Ngatoro-i-rangi’s Thermal Wonderland: from Tauhara to Tongariro

Legend has it that Hape-ki-tūārangi and his followers froze to death near Rangipo.  Ngātoro-i-rangi – a powerful tohunga (high priest with the mana to carry the most powerful of deities) wanted claim of Hape-ki-tūārangi’s lands – thus conjured a fierce blizzard of snow and sleet by a series of incantations.  Unfortunately for Ngātoro-i-rangi, Hape-ki-tūārangi’s people were not the only ones to succumb to the cold.  Ngātoro-i-rangi’s slave Ngāuruhoe also perished, and Ngātoro-i-rangi soon found himself fighting for his own survival.

Ngātoro-i-rangi – the direct successor to the high priest of the Taputapuatea marae on Rangiātea (French Polynesia) – was trained as a priest and a navigator and made several journeys to the mythical island of Hawaiki.  After various skirmishes at Hawaiki, the Maori people prepared to migrate to New Zealand, and Ngātoro-i-rangi found himself navigating aboard the great waka of Te Awara.  Apon landing at Maketu on the east coast of New Zealand, Ngātoro-i-rangi travelled inland and was instrumental in the naming of many places across the Bay of Plenty.

It is said that he, along with his slave Ngāuruhoe, stomped his way inland from Maketu where springs of water appeared in his footprints forming the many lakes from Rotorua to Tokaanu.  Along the way, Ngātoro-i-rangi placed patupaiarehe – pale and sometimes hostile humanlike spirits – deep within the hilly forests of Rotorua and the Uwerewa mountain range.

When arriving in the Taupō region, he climbed atop Mount Tauhara.  Here Ngātoro-i-rangi threw down his spear to claim the lands and drinking water of Taupo for his grandchildren.

PHOTOS: View from Tauhara Summit where Ngātoro-i-rangi claimed the lands around Taupo (acknowledgement to O.Jones for photographs)

But he wasn’t yet done.  Observing the mighty mountains across the lake, Ngātoro-i-rangi determined he must climb and claim those for his descendants as well.  Once reaching Rangipo at the south end of Lake Taupo, he came across the other inhabitants where he conjured the blizzard of snow and sleet to repel them, before setting upon climbing the nearest mountain.

Fatigued and shivering he finally made it to the summit.  He named the mountain Tongariro – which means ‘strong south wind’ – and looking out over the plains of what is now Tongariro National Park he claimed the land for his descendants, who would later return as the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe.

PHOTOS: Tongariro National Park were Ngātoro-i-rangi killed Hape-ki-tūārangi and laid claim to the Tongariro region for the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe (acknowledgement to T.Schmidtke and J.Jones for photographs)

Freezing and near death he called to his two sisters Kuiwai and Haungaroa in Hawaiki to send him three baskets of fire;

‘Kuiwai e, Haungaroa e, ka riro au i te tonga, tukuna mai te ahi!  O Kuiwai, O Haungaroa, I am seized by the cold wind to the south, send me fire!”

This they did, sending the baskets of embers in the form of taniwha by a subterranean passage to the top of Tongariro. The tracks of the taniwha formed the line of geothermal fire which extends from the Pacific Ocean and beneath the Taupō Volcanic Zone, and is seen in the many volcanoes and hot-springs extending from Whakaari to Tokaanu and up to the Tongariro itself.

Legend has it that, of the three baskets requested, only one basket arrived.  The first basket was intercepted at White Island on the east coast, and the other by the people of Waiotapu.  The final basket of embers arrived just in time to save Ngātoro-i-rangi from freezing to death, but it was too late for Ngāuruhoe.  Ngātoro-i-rangi was disgruntled at this, so after warming his body he threw the remains of the basket into the side of the mountain. The place where the basket landed was named Ketetahi, meaning ‘one basket’ which on a clear day you can still see smoking off the side of Mt Tongariro.

PHOTOS: Waiotapu Thermal Area, where one basket of fire was intercepted as it made its way to Ngātoro-i-rangi as he laid shivering atop Mt Tongariro

This Christmas it has been a pleasure, and a privilege, to be part of my family adventures all across the land that Ngātoro-i-rang claimed for his descendants. From the summit of Mt Tauhara, to the fiery waters of Waiotapu, to the fresh drinkable waters of Lake Taupo, to the tussocks foot hills of Tongariro, and finally into the icy waters that come off the snow capped mountains that killed the slave Ngāuruhoe.

