to New Zealand’s South Island for a snow fix, in particular to Queenstown. But rising up beyond the southern shores of Lake Taupo on the North Island is the volcano Mt Ruapehu.
On its flanks are two ski resorts that offer the largest areas, the longest runs and the highest elevation in New Zealand. These facts have slipped well under the radar of most snow-watchers on this side of the Tasman. But the resorts, Whakapapa and Turoa, are about to erupt as ski destinations following a $20 million upgrade over the past two years, an investment that is less than a quarter of that planned to come.
In the days we skied on Ruapehu there was a certain vibe knowing we were sliding down an active volcano. Perhaps this was because we were newbies to volcanic snowsports but indeed many local skiers and boarders told us they felt an affinity with that aspect of the mountain. It made for interesting reading in the toilets; a popular place for resort posters advising what action to take in case of an eruption.
Whakapapa, on the north side of the mountain, is a 40 minute drive from Turangi, the nearest town of any size, and a further 40 minutes from Taupo. As with most ski areas in NZ, there’s no accommodation on the mountain itself. The nearest is at Whakapapa Village 6km below the resort and at the hamlet of National Park, 25 minutes away.
Most Aussies would do as we did and stay at Taupo or Turangi after flying into Auckland and hiring a car, although it is also possible to fly from Auckland or Wellington direct to the small airport at Taupo. Shuttle buses run regularly to the resort from Taupo and Turangi as well as Whakapapa Village and National Park.
The six of us had a seven seat 4WD with ski racks that was ideal for the week. From a family and beginner perspective it’s worth noting the resort actually markets itself as Whakapapa and Happy Valley. Happy Valley, right at the 1630 metre base of the resort, is a learner’s paradise. A sheltered, easy angled, wide valley which, courtesy of the aforementioned investment, now has two covered (yes covered) carpet lifts, a double chairlift and its own elevator to take you up and down to the main resort base. There is also a dedicated café and ski hire.
The funkiest part of Happy Valley is the new Snow Factory – a huge freezer where snowflakes are carved off and blown out onto the slopes. The cool difference between this and a conventional snowmaking gun is that 210 cubic metres of snow can be made daily in temperatures up to 25 degrees. Happy Valley can thus be topped up throughout the season and can open early in June regardless of natural snowfalls.
Above Happy Valley, the new Rangatira Express chair opens up a huge area of mainly blue and black runs dropping into bowls, valleys or slipping over volcanic ridges. Wendy, my wife and the grandmother in the party, injured her wrist on the first day but was still happy to sit in the Knoll Ridge Café, take in the mountain views and those of Anna and Anders ripping it up on Shirt Front, Gollum and other runs.
Turoa, the other resort, is on the south west corner of Mt Ruapehu. It’s accessed from the pretty town of Ohakune way below amongst the volcanic soil farmlands. Mt Ruapehu lift passes work for both resorts. Turoa boasts, at 2322 metres, New Zealand’s highest chairlift and the longest vertical at 722 metres. Rising high above this point is the true summit of Mt Ruapehu, 2797 metre Tahurangi, the highest point of the North Island.
In comparison to Whakapapa, Turoa has wider runs that suited our family group and allowed the kids to practice their turns with confidence down Little Bowl, Boneyard, Whynot and others.
On-mountain food at both resorts was similarly priced to off the mountain, a major consideration for family groups. We also appreciated it being served using real plates and cups rather than the throwaway variety. The icing on the cake though at Turoa, at least for Anna and Anders, was meeting Fire, the search and rescue dog.
Our week at Ruapehu and in the Great Lake Taupo region had a real mix of weather. We didn’t, nor did we plan to ski every day. The beauty here for any winter family holiday is the endless variety of things to do.
Even activities like sea kayaking on Lake Taupo to view the Maori rock carvings or whitewater rafting on the Tongariro River continue through winter. Soaking in thermal baths (Taupo DeBretts is great for all ages), jetboating, prawn or trout fishing, glassblowing, craft breweries, mountain biking and walks of all lengths are just some of the activities on offer. Indeed, as we drove back to Auckland Airport at the end of our week, Anders read out the list from the Rainy Day Things to do around Taupo brochure. We’d hardly touched upon it.
Need more New Zealand? Check out our New Zealand destination page for more travel inspiration.
Want the run down on New Zealand ski resorts? This story has a wrap of all of them.
And here’s a great story on what else there is to do in Great Lake Taupo.
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Huw Kingston is a writer, speaker, adventurer and environmentalist with a love of human powered journeys. He has received the Australian Geographic Spirit of Adventure Award, was named by Time Magazine as one of their 25 Worldwide Responsibility Pioneers and is an ambassador for Save the Children Australia. There’s nothing he loves more than taking his 5 grandchildren out there with him.