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Basecamp for adventure year-round

From the tourist throb and twinkle of Taupō, Mike Yardley wends his way around to Turangi where the south side of the great lake throngs with a fresh smorgasbord of options for travellers.

Backdropped by the forest-clad Kaimanawa Ranges and Tongariro National Park, and gracing the shoreline of Lake Taupō, Turangi is a year-round basecamp for sublime outdoorsy adventure.

It’s home to one of the most iconic regional experiences, Tongariro River Rafting, owned and operated by Garth and Leigh Oakden. Garth has been a rafting guide on the Tongariro for more than 30 years; he knows these waters and surrounding land like the back of his hand.

Along with riding Tongariro’s rapids, you can opt for the Blue Duck river tour, which gives a first-hand insight into the triumphant rebound of the blue duck (whio) population on this river, who’ve been riding the rapids for thousands of years. They’re the face of New Zealand’s $10 notes and one of only three species worldwide that live year-round in fast-flowing rivers like the Tongariro. Their huge, oversized webbed feet allow them to navigate the Tongariro’s rapids like Olympic champions. Unlike other endangered birds, they can’t be relocated to predator-free sanctuary islands because long, turbulent rivers are their prime habitat. They are the clean-freaks of New Zealand’s bird world and very fussy about their living standards.

Increasingly concerned about their endangered status, Garth co-founded the Blue Duck Project in 2008, which has been a runaway success story in Turangi. The project is dedicated to improving the whio’s habitat by trapping its predators — notably, the stoat and rat. In the past 12 years, thanks to new styles of traps, more predators than ever are caught, and the ducklings’ survival rate has leapt from 30 percent to 90 percent. There has been a phenomenal 1200 percent increase in the whio population on the river, since 2008.

Time was short, so I didn’t have the chance to ride the heart-stopping roller-coaster river rapids, because my chief assignment was to “road-test” Turangi’s newest tourism offering.

Garth’s sister company, Tongariro Mountain Biking, delivers kick-ass MTB experiences across the region. Their guided experiences blend fantastic tracks and trails with commanding local insights and hospitality. Their latest MTB product is being billed as the ultimate private e-bike wilderness adventure. Not only does this riveting pursuit zip you up and down rolling hills and the high plateaus of this mountainous backcountry, you’ll also be hosted for a night in a supremely secluded lodge — where the creature comforts are laid on thick as you marvel over the escapist landscape in this 10,000 acre private block of verdant hinterland.

Highly-personalised experience

Despite clocking up considerable distances on MTB trails this year, I was a little anxious as to whether I’d be able to handle the high altitude and steep gradients. But my trusty e-bike made light work of the formidable ascents. (Trying to ride this trail on a standard bike would have killed me.) The exhilarating steep descents required particular discipline to stay in full control. As a useful guide, as long as you can manage intermediate trails in MTB parks, you’ll be sweet. Designed to be highly-personalised, the experience is limited to a maximum of eight people per trip.

From Turangi, we arrived at this vast block of prime hinterland within 30 minutes. From start to finish, the views are beyond breath-taking, with the added amusement of hundreds of red deer free-roaming the land. Bambi and friends came into close view within minutes of setting off on the trail.

The tracks you ride on are decades-old logging tracks, left untouched for years. Needless to say, these are not purpose-built, well-groomed MTB tracks. I encountered a heady spectrum of surfaces including gravel, mud, rotten logs and grass on the twisting and turning trails, complete with river crossings for an added frisson. From Baker’s Ridge, the high and wide skyline panorama across to the volcanic peaks is sigh-inducing.

Since the logging days, the forest has regenerated spectacularly. Native bush clings to the sides of the precipitous cliffs and walls of deeply-riven valleys, while pristine water glides by in chatty streams and rivers.

In the higher reaches, I routinely found myself stopping to listen. All around is a bush-covered silence, punctuated only by native bird-call. Kereru soar above the trees, melodious tui and bellbirds serenade all day and you’ll hear the striking call of kiwi at night. Far from being impenetrable, there are areas where the bush has been cleared and grass sown — such as where the lodge is perched. It’s a knock-out setting, with wraparound grandeur.

