It's three-year old Henry's first encounter with snow. After a couple of careful prods, he's surprised to find it's both cold and wet. Ten minutes later, bumping down the main piste at Whakapapa skifield on a sled, he delivers his verdict. "Snow is awesome."
By now, the skifield should be open for the real thing, but last month the lifts weren't running although there was enough snow on the ground to slide: For some enterprising visitors, on empty chicken-feed sacks and binbags; for us, thanks to some friendly ski-shop staff, on borrowed sleds.
Whakapapa is an easy, and beautiful hour's drive around Lake Taupo and through Tongariro National Park. We're staying in Taupo for an early-winter weekend escape. And that means only just over an hour's gap between sledging in the cold to soaking in the warmth of the hot pools at the historic DeBretts holiday park on the city outskirts.
The kids are already experts on the hot pools' key attractions: The dragon hydroslide for 9-year-old Eamon, the kids' waterpark for Henry.
We are staying in a neatly appointed villa with a heatpump that is quickly pressed into service; being soft Aucklanders, we notice the drop in temperatures almost immediately.
Discounted access to the pools is the undoubted drawcard of staying at DeBretts. The pools have been onsite since 1958 but heavily modernised by present owners Barry and Carol Kirkland. They've been in charge for 27 years. "People say it's my baby, and they'd be right," Barry tells me. His latest project is installing a giant kids' play area and more residential renovations to his assortment of campervan sites, chalets, motel units and villas.
So we are well-rested for our trip across to Tongariro. Catherine Wallace has walked the Tongariro Crossing eight of the last 10 days (and several hundred times in total) so she's cheerful about selecting and leading us on a much more casual 90-minute stroll along bush tracks in the national park. Catherine works for Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures - based just off the state highway in National Park village - who assess your gear before you leave and, if necessary, re-equip you head to toe before leading you on a variety of expeditions. Catherine, who has been in adventure tourism all her life, carries all sorts of extras in her backpack, gives running commentary on history and flora, and even a steadying hand when Henry quickly nods off on my shoulders. Eamon tears ahead inspecting the stoat traps (we're rewarded by sightings of two corpses).
Catherine reckons he would be well capable of walking the track proper; she has taken 8-year-olds before, and plenty of people who looked incapable of the walk but still managed it. Eamon's so enthused she tags on an extra 20-minute loop to a waterfall where, apparently, Gollum hung out during The Lord of the Rings. When we arrive, backpackers are leaping from the falls into the icy pool below.
Then Catherine takes us up the hill to the skifield for lunch and, when we see how much snow is on the ground, we finagle some sleds and enjoy our bonus sledging experience. By the time we get back to Taupo there's just enough collective energy left to manage a few more trips down the slide and takeaway pizzas.
The next day, a damp morning greets us and it gets wetter - first, artificially, at White Water World in the centre of Taupo, where the local rafting company has installed a rather sophisticated simulator to give you a taste of its river-rafting trips. Henry doesn't much like the look of the machine, so the operator, Amy, tempts him to a roaring fireplace with colouring pencils and chocolate fish while we put on ponchos (necessary because it's "4-D"- complete with authentic spray) for the ride.
Then it begins to drizzle for real as we reach a rather unusual tourist attraction, the Huka Prawn Park at Wairakei, via the obligatory detour to observe the Huka Falls. We're early for the guided tour, so take a solo stroll around the large breeding ponds, full of prawns, gently steaming away.
The ponds are encircled by a sort of nature walk-adventure trail, with some clever obstacle courses, a playground, a thermal foot-spa (really), and trout feeding, although we didn't see any. The kids are sufficiently enthused to ignore the rain, and soon we are indoors for a guided tour of how the prawn hatchery works, which is surprisingly engaging, mainly because you learn what an evil little bugger the average prawn is. Mothers are swiftly separated from babies so they don't eat them, while the males seem to cruise around waiting to murder each other.
After hand-feeding some tiddlers, and a swift fishing lesson, we're dispatched outside to thermally heated benches with bamboo canes and tiny squares of ox heart to try to catch our own. The 3-year-old's attention span doesn't stretch that far, although we see others hauling out their own specimens.
No catch leaves us down on lunch options for the four-hour drive home. But the two smaller members of our group don't mind: They prefer the fine-dining experience that is Tokoroa Burger King's drive-through to the grilled king prawns the trip leader would have preferred; it is the only disappointment of a great kids' weekend away.
Steve Kilgallon travelled courtesy of Destination Great Lake Taupo.
- Sunday Star Times