Our 20 best New Zealand landscapes

With its swooping green hills, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks, New Zealand is effortlessly beautiful. And while anyone with a camera or phone can capture the country’s wild perfection, though photos don’t do the land justice. For you, who hopes to visit, who has visited, or who lives there now, we present our fifteen most breathtaking landscape photos from our two weeks on the North Island. And it’s just a small slice of New Zealand’s beauty:

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People fishing at sunrise near Mangawhai Heads, Northland Peninsula
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Foragers collect cockles on a beach, south of Auckland
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Early morning at a campsite in the center of the North Island
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Sheep run across a grassy hill near Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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The view from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, Northland Peninsula
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Clouds (shadows) and people (black dots on right) pass over dunes at the Te Paki Sand Dunes, Northland Peninsula
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The endless hills of New Zealand as seen from the Forgotten World Highway
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Volcanic cones rise from the landscape at Tongariro National Park
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Taranaki Falls and Wairere Sream cut through the landscape of Tongariro National Park
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Wairere Sream just before plunging over Taranaki Falls, Tongariro National Park
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Patchwork vegetation grows in the shadow of a volcanic cone, Tongariro National Park
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The Tongariro National Park landscape on a rainy day
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Tawhai Falls (Gollum’s Pool) on a rainy day, Tongariro National Park
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The cooling tower of Ohaaki Geothermal Station disappears into the clouds, central North Island
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Steam rises from hot springs and rivers hidden in the forest, central North Island
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Late afternoon on the tramping track in Puhoi, Northland Peninsula
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Sunset and cloud formations as seen from the Mounds Walk, Tongariro National Park
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Sunset on a rainy day, including a distant rainbow, at Nevin’s Lookout
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Sunset and dusk in one photo as seen from Nevin’s Lookout
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The last rays of sunset over New Zealand’s hills at Nevin’s Lookout

A (good) bed-end to our New Zealand travels

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The cold and hot pools of the holiday park

This is our last night/day in New Zealand! After two weeks of driving around the country and sleeping in our tiny tent or in the not-so-ergonomic car, I’ve booked us a room at Opal Hot Springs Holiday Park to celebrate. We weren’t sure what to expect of a holiday park. We nearly missed the check-in cutoff of 9 pm, so the hours leading up to that were spent frantically driving just at the NZ speed limit and trying to call the place. Upon arrival, the guy working the front desk laughed and told us there was a bell to ring at night for check-in. He handed over the keys and asked if we wanted linens (they cost extra). We used our sleeping bags instead.

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Our room. Of note: BEDS

The room came with a parking spot out front, so a short drive later we were at our room. And by room, I mean paradise. THERE WERE BEDS. Real, mattress-containing, soft fluffy beds. There was a roof, and a table with chairs to sit in. There was even a sink and food prep area, complete with dishes and pans. We dropped our stuff, flopped onto the beds, and just didn’t move for several minutes.

Natalie: “Can we just not move until tomorrow?”

Stoytcho: “Can we just not move until forever?”

But we needed dinner. So we mashed together the rest of our tomato/beans/eggs/soup seasoning, ate like hungry hikers, and then collapsed and slept like kings.

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We also enjoyed our last Bundaberg soda to celebrate. It’s in a flavor that we’ve never even heard of in the U.S.

The next morning, we got a chance to enjoy the reason I had booked this specific holiday park: a hot springs pool. We pulled on our swimsuits and lazed about in the water’s warmth, interrupting our soak occasionally to swim some laps in the adjacent cold pool. In eight hours, we’d be on a plane bound for Australia. But for now, we were here, not thinking of our farewell to New Zealand’s shimmering sands, rolling green hills, and relaxing thermal springs.

Travel in the Time of Trump: Trump’s New Zealand fans

Despite our first run-in with Trump’s visage in Auckland, Trump does have fans here in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand—that nature-loving, outdoorsy, free-healthcare fairly-socialist country in Oceania. I was confused at first, too.

