Ski Ruapehu: New Zealand's forgotten ski and outdoor adventure area

It is not every day you get to leap off the face of a god and land in a blindingly white spray of powder snow.

But this is exactly what is on the cards if you visit New Zealand's "forgotten" ski areas on Mount Ruapehu.

The North Island's twin resorts of Whakapapa and Turoa are perched high on the side of an active volcano that forms one of three peaks in the Tongariro National Park.

The mountains are deeply sacred to local Maori, who viewed them as gods that were part of the creation of their country. 

So when legendary local ski instructor Lyall Crump asks, do I want to plunge off the edge of a steep ledge into a double-black run, the only answer is, "Hell, yeah".

With 20 centimetres of fresh snow to soften the landing, this is spring skiing at its best and Crump is clearly having a ball showing off his workplace.

If you're looking for a big outdoor adventure that involves skiing, biking, rafting and hiking, then the centre of the North Island is the place to go. It's a charming mix of adrenalin and relaxation, with stunning natural scenery, great modern and ancient history – and a dazzling array of craft beers, boutique wines and some mean lamb shanks.

Whakapapa, on the north-west slope of Mount Ruapehu, has New Zealand's best beginners area, a custom-designed bowl at the base of the mountain with its own cafe, ski hire, magic carpet and the country's only "snow factory" that can whip up the white stuff even when the mercury is staying obstinately above zero.

But head further up the mountain, work the eastern and western limits of the ski boundaries and you get some of the steepest gullies that demand respect from even the most expert skiers and boarders. From the top at 2300 metres you feel you can almost reach over to the white peak of Mount Ngauruhoe, made famous by Peter Jackson as the location for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.

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Crump has been instructing for a whopping 30 seasons and has been at Whakapapa since 1989. The son of famous New Zealand writer Barry Crump, he combines easy Kiwi charm with a daredevil streak.

"Picking a line that no one else has taken and being able to pass that on to someone else. That's probably the best part of my job," Crump says during a coffee break at the stunning Knolls Ridge, New Zealand's highest cafe that has won an international design award. 

Picking the right entry and exit lines among the 550 hectares of skiable slopes needs an experienced eye, and Crump expertly drops in and out of ridges, keeping a huge smile on the face of anyone lucky enough to ski with him. But he's not the only expert on the hill. Both Whakapapa and Turoa offer free access to mountain hosts twice a day. These guides offer an insider's view on the best runs and lines.

A Ruapehu lift ticket gives you access to both ski areas, and after an excellent day at Whakapapa and a night soaking up the apres ski glory in the Powderhorn Chalet, it's time to check out Turoa. This year Ruapehu Alpine Lifts offered a free shuttle bus from Ohakune. It's another excellent inclusion in the price of your lift ticket and well worth using. 

With its southern aspect, Turoa offers a firmer base and is probably a better bet for intermediate skiers, as it has better-defined groomed runs. It also boasts 722 metres of vertical descent from New Zealand's highest chairlift – the High Noon Express.

The Mangaehuehu Glacier towers above the ski field and a few brave souls trudge up past the boundary line chasing untracked snow. Turoa has a good terrain park.

Staff at both resorts delight in mentioning that both Queenstown resorts fit end-to-end across their expansive slopes.

Turoa's new general manager, American J.P. Chevalier, says working with the local iwi (tribe) has been an eye-opener for him.

"This is rare earth, and as a custodian, I want to protect it. We have to preserve this place for the next generations."

This low-impact, environmentally sustainable view of the mountains is echoed by many Ruapehu staff and adds an extra dimension to the sheer pleasure of carving a line down a slope.

Maori ranger John Taoho, who works at the Whakapapa visitor centre, says the three peaks are like "the crown jewels" for the local iwi.

"The mountains are part of our wellbeing. They gave us water and food. We regard our mountains as a living body." 

There is a terrific information section in the visitor centre about the Maori legends and culture, but hearing the gentle Taoho describe the volcanoes and their history in person brings the ancient history to life.

Many visitors come to Ruapehu for the snow, with lifts operating until October 23, but skiing is just one of numerous outdoor activities in the area. Ohakune is a great base for hiking and cycling.

