Lake Taupo (“toe-paw”) is one of the gems of New Zealand’s central North Island and it’s a real adventurer’s playground. Luckily for us, it’s also the place we call home. So it’s no surprise that we’ve spent a fair amount of time on and around the lake, with one of our first adventures here being a standup paddle to see the impressive Taupo Māori carvings in Mine Bay.
The main 10 meter high carving which was completed over the course of four summers in the late 70s, is not only an incredible sight but also an important cultural attraction. Only accessible from the water, most visitors will take one of the yacht or motorboat cruises that leave Taupo town itself but in true explorer style we wanted to get there on our own and see the carvings up close and personal. What better way than an early morning stand up paddle on Lake Taupo?
Rangatira Point Track
We’d driven down from Auckland the previous afternoon and camped the night at Taupo DeBretts Holiday Park, a popular resort that’s well known for its mineral hot pools – the perfect place to visit after a long day hiking or paddling on the lake we might add.
After a quick morning cuppa before sunrise, we drove the 13 km around the lake past Acacia Bay to our launching point at Te Kumi Bay, one of the small bays along the road to the private residential area at Whakamoenga Point.
We chose this spot to launch as the road is fairly close to the lake at this point so it’s easy to carry boards and other gear down to the water. It also happens to be the starting point of the Rangatira Point Track. This is an easy bush walk that follows the lake all the way around to Whakamoenga Point which itself is well worth a visit, particularly in the warmer months.
Once setup, we took a moment to enjoy the sunrise, suspecting that was the last we were going to see of the sun that day and then headed south on the 3 km paddle to Mine Bay. At this point we were fairly sheltered from the wind, but looking out towards the center of the lake it looked like there was a bit of a ‘breeze’. Sure enough, by the time we reached Rangatira Point, it was clear that we were going to have a serious paddle on our hands but, ever the optimists, we soldiered on.
Rounding Whakamoenga Point and heading into the wind it was tough going. Anyone used to open water paddling will know the feeling where you take four strokes forward and feel like you’ve taken two backwards, but slowly we made our way towards Mine Bay and the rock carvings came into view. I have to be honest and say that at this point we felt a little flat – it was grey, it was windy and we were pretty tired. We’d really been hoping to take some nice bright photos of the carvings but this clearly wasn’t going to happen. But rather than simply turning around and heading back, we decided to continue paddling along Okuta Bay and find a place to go ashore and wait for the weather to improve… we hoped. We’re glad we did.
If you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll notice a few lighter looking rocks along the shore. Being the inquisitive sort I just had to have a closer look. It turns out that these rocks were actually pumice which, as some of you will know, has a little party trick… it floats.
Prior to this, the most pumice I’d ever encountered were the small, nicely packaged pieces you buy in bath stores. Supposedly you’re meant to use them to remove rough skin but I reckon they’re just the adult equivalent of rubber duckies, intended to keep us entertained while we soak in the tub. I only say this because I spent the next 30 minutes playing like a child with my head-sized floating rock. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the sun was starting to shine.
Seeing the Māori Rock carvings in Mine Bay up close
We secured our gear on our boards and with the sun on our faces and hardly a breath of wind, we headed back towards the carvings. Of course by this time, we were no longer the only ones on the lake and the morning’s solitude had been replaced by a steady stream of boats slowly chugging past in an orderly procession. Not that it bothered us, since we were in no hurry to leave, just one of the many advantages of paddling there under our own steam.
Over the next few hours, we watched the boats go by and in a gap, I took the opportunity to go for a little snorkel below the main carving. So what secrets are hidden in the water below? More carvings, a mystery Narnia-like door? Unfortunately I didn’t find any of those things although I did find somebody else’s snorkel, no doubt long lost given its slimey green state.
As for the carvings themselves, they really are spectacular, not simply for the sheer size of the main face but also for their detail and rich symbolism. And notice how we keep referring to multiple carvings? That’s because to the left of the face are a number of smaller carvings including lizards and even a mermaid. So when visiting, take some time to admire these as well and then spare a thought for the artists who created them, led by Māori tohunga whakairo (master carver) Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell.
Update: February 2019
After more than 40 years, Matahi is returning to Mine Bay to refurbish and, in many ways, complete the work he started all those years ago. The video below will give you an idea of the refurbishment project and the story behind this iconic feature.
Eventually, after several hours spent lazing on our boards in Mine Bay, we decided to head back to Te Kumi bay but not before stopping off for a swim at Whakamoenga Point. Whakamoenga is interesting in that unlike the rest of the shoreline which is quite shallow and bouldery, this point is more of a rocky outcrop with interesting little channels and deep water that’s perfect for diving as you can see below. It also makes for a good pit stop after a few hours of paddling on Lake Taupo.
And so, after a long and rewarding day on the water, we finally made it back to our launching spot in Te Kumi Bay. Now here’s a little tip for you fellow paddlers. From the water, because of the trees along the waterline, it can be a little tricky to spot where to go ashore. So before you head off for your paddle, tie something bright and colourful around some branches as a little navigational ‘breadcrumb’ ?
Our paddle to the Mine Bay rock carvings was without a doubt one of our top adventures in New Zealand so far. While there’s lots to do in Taupo, if you’re visiting the lake but short on time and struggling to choose what to do, we highly recommend this experience. You can’t beat it on a calm and sunny day.
Guided and self-guided tour options
If you don’t have your own stand up paddleboards or kayaks contact Taupo Kayaking Adventures. You can either join one of their guided tours or hire kayaks for a self-guided tour.
If you prefer the comfort of a yacht or motorboat cruise then check out Sail Barbary or one of the other local tour operators here, Taupo cruises, sailing & water tours.
More Adventures Near Here
There’s more to Taupo than just the lake with everything from river rafting and sky diving to bungy jumping on offer. Mt Ruapehu and the Tongariro National Park is also less than an hours drive from Taupo and has some of the North Island’s best walks.
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Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Taupo region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Taupo.