Since the 1920s, and increasingly since the 1950s, the region’s lakes have seen a summer influx of visitors to sunbathe, swim, waterski, or just mess about in boats.
According to writer Frank Sargeson, 1930s Rotorua was ‘not the overcrowded hive of garages which it has since become, having instead an attractive and even genuine touch of the village about it; and it was a particular pleasure that with the aid of the Cadillac we could appreciate thermal delights without having to suffer too much competition from other tourists … the lake was enclosed by hills which [in the early] morning appeared to be entirely constituted of lapis lazuli, and soon began to dazzle my eyes as it was continuously showered with diamonds under the rising sun.’ 1
Rotorua – especially Lakes Okareka, Tarawera and Rotoiti – mostly drew visitors from Auckland. Taupō visitors came from Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and other parts of the lower North Island. In both districts motor camps and baches (small holiday houses) multiplied. They were empty most of the time, but full in the weeks after Christmas.
The waters of the lakes can be treacherous. A boat accident in 1870 killed 18 Māori. From 1955 to 1966, 17 people drowned in Lake Rotorua. The lives of four teenagers who drowned on the lake in 1963 were fictionalised in Fiona Kidman’s 2002 novel Songs from the Violet Café. Kidman lived in Rotorua from 1956 to 1970.
The first successful swim of the 40.2 kilometre length of Lake Taupō was by Margaret Sweeney on 30 January 1955.
From the 1960s retired people were an important component of the populations of both towns. In Taupō, people aged 65 and over made up 18.3% of the population in 2013, compared with 14.8% for the region as a whole.
In the swim
Hinemoa is perhaps Rotorua’s most famous swimmer, with her night-time expedition to meet her lover Tūtānekai on Mokoia Island. But some other Rotorua Māori have been high-achieving swimmers. In 1934, Bill Whareaitu represented New Zealand at the Empire Games in London. Nawi Kira, a young woman from Whakarewarewa, also achieved national prominence in the sport in the 1930s.
Golf courses particularly benefited from the patronage of retirees. The Wairākei international course, opened in 1970, catered for professional golfers.
Sport for locals
The Rotorua rugby union, with five foundation clubs, was formed in 1903. The region’s teams have been affiliated to a variety of provincial unions. From 1911, Rotorua teams played in Bay of Plenty competitions.
Until the 1960s, Taupō teams played in the Hawke’s Bay provincial competition, while teams at the southern end of the lake played in the King Country competition. Taupō joined the King Country union competition in the 1980s.
- A marathon around Lake Rotorua was first run in 1965, and was won by Dave Heine of the local athletics club. The annual event, now known as the Lion Foundation Rotorua Marathon, attracts the largest number of participants of any New Zealand marathon. The men’s record of 2h 16m 05s was set by Paul Ballinger in 1988, and the women’s record of 2h 37m 37s by Nyla Carroll in 1994.
- Zorbing, which involves rolling downhill in a transparent plastic ball, was developed in Rotorua in the 1990s. It has now been franchised around the world.
- The Huka Falls near Taupō regularly attract adventure kayakers.
- The Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge, a 160-kilometre bike ride around Lake Taupō, started in 1977 and is now New Zealand's largest cycle event. In 2014, 7,400 riders took part.
- The UCI world mountain biking championships took place in Rotorua in 2006.
- The first Taupō Ironman triathlon was held in 1999. More than 1,300 entrants competed in 2015.
- Taupō Bungy, New Zealand’s first cliff-top bungy jump, has hosted 170,000 jumps since it opened in 1991.
- The eight-hour Tongariro Crossing track leads through a dramatic volcanic landscape in Tongariro National Park. Several thousand walkers tackle it each summer. The track overlaps with the Northern Circuit of the central volcanoes, one of eight New Zealand tracks that have been designated Great Walks.
Direct flights between Sydney and Rotorua – the city's first international service – began in December 2009.