Weekend walk: Whakapapa village to Tama Lakes
A day walk in the stunning surrounds of Tongariro National Park is perfect for blasting away those winter cobwebs, and embracing the crisp, spring air.
Established in 1887, Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's first National Park, and the fourth National Park to be created in the world.
Tongariro National Park is a Unesco Heritage site, a status which recognises the park's Maori cultural importance as well as its spectacular volcanic landscape.
The Tama Lakes track forms part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk, but is also very popular as a day hike. In winter, you will be blessed with views of the snow-covered volcanic peaks of Tongariro (1978 metres), Ngauruhoe (2291m) and Mt Ruapehu (2797m).
As the weather can be changeable it is recommended that you check in with the visitor centre in Whakapapa before you go in case of any hazards on the track. In general, it is a relatively safe and easy hike but not recommended for very young children.
WHERE: Whakapapa village to Tama Lakes in the World Heritage Area of Tongariro National Park.
TIME: Five to six hours return.
DISTANCE: 17 kilometres.
STARTING POINT: The track is an extension of the Taranaki Falls Walk and begins around 100m from the Whakapapa Visitor Centre at Ngauruhoe Place. There is some parking near the start of the track and plenty more in the village itself, a short distance away.
DIFFICULTY: This is a fairly easy track for those who are moderately fit, although it can be slightly challenging on the ascent to Upper Lake Tama, depending on how windy it is. The short climb up the ridge is well worth it for the spectacular views.
In parts the track can be muddy or icy, depending on the time of year, so make sure you wear a sturdy pair of walking boots or trainers with good grip. There are quite a few steps in parts. It is not suitable for buggies or wheelchairs. Dogs and bikes are not permitted on the track. For those who find going down hills tough bring a pair of walking poles.
ALONG THE WAY: From the car park you will start the hike in a mountain beech forest area before coming out into the clearing. Then it's a series of climbs and dips across the large expanses of beautiful golden and red tussocks. In some parts the path is gravel and in other parts you will find yourself tentatively hopping over volcanic rock and mud or ice, depending on the temperature.
About an hour into the walk you'll find yourself at Taranaki Falls. It's hard not to be impressed by the falls with its 20m drop down the edge of 15,000-year-old lava flow. You'll want to stop here for a while to take in the soothing sounds of the water leaping off the cliffs into the pool below.
After leaving the Falls track, the path again crosses undulating tussock country and alpine landscape. About an hour and half later you'll reach a junction with the track branching left to Tama Lakes. The track to the right takes you on the path towards Waihohonu Hut for those continuing on with the Northern Tongariro Circuit.
Once you've taken the track to the left you'll walk for another 20 minutes or so before reaching a path that climbs up over Lower Tama Lake (1240m). Stop here to take in the views. In the background Mt Ruapehu gazes down on the lakes which were formed in explosion craters of the Tama saddle. On a sunny day the peak of Ruapehu will be a mirror image in the Lower Tama Lake.
The path then climbs quite steeply up to a viewpoint of Upper Tama Lake (1440m). The soil on the path up to the top lake is quite loose and walking poles can help with the sharp ascent. Once you get to the top you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of Mount Ruapheu and Mount Ngauruhoe. On a clear day you should also be able to see the peak of Mount Taranaki in the distance, as well as the roof of the iconic Chateau Tongariro Hotel in Whakapapa Village.
The Tama saddle is a funnel for prevailing westerly winds so it is advised that you wear windproof clothing if you plan on going right to the top.
Once you have descended from the lakes you'll follow the track back towards Taranaki Falls again. Once you get back to the falls you have the option of taking the upper or lower path back to the car park. On the lower path you'll get good views of the water-worn gorges of the Wairere Stream. If you take the lower path you will also encounter the smaller Cascade Falls, around 3.5km before you get back to the start of the track.
Treat yourself at the end of the hike with a hot drink by the roaring fire at the Chateau in the village.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Tongariro National Park region has been formed by many volcanic eruptions over the past 300,000 years; as well as glaciers from the last ice age. The result of this is breathtaking alpine landscape with surreal colours. The gems of this walk are Taranaki Falls and the views from the top of Tama Lakes.
BEST FOR: Those who are up for a slightly more challenging Sunday stroll. For people walking with younger children you might want to cut your trip short and only do the Taranaki Falls Loop walk.