186AD was a very exciting year around Taupo. That was when the local volcano blew its top, reddening the skies as far away as ancient Rome and China. Fortunately there were no thrill-seeking backpackers on New Zealand’s North Island at the time; the eruption would have, like, totally ruined their day.
When the dust cleared, a hole in the ground started filling with water, eventually becoming the biggest lake in Australasia. Note how Kiwis call it ‘Australasia’ when they want to remind us they have something bigger and better than our puny specimens across the ditch. Lake Taupo looks as cool and wet as any other lake, but it is still classified as a caldera volcano and a dormant, rather than extinct, one at that.
Taupo is a hot destination, in a particularly beautiful spot, with rivers, waterfalls, rolling hills and snowy peaks in the distance. Kiwis and international tourists flock there for adrenalin-pumping excitement. There’s skiing in winter and hiking in summer. There’s jet boating, bungee jumping, tandem skydiving and white-water rafting. If such experiences leave you wanting more action, after dark the bars throb and the nightclubs rock.But we went to Taupo for something much quieter – to see a little garden behind the Taupo Museum. It goes by the unwieldy name of “100% Pure New Zealand Ora – Garden of Wellbeing” and in 2004 it won gold at London’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, which features show-gardens from some of the world’s most exciting designers.
The Poms are hard markers. Just getting into Chelsea is a major achievement, and few gardens win a coveted gold medal. The Kiwis may have been the first ‘Australasians’ to do it, though their feat has since been matched a few times, notably by Aussie Jamie Durie in 2008.
After its Chelsea success, the Ora Garden was recreated here in Taupo with the help of the original design team and became part of the local museum. We’d only seen it on the telly, so we were anxious to see the real thing.
But first, on our way into town we stopped off to visit the area that inspired the Ora garden’s designers – Orakei Korako, or ‘place of adornment’, touted as ‘the best thermal area left in New Zealand’. Naturally it’s also the best thermal area in Australasia.
Many thermal resorts offer people the chance to bathe in hot water or cover themselves with mud. Personally I don’t see the point. I have a bath at home, and mud is something I normally wash off when I find it adhering to my body. Why would I suddenly want to wallow in it, just because I’m in New Zealand? It makes you smell a bit funny for a few days too, a local expert informs me.
I’m pleased to report that at Orakei Korako, visitors can look at the thermal activity, without getting down and dirty in it.
From the Orakei Korako visitors’ centre, shop and toilets (‘Guys-ers’ and ‘Gals-ers’) we could see across Lake Ohakuri to where white silica deposits spilled down into the water. The advertising calls the area the Hidden Valley, though it was remarkably easy to spot it from the clouds of steam rising out of the bushes. The place smelled a bit funny.
A little boat ferried us a couple of hundred metres across the lake to where a crowd of very excited, very noisy Singaporeans had just landed on the jetty in front of us. We politely agreed to take photos of couples standing in front of geysers – ‘Wait, we smile first. You press already? Thankyou sir. Thankyou very much.’ Then we moved on up the hill.
Signs warned of the dangers of stepping off the path. Scenes from the BBC TV series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ were filmed here, and though there was no T-Rex around, it seemed very unwise for those Singaporeans to be tiptoeing round the edges of bubbling pools to get better photos. Geysers can gush at any moment, the ground can cave in and you could end up with a picture of the kids taking their very last hot bath.
We found the features quite interesting enough viewed from a respectful distance, with extraordinary colours of orange and yellow silica surrounding steaming turquoise pools and plopping mud-holes. At the top of the walk was Ruatapu, a sacred hot water pool in a deep cave. An unexpected bonus was the lovely surrounding forest, and the views out over the countryside.
It took us an hour and a half to stroll the two kilometres of steps and boardwalk around the area, but it was time well spent. Then we drove on to Taupo, parked the car at the museum and walked straight through to the Ora Garden.
The New Zealand Garden Trust (also hard markers, I’m told) recently declared it a Garden of National Significance, ‘its strong design elements encapsulating spiritual qualities’. It was smaller than our backyard in Sydney. We thought we’d been clever landscapers, planting a few natives and sticking in a frog pond, but this Ora garden was in another league altogether.
Hot water bubbled from steaming ponds at the top of the garden, then spilled into a pool, down the long winding spine of a wooden lizard, sculpted by Lyonel Grant. Living ferns were carved with Maori designs. The inspiration of Orakei Korako was obvious. The replica silica terraces, created in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington, were miniatures of the formations at Orakei and the garden’s little cave cleverly mimicked sacred Ruatapu.
Weaving all this together was a tapestry of lush ferns and other New Zealand natives. Remarkably the little garden seemed to change character radically depending on the angle from which it was viewed.
This Garden of Wellbeing certainly did its job and was truly a work of art. All right, I’ll go further than that. It was without a shadow of a doubt the finest Chelsea gold-winning thermally inspired garden of wellbeing in Australasia.
Getting there: Regular bus services also run from Auckland to Taupo (about 4-5 hours).
Orakei Korako is about a 25minute drive north from Taupo. Riverjet run boat safari packages from Taupo to Orakei Korako for NZ$145 including park entry. www.riverjet.co.nz
Further information: Entry to the Orakei Korako is NZ$34. Entry to the Taupo Museum and Ora Garden is NZ$5 .