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Volcanic Plateau places

by  Malcolm McKinnon

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, lakes, volcanoes and other places of interest on the Volcanic Plateau.

Ngongotahā and district


Town 8 km north-west of Rotorua city centre, on the shores of Lake Rotorua. Ngongotahā sits at the foot of 757-metre Mt Ngongotahā. Parawai, Waikuta and Waitetī marae are found here. The name refers to the mouth of a gourd, from which the Te Arawa ancestor Īhenga drank after he had climbed the mountain.

In 1939, P. H. Castleton landscaped the springs at the headwaters of the Ngongotahā Stream and opened them to the public as Paradise Valley. Further downstream, near the town, is the Agrodome, opened in 1971 by top shearer Godfrey Bowen and local farmer George Harford. Tourists visit to see displays of farm livestock, especially sheep.

Hamurana and Hamurana Springs

Settlement and freshwater springs on the north side of Lake Rotorua, 14 km from Rotorua city by road. From the town’s early days it was a favoured place for lake excursions. Today it is a scenic reserve.

The tranquil Hamurana Springs, 20 minutes’ walk from the road, produce 4.4 million litres of water per hour. They feed the Hamurana Stream, the bed of which is visible through the crystal-clear water. Groves of poplars and redwoods and a golf course also attract visitors. The name Hamurana is a Māori form of the biblical Smyrna – the stream was originally called Kaikaitāhuna.

Gone to the dogs

Mamaku had no licensed hotel, so sly-grogging thrived. One man’s house and outbuildings were frequently raided but nothing was ever found. After he’d given up trading he revealed that he had kept the liquor under the double roof of his dog kennel.


Township on the Mamaku Plateau, 20 km north-west of Rotorua on the branch railway line. Mamaku had a population of 690 in 2013. It was originally called Kāponga, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the Taranaki settlement.

Mamaku thrived from the 1880s as a sawmilling centre, mostly processing rimu, with some tōtara and other woods. The railway reached the town in 1893, and much of the timber was taken by rail to build gold batteries for the Waihī goldmines. Many of Rotorua’s early entrepreneurs started in Mamaku, which grew almost as quickly as Rotorua for several decades. In the town’s heyday (the early 20th century), it had seven sawmills, five billiard halls, three dance halls and two cinemas – but no licensed hotel. Sawmilling remains an important activity today.

Lake Rotorua

Lake Rotorua

The largest of the Rotorua lakes, 279 metres above sea level. Lake Rotorua is teardrop-shaped, about 12 kilometres from north to south and 10 kilometres west to east, with a maximum depth of only 25 metres. The lake’s full name is Te Rotoruanui-a-Kahumatamomoe, after Kahumatamomoe, the Arawa ancestor who is believed to have sighted the lake first.

Geologically separate from the other nearby lakes, Rotorua formed in a caldera (crater caused by a volcanic eruption) about 200,000 years ago. Up to 20,000 years ago it occupied most of the caldera. The water then breached the caldera wall to the north-east, causing a drop of about 100 metres in the lake’s level. The upper sides of the caldera now form the mostly gentle slopes around the lake.

Geothermal activity

Continued geothermal activity around the lake, notably at Sulphur Flats (Te Arikiroa), is a reminder of its volcanic origins. The islands off Sulphur Flats are a refuge for wildlife. They were also sites where Māori worked stone.


Lake Rotorua has a serious pollution problem – more than any other New Zealand lake. Rotorua city, with over 50,000 people, contaminated the lake with sewage for many years – in 1969 it was described as an ‘unflushed toilet’ 1 . Today the pollution is mostly fertiliser runoff from farmland.

Expensive mouse-trap

Mouse tracks were found in a bait station on supposedly pest-free Mokoia Island in 2007, spurring a major rodent-hunt. Department of Conservation staff, helped by three sniffer dogs, eventually trapped an adult male mouse after a search that cost $12,000. The culprit was later given a ceremonious burial.

Mokoia Island

Island in Lake Rotorua, 2 km from the eastern shore. Mokoia Island is a volcanic dome of which 179 metres is above the water level. It is also known by an old Polynesian island name, Te Motutapu-a-Tinirau – the sacred island of Tinirau (the ancestor of all fish).

An important place of settlement for Ngāti Whakaue, Mokoia Island is still renowned as the home of Tūtānekai and the setting of a famous love story. His beloved Hinemoa, who was of higher rank, avoided family hostility to their relationship by swimming to meet him on the island under cover of night.

Mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels) and possums were never introduced to the island, which has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1921. From the 1990s, a number of endangered native bird species have been released. Mokoia Island’s trust board has representatives from Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Uenukukōpako, Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Ngāti Rangiteaorere, all of which have rights to the island.

Ōkere Falls

Waterfall on the Kaituna (Ōkere) River, just north of Lake Rotoiti, 21 km from Rotorua. The 7-metre Ōkere Falls are the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. Walkers can reach them via Hinemoa’s steps, carved into the rock face by the falls.

New Zealand’s first government hydroelectric power station (the country’s fourth), was built at the falls in 1901 and supplied electricity to Rotorua. It was later superseded by power from Waikato River stations. Only the remains of the station can now be seen. A turbine, retrieved in 1995, is on display above the falls.

The settlement of Ōkere Falls is 21 km north-east of Rotorua, just above the falls. It has holiday accommodation and facilities.

A hell of a trip

English playwright George Bernard Shaw visited Tikitere in 1934. He is reported to have said that it was the most damnable place he’d ever been to, and that he would willingly have paid 10 pounds not to see it.


Thermal area also known as Hell’s Gate, 18 km north-east of Rotorua. Tikitere is open to visitors who come to see its hot pools and steam vents, and have spa treatments.

Lake Rotokawau, a bush-surrounded crater lake 1 kilometre away, is, like Tikitere, owned by Ngāti Rangiteaorere.

