You know those intelligence tests where kids have to imagine how various squares, triangles, and rectangles could be assembled into a three-dimensional object? I didn’t do well at those. What this means in real life is that I have trouble imaging what something looks like from one angle when I am seeing it from another.
Which is what happened when I looked down on New Zealand’s Tongariro Track from a float-plane. Only two days earlier, I’d completed a four-day hike through the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park. Up in a float plane, looking down over the same landscape, I had trouble imaging that I walked around this, and climbed that. It looked too big and stark and inhospitable.
In Your Bucket Because….
- It offers fantastic views of a fantastical landscape.
- This is a chance to fly over an active volcanic zone.
- Good for photo buffs, geology lovers, families.
The North Island’s Volcanic Heart
Lake Taupo is located in the middle, roughly speaking, of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s a rumbling, unstable land. On the Tongariro Track, I’d seen hissing steam vents and miles of lava fields and water the color of funny drinks they make on cruise ships. On roads around the mountains, there had been signs that announced geological alerts and told people what to do if the danger level was high.
The morning before the float-plane ride, I’d heard a rumbling as we ate our breakfast at our hotel in Taupo. It felt like a really big truck had just driven by on a high speed highway. Only, there wasn’t a high speed highway, and there weren’t any trucks.
“Earthquake,” one of the local ladies said, calmly sipping her tea.
Now, I was looking at that same landscape from the air via a float plane.
From above, it all looked other-worldly, like the film setting for a grand fantasy. As indeed it was: Parts of this landscape were used in the filming of Lord of the Rings.
Float Plane Tours at Lake Taupo
The float plane didn’t feel like it should have been able to fly, not with all that floating and bobbing, but some thing that shouldn’t fly, like bumblebees and loons, do, and so it was with this. As with a loon, a float-plane simply needs enough of a watery runway to be able to get up speed. Fortunately for us, it was more graceful about hauling itself out of the water than your average loon.
Measured in terms of surface area — 616 square kilometers –Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest freshwater lake. Formed by a super-volcanic eruption some 27,000 years ago, the lake is actually a flooded caldera (now considered dormant). Its last eruption, which produced an eruption cone twice the height of the Mt .St. Helens eruption cone, was in about 230 A.D.
Once airborne, we circled the lake, dropping low to get a view of a 30-foot Maroi carving, made in the 1970s to honor the navigator who guided the Maori people here 1000 years ago. The navigator had the sense to wait until Lake Taupo had finished erupting, and the carving is said to provide protection against the volcanic forces beneath the surface.
But just 20 kilometers away, the land still rumbles: We headed to the higher mountains with their stark lava fields and brilliant lakes. I remembered from the hike, in particular, the perfect cylindrical cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, one of Tongariro’s subsidiary vents, which I had climbed a few days earlier.
I sat back in the plane, and looked out over the view trying to make what I remembered of the walk match what I saw from above. Bur my step-at-a-time hiker’s perspective jammed up against this panoramic bird’s eye view. What had been an insurmountable obstacle on foot looked like just one more bump in a bumpy land, from the air. Finally, I gave up trying to make sense of it and simply enjoyed looking down on a landscape that was brand new to me, even though I was seeing it for the second time.
- Float plane rides can be booked directly or via hotels in Taupo.
- Bring a camera (of course) with plenty of battery power.
- Wear dark shirts: They reflect less against the airplane glass windows, making for better picture taking.
Copyright 2012, Karen Berger. All rights reserved.