Visit the crater, but don't jump too much

All that was missing was a horde of orcs charging down the crater walls at us.

While director Peter Jackson did not use the Mount Tarawera volcano as one of the many New Zealand locations for his Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy, it would have been ideal.

The dormant crater's steep slopes and desolate features immediately brought to mind Mordor, the Middle Earth wasteland that is the home of the evil Sauron in J R Tolkein's classic tale.

But on this windy winter's day, the only sign of potential hostility was a lone falcon circling majestically far overhead, scanning for prey.

Features such as Mount Tarawera, near Rotorua on the North Island, mean New Zealand is to outdoor enthusiasts what Disneyland is to children: a dream holiday destination.

The 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera was the largest in New Zealand since European settlement, killing 153 people and destroying the famed Pink and White Terraces at nearby Lake Rotomahana.

A huge boulder lying a couple of hundred metres from the crater, known as a lava bomb, is testament to the power of the eruption.

Standing at the bottom of the volcano crater, our guides joked not to jump up and down too hard.

Apparently, we were only 5km above molten lava - the norm around New Zealand is about 50-60km at least.

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Despite the high winds and steep slopes, it was surprisingly easy to "walk" to the bottom of the crater.

You use the scree, or loose-packed rock debris, like an escalator, digging your heels in and shuffling down the slope.

It was at first unnerving, then fun - what was totally mind-boggling was watching a couple of our guides run back up to the top of the crater wall afterwards.

Admittedly, the route they used going back up was not as steep, but the return trip still left most of our small group gasping for breath.

Even more impressively, our guides regaled us with stories of riding mountain bikes down the slopes - apparently you just put all your weight on the back wheel and let gravity do the rest.

While Mount Tarawera is an awesome experience, there are a few things to bear in mind: you need to be fit, warm clothing is a must and it is private land, with no open access.

You must book through Mount Tarawera Volcanic Tours, a company which offers a range of guided hikes, rides and helicopter flights.

Once you have crossed "must stand in a volcano crater" off your life's to-do list, try some more basic mountain biking.

Planet Bike has a great setup at Whakarewarewa Forest, about 10 minutes from Rotorua.

The company offers bike hire and tours through the forest, which has several mountain bike trails.

Again, this is not the time to start your fitness regime; all the trails are reasonably technical.

But it was the first-time mountain biking for this writer after more than a decade on road bikes, and it was like being a 10-year-old again - not only are you allowed to be caked in mud, it's demanded of you.

Even better, Planet Bike usually has a couple of coffee machines set up in a van alongside their main trailer - and the brew is good.

Rotorua was also the venue for this year's world mountain bike championships, held in August.

Much of the championships were centred on Mount Ngongotaha, not far from the town centre.

Unfortunately, some of the courses for the world titles are not always available for public use, but Mount Ngongotaha is also home to the Skyline Luge.

After catching a cablecar ride to the summit, you can tear down a concrete track on a "luge" - in this case, a three-wheel cart.

The luge is brilliant fun and suitable for all ages; during the world titles, a 70-year-old we know was having a running battle with his 10-year-old grand-daughter to see who could post the better time for the course.

IF YOU GO

All access to Mount Tarawera is through Mount Tarawera Volcanic Tours. Call (from Australia 0011-4) 7349-3714, visit http://www.mt-tarawera.co.nz or email mt-tarawera@xtra.co.nz.

It's a 40km drive from Rotorua, then another 10km of four-wheel-driving before you reach the craters, so allow around 4-6 hours for the various tour options.

Planet Bike operates out of the mountain bike carpark at Waipa State Mill Road, a 10-minute drive from Rotorua. It offers tours and bike rental, along with accessories such as helmets. Call (0011-64) 7346-1717, visit http://www.planetbike.co.nz or email ride@planetbike.co.nz.

The Skyline skyride and luge are situated on Mt Ngongotaha, also close to Rotorua. Details: call (0011-64) 7347-0027 or visit http://www.skylinesskyrides.co.nz

* The writer visited Rotorua and the surrounding areas as a guest of Tourism New Zealand, flying Air New Zealand from Melbourne to Auckland and to Rotorua, staying there at the Royal Lakeside Novotel.

Details: call Travel New Zealand on (02) 8220-9000 or visit on http://www.newzealand.com, Air New Zealand on 132-476 or visit http://www.airnewzealand.com and the Rotarua Novotel at (0011-64) 7346-3888 or visit http://www.accorhotels.co.nz

AAP

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