  1. Daily Post, 7 July 1969, p. 1. › Back

Lake Rotoiti to Lake Rotomā

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti’s full name, Te Rotoiti-kite-a-Īhenga, links it to Īhenga, the early ancestor from the Te Arawa canoe, who is credited with exploring the lakes district. The lake is graced by Matawhaura, a forest-covered mountain at its eastern end.

Rotoiti is really two lakes in one. The eastern part sits in the north of the Okataina caldera (volcanic depression), and has many hot sulfur springs. The western half – a drowned valley, Te Awa-i-Takapuwhaia – was formerly an outlet for Lake Rotorua. The two lakes today share an outlet at Rotoiti’s western end.

Māori history

A number of war expeditions passed the lake from the 1820s to the 1860s, including one led by Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika in 1823, and East Coast King movement supporters in 1864.

Many sub-tribes, most of them linked to Ngāti Pikiao, have rights around the lake. Ngāti Pikiao gifted land to the Crown in 1920, ensuring that much of the lake shore has remained undeveloped.

There are many marae on State Highway 30 between Tapuaekura and Tapuaeharuru, along the south-east shore of the lake. Moose Lodge, where Queen Elizabeth II was welcomed on a number of occasions, is just east of Tapuaekura marae.

The long and readily fortified Ōhoukākā peninsula, on the northern side of the lake, featured in much tribal history. To its east is Tokerau marae and to its west Ōtaramarae, also the name of an affluent nearby holiday settlement.

Lake Rotoehu

Lake 35 km north-east of Rotorua city. Like Lakes Rotoiti and Rotomā, Rotoehu formed when lava blocked a series of valleys in the north of the Okataina caldera. Like Lake Rotomā, Rotoehu has no surface outlet; its inflow of water is matched by underground outflow.

The area around the lake is farmed and forested. There are just two areas of holiday houses, on the eastern shore.

In 1823, musket-armed invaders from the north arrived, led by Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika seeking revenge for earlier killings. They brought canoes to Lake Rotoehu from Maketū, dragging them overland to Lake Rotoiti and along its shores before attacking Te Arawa at Lake Rotorua. The stretch of land they pulled the canoes over is known as Hongi’s Track, as well as by its Te Arawa name, Te Ara-o-Hinehopu (Hinehopu’s path).

Lake Rotomā

The easternmost of the Rotorua lakes, Rotomā occupies most of a small caldera, its drainage blocked by lava flows. It is partly surrounded by native forest, which also lines the highway leading east to the Bay of Plenty. The landscape changes as the traveller leaves the volcanic lakes behind, descending to the intensively farmed Rangitāiki plain with the Bay of Plenty in the distance.

There are no marae on the shores of Lake Rotomā today, but Ngā Motu peninsula on its western side, between Te Rotoiti and Whangaroa inlets, was well settled in the 19th century.

Rotorua city

City with a 2013 population of 53,265, on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua. Rotorua is unusual among New Zealand cities in being neither a port nor originally a farm service centre. The aroma of sulfur (rotten eggs to some) pervades the town, produced by its many volcanic steam vents, mud pools and hot springs.

Establishing the town

Rotorua was built in the early 1880s by the government, as a town for tourists visiting the ‘hot lakes’. It was laid out on the Pukeroa–Oruawhata block, land leased from Ngāti Whakaue near the Māori lakeside settlement of Ōhinemutu.

This arrangement with the tribal owners broke down, and the government became the sole owner in 1888. The arrival of the railway in 1894 spurred growth. The government developed a European-style spa with ornamental gardens, and bathing and therapeutic facilities. The population grew from 500 in 1896 to over 4,700 (including more than 600 Māori) in 1926.

Later growth

After the Second World War, growth was also fostered by forest, farm and hydroelectricity development. Many government departments had regional offices in the town. The population increased more than sixfold – from 7,500 at the war’s end to 46,000 in 1976. Rotorua was proclaimed a city in 1962.

Economy today

Since the late 1970s, forestry, farming and electricity have employed fewer people and the city’s population has been stable. Tourism and accommodation employ many, but the biggest single employers are the district council, the hospital, Waiariki Institute of Technology and SCION, a Crown research institute which focuses on forestry science and forest-related industries.

The money spent by over one million visitors each year – about half from overseas – is the backbone of many businesses in the renovated downtown. The finely landscaped approach to the city along Fenton Street has a near-continuous line of motels and hotels, and many residents of Asian origin run tourist-oriented businesses.

The various sources of growth have given the town multiple personalities. The worlds of tourists and timber are distinct, and Pākehā, Asian and Māori residents coexist rather than merge.

Māori in Rotorua

In 2013 nearly 40% of the population identified themselves as Māori – the biggest proportion of any New Zealand city except Gisborne. Māori families such as the Mitchells, Morrisons and Bennetts have long been prominent in the city. Railway land near the central city is now home to large-scale retail outlets leased out by the Pukeroa–Oruawhata Māori Trust.

At the same time, there was a stark contrast between more affluent and poorer areas. In Kawaha Point, 33.2% of the population identified themselves as Māori and 8.1% of residents were unemployed. But less affluent Fordlands, a new suburb nearby, had 73.3% Māori and 31.7% unemployment.

Health or pleasure?

Rotorua’s swanky Blue Baths were quite a departure from the city’s earlier bathhouses. ‘Where [other baths] offered treatments for a variety of ailments from gout to psoriasis, the Blue Baths offered movie-style glamour, for an afternoon at least … For the first time, men and women could get (almost) naked, together in public.’ 1


Rotorua has distinctive buildings. The Government Gardens, now a historic reserve, are dominated by the Bath House, opened in 1908 to emulate European spa bathhouses, especially that at Bad Nauheim in Germany. The building now houses the Rotorua Museum of Art and History Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa. The Te Arawa presence is also recognised in the nearby Arawa soldiers’ memorial, a First World War memorial with many Māori names, and the waka taua (war canoe) carved by Te Arawa artist Lyonel Grant in 1989.