Footnote:  The myths of Ngātoro-i-rangi vary slightly between tellings.  The version I am repeating here is a blend of two slightly different tellings sourced from;

  • R.D. Craig, Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology (Greenwood Press: New York, 1989), p185.
  • Te Ara Online – Encyclopedia of New Zealand

… however other versions have Ngātoro-i-rangi being sent six baskets of embers which resulted in Whakaari (White Island), Moutohora (Whale Island),
Rotoiti, Tarawera, Rotorua, Orakei Korako, Wairakei, Tokaanu and finally Ketetahi at
Tongariro all becoming thermally active.  The most detailed version I came across was from Taupo District Council which is particularly good and quite varied from the tale told here.

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West Coast Chaos

Wild wet valleys of the West Coast firth.
Tangled fronds dapple, lichen captivate.
Life’s tired arteries of green-grey earth.

Forgotten a while from Jurassic birth.
Bent tourist elbows, erect to self-pixilate.
Wild wet valleys of the West Coast firth.

Mountain birch flex muscles of assorted girth.
Signage directs, gravel foot path violate.
Life’s tired arteries of green-grey earth.

Winds mummor in vain against avian dearth.
Yawning alien tongues, breathless to dominate.
Wild wet valleys of the West Coast firth.

Umbrella canopy to safely shelter a berth.
Freedom of place, Maui campers decorate.
Life’s tired arteries of green-grey earth.

Rollicking green brooks chuckle in mirth.
King punga dance, flicker and flagellate.
Wild wet valleys of the West Coast firth.
Life’s tired arteries of green-grey earth.

A villanelle poem is supposed to feel a little schizophrenic, so I thought it kind of summed up my feelings towards our trip through the Haast Valley. The peaceful, remote and astoundingly beauty of Westland, was in compete and jarring contrast to the crowds we encountered at every stop, all vying for that perfect scenery photograph (ourselves included)

IMG_7633 Camp Stream, Lake Wanaka

Camp River, Lake Hawea

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Going Loopy #4: Roxburgh Trail

Roxburgh River Trail

  • Hard(er)
  • 21km (plus 10k via water taxi)
  • 1 day

Unlike the previous 7-days cycling, the Roxburgh River Trial will get your aorta pumping blood as you traverse, via switch-backs, many short sharp climbs around the rocky outcrops of this most barren section of the Clyde River.


Undoubtedly, this days ride was the most picturesque.  The contrast between the bright-blues of the river and sky against the harsh brown hill-scape, lined with the bright green willows that cling to the water’s edge.   Starting at the Roxburgh Dam, you cycle just 11km before you reach the end of the first section of the cycleway.   Here I rested in a small hut, whilst Marco sunbathed on a rock, while we waited for our scheduled jetboat pickup.

The Roxburgh dam flooded the original valley, but if you looking carefully you will see lots of old miners dugouts in the sides of the hills – remanents from the goldrush era – that would have been high above the original height of the river.  Our jet boat drivers informative knowledge, and jetboat skills enabled us to take some close up shots of the more impressive dugouts on the opposite side of the river.  The hardship and desolate isolation that these miners faced is beyond imagining.

The specially configured jetboat, rigged for transporting bikes, took us 10km downstream, and drop us off at the beginning of the last 10km of cycleway.   The cycleway finally ending in the pretty town of Alexandra (which is also back at the beginning of the Otago Rail Trail).  Loop done!

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Going Loopy #3: Clutha Gold Trail

Clutha Gold Trail

  • Flat (so the elevation map had a hill on it, but it didn’t register in my legs, so not exactly sure there was one)
  • 63km
  • 1 day

Always ambitious, the plan was to cycle the 92 kilometres from Dunedin to Lawrence to meet the beginning of the Clutha Gold Trail. However fifty kilometres in I was phoning Intercity Buses from the side of the road. The turbulent close encounters with trucks and cars on the busy narrow stretch of road had my parental nerves in tatters. This meant we spent an unintended night relaxing by the lake, eating platefuls of deep fried tidbits from the local and watching movies on faded couches at the abandoned campground. By lunchtime the next day we were safely deposited in Lawrence.

The Clutha Gold Trail, following the Clutha River which is steeped in gold mining history with a number of rusty artefacts to tell old tales of a river raped, drenching and abandoned. The foliage was distantly deciduously English, and made for pretty sun-dappled autumnal photography as I cycled one handed determined to get that perfect colourful photograph of my son riding ahead.

The riding was easy, and any lump on the elevation map didn’t register in the legs. It was a cool breezy day out on the bike.

The highlight was cycling through the 434m Big Tunnel without a headlight. My son, eager for such adventures, disappeared ahead of me, and fresh with the knowledge of the Otago Rail Trail tunnels that could easily be done without a headlamp I proceeded after him. Well, 434m is a long way! Soon I was in complete frigid darkness. Unable to fossick through my panniers for a torch without risk of loosing some other valuable equipment in the process, and the sign that said “enter at your own risk” playing on my mind, I had to blindly and tentatively peddled on, half expecting to cycle into a grubby cobwebbed tunnel wall at any moment. With my blood a little more adrenaline rich I finally entered the light at the other end of the tunnel, only to be queried as to why I took so long.

