Taupo gets a Blue Ribbon: not every NZ town hates budget travelers

“Welcome World Rowing Competitors and Fans!” read the enormous banner above Auckland customs when we arrived in October 2010. Being rowers, we lamented that the venue – Lake Taupo – was not on our immediate travel radar. Instead, we watched the nightly coverage on T.V. It’s no small irony that we would end up at Lake Taupo nearly a year later just in time to watch coverage on T.V of another “world” competition in Auckland — New Zealand versus France in the Rugby World Cup.

Watching rugby at an Irish pub

First came our arrival in Taupo – exhausted from two days of fun in Rotorua. We got dinner into our bellies, the settled into a packed Irish pub to watch the U.S. play Australia in the Rugby World Cup. Talent-wise, this is the equivalent of an all-freshman team against all-seniors. The U.S. cops the unfortunate roll of the junior class, having to do with the fact that most Americans don’t even know what rugby is (and rare is the case that raw athletic talent doesn’t end up on a basketball court, football field, or baseball diamond). We lost badly.

The highlight of the night was our first encounter of a sensible, welcoming, NZ tourist town.   I’ve talked before about the annoying, sweeping generalizations about van tourists made everywhere else in New Zealand. They think foreign “freedom” campers are dirtying

Technically illegal to park here overnight (we didn't), even with the bathroom at the other end of the parking lot.

recreation areas. I’ve been to a good deal of recreation spots frequented almost exclusively by Kiwis (Nzers), and found them to be in a much worse condition than those used mostly by foreign tourists. I’ve talked to other travelers like myself, committed to “Leave No Trace,” who report atrocious behavior by Kiwis leaving terrible messes. Ask a Kiwi passionate about “OUTLAWING FREEDOM CAMPING!” and they’ll blame foreign freedom campers for all that ails their recreation land. Part of me wishes they’d go ahead and kick all the tourists out of the country and watch NOTHING CHANGE in these precious recreation areas. I’m not vying for an “absolutely not guilty” verdict for all foreign tourists. I’m just asking the boastful among the Kiwis out there to take a hard look in the mirror before automatically absolving their countrymen of a healthy share of the responsibility.   (Kiwis Lance Wiggs, the MCA, and NRT agree).

Pat getting water for breakfast clean up

Ahem. So, Taupo is up with the times and somehow has a handle on suave diplomacy that makes obtaining tourism dollars a pleasant experience for everyone. Not only do they allow free waterfront parking spaces to those who provide their own toilet, but they have a free camping area with toilets and trash cans at a gorgeous riverside spot just out of town. Of course all the Holiday Park owners, who had business driven their way by the former policy against any bootstrapping self-sufficiency, are in a rage. But who cares? They are being forced to share the wealth with dozens of community businesses who now benefit from the patronage of those parked nightly just a few blocks away.

Thundering Huka Falls

Our NZ sleep-for-free strategy (which never involves leaving trash or feces ANYWHERE, thank you very much) means getting up with the sun every day. It was a total luxury to be in a place where we were welcome and could wake up naturally. The decision to spend a few more days worth of our tourism dollars in Taupo was an easy one. I slept in, read, relaxed, wandered the town, ate sushi and gelato, wrote at a cafe and watched the world go by, saw the sights, enjoyed pints at the pubs, and luxuriated in all Taupo had to offer.

Decadent consumables made an appearance in the form of bleu cheese (to go with our creamy Irish stouts), amazing salmon, and guacamole! (All on separate days, and not at restaurants — we’re not that bad!) We saw Huka Falls — a small but thundering cascade, and turned up for

the here-now, gone-in-an-hour rapids

the Aratiatia Rapids show. A timed dam-release has tourists in position several times a day. Watching the waterway go from small stream to raging river in a matter of twenty minutes was impressive (Check out this album for a flip-book experience of the whole thing). The rapids raged for twenty more minutes before they closed the flood gate. Five minutes later, it was as if nothing had ever happened!

Down the road was the “Prawn Park.” Pat and I researched a prawn farm business plan for a competition when we lived in California, so I was interested in seeing the place. Heat exchangers grab waste heat from a nearby industrial area that keeps the prawns warm (70+ degrees F to stay alive). The whole thing has been turned into a cheesy but well-done family fun spread with prawn fishing, prawn golf (with a golf ball), treasure hunts, a heated foot pool, riverside walks, and a restaurant (with prawns for $45 a pound! No thanks!).

Chillin' like a villian

Another jewel in Taupo’s crown is their free spa park. I mentioned in Rotorua that every geothermal blip is commercialized and turned into a $20 tourist attraction. Thankfully, Taupo has kept one of these spots in the family. An absolutely gushing hot spring on the banks of the Waikato River cascades down through several pools before plunging into the river. It’s the best hot spring I’ve ever been to! The uppermost pool is nearly scalding, deeper than any spring I’ve ever encountered, and the pressure of the water racing by feels like hot tub jets on full blast! Three lower pools have slightly cooler temps. The spring flows into a shallow eddy of the clear river, raising the river temp from freezing to tolerable in a deep pool perfect for my love of swimming and water. I was happy as a clam frolicking endlessly in the fresh water and evening light.

The waterslide that my nephew, Izziah, would have loved. He always wants to go "one more time!"

Later that night we made our way to front-row pub sofa seats for the NZ vs. France game mentioned initially. It was awesome to be among a roaring crowd in a tight game and to be supporting a winning team again! We carried our jubilation with us up Mt. Tawhara the next day — two hours up to a stunning vista overlooking three picturesque and active (!) volcanoes — Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. In the evening, we followed Penelope and Tim’s advice to visit Debrett’s — a hot spring park. Two big main pools, private pools, and a water slide kept us busy for hours! After another glorious sleep in, we reluctantly said goodbye to Taupo and continued north! ♣

A bird in a pan, volcano views, and gypsy caravan’s in this photo album.

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