The Spanish-mission-style Blue Baths were built in 1931–32, and introduced mixed bathing to Rotorua. Closed in 1982, they were reopened in 1999 for bathing and as a function venue. The Polynesian Spa occupies the site of the former Ward baths, on the lake front.

Kuirau Park is another geothermal area in the city, and the site of its aquatic centre. In 2007, a large events centre opened in Government Gardens behind the museum.

    • The Blue Baths, Rotorua, (last accessed 12 June 2007). › Back

Around Rotorua city


Thermal area and suburb of Rotorua city, on the shores of Lake Rotorua, with a 2013 population of 267. Ōhinemutu was a Ngāti Whakaue village before the government laid out Rotorua on the other side of Pukeroa Hill. It has remained an important centre for the tribe, and is visited by many tourists.

The Tamatekapua meeting house, on Te Papaiouru marae, is named after the captain of the Arawa canoe, which brought the tribe’s ancestors from Polynesia. First opened in the centre of Ōhinemutu in 1873, the meeting house was demolished in 1939, but was rebuilt and reopened in 1943. Many of its carvings may be much older. An earlier Tamatekapua meeting house stood on Mokoia Island.

Taking the waters

Max Buchner describes how Ōhinemutu’s hot springs were used in 1876: ‘The little pool is the most luxurious bath a human being could want and at that time was the communal meeting-place and recreation area of the Europeans and Maoris of both sexes … there is never any question of clothing being worn … baskets with potatoes, crayfish and freshwater mussels hang on crossed sticks and groups of women watch the preparation.’ 1

Opposite the meeting house is St Faith’s Anglican church, which was renovated in 1965 and had new windows installed. One, overlooking the lake, depicts Christ wearing a korowai (Māori cloak) and appearing to walk on the waters beyond. Many distinguished people are buried in the cemetery, including the Pākehā soldier Captain Gilbert Mair.

The Kotahitanga (Māori parliament) met at Ōhinemutu in 1895, and many significant people have been welcomed onto Papaiouru marae, including British royalty. Te Rorooterangi and Tūnohopū are two other meeting houses at Ōhinemutu.


Neighbourhood and Māori settlement with a 2013 population of 228, famed for its geothermal wonders. Tūhourangi and Ngāti Wāhiao people displaced from the Tarawera area after the 1886 volcanic eruption settled here. The gateway to Whakarewarewa commemorates Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū, Māori who served in the two world wars. The settlement is reached via a bridge across the Puarenga Stream, where Māori youth have long dived for coins thrown by visitors.

Visitors can also access the geothermal attractions through Te Puia, which incorporates the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute and offers cultural performances.

Whakarewarewa Forest

2,280-hectare forest park, which started in 1899 as a nursery for non-native trees. A grove of California redwood trees, planted in 1901, was later made into a memorial to New Zealand Forest Service staff who died in the two world wars. The park is laid out with mountain-biking tracks. Mostly planted in exotic trees, it also has a small area of undisturbed native bush.

Rainbow Springs and Fairy Springs

Freshwater springs situated within a kilometre of each other on Fairy Springs Road (State Highway 5), north-west of Rotorua city. Both have pools where visitors can see rainbow trout, introduced to the region’s lakes and rivers at the beginning of the 20th century. Fairy Springs is also known as Te Puna-a-Tūhoe after the Tūhoe ancestor Tūhoe-pōtiki, who once lived there. Near Rainbow Springs a skyline gondola climbs the lower slopes of Mt Ngongotahā.


Settlement, now a suburb of Rotorua, on State Highway 30 north-east of the city centre, and the site of Lakes High School and the Ōwhata marae. The legendary Hinemoa is reputed to have swum to Mokoia Island to meet her beloved Tūtānekai, from Hinemoa Point on the adjacent lakeside.

Te Ngae

Settlement 14 km north-east of Rotorua city, 3 km past Rotorua airport. Te Ngae was the site of an early mission station in the district, set up by the Anglican Thomas Chapman to succeed earlier stations at Koutū and on Mokoia Island. Ngāti Rangiteaorere have a marae in Te Ngae.

    • Quoted in D. M. Stafford, The founding years in Rotorua: a history of events to 1900. Rotorua: Rotorua District Council, 1986, p. 138. › Back

Lake Tarawera district

Lake Tarawera

The largest of the lakes in the Okataina caldera, Lake Tarawera was formed about 5,000 years ago when drainage to the east was blocked by lava flows. Holiday houses line the only road, along the western side of the lake. Elsewhere, bush reaches the shore.

Blackberries, grey mountain

Author Robin Hyde wrote of picking blackberries near Te Wairoa in 1927. ‘[N]ot far away are the skeleton remains of wrecked huts, stranded articles of furniture – casualties of Mount Tarawera’s awful day of volcanic wrath. Like a grey ghost the deadly mountain, its rent craters still plain on its denuded sides, stands bare amid the rich wooded purple of friendlier Rotorua hills.’ 1

The small settlements of Te Wairoa and Punaromia are on the road from Rotorua, shortly before it reaches the lake. Near Te Wairoa is the ‘buried village’ – the earlier settlement which was smothered under nearly 2.5 metres of ash, mud and debris in the 1886 Tarawera eruption. The excavated site is open to visitors, and includes a museum.

Lake Okataina

Lake east of Rotorua city, 33 km away via the road to its northern end. Lake Okataina’s full name, Te Moana-i-kataina-ā-Te Rangitakaroro, refers to Te Arawa ancestor Te Rangitakaroro. The lake was formed about 7,000 years ago, and is essentially a moat between the wall of the Okataina caldera and the Haroharo volcanic complex (a volcanic area similar to Mt Tarawera, but lower).

Ngāti Tarāwhai had a marae at Te Koutū and gifted the shores of the lake to the Crown in 1921. Ngāti Rongomai has associations with the west side of the lake. A road reaches the lake from the north, but other than that, the shores are bush-clad, and the solitude and beauty attract anglers and walkers. Lake Okataina drains via underground seepage to Lake Tarawera, from which it is separated by a narrow neck of land.