There’s a large relaxing deck with plenty of seating and a prime spot for star-gazing. Garth cooked up the most salivating venison burgers as I reflected on my adrenalin-pumping wilderness ride. Off-the-grid, immersive adventure in excelsis.

Turangi might only be half an hour away but this truly feels like a world removed, as you savour the blissed-out backcountry. The two-day Wilderness E-Biking Adventure is priced at $385 per person, which includes accommodation, food and transportation. E-bikes can also be hired: https://tongariromountainbikes.co.nz/

Another heart-stealing accommodation experience in the Turangi area is just around the lake at nearby Tokaanu. This picturesque little lakeside village is a geothermal gem, as is illustrated on the Tokaanu Thermal Walk.

Steam rises from a dozen fizzing, simmering hot pools, creating an atmospheric, ephemeral scene. Like Rotorua in miniature, mud pools sputter and gurgle while the steam vents hiss.

The first pool on the circuit is Matawai, which erupted violently for four months in 1992. Toretiti Pool is revered by local Māori as a medicinal marvel. This is the pool that reputedly cured the ulcers of many Ngati Apakura warriors who migrated from the Waikato.

Fancy a therapeutic soak after too much mountain biking? Tokaanu Thermal Pools is a god-send. Another gripping spectacle is the nearby Steaming Cliffs of Hipaua, where chimneys of steam rise up from the bush-clad hillside, as harrier hawks cruise the warm air currents. A series of fumaroles in the cliff above are responsible for the release of steam creating an otherworldly scene, especially early in the morning when the steam rises from the land as first light dawns.

I love the long-limbed reach of Tokaanu Wharf, a hidden regional gem with a storied past. Built in the 1880s, goods were shipped across Lake Taupo from Tokaanu Wharf, until roads replaced the boat service in the 1920s. Beautifully restored with original beams and decking, it’s a trusty perch for a spot of trout fishing at the magic hour as the sun goes down over the placid water, or for a dreamy picnic.

I spent the night at Braxmere Lodge, supremely set on the southern edge of Lake Taupo with 10 individual and generously-sized lakeside studios. The setting is serene, the ambience is blissed-out and the experience is priceless.

Braxmere even has its own private boat ramp and jetty if you want to pootle about the lake.

From your beautifully-appointed abode, chic and contemporary with floor-to-ceiling windows, stroll across the impeccably-groomed lawn to a beacon of local dining, Lakeland House Restaurant. Open for a la carte dining at lunch and dinner, you can’t go wrong with their salivating Thai prawn and scallop salad. http://braxmere.co.nz/

■ Mike Yardley was hosted by Destination Great Lake Taupo.

Whitewater rafting: Rafting on the Tongariro River is one of the Taupo region’s iconic experiences.
HIDDEN NZ: Tokaanu Wharf was built in the 1880s for shipping goods across Lake Taupo. Roads replaced the boat service in the 1920s, and the wharf is now off the beaten track.
Braxmere Lodge: Set on the southern edge of Lake Taupo, Braxmere Lodge has 10 generously-sized studios.
Tokaanu thermal walk: A geothermal gem just around the lake from Turangi.
BACK COUNTRY: The immensity of Turangi back country.
AN EPHEMERAL SCENE: Steam rises from a dozen fizzing, simmering hot pools on the Tokaanu Thermal Walk, creating an atmospheric, ephemeral scene.
E-bike Lodge: The secluded lodge where riders are hosted for a night on what is billed as the ultimate private e-bike wilderness adventure.
Wilderness E-bike Ride: Some of the mountainous back country that riders — limited to a maximum group of eight — zip up and down.
River crossing: The e-bike adventure covered a heady spectrum of surfaces — complete with river crossings for an added frission.
AN EXPERIENCED GUIDE: Garth Oakden of Tongariro Mountain Biking (and Tongariro River Rafting) knows the area like the back of his hand.
Whio adult and ducklings: Founded in 2008, the Blue Duck Project has seen the survival rate for ducklings rise from 30 percent to 90 percent — and a 1200 percent rise in the whio population on the Tongariro River. The project is dedicated to improving the whio’s habitat by trapping its predators.