Skiing at Great Lake Taupo

THIS is a first for me.

By Sarah Nicholson

Published in Herald Sun 27 May 12

During the past 20 years since I stepped into skis on the baby slope at Mt Hotham I have skied in six countries on both sides of the Equator, taken lessons when the instructor and I didn't share a common language, and even split a gondola ride up the side of Aspen Mountain with Kevin Costner. But this is the first time I have skied down the side of an active volcano, and the fact is adding to the exhilaration that comes with being back on the white stuff in New Zealand.

Whakapapa Ski Field, Mt Ruapehu

I'm getting to know the Whakapapa ski area, on the northwestern side of Mt Ruapehu deep in the heart of the North Island, and as I glide over a small section of the 550ha of skiable terrain here I'm keeping an eye out for a puff of smoke or vent of steam that might signal an eruption. But it's unlikely anything will happen today, or on any other day during the colder months when thousands of people flock here not only to ski and snowboard but hike and mountain bike in the Tongariro National Park.

Mt Ruapehu is one of three active volcanoes perched on the North Island's Central Plateau the neighbouring summits of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe make up this short string of potentially explosive mountains and history shows us it blasts to life every 50 years or so with the last major event in the 1990s. This peak is the North Island's tallest mountain, rising 2797m above the windswept landscape surrounding Lake Taupo, and home to New Zealand's largest ski area with Whakapapa on this side and Turoa on the southern slopes combining to offer the largest amount of "lift-accessed terrain" in the land across the Tasman.

Turoa, with 500ha of skiable territory and a highest lifted point of 2322m, is past the town of Ohakune while Whakapapa the first two letters are pronounced as a soft f, and yes, it will take a while before you're confident to say that out loud is above Whakapapa Village and the remote hamlet of National Park. This is a friendly place, a destination that feels more like a club hill than a major winter destination, but I'm here in the middle of the week and I doubt there's more than a couple of hundred skiers and boarders on this side of the mountain so that might have something to do with the convivial vibe.

There are no trees where I am, just clusters of black boulders dividing the slope into wide runs, and the lines made by each chain of lift towers and cables look like wonky rows of stitching across a piece of white fabric.

There are 30 intermediate trails for me to explore Whakapapa has something for everyone with 25 per cent of the hill suited to beginners, 50 per cent for intermediates, and 25 per cent ready for experts but today I'm sticking to a gaggle of blue runs out past a bowl called the Amphitheatre where I can just see the sparkling water of Lake Taupo. Beyond the southern boundary is Black Magic Backcountry, an enclave served by a lift that offers more terrain to the specialist than just the 24 black runs, and below is Happy Valley which is billed as New Zealand's "premiere beginners area" where rookies can build confidence in a private bowl away from the mob.

Chateau Tongariro in Whakapapa Village

There is some accommodation on the mountain, but only club lodges, so I'm staying at the historic Bayview Chateau Tongariro just below the snowline in Whakapapa Village a short drive from the ski area. The stately hotel was built in 1929, commissioned by the government of the day in an effort to kick-start tourism, and while it's been extended and renovated over the decades the 106-room property has retained the elegant attitude of the era with grand public spaces and cosy guest suites.

"We have old photos around the place and when you look at them you see not a lot has changed here," manager Tony Abbott explains.

"The restaurant has always been in the same location, the billiard tables are original, the small chandeliers and sconces around the place are 80 years old the decor has changed but the tone has stayed the same. "The Chateau was built as a guesthouse back in the 1920s, and there were shared facilities in those days, so one of the major renovations happened in the 1970s when the property was reduced to 69 rooms so every suite could have a private bathroom. "The transport from the hotel up to the hill is fantastic with buses going every 30 minutes during the ski season which usually starts in June and runs until the beginning of November." 

The writer was a guest of Great Lake Taupo.

Getting there:

Mt Ruapehu and the Whakapapa ski area are inside the Tongariro National Park  a year-round destination for those who love adventure activities  97km from Taupo, 177km from Rotorua, and 345km from both Auckland and Wellington.

Air New Zealand flies from Auckland and Wellington to Taupo several times a day, and there are direct flights from Sydney to Rotorua.

For more information visit the mountain's website or see the Bayview Chateau Tongariro's page for details on the Whakapapa Village hotel.

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