Lake Okareka

Small volcanic lake on the western side of the Okataina caldera, 10 km east of Rotorua city. There are a number of holiday houses, on the western shore in particular. Well-known Auckland families such as the Winstones and the Caugheys are among those with places on the ‘millionaire’s miles’ of Acacia and Summit roads.

Mt Tarawera

Volcanic mountain rising nearly 800 metres above the level of adjacent Lake Tarawera, to 1,111 metres. Tarawera comprises a series of domes, formed when rhyolite, and sometimes basalt, were ejected. One eruption 42,000 years ago threw out 50 cubic kilometres of rhyolite.

Mt Tarawera’s June 1886 eruption produced a series of craters along the ridge of the Wāhanga, Ruawāhia and Tarawera peaks, and south-west through Lake Rotomahana. The mountain belongs to the Tūhourangi people, and the summit can be reached by road with permission from the owners.

Lake Rotomahana

A crater lake, previously the site of the famed Pink and White Terraces (in Māori, Te Otukapuarangi and Te Tarata). Lake Rotomahana is part of the volcanic fissure – almost 16 kilometres long – which erupted on 10 June 1886 along with Mt Tarawera. The eruption destroyed the terraces and emptied the lake, which was then much smaller. The depression later filled with water, forming a larger Lake Rotomahana.

The eruption also created the Waimangu geothermal field. When the Waimangu geyser was active, from 1900 to 1904, it was the largest in the world, sometimes reaching almost 500 metres.

Green and blue waters

Lake Rotokākahi (Green Lake) looks green from the air because is shallow and has a sandy bottom. Tikitapu (Blue Lake) gets its blue colour from reflection from the white rhyolite and pumice lake bed.

Lake Rotokākahi (Green Lake) and Tikitapu (Blue Lake)

Two volcanic lakes, south-east of Rotorua city on the road to Lake Tarawera. Rotokākahi is much larger than Tikitapu, and the colour distinction between the two is most marked on a fine day. Kākahi is a freshwater shellfish, and Tikitapu means ‘sacred being’. Rotokākahi is owned by the Tūhourangi and Ngāti Wāhiao people.

  1. Robin Hyde, Journalese. Auckland: National Printing Co., 1934, p. 124. › Back

Rotorua to Taupō


Lake and farming district on the edge of the Rotorua lakes volcanic area. The road names of Republican, Democrat and Yankee recall the US troops who trained in the area during the Second World War. They left traces for years after – in two months of 1957–58, more than 40 live shells were detonated by the army. Many farms in the area were allocated to servicemen who had returned from the Second World War, and the community hall dates from 1958.

Horohoro and Guthrie

Farming districts 15 and 18 km south-west of Rotorua, developed between the two world wars.

Horohoro was one of the first areas in native minister Apirana Ngata’s land development scheme, which established farms on Māori land from 1929. The Rongomaipapa marae was built by Ngāti Kahungunu migrants from Wairoa, who came to the area as part of the project. Kearoa marae is named after the wife of Te Arawa ancestor Ngātoroirangi. Horohoro’s full name is Te horohoro-o-ngā-ringaringa-a-Tia – the place where the ancestor Tia washed his hands and ended a tapu (spiritual restriction). Fault movement has produced the striking bluffs of the Horohoro cliffs, an outlying part of the Mamaku Plateau. The Treetops luxury lodge backs onto the bluff’s stands of rimu and tawa.

Guthrie was named after D. H. Guthrie, a 1920s minister of lands.

Ngākuru and Waikite Valley

Tranquil farming localities south of Rotorua, between State Highways 5 and 30. Ngākuru was developed from the late 1920s, and its hall was built in 1945.

Waikite Valley was developed after the Second World War. Its school opened in 1955, and the hall in 1957.


Thermal area and farm settlement 23 km south of Rotorua. Waiotapu has New Zealand’s largest area of surface thermal activity. Features include the Lady Knox Geyser, the multicoloured silica terraces known as the Artist’s Palette, the Bridal Veil Falls and the Champagne Pool. Nearby Rainbow Mountain has colourful and steaming volcanic rock.

Paeroa Range

Visible from State Highway 5 and Waikite Valley, the Paeroa Range rises sharply on its western side. Produced by fault movement, it has dissected ridges on the east. The range’s summits – just under 1,000 metres high – are covered in forest, and some are included in Te Kopia scenic reserve.

Conscientious objectors’ camp

Much of the government-owned Strathmore estate near Reporoa was sold as farm blocks in 1938. During the Second World War, conscientious objectors, including the artist and art critic Rodney Kennedy, were held in a detention camp on the unsold part of the estate.


Township and district 39 km south of Rotorua and 43 km north of Taupō, between the Paeroa Range and the Kāingaroa plateau. The town’s population was 453 in 2013. The nearby marae is Matarae.

The region was originally swampy – Reporoa means ‘long swamp’. W. P. Butcher was reputedly the first European settler, in 1894. Reporoa developed after the Second World War, once problems with bush sickness (a wasting disease of stock) were overcome. The road names Alamein, Casino [sic], Anzio and Sangro are reminders of Second World War battles. Most farms run dairy cattle, and milk is processed at a factory on State Highway 5.


District and locality 33 km north-east of Taupō and 8 km south of Reporoa. It was named by Auckland businessman Edward Earle Vaile, who bought 21,500 hectares of land in 1907 and wrote about the district’s settlement in Pioneering the pumice (1939). Broadlands Road is a favoured shortcut between Taupō and Rotorua.

North and west of Taupō


Locality 21 km north-west of Taupō, a sawmilling area from 1898. The district was witness to massive fires in February 1946 which left the country ‘black and lifeless’. Te Kapa o Te Rangiita marae lies on the west side of the road. The 1911 St Matthew’s Church, decorated throughout with woven tukutuku panels, is on the east.