Who are these people, and why do they support Trump? Like in the U.S., the people that support Trump seemed to be predominantly rural or small-town. They might have had ties to the U.S.  And again like in the U.S., they were very, very showy of their support.

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A pro-Trump sign under the U.S. flag in rural New Zealand

Encounter 1: The “Make America Great Again” hat

Somewhere along the Coromandel coast, neither here nor there, we stopped through a small town for lunch and groceries. On grocery duty, I collected our groceries and stood in line at the checkout. A guy no older than 25 got in line behind me. He was wearing the iconic red hat with white lettering : “Make America Great Again”. I didn’t think it was possible for Trump to have supporters here in New Zealand, so I asked him, “You’re wearing hat ironically, right?” “Not at all,” he replied with a straight face. I was floored.

“Why?” was my first question. He responded with the usual, that the system and Hillary Clinton are corrupt and screwing over America and Trump would fix things, especially immigration. Then he mentioned something about Obamacare, and I had to stop him. “You realize that New Zealand has universal healthcare, right?” He looked uneasy and shrugged, “Yeah, it…works for New Zealand, I guess.”

At this point, I noticed he didn’t have a New Zealand accent and asked where he came from. He told me he had moved to New Zealand with his parents from the U.S., but he had travelled around to a few other countries. We swapped travel stories. I wanted to keep talking with him, mostly because I was confused. This was my first face-to-face conversation with an ardent Trump supporter and I wanted to know: who are you? How do you think?

Somehow, we got back to the topic of immigration and the guy got particularly excited. He told me Trump would finally clean up America and throw out all of the illegal immigrants. America would be safer. My first instinct was to ask him what planet he lived on, because crime was already on the decline in most cities (linkout) and I grew up in a community of many illegal immigrants. I walked the streets alone as a kid. I was safe. But statistics don’t change minds, and anecdotes are met with “that’s just your experience. You were lucky.”

So instead I drew on my negotiation and consulting experiences. I wondered if I could get him to see through the eyes of an illegal immigrant. “Why do you think these people come to America?” I asked. The guy shrugged, “For a better life, for work.” I figured that was a good start and pressed on, “Okay, and so you really think a wall is going to stop them?  You might deport some, but more will come. And there’s already a wall, and it hasn’t stopped them.” He had a response, and I responded back with something. We came to the conclusion that they came because Mexico couldn’t offer the same standard of living, and improving the Mexican economy was the best way to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants.

From here the conversation took a wildly speculative turn. The guy ended up being a fan of marijuana legalization, so we imagined a world in which the Mexican economy was powered by a marijuana equivalent of the vineyards and wineries, with people traveling from around the world for tours. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it seemed like a better endpoint than “kick all of the illegal immigrants out and it’s not my problem.” I finished by asking him, “And if these people came legally from Mexico, it would be fine?” “Yeah, totally,” he replied.

Encounter 2: A sign in the hills 

It was easy to write off the first experience as an outlier, the result of a guy who moved to New Zealand but who in his heart was still American. But driving through the center of the North Island on the last day, among the rolling green hills at sunset, we came across the sign (above). We screeched to a halt and got out, staring. Posted beneath the American flag, the sign declared, “PRES. TRUMP. GO THE DONALD; MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

There was nothing else for miles, save a few fences and a fluttering New Zealand flag. Stoytcho and I looked around for clues to who the owners of the Trump sign were, but to no avail. The only information we could find was a sign at the next turnoff that read “BURR FAMILY DAIRY FARM. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.” Stoytcho pointed out that we couldn’t be sure it was their sign. But from the location, flag, and all-caps signs, it was clear that someone wanted their support of Trump to ring loud and proud in the New Zealand countryside.

UPDATE: These signs DO belong to the Burr Family Dairy Farm. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed them, and it gets worse; the adjacent sign with their name on it reads in tiny font “If you […] are a left wing tosser, DO NOT ENTER.” So that settles any ambiguity on their political point-of-view.

