Exploring the Magic of Lake Tarawera


Sometimes, the best adventures are right on your doorstep, minutes from home but miles from anywhere. For me, Rotorua is my hometown, a region known for its immense beauty. Filled with lakes and nature, all accessible and within easy reach of home. These amazing places are often overlooked for far-reaching adventures to remote lands. But this April, it was time to explore a little closer, and what better way than by accessing the wilderness using kayaks.

There’s a saying that all good adventures start with the right crew. This journey was no different, pulling into the parking lot, I caught sight of my good mate Steven Freitag and his buddy Jason. This adventure was as much about the mission as it was about taking some mates out to explore my backyard in a new way.

Steven, a world-class filmmaker had emigrated from South Africa, and we had met each other a few years earlier working on film projects. Regularly talking about going on a trip together, the time had finally come, and this was the perfect place for our first mission. We were joined by Steven’s best buddy Jason, a math teacher from up north who was equally as excited about getting out and experiencing the best of New Zealand. Judging by the atmosphere at the start, this was going to be a fun few days.

The plan was simple. A few days circumnavigating Lake Tarawera, the largest of the region’s 12 lakes. It’s located 18 kilometers (11 mi) to the east of Rotorua, and beneath the peaks of the Tarawera massif—Wahanga, Ruawahia, Tarawera, and Koa summits.

Tarawera means “Burnt Spear,” named by a hunter who left his bird spears in a hut and upon returning the following season found both the spears and hut had burned down. In 1886, a huge volcanic eruption decimated the area, covering the lake and its surroundings in ash, blocking the outlet for two years and raising the lake level. The eruption was recorded as the largest and deadliest in New Zealand in the past 500 years.

Fast forward 140 years and we were heading out, to paddle around the lake in the shadow of the sleeping volcano. With the sun rising over Mt. Tarawera, we loaded the Subaru Outback to the brim with sea kayaks, kit, and heaps of miscellaneous expedition essentials. The task of coordinating the gear storm into the boats began.

In the background, chop appeared on the lake reminding us that we were playing in Mother Nature’s environment now. After a quick yarn about the plan, we launched into the lake and began paddling east, towards Humphries Bay. The gusty wind hit us straight in the face as we left the shelter of the Landing Inlet and headed out into the lake proper. This first stage was going to be tough, a six-kilometre push across to a sheltered bay, before hugging the shoreline towards the Tarawera River outlet.

The waves smashed into the sides of our boats, tossing us around. Steven and Jason hadn’t spent much time in sea kayaks—this was a brutal refresher. The waves pushed them around as they struggled to remember how to paddle. Slowly, they got the swing of things, and before we knew it, we were chewing through the miles breezing along the lake’s edge, through the stunning bush-clad towards Humphries Bay. We took time to explore the bays and digest the immense beauty of the lake as we continued for another eight kilometres east to the mouth of the river.

After a few hours, the Tarawera Outlet, the source of the famous Tarawera River, came into sight. The river is known for crystal clear water and waterfalls hidden amongst the trees. Entering the river, the flow grabbed at the boats pulling us downstream. Not wanting to miss any of the secret gems on land, we stashed the kayaks and explored a little by foot. We followed a trail to check out the falls. Weaving our way through the pristine bush, we waded the waterways and trekked down to the hidden falls of the Tarawera River.

The hike was short but steep. The falls were even more impressive than I had imagined. Water cascaded down a series of cliffs, creating a beautiful waterfall. During our hike, the sun had slowly shifted. The dense bush canopy now blocked most of the light, signalling that the day was getting on. We, too, needed to get on considering the huge push across the entire length of the lake that we needed to make before camp. We had a quick swim and returned to our kayaks.

Steven lead the charge across the far side of the lake, the final paddle for the day. With strong strokes and a brisk pace we paddled south. On our right, we were dwarfed by Mt Tarawera, piercing the skyline, cloaked in native bush. An awe-inspiring sight. Ahead of us we had a direct line of sight to the famous Hot Water Beach and our campsite for the evening. The wind had begun to wane, and we pushed on across the lake, a race against the dimming sun.

Just as the sun set, we reached the steam-soaked water this area was famous for. We rounded the point at the edge of Te Rata Bay and cruised into Hot Water Beach. The shoreline had transformed from bush-clad volcanos, into a long sandy beach.

Hot Water Beach is a very special place. It’s right in the heart of the thermal Rotorua district. Steam rises sleepily from the lake edge, the result of a hot thermal spring trickling into the lake water. The sand heats up to 86 degrees—hot enough to cook a meal beneath the surface. The steaming water comes from deep in the earth, mixing with the cool clear lake water to create the perfect natural spa pool.

Without another soul in sight, we dragged our kayaks up from the lake edge and claimed a campsite for the night. Darkness engulfed the mountain and we hustled to start a fire. Steven and Jason, both from South Africa took charge of dinner and they soon dished out a South African Braai. As we shared food and stories, we cracked beers and watched the fire slowly die down. We ended the evening swimming, exploring, and relaxing. Slowly countless stars blanketed the sky.

The birds woke us early the next morning in time to watch the sunrise over the lake. It was a beautiful sight, and it made me appreciate the beauty of my hometown even more. As the sun rose above the horizon, it dried off the dew on the River Wing. The gas cooker coughed and the kettle sputtered signalizing coffee hour. We sipped our morning brew and after breakfast, repacked our gear and headed back onto the lake.

Despite a hefty goal to round the western bay and cross the lake again back to our starting point, we felt strong. The lake was deadly calm, as we set off. The water gently lapped on our kayaks, breaking the silence of the early morning. We made progress quickly, almost effortlessly, in the contrasting conditions from the day before.

We took a mid-morning break at a hidden rocky outcrop signaling the ‘Tubs’ pool—a locals’ spot, some would say. It’s the most epic natural hot pool. Its scenic surroundings could easily be a tourist advert, boasting the picturesque environment New Zealand has in spades. A quick soak recharged our muscles and after a bite to eat, we continued our journey.

Fatigue started to set in as we entered the business end of the adventure. The wind built throughout the afternoon, bringing with it a strong chop from the east. Pushing on, wave after wave crashing into the boats, pushing us backwards away from our goal. Eventually, the landing came into view. First as a small building hidden in bush, before slowly becoming more and more visible.

As I loaded the kayaks onto the car, I couldn’t help but think what a perfect local adventure the Rotorua Lakes wilderness had provided for us. I looked over to Steven and Jason, grins smeared on their faces. They had caught the bug of kayaking, of adventure, and exploring lesser-known places. Escaping the daily grind is medicine for the soul. Getting away from the daily hustle and out into a place where Mother Nature is boss allows us to recharge and re-energize. This trip was a gentle reminder to disconnect, leave the house and explore more, whether that be far-flung places or right off the doorstep.