21st-century Māori

The Tuaropaki Māori Trust at Mōkai owns much of the surrounding farmland, a glasshouse operation with Gourmet Paprika Ltd, and a 55-megawatt geothermal power station, the operation of which is contracted to the Mighty River Power company.


Locality 29 km north-west of Taupō, also known as Tuaropaki, Mōkai flourished from 1898 as a sawmilling town at the end of a private railway from Putaruru, completed in 1905. Today the forest, the rail track and most of the town are gone. The Pakaketaiari marae has splendid carvings, impressive painted maihi (bargeboards), and a war memorial in its grounds.


Lake and hydroelectric power station, on the Waikato River and State Highway 1, 39 km north-west of Taupō and 25 km south-east of Tokoroa. The name Ātiamuri (Tia who follows behind) commemorates Te Arawa ancestor Tia, who reached the place after others. Ngāutuku, a rock outcrop rising 240 metres above the Waikato River, figures in the traditions of the Te Arawa and Ngāti Raukawa tribes.

The dam and 84-megawatt power station were built between 1953 and 1958. A small settlement survives at Ātiamuri – mostly holiday and retirement houses.


Lake, locality and power station on the Waikato River. The settlement and power station are at the western end of Lake Whakamaru, 10 km south-east of Mangakino. The former New Zealand Electricity Department hydro settlement, its houses now privately owned, is a short distance from the junction of State Highways 30 and 32. The power station was completed in 1956 and has a capacity of 100 megawatts.


Former hydroelectricity town on the Waikato River, 35 km south-west of Tokoroa. The district was settled by Ngāti Kahungunu from Wairarapa after the First World War, who received land in part exchange for gifting the Wairarapa lakes to the Crown. Mangakino was built in the 1940s to house the dam builders, including those at nearby Maraetai. In 1956 the town had a population of 4,456 – larger than Taupō. The 2013 population of 744 was less than half that of 1996, but the 2013 unemployment rate was 12.9%, a big drop from the 2001 rate of 21.4%. Properties were originally on leasehold land, but are now freehold, so the town attracts second-house owners.

Hauhungaroa Range

Greywacke range that abuts the Taupō and Tongariro section of the Volcanic Plateau. Peaks include Tītīraupenga (1,042 metres), Pureora (1,165 metres), Weraroa (1,091 metres), Tuhingamata (883 metres) and Hauhungaroa (1,078 metres).

From the 1930s to the 1970s a sawmill operated at Tīhoi, 60 kilometres west of Taupō. Today it is the site of an outdoor education school. In the 1970s, the forest around Pureora was the scene of protests by conservationists opposed to logging of native forest. Pureora Forest Park contains one of the North Island’s largest tracts of unfelled native forest outside the main ranges, and the rich bird life includes the rare kōkako.

Wairākei to Ōhakuri

Waikato River – Taupō to Waipapa

From Lake Taupō’s outlet, at the lake’s northern end, the Waikato River flows through the Volcanic Plateau in a huge loop before leaving it at Waipapa. After cutting down into volcanic deposits, most dramatically at the Huka Falls and Aratiatia Rapids, it flows north-east through low-lying land around Broadlands and Reporoa – at one time part of a much larger Lake Taupō.

The river then turns north-west, cutting into more volcanic deposits. Since the 1950s its flow has been harnessed by hydroelectric power stations at Ōhakuri, Ātiamuri, Whakamaru, Maraetai and Waipapa.


Geothermal field and power station, settlement and resort, 10 km north of Taupō. The field has hot springs, steam and pools. The Wairākei geothermal power station, the first in New Zealand and the second in the world (the first was at Larderello in northern Italy) was built between 1956 and 1963. It has a 175-megawatt capacity. The station reduced geothermal activity – the Karapiti blowhole, which used to display to 60 metres, was destroyed, but some activity can still be seen in the Craters of the Moon reserve.

There has been a resort at Wairākei since the 1880s. The golf course was upgraded to international standard in 1970.

Dumped in the river

In February 1989 the body of cricket umpire Peter Plumley-Walker was found floating below the Huka Falls, with wrists and ankles bound. A teenage dominatrix and her partner were tried three times for murder and finally acquitted. It is alleged that Plumley-Walker died during a bondage session at their Auckland house, and the pair took the body to Taupō and dumped it into the river.

Huka Falls

The Huka Falls are the most dramatic natural feature on the Waikato River north of Taupō. About 5 km from the lake outlet, the river plunges over an 11-metre ledge after passing through a 230-metre chasm. The relentless, turbulent water can be watched from a swing bridge or lookouts, close enough for visitors to be drenched in spray. The falls also attract adventurous kayakers. The falls appear white and intense ice-blue, as suggested by their name (huka means froth or sugar). The luxury Huka Lodge is upstream.


Rapids, dam and hydroelectricity station on the Waikato River, 12–13 km north-east of Taupō. The station was built between 1959 and 1964, and has a 90-megawatt capacity. Its dam forms Lake Aratiatia, which stretches 6–7 kilometres upstream. Aratiatia means the stairway of Tia, a Te Arawa ancestor. The spillways alongside the dam are opened daily to activate the rapids downstream, and the rush of water is watched by 60,000 visitors each year.


Settlement on the Waikato River, 32 km north-east of Taupō. Ōhaaki is the site of New Zealand’s second geothermal power station, opened in 1989 with a 108-megawatt capacity. The local Ngāti Tahu people were consulted over its construction and operation. The station uses a tower to cool the water and re-injects condensate into the geothermal field to conserve it. Steam production has declined as cool water from the geothermal field’s edges encroach on production wells, and output has fallen to about 40 megawatts.

Ōrākei Kōrako

A geothermal area on the west bank of the Waikato River, at the southern end of man-made Lake Ōhakuri. Much of the geothermal field was flooded when the lake formed. Visitors can still take a boat across the river to view silica terraces and a geyser.