 

The Last Waterfall, and a Black Sand Beach

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We headed out of the Goblin Forest and drove down the the nearby Dawson Falls. This was our last waterfall for this section of the trip. A nice up and down stair-hike leads to the falls and the pools beneath them. Notice the orange mud layer to the right of the falls? People have left tons of orange handprints around the area, and we joined in the fun.

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The pools are big enough to skip stones in, coincidentally one of my favorite travel-hobbies. Finding the right stone is an art unto itself, and in this otherwise beautiful picture, there I am hunting.

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The throw takes place.

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We wrapped up and went on our last great drive, north and east. On the way we stopped at a seemingly regular beach.

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Except that something was very strange about the sand.

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Here in Mokao the sand is a wonderful coal black. I did a quick search for black sand beaches in New Zealand and this one isn’t listed. This was my first black sand beach, and I was amazed. If you’ve never seen one in person it’s the strangest thing. Alongside the color, the texture of the sand was of fine, wet silt, making it behave like very thick pudding. A strange and wonderful combination.

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Great natural beauty and, unfortunately, pollution. It looks like trash from the nearby town washes down and out towards the ocean. Luckily it’s limited in its spread.

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Walking away from the beach entrance leads to cliffs with small caves in them.

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In a break in the cliffs is a river feeding the ocean and cutting a tar-black line in the sand.

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We collected shells and continued our occasional tradition of post-beach combing art.

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Next up : return to civilization.

The Goblin Forest of Taranaki

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At the west end of the Forgotten World Highway is a rainforest like no other. Around the volcano of Taranaki nestles Egmont National Park, the nicknamed “Goblin Forest” famous for its waterfalls and gnarled, moss coated trees.

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First, this trail, or set of trails, is fun. Just plain fun to hike up and down with plenty of variety in surface types, elevation changes, and scenery. The trail takes you from dense low forests to open rocky pools, across bridges and muddy stairs and stepping-stone paths.

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The famous trees of the Goblin Forest are these thick-branched moss covered creatures which probably would look very spooky at night. During the day they’re vivid sun-dappled green, often covered in dew or rainfall.

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The Kamahi tree is the dominant tree in this forest, unique in New Zealand. They sometimes start out growing on top of other trees, twisting their branches and creating the gnarled shape of the forest.

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The high year-round humidity is a great environment for moss and lichen and they spread prodigiously here. Nearly every available surface is covered. In some areas the combination of twined branches and leafy outgrowths blocks a great deal of light, creating darkness in the daytime.

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Along the way we saw rock-slides.

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Then crossed a bridge, safe but bouncy.

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To get to the Wilke pools.

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There’s a tiny cove/cavern at the bottom. The water is instantly numbing. Great for a hot day or for icing a bruise. We did go “swimming” but only for a moment.

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We climbed the rocks around the pools only to find more pools up higher – also extremely cold. Past this is technical rock climbing territory so we turned back.

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And climbed some very muddy stairs.

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To get great views of the forested mountainside.

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And of the volcano itself.

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Along the way we took some closeups of the flora..

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The moss and ferns covering the trees, dense and superbly healthy.

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And some very pretty white and pink flowers.

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Capturing this was tough – the wind kept swaying the ring of flowers, but it was worth it. Natalie also took a couple of really nice insect shots, following below. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea so feel free to end the post here. For anyone who’s curious, scroll on.


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A vivid orange mosquito-hawk (I think). You can see the little ball-ended stubs it uses to balance while it flies.

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I don’t like flies, but this one has an amazing abdomen. That blue is unreal. It may be a bluebottle fly but I’m not sure.

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The famous weta of New Zealand. We never saw one alive, nor did we see the amazingly huge ones they show in National Geographic, but it was cool to see these up close.

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Natalie’s favorite creature, the jumping spider, poses for the camera. They have good enough eyesight to tell you apart from the background and often interact with the camera while you’re shooting.

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This beautifully colored orbweaver is the Colaranea Viriditas.