As there is no accomodation at the tail of the trail, we stayed the night at Clutha Gold Cottages in Roxburgh (10km before the end). With cottages, campground, and back-packers set upon rolling picturesque countryside, this place was an absolutely delightful little retreat, and owner Christine’s labour of love, which I whole heartedly endorse as a must do place to stay!

Next: Going Loopy #4 Roxburgh Trail

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Going Loopy Part#2: Taieri Gorge to Dunedin

Middlemarch’s little cafe Kissing Gate best sums the place up. It’s where you kiss people away (or back) from the trail, then get the hell out.  It’s a shame really.  This is the second time I’ve cycled into Middlemarch after completing the Otago Rail Trail, and this time was as much an anti climax as the first time.  Unlike all the other dew-drop hamlets that you pass through on the trail, which had been abuzz with cyclists and brewing coffee, Middlemarch was deathly quiet.  It is a town cut off, even then dairy owner – the effervescent Maggie – has to drive the hour into Dunedin herself to stock her fridge with milk because the delivery trucks won’t deliver there.  With a population of around 150 – it not worth anyones time apparently.

Marco and I pitched our tents in the middle of the otherwise empty camping area at the adorable Middlemarch camping ground, that had an old train carriage converted into kitchen and bbq area.  Our intention was to catch the 11am scenic Taieri Gorge train from Pukerangi to Dunedin the next morning. Pukerangi is 20km from Middlemarch (7 km road, 13 km gravel), and to be perfectly honest the vistas on this small section out-trumps any of the previous scenery we saw over the past 3 days.   Thus it is a curiosity as to why they just don’t extend the Otago Rail Trail all the way to Pukerangi – as to me it makes sense to complete the ride by actually catching a train.  However that said, plenty trail riders do, but they just get Cycle Surgery to deliver them via minivan is all.

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The next day we took the train back to Dunedin, and the highlight of this is the 20km cycle from Middlemarch to Pukerangi Train Station. To me, this gravel road is the epitome of true Otago countryside. Long golden grasses and scattered rockeries of schist. Needless to say, much frolicking and photography was to be had on our short trip to the train station.

The Taieri Gorge Rail is a tourist destination in its own right, with many a Dunedin visitor taking the return trip as an afternoons outing to appreciate the stunning vistas of the Taieri Gorge. Check out the link for more information.

Once in Dunedin the we spent the night at Hogwarts … a fun little backpackers to top off our Otago Rail Trail adventure.

Next: Going Loopy#3 – Clutha Gold Trail

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Going Loopy Part#1: Otago Rail Trail

Compared to previous cycling ventures, this one was going to be fairly tame – riding distances only between 40 and 60 kilometres per day, gravel but flat and well travelled.  The only unknown quantity was my 13 year old adolescent man-child – he was the one who was either going to make or break this trip.  I’d sold it to him fairly well by choosing my descriptives wisely – emphasising “Hogwatz Backpackers” “train ride” “jet boat ride” “tunnels”  and minimising “cycling every day” “sleeping in tents” “carrying your own gear” and “rehydrated food”.

IMG_7213 Clyde

“That actually sounds cool”, he was surprisingly keen to start, and was a happy touring partner up until our third day when reality finally sank in.  As we packed our things on that third morning, he asked “so how many days are we actually doing this?”

“Eight” I casually replied.


So the grumbling began.  And just to set the record straight, he had been informed of this, but as anyone with a teenage boy knows, small details like this often don’t register straight away.

To alleviate my son’s ego and growing agitation with his ‘sore bum’, I purchased a gel seat cover in Middlemarch the morning of day four.  Having had his suffering acknowledged, and ego patted with the $10 purchase, the squeaking complaints in front of me stopped, and on day four I got a new boy, one more resigned to his fate, but one who also didn’t want to ride so close to his Mum anymore.

IMG_6722 Otago

Our Trip

Our itinerary – 360km, 3 trails, 2 bikes, 8 days – followed well known cycle trails that are all part of the New Zealand Cycleway Network, so I won’t bore you with the details, but will summarise with photos and highlights of each.