Lake and hydroelectric power station on the Waikato River, 37 km north-west of Taupō by road, 80 km downstream by river. The 112-megawatt station was built in 1956–61, forming Lake Ōhakuri, the North Island’s largest artificial lake at 13 sq km. The campground gets around 20,000 visitors annually.

Returned servicemen took up land between Ōhakuri and upper Ātiamuri after the Second World War. They are remembered in the road names Matapan, Maleme, Galatos (from the ill-fated Greece and Crete campaigns of 1941) and Dunkirk.

Lake Taupō

Lake Taupō

At 623 sq km, Lake Taupō is New Zealand’s largest volcano and its largest lake. It occupies much of the caldera (volcanic depression) formed by massive eruptions between 50,000 and 22,000 years ago. The most recent eruption was about 232 CE. Between 60 and 100 cubic km of ash and rocks were ejected near the Horomatangi reefs, which lie underwater near Waitahanui (south of Taupō town). Nearby cliffs mark the caldera edge, while other parts of the lake’s shoreline are the result of faulting.

The lake is named for the ancestor Tia’s rain cloak (taupō) – the full name is Te Taupō-nui-a-Tia. It is also sometimes called Taupō moana (Taupō sea).

Hot swim, cold swim

At many places on Lake Taupō’s shores, steam seeps to the surface to heat the shallow water. A few metres out, the cold lake water seems icy in contrast.

Ngāti Tūwharetoa have long held mana over the lake and its surroundings. Europeans first saw the lake in the 1830s, but few stayed, as the area was isolated and not suited to farming. Trout were introduced at the start of the 20th century, and in later decades the lake has been used for many kinds of water sports, including yachting, waterskiing and power boating. In 1992 the ownership of the lake bed was returned to Ngāti Tūwharetoa, and a new regime was set up to manage the fisheries of the lake and its tributaries.

Western Bay

The north-western part of Lake Taupō and the western part of the main Taupō caldera. The bay is the least settled part of the lake, but is popular with recreational fishers, who mostly come by boat from Taupō or Kinloch. The Karangahape Cliffs, part of the caldera rim, are a striking feature. The tiny island of Motuwhara is just offshore.


Settlement and marina 23 km north-west of Taupō town, on the shores of Whangamatā Bay. Kinloch was laid out by Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and his family, who farmed in the district from 1962. There are contemporary Māori rock carvings on a cliff face at Kaiapo Bay, between Kinloch and Taupō.


Township 12 km south of Taupō town on State Highway 1. Waitahanui is a long-established Māori settlement, with a Ngāti Tūtemohuta marae. Nearby Lake Rotongaio is the site of many important events in Tūwharetoa tribal history.

Waitahanui is also renowned for its trout fishing, in the Waitahanui Stream and particularly in the ‘rip’, where the stream waters mingle with the lake. The ‘picket fence’ of fly fishers in chest-high waders is a common sight at dawn and dusk, when the trout feed.

Hātepe to Motuoapa

A chain of holiday settlements, with houses, motor camps, motels and campsites, are found on the lake’s south-eastern corner between State Highway 1 and the shore. From the north they are Hātepe, Jellicoe Point, Motutere, Waiteteko, Te Rangiita, Oruatua, and Motuoapa. The settlements are only partly occupied for most of the year, but the population expands in summer. As its name suggests, the Motuoapa (island of Apa) peninsula was once an island – it is now joined to the mainland by accretion.

Motutāiko, offshore from Hātepe, is a true island. The white pumice cliffs north of Hātepe, where the western side of the Taupō caldera meets a fault line, can be seen from many kilometres away. There are marae at Waiteteko and Te Rangiita.



The North Island’s most recent urban centre, Taupō is 84 km south of Rotorua, 360 km north of Wellington and 205 km south of Auckland. In 2013 its population was 21,864.

Early days

Taupō’s urban history can be dated to the establishment of an armed constabulary post in 1868 – a time when the government sought to strengthen its lines of communication in the central North Island. The Spa and Terraces hotels were opened close to hot water pools and springs. From the early 20th century the township provided accommodation for anglers fishing for trout in the lake and nearby rivers.


A road board was established in 1922, a town board in 1946, and a borough in 1953. In 1956 Taupō’s population was just 2,849. It grew rapidly thereafter, as tourism, timber and farming expanded. Many private holiday houses were built, as well as motels and short-term accommodation – the largest cluster in the North Island outside Rotorua.

Downtown street names – Paora Hapi, Tamamutu, Te Heuheu and Horomatangi – commemorate Ngāti Tūwharetoa notables. Rifle Range Road is a reminder of the early armed constabulary presence.

Town clerk in Taupō

Sam Torepe was Taupō’s town clerk (chief executive officer) from 1950 to 1956. He was believed to be the first Māori town clerk in New Zealand.

Taupō today

In the 1980s Taupō acquired a museum, concert centre and indoor sports arena. Since 2009 a number of sculptures have been installed in the town. Subdivisions have seen the town spread along both sides of Tapuaeharuru Bay. Taupō draws many athletes to compete in the Ironman New Zealand triathlon, the Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge and other competitions.

Although Taupō is closer to Auckland than Wellington, it has traditionally attracted most of its domestic visitors from the lower North Island. The winter view across the lake to the snow-clad summits of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu is one of the most photographed in the country.


Māori settlement across the Waikato River from downtown Taupō. Nukuhau dates back to before the town of Taupō was founded. It was the home of the late-19th-century chief Poihipi, and is the site of one of the town’s two marae. The other is at Waipāhīhī, where State Highways 1 and 5, the routes to Wellington and Napier respectively, diverge.

Acacia Bay

Suburban neighbourhood across Tapuaeharuru Bay to the west of Taupō town. Acacia Bay was first laid out for housing in the 1950s. In 2013 it had a population of 1,425, but the numbers are much greater in summer. The Tauhara retreat and conference centre is located behind the settlement.