On a drizzly day I head out on the Old Coach Road, a spectacularly scenic 15-kilometre dirt ride between Horopito and Ohakune. You can hire bikes, guides and even a shuttle drop-off from the TCB shop in Ohakune. The Old Coach Road is a taste of the epic 217-kilometre Mountains to Sea Trail, and takes you into a little bit of wilderness with short side trips into darkened tunnels and across vertiginous viaducts.

After all that activity (and a lot of mud!) it's time to refuel – and when locals give you a heads up about a village gem, it's best to take their advice. So make a beeline for The Chocolate Eclair Shop, a family-run grocery store that has been in the Nation clan for generations. It's a classic winter-only local hangout, with trays of boulder-sized fluffy eclairs jostling for position with apple pies and raspberry buns. If you want something healthier, grab a bag of local carrots, grown in the volcanic soil. During the Bledisloe Cup, they also provide free boxes of tissues for Australian visitors. Enough said!

A great outdoor option if the weather is dicey is white water rafting. Head for nearby Turangi, where local legend Garth Oakden runs Tongariro River Rafting. Oakden is an experienced operator who still takes visitors down the river himself, over 60 rapids during a two and a half hour trip. Travelling with Oakden is a great way to learn about the local plants and animals, including the threatened blue ducks, which Oakden has set up a trust to protect. He likes to talk and recounts funny anecdotes about the names of rapids, even while he's shouting instructions in a sergeant's stentorian boom: "For-ward … Back-ward. For-ward."  

Although the river is graded 3 (5 is the highest) under Oakden's expert hand it seems an easy ride and there's plenty of time to relax and gaze up at the towering trees and layers of volcanic ash that make up the river bank. Oakden also offers cycling and fishing trips and judging from the sheer numbers of trout that dart beneath your raft, even a complete beginner should have some luck with this. 

The Finn brothers had a hit with Four Seasons in One Day, but rafting down the Tongariro it's four seasons in one hour as the weather flips between sunshine, rain and an icy chill that presages snow. After safely navigating all the rapids, head for Tokaanu Thermal Pools, where you can warm your body in volcanic hot springs that steam invitingly on a cold winter's day. 

The Tongariro River drains into Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in the southern hemisphere. A great way to see the lake is out the window of Taupo's float plane. The township itself offers a mix of modern and traditional. There are plenty of other adrenalin choices here, from the hair-raising Hukafalls Jet through to the Bruce McClaren Motorsport Park, where you can hit 200km/h in a V8 with an expert instructor beside you guiding you through the chicanes.

After all this frenetic activity it's time to kick back, put your feet up and take a soak in the Wairakei Terraces hot pools, where you can also book a massage or spend an evening with a traditional Maori welcome and tour. 

MORE

traveller.com.au/newzealand

newzealand.com

greatlaketaupo.com

visitruapehu.com

VISIT

Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been voted one of the world's best one-day hikes. The 20-kilometre walk takes you past volcanoes, lava fields, emerald-green lakes and red craters. It can get very crowded in summer, so you could try Ruapehu's Crater Lake hike, accessed via the Whakapapa ski litts.

FLY

Air New Zealand operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Auckland. From Auckland take a 35-minute regional flight to Taupo. See airnewzealand.com.au  

STAY

Accommodation options in Taupo range from the recently renovated Hilton (from $NZ199 per night), which combines a luxurious modern wing with the heritage charm of the area's first hotel through to the absolute lake frontage of the Boulevard Motor Lodge (from $NZ199). Both boast heated thermal pools. Closer to the skifields, the historic Chateau Tongariro Hotel (from $NZ256) features old Georgian charm with a scrumptious high tea. Lord of the Rings nerds opt for the timber opulence of the Powderhorn Chateau in Ohakune, which was taken over by cast and crew during filming. Jackson stayed in The Mansion, while many women ask for Room 306, which just happens to be where Orlando Bloom laid his pretty head. (From $NZ220).


Liam Phelan was a guest of Mount Ruapehu, Destination Great Lake Taupo and Visit Ruapehu.
 

            

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