Brief respite from New Zealand’s rains

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After three nights of rain and only one chance to dry our equipment, we’re uncomfortably, intimately aware of the constant damp feeling. The tent and sleeping mattresses started to get that standing-water mildew smell. Our packs, which worryingly hold everything, got a bit of rain exposure. The clothes we’re wearing never feel quite dry. And don’t even get me started on our socks.

But today we ran into a dry patch! Out past Taumarunui, the sun broke through the clouds and shone with a reassuring intensity. It held until noon, so we pulled off at Ohinepane campsite to have lunch and give everything a chance to dry. Sunlit grassy fields greeted us and we spread the equipment out around us.

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We took the chance for a leisurely lunch. We watched butterflies flutter by and some chickens hunt for worms. We greeted another group the came up to the campsite by canoe. We shared the covered kitchen area with them and exchanged travel stores.

The first sign of trouble was a dimming of the sun’s rays. Stoytcho and I peered out from the kitchen’s overhang and saw the massing clouds. “I’m gonna run to the restroom, then we’ll pack up.” Stoytcho called out as he headed to the camp’s toilets. “Sure,” I replied, only half-attentive. Stoytcho was gone only two minutes when there was an ominous darkening and the sun was gone. It was time to start packing stuff away.

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I had just finished rolling up the sleeping bags and mats when the rain started. Thick, scattered drops plinked down on the car and what remained of our gear. I grabbed everything I could and started throwing it into the open car doors. I finished just as the rain intensified, pouring torrents down onto the campsite. I threw myself into the car, and Stoytcho jumped in a few minutes later.

We sorted out the back seat and started the car, heading back toward the Forgotten World Highway. We drove for most of the day as the sky vacillated between gleaming sun, gloomy clouds, and giant raindrops. New Zealand’s weather is a fickle mistress indeed.

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But at least the imposing clouds made for gorgeous, atmospheric shots of New Zealand’s countryside!

Taumarunui: An adorable non-touristy NZ town

Sitting at the start of the Forgotten World HighwayTaumarunui is a drive-through town for most New Zealand roadtrippers. The main road is armed with a McDonald’s and a gas station, meaning most people stop there and never venture further. But in exploring the town for a few hours, we found that it has small-town NZ charm without the touristy kitsch, and we loved it. Here are some photos, a reminder of why it’s great to sometimes stop at places not on the tourist docket:

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NZ police officers stop by a stall selling clothes and plants during the weekly market.
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A stone memorial with a top hat is the chance to take cute pictures.
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Local meat pies! This one is the chicken and vegetable, a salty chicken stew encased in a crisp, crusty pocket.
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Taller than you: Stoytcho (193 cm) stares up at a giant moa sculpture sponsored by the Rotary Club and constructed of found wood pieces.
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A lighthearted PSA in the town’s park
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The park playground, which has PERFECT swings that fit children and children-at-heart (like us)

Pictures of cool plants : Taranaki Falls Walk.

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Hebe Vernicosa, flowering

In a single 2-3 hour hike we blew the battery on two cameras taking photos of the stunning landscape and the wonderful flora. It’s easy to do in any stretch of scenery on the island, especially when everything is blooming with life.

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A crustose type lichen envelopes the branch. The disks are fruiting bodies.

Just the sheer variety of scrubs, trees, moss, fungi, flowers, ferns, and lichen is beautiful to behold.

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Gleichenia dicarpa, commonly called the tangle fern.

It’s very easy to go from spot to spot, taking pictures of everything and turning an hour-long walk into a 3+ hour photo bonanza.

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A fern in the Gleicheniaceae family, maybe an umbrella fern?

I particularly enjoy the textures found on ferns and evergreens, they make for highly patterned, satisfyingly green shots.

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Hebe Vernicosa, stacks of green leaves reaching to the sky.
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Libocedrus bidwillii, the New Zealand cedar.

Away from the ferns and scrubs, New Zealand is brimming with flowers of every variety.

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Aceana microphylla, fields of spiky flowers.
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The native Manuka plant, flowering.

Look the cool little tentacle things on the flowers! This plant is where the famous Manuka honey comes from.

