We decided to head straight through Taupo, with a view to seeing it on the return journey as we wanted to see the volcanoes first. This took us down to the Tongariro National Park, home to three active volcanoes - one of which being Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings!
The drive there was incredible. We drove along the windy road through the valleys along the highway when all of a sudden we came back out into the open to be faced with Mt Tongariro. We had been expecting to see mountains, but this really just popped up from nowhere! We drove around it watching the steam rise up from its sides and into the clouds. We began to realise we really had entered volcano country. The drive continued past Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) and ended up at the base of Mt Ruapehu, which is where we were camping for the night.
Now, this is the first time either of us had seen a volcano, especially up this close. It was a fairly daunting prospect camping at its base. It last had a "hiccup" back in 2007 without any prior warning and it injured someone camping nearby. But this was a DOC camp site so we figured someone would let us know if it started erupting!
As per usual the camp site was amazing. We had a little area tucked away from everyone else with our own grassy picnic area. These camp sites fill up fast and don't have any designated spaces. Its just a turn up, find an area of the forest that you like and stay put for the evening.
The next morning we woke up and decided to head to Whakapapa village where we had been told there is a ski lift you can take to the top (yes, they use this volcano as a ski resort in the winter!). We drove up the side of the mountain to the ski resort and hopped on the ski lift. Unfortunately, from leaving the bottom to getting to the top, they had encountered a white-out. We figured we'd stay put in the hope it would clear up and spent some time drinking tea in the café at the top.
After an hour we finally saw a glimpse of blue sky and darted up. Sadly it only lasted a matter of minutes, so we decided to head on a wander around anyway so it wasn't a totally wasted trip. There is a two hour walk around the top that we decided to take so we headed off. We actually got further than we thought before the café has disappeared into the clouds. It was a lovely walk and I would imagine its even better when there's no cloud.
We headed back down the ski lift and decided to go and have a look at Tawhai Falls, where we had been told you can get good views of the volcanoes and see a nice waterfall. Luckily the cloud we experienced was only around the top of the volcano, at the bottom it was beautiful blue skies so we had some great views of all three volcanoes.
We decided to start our drive back up to Taupo as we only have five days left in New Zealand and want to make the most of it. Along the way we stopped at some thermal pools - these were different to what we had seen on the South Island. There is a spa there which you can go in, but if you wander around the outside you can see lots of volcanic pools. These aren't ones you can swim in, but are bubbling water and mud pools you can look at. They were really incredible to see and it was only by chance that we found them.
We carried onto Taupo and found our camp site for the night. Its a really beautiful town right besides the lake. We had a wander around and even tried the hole-in-one golf (there is a floating green in the middle of the lake and if the ball goes in the hole, you win $10,000! We didn't win.).
It had been a pretty packed day and we'd loved every minute of it. There was just enough time for a quick dinner and a game of scrabble before bed to make sure we were up early to hit the road north on to Rotorua.