1,088-metre volcanic peak rising above Taupō. Its summit, accessible by a walking track, provides an excellent view over the Volcanic Plateau – including Mts Tarawera and Edgecumbe (Pūtauaki) in the far north, the Kāingaroa plateau to the north and east, and Lake Taupō and the central volcanoes to the south. In Māori tradition, Tauhara was a suitor of Pīhanga, but lost her to Tongariro.

Kāingaroa to Kaimanawa

Kāingaroa Forest

Exotic forest occupying a large part of the Kāingaroa plateau. The state-owned forest was planted in the 1920s. Its logging, from the 1950s, prompted the development of a pulp and paper industry at Kawerau. The forest was sold by the Crown in the 1980s. In the 2010s it was managed by Kāingaroa Timberlands on behalf of Harvard University and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.

Kāingaroa village

Established after the Second World War, by 1951 Kāingaroa had more than 90 houses. A primary school, butchery and general store were built, and other amenities followed. The town was handed over to its residents by the Crown in 1987, after the state’s forests were privatised. In 2013 the population was only 426, and there were many empty sections and derelict houses. A memorial to forester Roderick Macrae (1873–1955) was erected by the New Zealand Institute of Foresters in 1956.

From war to peace

At Ōpepe, south-east of Taupō, the war leader and prophet Te Kooti ambushed encamped colonial forces in June 1869, killing 9 men. An armed constabulary fort stood on the site for some years thereafter. Today it is a historic reserve with a remnant stand of native bush.

Wheao power station

The 26-megawatt power station on the Wheao River, a tributary of the Rangitāiki River, was commissioned in 1980. It began operation in 1984 after long delays – in 1982, the canal bringing water from the river had collapsed and the station had been overwhelmed by boulders.


Locality on the Taupō–Napier road, 36 km south-east of Taupō. Rangitāiki is named after the river, which the highway crosses at this point. It was an accommodation stop when the trip from Taupō to Napier took days, not hours. It still has a hotel, which is a meeting place for local farm workers.

Lake Taupō Forest

Lake Taupō Forest lies between State Highway 5, Lake Taupō and the Kaimanawa Range. It is owned by the Lake Taupō Forest Trust, which was set up in 1968 and represents the interests of a large number of Ngāti Tūwharetoa owners.

Kaimanawa Mountains

One of the North Island’s main ranges, south-east of the Volcanic Plateau. The junction between the range and the plateau can be clearly seen from the Desert Road, where the greywacke of the ranges is succeeded by ignimbrite erupted from the Taupō Volcanic Zone. The streams from the range’s northern slopes feed Lake Taupō.

The summits mostly reach just over 1,500 metres. Umukarikari (1,592 metres) is visible from the Desert Road; Makoroko, the highest peak (1,727 metres), lies further east. The range is forest-clad to about 1,300 metres, mainly in beech. Mostly comprising a forest park, the Kaimanawas are popular with hunters and trampers.

Tokaanu district


Settlement at the south end of Lake Taupō, 5 km west of Tūrangi. Before Tūrangi was developed in the 1960s, Tokaanu was the major settlement at the south end of the lake. It remains home to a sizeable Māori population and was also a mission settlement in the 19th century. The armed constabulary post later became a hotel, which catered for travellers between Whanganui and Taupō. Hot pools are still an attraction.

The small bush-covered cone of Maunganamu (sandfly hill) is east of the town. The environment round Tokaanu was transformed in the 1960s when tailrace pipes were built to the Tokaanu power station, on the road between Tokaanu and Tūrangi.

A switched-on priest

Adrian Langerwerf was a Catholic missionary at Tokaanu and Waihī from 1905. Keen to see Ngāti Tūwharetoa prosper materially as well as spiritually, he organised volunteers to build a hydroelectric plant which would supply power to a butter factory he’d helped start. By 1919, the factory had electricity, and – unlike most of rural New Zealand – every home in Waihī was said to have it too.


Māori settlement 9 km north-west of Tūrangi, at the end of a private road. Waihī is an important centre for Ngāti Tūwharetoa and home of the Te Heuheu family. In the 1850s it was a base for Anglican missionary endeavour in the central North Island. The distinctive steepled, white-painted Catholic church, dating from 1889, has stained-glass windows showing a Māori Jesus and Mary, and is much photographed.

The settlement sits at the base of Kākaramea mountain. Hipaua, a geothermal area on the lower slopes, is visible from Waihī, and a waterfall completes the descent of the Waihī Stream into the lake. A landslide from Hipaua in 1846 buried the settlement of Te Rapa, killing Tūwharetoa paramount chief Mananui Te Heuheu and many others. The American writer and angler Zane Grey visited in the 1920s. Viewing Waihī from the lake, he wrote that ‘the red-roofed white houses … stood out clearly against the green’. 1


Settlement on the south-west shore of Lake Taupō, where the missionary T. S. Grace set up a station in 1854 – later abandoned when war broke out in Waikato in 1863. An inter-tribal hui (meeting) at Pūkawa in 1856 chose Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato as the first Māori king.

Today Pūkawa has many holiday houses. In 2006 a hui was held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1856 meeting.

Omori, Kuratau and Whareroa

Holiday settlements north of Tokaanu on the south-west shores of Lake Taupō. Kuratau is at the outlet of the Kuratau River. Upstream, a dam for a hydroelectric power station has created Lake Kuratau. Further inland is Kuratau Junction, a former sawmilling settlement.

  1. Zane Grey, Tales of the angler’s Eldorado. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1926, p. 177. › Back

Tūrangi district


Town at the southern end of Lake Taupō, 51 km south of Taupō town, with a 2013 population of 2,955. Tūrangi had its origins in huts and lodges built for visitors fishing the Tongariro River, and it still calls itself the ‘trout fishing capital of the world’.

New town

From the mid-1960s, the fishing settlement was overshadowed by the building of a town to house workers on the Tongariro power scheme. The project diverted water from the Whangaehu, Moawhango, Tongariro and Whanganui river catchments to power stations at Rangipō and Tokaanu.