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Sprouting moss clinging from a rock wall.

Flowers, ferns, and shrubs are not the only residents of the landscape. Fuzzy moss lines every surface of the walk. It really comes to life after the rains, droplets clinging to the shiny green growth.

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A foliose lichen, maybe Nephroma australe.

Where moss hasn’t taken over, lichen fills the gaps. It comes in three main types : foliose, fruticose, and crustose. When the rains come in, the foliose lichen spread their leafy surface wide.

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Mushrooms sprout from treebark. Probably basidiomycete.

Mushrooms make an appearance as well, but they’re much harder to find. Many of them disintegrate rapidly, or sprout well away from the path, or are just plain hidden. A search for images of “New Zealand mushrooms” turns up photos of some fantastical fungi.

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Everyone growing happily (mostly) together on a branch.

All of these plants compete for resources and space or live symbiotically, so it’s not uncommon to find four or more species growing on the same branch or patch of ground.

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Megadromus antarcticus. What a name!

A bit of wildlife rounds out the experience. We haven’t really encountered large fauna on the island, but plenty of insects make an appearance if you take a look around.

Taranaki Falls Hike @ Tongariro

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Taranaki Falls (left) peeks out from the cliffs and feeds the river below

At 6.4 km, Taranaki Falls Loop is a brisk little hike you can do in a couple of hours. We chose this hike when cloudy, rainy weather dashed our hopes of doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. And while it doesn’t involve breathtaking summits, it’s a beautiful hike even in gloomy weather.

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The trailhead, with a view of volcanic peaks in the distance

The hike starts from the Whakapapa village parking lot, just north of the Tongariro National Park Visitors’ Center. If you want to reach the falls quickly and have a longer hike after, take the right fork. To have the long hike first and the falls nearer(ish) to the end, take the left fork. The description below is through the left fork, traveling clockwise on the loop. The beginning of the hike isn’t super well-signed, so it doesn’t hurt to pop by the visitors’ center first and ask how to find the hike. They’ll also know the latest info on trail conditions in the area.

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Scotch heather, a highly invasive plant in the Tongariro area

The hike first threads through bushy plains, but much of the bush you’ll see isn’t native; it’s Scotch heather, a shrub originally introduced back when there were plans to turn Tongariro into a grouse game reserve. Though the grouse never quite took (reports online suggest they were never introduced, but we heard from someone that the few grouse released died), the heather did, crowding out native plant species and disrupting the ecosystem. In summer the heather blooms, dotting the landscape with splotches of brilliant purple. It’s beautiful, but worrying for Tongariro’s native plants.

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Where grassland meets woods

The trail then takes you into the woods, a wonderland dense with tree branches clothed in mosses and lichens. If it’s sunny, this will be a chance to get some shade and cooler temperatures. If there’s been rain, expect some of the trail to be wet—indentations along the path turn into puddles and ponds after heavy rain.

 

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A raindrop hangs from a tuft of moss on a branch

 

The woods won’t last long and soon you’ll be out on the plains again but now following a river. After another kilometer or so, you’ll cross a bridge with a plunging waterfall. Though beautiful, it’s not Taranaki, so carry on.

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The smaller waterfall before Taranaki

Less than a kilometer on, you’ll come to the actual Taranaki Falls. There’s a bench nearby to rest on and a few different spots to take photos from.

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People walk the edge of the cliffs over Taranaki Falls.

The trail then continues around the falls and climbs upward until you find yourself at the top. Stare down into the raging waters if you like, but don’t fall yourself.

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The bottom of the falls
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The top of the falls

The hike then winds back toward Whakapapa Village through the plains. You’ll see much of the same grass and bush you saw earlier, but there is one new feature: old lava flows. These flows formed during eruptions of Mt. Ruapehu, and plants still struggle to grow here in the red-brown rocky dirt. Single plants here don’t survive well, as wind and rain carry any dirt away. But you’ll find clusters of plants clinging together for defense against nature’s merciless weathering.

