After completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I left the small town of Turangi, and moved to the even smaller Whakapapa Village. Although the Village is basically located in the Tongariro National Park, you really need a car to get there. I couldn’t find a shuttle or bus service from Turangi or Taupo. So, I ended up renting a car from Taupo, and driving back down to the Village. It was totally worth it though.
I stayed two nights at the Chateau Tongariro, a classic 1920s hotel that offered a nice lounge, restaurant, and cinema, in addition to spacious, lavish rooms. There is an iSite tourist office next door, which can help you arrange transport for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, or other hikes nearby.
Having completed the Crossing a couple of days earlier, I chose to conquer the Taranaki Falls and Tama Lakes hike combination. The Taranaki Falls is a 2-hour loop, but at the halfway point you can take a 4-hour detour (roundtrip) to the lower and upper Tama Lakes, making a 6-7 hour hike in total, which is what I did.
Starting from the Chateau, I walked to the trailhead of the Taranaki Falls loop. I started on the “lower falls” trail inadvertently, but I ended up liking this route better than starting on the “upper falls” trail. On the “lower falls” trail, I hiked through some dense forest and approached the falls from the bottom – I thought this was pretty cool as I could hear the falls first, and then they emerged before me. (Coming from the “upper falls” trail, I don’t think it would have been as dramatic.)
I took a few pictures and then made the short ascent to the top of the falls. Here, I turned left and began the detour to Tama Lakes. For just under two hours (I think), I followed the trail up and down, over lava flows that are tens of thousands of years old. It’s pretty cool. There is a good view of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) as well. I arrived at Lower Tama Lake first, and then made the 30-minute ascent to the Upper Tama Lake. Even if you don’t go all the way to the upper lake (it gets a little steep and rocky), you should go part way – because it gives you an even better view of the lower lake. But the viewpoint at the Upper Tama Lake is pretty spectacular.
Coming back down, I followed the trail all the way back to the Taranaki Falls Trail, and then took the “upper falls” trail back to the Chateau.
It was about 15 km again, but there was not as much elevation gain as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Once again, though, pay attention to the weather! I started the hike at 8:00am and finished by 2:00pm because the forecast said the afternoon might bring thundershowers. Sure enough, by 2:30pm, it was pouring rain. As I was hiking back down the trail, around 12:00pm or 1:00pm, there were a number of people who were going UP the trail. Clearly, they hadn’t checked (or paid attention to) the weather forecast. I hope they all made it back down!
Obviously the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the hike to do in the Central Plateau area. But the Taranaki Falls (with or without the Tama Lakes extension) is a good alternative hike if you aren’t able to do the Alpine Crossing due to weather, gear, time, fitness, etc.