Otago Rail Trail

  • Flat (not exactly flat, but close enough)  
  • 152km (average speed 14kph)
  • 3 days

We cycled this national treasure during Easter, so it was crowded with Easter holiday-goers, the vast majority of which were either day riders, or were getting their gear transported between accomodation points.  Cycle Surgery, along with the many cafe and lodging operators, have done a fantastic job of opening this trail up to people of all walks of life.  It made for a busy highway, but it also broke barriers between people, and connections were easily made.  Bound by the same experience, you couldn’t help but continually “bump” into the same people, and from the culmination of passing conversations you got to know your fellow cyclists quite well – from the puffer jacket clad Whangarei family that left the balmy 27 degree temperatures in the north, to tour the deep freeze of the south, to the three person Kiwi-Dutch blended family doing it the ‘hard way’ like us.  When I say hard way, I mean carrying all necessary gear in panniers on our bikes.  This made us look like lumbering elephants compared to the others on the trail, and we often got the shocked remark, “are you tenting?” when the horror discovery of our tents were made.  I’ll just point out to those reading this, that when presented with faces of horror, tour cyclists tend to translated those looks into looks of admiration, to protect their fragile identities.

The scenery and historic spots of interest go without saying really – and pictures are worth a 1000 words each – so the below should explain in detail just why this is one on NZs most popular cycleway.

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Next in Series: Cycling Part#2: Taieri Gorge to Dunedin

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Mustering courage at Lake Rere

Zebras, when pursued by hungry carnivores, must only outrun one of their mates to remain alive.  Thus I was recently disappointed to find that it was I, that had been outrun, whilst in the cross hairs of an angry beast with something to prove.  It was my yelp of warning that was my downfall.  This provided the instant shot of adrenalin for my son to channel Jesus Christ himself and shoot passed me as if on roller blades across water.  Awesome!  Begrudgingly, the parent in me was glad the child was not trampled to death, but that left me, the aged and despensible – who lacked the super powers required to transcend ankle deep mud in tramping boots – in a rather interesting predicament.  As the heaving, breathing, yet to be black leather boots made for me, I managed to stumble the two metres required to place a tiny scrap of a Manuka bush between me and the wild eyed creature.  This game of standoff was familiar – a childhood dance played with disgruntled older brothers around lounge room furniture – but one that generally didn’t end in my favour.  The bush – my saviour – was grey, spindly and disturbingly small.  In my head cow-bells clanged, t-boning a gear change in my hippocampus – and flight instincts turned to fight.  I flayed my arms and made alarmingly weird squarking sounds like a deranged and angry pelican.  This was of course the total sum of my humble display of bravery and an obvious indication to the bull that I was of no immediate threat to his herd.  I can’t be sure if he really rolled his eyes, but ultimately, he moved on.

There are of course signs stating “please stay on track to avoid disturbing stock“, but no sage advice on what to do if said ‘stock’ decides to play a fun game of ten-pin bowling with you on the track.  Run like fuck? Wave your arms like a madman? Don’t fall over in panic?

It is said that a shot of adrenalin is like a shot of heroine, and if that’s the case I won’t be hunting down the nearest crack house any time soon.  My nerve ends were alive with white fire, and my skittery legs strangely developed a mind of their own and the rush of blood through my ears sounding unsettlingly like hoof falls.  It took quite a while for my brain to settle back into the mellow and sedate state that usually accompanies a hike through NZ bush.

This weekend I had dragged my son out to Glenorchy, to circumnavigate the Lake Rere loop track – detailed as an easy 4 to 6 hours – that perhaps we left a little too late in the day to start, but after a two hour drive from Queenstown there was no turning back.

The first part of the trail followed a farm fence along the ambit of Wakatipu, and blessed with a picture perfect day, the lake reflected magnificently in my camera lens.  Too soon we headed up off the beach at Elfin Bay and inland into the customary red and mountain beech forest, where things took a muddier and more vapid turn.  We following what seemed like kilometres of windfall and devastation until finally arriving at tiny Lake Rere Reserve roughly 3 hours into our hike.  Lake Rere is a green gem of a thing, a watery wee crib within the valley folds, but with a fading sun and sandwiches long gone, steadfast we solidered on.  Not long later we suffered the aforementioned close encounter with the patriarchal beefy bovine, and not long after that we joined up to the prettier Greenstone River Track.  Then the world turned dark.  Our timing seemed perfect, as sunset coincided with our crossing of a large grassy clearing, with the pinks and yellows hanging in the sky amblifying the golden pasture.  We hadn’t intended to be out this late, but with a wide trail, full moon and clear skies the darkness added colour and intrigue to our travels.  Five hours afoot, we finally returned to our van.

However, we had one more close encounter in store.  A morepork.  Boldly sitting on the road, as surprised by us, as we by him.  He stared momentarially, then floated away.  As this was my first wild encounter with a morepork – usually heard, not seen – I was totally stoked! Thanks NZ.

  • Access: 30km from Glenorchy towards Kinloch (gravel road with ford crossings)
  • Grade: Easy tramping track
  • Time: 4 – 6 hours return
  • Accommodation: None.  However Greenstone Hut could be made with only an hour detour.
  • Map Topo50: Glenorchy CB10
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