I left the bubbling visceral wonders of Rotorua and headed south, deeper into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island. Driving on long mostly empty roads in blissful sunshine with ‘The Cult’ blaring out of my rental car, I found myself with a constant smile on my face.
I headed towards Lake Taupo, a huge sunken supervolcano or caldera and not only the country’s largest freshwater lake, but the largest in all of Australasia. The 485-square-mile caldera itself, not visible due to the lake waters, was the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years and tends to blow every 1,000 years. It’s overdue.
Stopping off first, I came to the extraordinary Huka Falls (Huka meaning ‘foam’ in Maori) and the Waikato River. One of New Zealand’s longest rivers, it suddenly narrows from 100m across to only 15m , as its squeezed into a granite canyon before dropping in a series of falls and rapids. The last waterfall being the most impressive, as approximately 220,000 litres per second tumbles over the final drop. Standing on a viewing platform perched just beside it, with the roar of the falls in my ears and the water vapour drenching me, was thrilling, but it was the astonishing colour of it which surprised me. The purest brightest blue.
I eventually left the falls, utterly soaked but gloriously happy and followed the highway south to the town of Taupo, nestling on the shores of Lake Taupo. The lake, more of an inland sea, is enormous, the town though, was small and welcoming. Cruising in an unhurried fashion along the lakefront and stopping for views, I found a cheap motel to call my base for the next few weeks. I dumped my equally enormous backpack, now getting almost too heavy with mementos to carry and checked into the Lakefront Motor Lodge. To my delight, my little room overlooked the lake and had the most stunning views.
I walked along the lakeshore losing myself in the beauty of it all and splashed out on a restaurant for my first evening meal. To describe Taupo as picturesque, is to do it a disservice. Watching spectacular sunsets over its shifting waters night after night, with the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park clearly visible in the distance, it became like a dream world for me and…a dream I didn’t want to wake from.
I spent lazy days exploring the town itself with its marinas and harbours, little shops and lack back bistros. Venturing out I visited the aptly named, the ‘Craters of the Moon’, a geothermal and volcanic lunar landscape that brought to life once more, just how powerful mother nature is. Then I tried some of the hot springs in the area. The sensation of having a very hot bubbling public bath, is strange to say the least, but oddly liberating (…no, I kept my bathing costume on at all times!).
But always, it was the volcanoes on the horizon that kept drawing me in. Packing some small provisions, I headed south, skirting around the eastern edge of the lake, towards the National Park.
Stopping halfway, I ventured off to the Kaingaroa Forest, the largest manmade forest in the world! Made entirely of plantation pines, with a few native ferns and species struggling to survive beneath the canopy, it was the strangest, spookiest forest I have ever visited. I loved the feeling of isolation but the silence was overwhelming, no birds, no animals. So alien to the rich diversity of the Waipoua Kauri Forest in the far north, or any of the woods I had wandered in.
Following the State Highway south as it hugged the lakeshore, I passed through Turangi at the southern most tip of Lake Taupo, and entered the Tongariro National Park, one of only 28 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Trying to keep my excitement in check, I left the main highway or Desert Road as it’s known and came to the much smaller Lake Rotoaira. Sitting on the lake side I had a picnic lunch, watching black swans glide effortlessly as the mountainside behind vented sulphurous steam into the air. Everywhere I went, I found myself saying the same thing over and over, “I’ve found my Fendellin, I’ve found my Fendellin, ‘Lost Kingdom of Dragons!”
“Pass now beyond the mountains white
Where frosted rivers leap and spring,
Amongst the golden grasses light
Where fÿrrens dwell and soar and sing.
A land as old and fair as stars
Of snowy peaks and moonlit seas,
Of darkling woods we travel far
To gaze upon its silvery leaves.
Far East beyond heart’s lost desire
The birthplace of the eldest kin,
Through rising sun on wings of fire
Lies forgotten Fendellin.”
As I travelled further south, nothing could have prepared me for the awe-inspiring spectacle of Tongariro National Park’s crowning glory, its three active volcanoes, Mount Tongariro, the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe and the monstrous size of the explosive giant, Mount Ruapehu!
Leaving the State Highway, I took the road less travelled into a world of epic fantasy and landscapes on a grandeur I could never have imagined before. Raw, untamed, magnificent and the true stuff of imagination!
Climbing the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu, still steaming from eruptions only a few months before, camping beneath the stars in a sea of yellow gorse as I watched the sunsets bathe the volcanoes in gold…I found myself profoundly moved and in tears so many times, yet I have never felt freer.
Little did I realise while I was immersed in the whole majesty of it, that only a few years later, a certain Peter Jackson would use the same landscapes which had become such an inspiration to me and my first novel, ‘White Mountain’. As I travelled around, I kept seeing real-life locations for my ‘Darkling Trilogy’, suddenly brought to life in front of me. Watching the ‘Lord of the Rings’, some four years later, was made even more surreal and magical as a result, not only by recognising places I had visited but by seeing parts of my Fendellin used as their Mordor, my Kallorm used for their Fangorn! Very strange but thrilling!
But my awe-inspiring and magical odyssey was not over yet…