Lakeside treks in a geothermal land

North Island’s Rotorua Lakes are an unrivalled natural landscape with absinthe-bright forests, bubbling springs and active volcanoes – all easily explored with a new network of trails.

Travellers to New Zealand, especially those with an eye for adventure, often flock to the country’s South Island. But the North Island’s Rotorua Lakes region, about 100km northeast, is just as ideal for adventurers – and a lot less known to tourists. Lying in the shadow of the active volcano Mt Tarawera, Rotorua Lakes is an unrivalled natural landscape where water is clean enough to drink, sweet-smelling air comes alive with native birdsong and fern-filled forests are as bright as a bottle of absinthe.

Already a prime place for mountain biking, fishing, water-skiing and hunting, the Rotorua Lakes region recently laid claim to hiking as well, with the opening of the 15km Tarawera Trail in December 2013. Over the next five years, authorities plan to link seven of the region’s lakes with a multi-day walking track totalling 42km.

Currently the trail passes by Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake) – which plays host to the annual Blue Lake Rowing Regatta, attracting hundreds of rowers of all skill levels – and Lake Rotokakahi (Green Lake) – a deserted body of water that is tapu (sacred) according to the local Maori iwi (tribe) and, according to legend, will curse any unwanted visitors. The largest of the lakes is Rotorua itself, which flanks a city of the same name. A sulphuric, rotten-egg scent wafts from the city’s drains and bubbling mud pools, a constant reminder of the region’s geothermal surroundings.

The looming Mt Tarawera, which sits next to Lake Tarawera, last erupted in 1886, killing more than 100 people. The eruption destroyed the Pink and White Terraces at neighbouring Lake Rotomahana, the stepped rock pools that were once touted as the eighth wonder of the world. The eruption also engulfed a small Maori village, Te Wairoa, in mud, ash and rock. Now known as the Buried Village, the site is New Zealand’s version of Pompeii – complete with traditional Maori whares (houses).

The Tarawera Trail, which begins at the Buried Village, winds its way through scrub before a green canopy of sub-tropical ferns thickens overhead. After about 5km, the shoreline of Hawaiki Bay beckons. To the east, the spectre of Mt Tarawera rises over the water.

At the 10km mark, the walk takes a steep turn: the next kilometre is a scramble from about 300m above sea level to almost 500m, before a relatively quick descent to Hot Water Beach. Boiling geothermal streams flow into this small bay, making it either a pleasant, warm bath – or a scalding burn, depending on how close bathers get to the source. Beachgoers often cook sausages and other meals just by dipping them in the stream.

The trail ends near the foot of the volcano, with dramatic views of the 17km crater, which runs raggedly across the mountain’s southern ridge, spewing rough, rust-red scoria (a volcanic rock). Hiking to the summit, which requires passing through land that is privately owned, has been illegal since 2009. From here, the only access to the top is by helicopter or 4x4.

Those who prefer riding to walking should explore the region’s Whakarewarewa Forest, about 4km south of Lake Rotorua, which hosts some of New Zealand’s most varied mountain biking trails, all well maintained by a dedicated team of local volunteers. Thanks to the area’s hills and the volcanic soil’s drainage, the trails can be ridden year-round.

The Rotorua region is also known for its abundant trout. Each year, thousands of juvenile trout are released into the Rotorua lakes from a hatchery in Ngongotaha, located 27km away, to increase numbers for anglers. The main fishing season runs from October through June.  

Between running, hiking, fishing and biking, the Rotorua Lakes district is active – in many more ways than one.