The new town was laid out west of the re-aligned State Highway 1, while the older community remained to the east. Typical of planned towns of the time, the new town had curved streets, bungalows and a pedestrian shopping mall. The recruitment of Italian tunnellers to the scheme led to an unusual feature for a small town of the time – an Italian restaurant. Today farm servicing and tourism provide jobs.


Tūrangi’s population reached 4,000 by early 1967, and peaked at 5,517 in 1981, when the work was completed. The 2013 population was almost 800 fewer than that in 1996. In 2013 more people in Tūrangi identified themselves as Māori than as European.


Waitahanui was located at the mouth of the Tongariro River. When muskets became common in 1820s inter-tribal warfare, the pā was abandoned for more secure positions on a hill at Whakatara and on Motutaiko Island. Today, the Hīrangi marae is in Tūrangi and the Kōrohe marae is a few kilometres north on State Highway 1.

The Te Ponanga saddle road, built partly to service the power scheme, provides a direct and scenic route to the western Ruapehu skifields.

Tongariro tales

Some of the fishing pools in the Tongariro River have names that tell a story – such as Duchess, after the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, consort of George VI). Other names include Breakfast, Judges, Sportsman’s, Bridge and Lonely.

Tongariro River

New Zealand’s premier trout-fishing river, its waters rise on the slopes of the central volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountains. Trout were first fished there in the 1900s. By the 1920s anglers came from around the world, including the American writer Zane Grey and the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother). Then as now, fishers frequented a series of river pools near Tūrangi. The Tongariro National Trout Centre is on the river bank, 4 kilometres south of the town.

Rangipō and the Desert Road

Locality and district 11 km south of Tūrangi. The name Rangipō means night sky, and is associated with the travels of Te Arawa ancestor Ngātoroirangi.

A prison camp was built in the area in 1922 at Hautū, and conscientious objectors were detained there during the Second World War. Today the Tongariro and Rangipō prisons manage farms on much of the land east of Rangipō and Tūrangi.

The 46-kilometre Desert Road, part of State Highway 1, reaches 1,074 metres at its summit (the highest main road in the North Island) and is often closed by winter snow. The Tūkino skifield, Ruapehu’s smallest, operated by a ski club, is reached by a side road at the summit.

The ‘desert’ has shrub and tussock and no trees. The road was completed in the 1930s, and crosses land that has been heavily dissected by streams cutting into lahars (mud flows) from the central volcanoes. Te Tatau Pounamu wilderness area, west of the highway, is part of Tongariro National Park.

Tongariro area


At 1,967 metres, Tongariro is the lowest of the three central North Island volcanoes. Its name is used by Ngāti Tūwharetoa to refer to the whole volcanic complex, and it is the name of the national park which embraces all three peaks. The name means ‘seized by the cold south wind’, and recalls the ancestor Ngātoroirangi, who climbed the mountain in a bitter southerly. Freezing, he called to his sisters in Hawaiki to send fire.

Like nearby Ruapehu, Tongariro is a truncated cone with a number of separate peaks in a broadly circular pattern. Its only major active vent is Ngāuruhoe, considered a separate mountain.


This graceful near-symmetrical 2,287-metre cone is the most active of the North Island volcanoes. It was named after Ngātoroirangi’s slave Uruhoe, who died on the mountain. Geologically speaking it is Tongariro’s youngest vent – probably no more than 5,000 years old. The trader John Carne Bidwill climbed Ngāuruhoe in 1839, ignoring a Māori tapu (spiritual restriction).

The climber is rewarded by a sulfur-smelling glimpse of a live volcanic crater, and the mountain’s even slopes allow summer sliding and winter skiing. Ngāuruhoe’s last major eruptions were in 1974–75.

Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is a strenuous 17-kilometre hike into an extraordinary volcanic landscape. In summer, several hundred people complete it each day. After a steep climb to the saddle between Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe, the walk skirts Tongariro’s Red Crater, the thermal Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake and the Ketetahi hot springs. It forms part of the Tongariro northern circuit, one of the Department of Conservation’s Great Walks, which circles Ngāuruhoe as well.

Te Kooti takes cover

The Crown pursued Māori leader Te Kooti across the North Island in 1869, reaching the Rotoaira area. South-east of the lake, government forces established McDonnell’s redoubt; to the west, Te Kooti fortified Te Pōrere. After his defeat there on 4 October he retreated into the King Country.

Lake Rotoaira

Lake (12 sq km) between Pīhanga to the north and Tongariro to the south. Rotoaira is naturally fed by runoff from both mountains and from swampland to the west. It has an outlet to the Tongariro River. As part of the Tongariro hydroelectricity scheme, Rotoaira is a reservoir for waters diverted from the Whanganui, Whangaehu and Moawhango rivers and their tributaries. Water is fed from channels to the west and east, then taken to the Tokaanu power station through a tunnel. Ngāti Hikairo, a hapū of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, have marae at nearby Otukou and Papakai.

Pīhanga and nearby mountains

The volcanic peaks of Pīhanga (1,325 metres), Tīhia (1,166 metres), Kākaramea (1,301 metres) and Kuharua (1,129 metres) rise behind the southern shore of Lake Taupō, above Lake Rotoaira. The mountains are overshadowed by Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu to the south, but have a distinctive presence.

In Māori tradition, the beautiful Pīhanga was fought over by four other mountains – Tongariro, Taranaki, Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe). The bush-clad summits of Pīhanga and Tīhia are in an outlying part of Tongariro National Park, while Kākaramea and Kuharua are covered in farmland as well as bush. The silhouetted view of the mountains from Taupō town on a clear summer evening is a memorable one.

Te Ponanga saddle road follows a scenic route through native forest between Pīhanga and Tīhia. A walking track leads from the road to small Lake Rotopounamu, formed by a landslide about 10,000 years ago.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Malcolm McKinnon, 'Volcanic Plateau places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 1 o Noema 2007, updated 25 o Mei 2015