Residents of New Zealand's Lake Taupo region call it the land of the stirring volcanoes--and lately, from local youth hostels, you can get a ringside show.
Mark Dumble of the independent hostel Rainbow Lodge described as "spectacular" a recent eruption of Mt. Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park that he viewed from across the lake. "We get a great view of the activity from our lounge window and it's quite safe, despite some of the reporting around the world! It all makes an interesting change to one's day."
Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand, is 26 miles long and 16.75 miles wide. It's located exactly in the middle of the North Island, halfway between Wellington and Auckland. On the northeastern edge of the lake is the town of Taupo; at the southern end is Tongariro National Park and the volcanic peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.
The lake is thought be a volcanic crater itself but has gained most recognition as the self-proclaimed "trout capital of the world." The park was created from a land gift by an enlightened Maori leader who wanted to protect the spiritually important area and so donated it with the stipulation that it not be divided up.
Rainbow Lodge (telephone 011- 64-7-378-5754) can be found at 99 Titiraupenga St., which is a four-block walk from the bus station in Taupo. If you're tired or overloaded, you can call for a lift and staff members will pick you up. The hostel features single rooms for $17, double and twin rooms for $11 per person per night, and beds in dormitory rooms for $9 to $10.20 per night.
Ross Howatson of ANZA Travel, a former driver with the backpacker bus service Kiwi Experience, passes along this tip for budget travelers visiting the area:
"Head about nine miles north of Taupo on State Highway 5, then turn off to the Aratiatia Dam on the Waikato River. The gates of the dam are opened from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 4 p.m., and the river bed swells with blue-green water as it rushes through a narrow gap creating the Aratiatia Rapids.
"There is a well-maintained walking track following the Waikato River upstream from the rapids (allow two hours) to Huka Falls. The track passes farmland and goes through native bush before coming to Huka Falls, where there is a terrific view of the falls that most visitors would miss. You can then carry on past the falls (one hour) and end up in Taupo at Spa Road near the Taupo Bungy. There you'll find a thermal hot spring that flows into the river where you can bathe near the end of your walk."
Rainbow Lodge is one of three independent hostels in Taupo and one of about 190 independent owner-operated hostels in New Zealand that are members of the Budget Backpackers Hostel (BBH) network. Dumble of the Rainbow Lodge publishes a free booklet called the "Blue Brochure" that lists all the hostels. To be included, a hostel must provide some beds for $13.60 or less per night. More than 80% of New Zealand's independent hostels are included in the 42-page guide.
You can pick it up at participating hostels, order the booklet by writing to Rainbow Lodge Backpackers Retreat, 99 Titiraupenga St., Taupo, New Zealand, or you can view its contents at http://www.backpack.co.nz on the Internet.
The top three hostels rated by guests, according to "Blue Brochure":
* Kaheo Farms Hostel, on the northern tip of the North Island, tel. 011-64-9-405-1804, rated 95% in guest satisfaction. It's been a family farm since 1887 and offers places to bush walk and swim. It's seven miles north of Kaheo and is serviced by Northliner/Intercity buses.
* Paekakariki-Paekakariki Backpackers at 11 Wellington Road, Paekakariki, tel. 011-64- 4-292-8749, rated 92%. It's a cozy cottage 30 minutes north of Wellington, which is known for spectacular sea views, sunsets, tranquillity and the beach.
* Arcadia Lodge on Florence Avenue in Russell, tel. 011-64- 9-403-7756, rated 91%. It was built in 1899 and sits on lush grounds overlooking the bay. White sand beaches are just a few minutes' walk away. It too is at the northern tip of the North Island.
Normally reservations are not necessary; however, the BBHNZ warns that if you are going to visit in the peak season--December, January, February or March--it's best to book accommodations three to four days in advance.
You can do that at BBHNZ hostels with a telephone call and credit card. You can also book a bed for your arrival in Auckland or Christchurch by e-mail, through the BBHNZ Internet site. There is a $3.40 fee.