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Plants eke out an existence in tufts along the lava flows
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A close-up of a plant tuft in an old lava flow. These plants survive by growing together, their roots trapping soil and preventing its loss through weathering.

After a couple of kilometers, the plains will give way to woods and return to the starting point. We found ourselves a bit lost, wandering through a patch of ski bungalows before finding the parking lot again—probably the ‘village’ part of the Whakapapa village. From here you can head on to another hike, head back to the visitors’ center, or celebrate with a hot cup of tea or coffee from Chateau Tongariro. Or go all in for a (slightly pricey but oh so good) high tea.

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The trail over the top of the falls, heading home

Tongariro High Tea

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The road out from the Ruatiti Domain campsite, prone to rockslides when it rains. 

 For a second day running, everything is damp. Our clothes are damp. Our socks and shoes are damp. The tent is soaked. It’s still raining.

We spent last night at Ruatiti Domain, one of the few free campsites near Tongariro National Park for those of us not in self-contained vehicles. It was a beautiful mix of field and woods situated next to a river, but heavy rain meant the tent was soaked by morning (even with the rainfly). We woke up damp, ate breakfast in the car with the heater on, and decamped with an irrational haste because really, we couldn’t get much wetter.

Today was supposed to be our big hike; we had planned to trek the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is nearly 20km of mountainous hiking through the park. But when we stopped by the Visitors’ center, the ranger laughed and told us not to bother. “Are we starting too late?” we asked. “A bit,” she replied, “But the bigger issue is the weather. You’re not gonna see anything out there today with these clouds! Just not worth it.”

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A taxidermy kiwi in the visitors’ center. Spoiler, this is the only kiwi we will see in New Zealand.

She walked us through a few other hiking options in the area but conceded the weather probably wouldn’t be clearing up anytime soon. “It’s not too bad to hike in!” she told us with a chipper voice. We looked out the window at the rivulets flowing from the roof and the heavy drops hitting the sidewalk. It probably wasn’t too bad if you had somewhere warm and dry to go post-hike. Maybe with a nice shower, and a dry change of clothes. But we only had the car.

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And here’s us in the car. Damp.

We dashed back to the car and checked our options. The storm system covered the entire central North Island, so we couldn’t out-drive it to find sunnier hiking elsewhere. We could go back to Kerosene Creek, but that meant a couple hours’ drive back the way we came and would mess with our subsequent schedule. Then we remembered a sign: the swanky Chateau Tongariro, just next to the visitors’ center, does High Tea. And when you’re bedraggled, damp, and dejected, what could be better than a cup of tea?

A few minutes’ later we were in the main lobby of the hotel, hoping the staff wouldn’t throw us out for failing at any dress code whatsoever. They politely handed us menus instead. At $28 NZD per person, it wasn’t cheap. But LOOK at it:

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Stoytcho and the Chateau Tongariro High Tea spread

Really, is there anything more comforting on a wet afternoon than two steaming-hot pots of tea and a tower of delicious carb-heavy sandwiches and sweets? No. Nothing.

We luxuriated over the tea for two hours, seeing people come and go. We watched a young family try to keep their toddler from hoarding all of the rocks in the plant displays in her pockets. We discussed life, and how far humanity has come: in the developed nations, we’re so rarely wet or damp for more than a few hours that we aren’t familiar with its misery. We have never known the lives of our ancestors who (with statistically likelihood) toiled or travelled in the rain, or whose roofing almost inevitably leaked and made the home damp. It’s a wonderful world we live in now, free from these discomforts. But on the other hand, after two days of damp chill, hot tea has never felt so warm, so life-giving.

At the end of tea, we glanced out the window to find a lovely surprise. The sky was clearing. Mist still clung to the distant mountains, but the rain had abated and the clouds had thinned. Though we didn’t get to hike, in the distance we could make out a volcanic cone rising out of the landscape. Sometimes, it really is just best to grab a cup of tea and wait out the storm.

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A volcano (perhaps Mt Ngauruhoe) emerges from the mist at Tongariro National Park