Great Lake Taupo History

The Great Lake Taupo (pronounced as Toe-pour) region is rich in history. It has a fascinating volcanic landscape and a cultural heritage dating back to the arrival of Maori in New Zealand in the 14th century. Come and learn about the volcanic history of the area, the unique geothermal landscape, the settlement of the region and the creation of Tongariro National Park.

Lake Taupo - Volcanic Origins

In 186AD a series of nine volcanic eruptions culminated in the most violent eruption history has ever recorded. In a few short minutes, 30km2 of poisonous ash, rocks, lava and pumice were emitted at speeds of up to 900 km/hr, to a height of 50km. Such was the extent of the volcanic fallout that even the ancient Romans and Chinese were reported to have experienced darkened skies. 

The debris was deposited over an area of some 30,000km2 to a depth of tens of metres in some places. The whole of New Zealand's North Island was coated in a thick, toxic ash which destroyed entire forests. Lake Taupo was formed in the crater left by the eruption and remains volcanically active (something you'll notice as you swim through pockets of much warmer water, heated by thermal activity in the lake's depths). Today, at 359m above sea level, the lake measures 616km2. Many people ask, "How deep is Lake Taupo?". At its deepest it is 159m.

The First Habitation of Great Lake Taupo

The first habitation of the Lake Taupo area was by some of the earliest Maori to New Zealand, thought to have arrived in the 14th century by canoe in the Great Migration. They sailed from their legendary home of Hawaiki in the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific Ocean, located north of New Zealand.

Early Maori Settlement in the Great Lake Taupo Region

10m High Rock Carvings Honouring Ngatoro-i-rangi


The legendary navigator and high priest Ngatoro-i-rangi led his people to Lake Taupo, New Zealand, 700 years ago, and Ngati Tuwharetoa became the dominant tribe of the area. Although the major volcanic eruptions were long over before the tribe arrived, they were left with a legacy of infertile, ashy soil.

The winters were harsh and the lake proved to be a poor source of food. Remarkably, considering Ngati Tuwharetoa's harsh subsistence on bush birds, plants and roots, they remained unconquered throughout a prolonged and violent history of inter-tribal warfare. Major pa (settlements) were situated at the southern, more fertile end of the lake at Pukawa, Te Rapa, Waitahanui and Motutere.

Peace was shattered during the New Zealand Wars when, in 1869, rebel leader Te Kooti approached Ngati Tuwharetoa for help. Pursued by an advanced guard of the Armed Constabulary who were scouting Lake Taupo for a potential new headquarters, Te Kooti and his men ambushed the soldiers at Opepe, killing all but four. The graves of the 18 slain men can be seen on the Opepe Graves walk. Te Kooti escaped capture, maintaining a lower profile in the King Country until he was pardoned in 1883.

Early European Settlement in the Great Lake Taupo Region

Typically, missionaries were among the first to have contact with Ngati Tuwharetoa, building churches and attempting to convert Maori to Christianity. After an initial flurry of converts, the Maori became suspicious during the New Zealand Wars, believing the missionaries were destroying Maori ways and taking tribal lands away.

The town of Taupo, as it stands today, was founded in 1869 as an Armed Constabulary post. Following an initial survey, the government bought the land on which the town now stands. The Tongariro Domain in Taupo marks the site of the redoubt and the AC Baths is the site of the original hot baths used by soldiers of the redoubt.  

Economic Development of Taupo

Taupo Town Today


The Great Lake Taupo region resisted development for the next 50 years or so after European settlement.  The roads were appalling and the township didn't even have an electricity supply until the early 1950’s. Attempts to farm the land failed miserably due to a cobalt deficiency in the soil, which rendered it incapable of supporting livestock. It took masses of money and labour to clear and fertilise the land, and farming wasn't really possible until the 1950’s.

The 1950’s proved to be a boom time for the Taupo area. Farming flourished on the now lush pasture and the region's potential for forestry was finally realised. A geothermal power station was built, followed by numerous hydro-electric schemes. The first pine plantations matured in the 1960's creating a lucrative timber-processing industry.  Improved roads and accommodation saw the town of Taupo boom from a 700-strong sleepy outpost to the prosperous tourist mecca it is today.  Energy developments, forestry, farming and tourism remain the economic mainstays of Taupo today.

Trout Fishing in the Great Lake Taupo Region

Over 100 years ago the first trout fry were released into the Lake Taupo area. Today, it is one of the last true wild trout fisheries in the world. In a country renowned for its trout fishing, the Great Lake Taupo region is the best of the best with rainbow and brown trout here being legendary for their condition and size. The Tongariro River in Turangi, a great spot for fly-fishing, has an estimated 750,000 trout swim up it every winter to spawn. Read more about trout fishing around the Great Lake Taupo area or visit one of the region's i-Sites while you're here.

Great Lake Taupo Parks & Forests  

View of Tongariro National Park from Taupo


The Great Lake Taupo region is one of the most pure, beautiful and unspoiled regions in the country. Just south of Lake Taupo is Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first national park and a dual World Heritage Area. The park was created in 1887 when the chief of the tribe of Ngati Tuwharetoa entrusted the peaks of its three big volcanoes, Mounts Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe to the New Zealand government. Tongariro National Park was given World Heritage status in 1990 for both its cultural and natural significance.

The region is also home to some of New Zealand’s most dramatic and spectacular forests. On the western side of the lake is Pureora Forest Park – a place where you can walk through ancient rain forest so untouched that some of New Zealand’s rarest flora and fauna still thrive there today. Whatever the weather around Great Lake Taupo, the Pureora Forest Park is a stunning place to walk through. To the east of the lake, the Kaimanawa Forest Park contains vast ancient beech forest. The diverse Whirinaki Rainforest has huge trees and abundant birdlife as well as a rich history, with many stories to tell.

Visitor Guide 2018

Everything you need to know about things to do and places to stay in Great Lake Taupo.

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