Let’s face it, by the time you fly south to ski – and add up air fares, and perhaps the cost of a hired four-wheel drive, you could be sitting in a beach in sunny Queensland or Rarotonga, sipping on a banana daiquiri.
But Ruapehu( rua ‘pit,’ pehu ‘to explode’) is only a few hours’ drive, with New Zealand’s biggest and most developed ski fields at Whakapapa, and Turoa on the southern-facing slopes. And the mountain has much in its favour: how many skiers get the thrills of skiing on one of the world’s most active volcanoes? (Have no fear, the last major eruption was in 1996 and scientists monitor its rumblings closely).
Ruapehu offers plenty to do besides skiing. The mountain has lots of bush walks, and a rich and fascinating history to explore. It was gifted to the Crown by local Maori, and first skied in 1913, by two blokes on wooden skis. The excellent Department of Conservation Visitor Centre at Whakapa Village is the place to delve into these facts.
Where to stay? Ruapehu offers plenty of choices, from budget accommodation in the nearby towns of Ohakune and National Park, or the olde worlde luxury of the iconic Chateau Tongariro in Whakapapa Village.
Ohakune and National Park can turn on the après ski at spots like the quaint Schnapps pub in National Park, or The Powderhorn in Ohakune. And, if you're looking for the up market amenities and excitement of a bigger tourism-based town, Taupo is little more than an hour away from Whakapapa Ski Area.
Here are just a few good reasons to ski Ruapehu.
On a week day with no car park issues, you can be skiing in less than three hours drive from Tauranga. Fill the car with friends to share the petrol and the driving. Go via the Kaimai Ranges and the Waikato, which offers slightly quicker routes than via Rotorua and Taupo.
Lots of Choice:
Whakapapa Ski Area on the north-western slopes has more than 65 trails across 1050 hectares. At the Top O the Bruce, you’ll find the headquarters of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, with ski hire, Lorenzo’s Cafe, the Vertical shop, and various customer services and facilities. A short chair lift ride takes you down into a sheltered valley, the children and novices heaven known as Happy Valley. The self-contained learners area occupies its own valley, and has all its own facilities including cafe, rental complex and ski school. The instructors here are experts at getting even under-5’s up and running. Higher up the mountain, there are more than 30 intermediate trails and 24 black runs (experts only). The volcanic terrain produces huge variety.
Turoa Ski Area is around half an hour’s drive from Whakapapa, on the south-western slopes. It has Australasia's longest vertical descent and New Zealand's highest lift. It offers an excellent variety of terrain for all levels. Turoa has 9 lifts, giving access to 500 ha of patrolled terrain. The Alpine Meadow beginners’ area offers a safe environment with wide, gentle slopes and a carpet lift – like a travelator on the snow. Experienced skiers and boarders are spoilt for choice – with 12 groomed intermediate runs and 25 black runs.
Ski Passes – Best Buys:
One of the best ways to ski Ruapehu is with a two-day, all mountain ‘any time’ lift pass that costs $163 for adults (youth $94). A normal all mountain pass costs $83 (youth $48), but if the weather turns bad, scuttle back to the ticket window before 12.30 pm and you’ll get $31 refunded – the difference between the cost of an all day pass and a half-day pass. If you don’t want to ski the whole day or the budget is limited, a half day pass is $50 adults (youth $30).
A Rocket Pass is another option – promising to rocket you from begin to competent skier or boarder in three days. It covers all the equipment, lessons and lift passes you’ll need. At the end, you qualify for a discounted multi-day pass. A rocket pass is $320 adults ($239 youth).
Budget Ski Accommodation:
There is no shortage of backpacker-type accommodation in the mountain towns of National Park Village and Ohakune, the nearest town to Turoa ski field. For sure, you’ll have to share a bunk room but after a hard day on the slopes and a few drinks, you’ll be out like a light. YHA National Park Backpackers, located in the Village 20 minutes drive from Whakapapa Ski area charges $26 pp for a four to six-share dorm, $29 for a three share, or $61 for a double room. The hostel is built around an eight metre high climbing wall, and it’s a stone’s throw from the Schnapps pub.
A tad more upmarket, The Park Traveller’s Lodge, the newest accommodation in the Village, has backpacker rooms from $30, or standard rooms with a double bed from $95.
Next door, Tauranga-based ski club Ski 150 (www.ski150.co.nz) allows non-members to stay. Mid week, Sunday to Thursday, is $50 a night for tidy bunk room accommodation. The ‘weekend deal’ is $94 adults, which covers Friday night bed (no meal), Saturday (breakfast, dinner & bed), and Sunday breakfast. You won’t have to cook, but you will be rostered to do a chore by the trip leader for that weekend.
If you have a big group, check out www.bookabach.co.nz. Click on Central Plateau for everything from traditional baches to modern chalets. Expect to pay from $120 per night to over $200, depending on the size and quality of the accommodation.
The Turoa Ski area in particular caters to families, with child care, ‘beginner packs,’ and children’s lessons and events. A kid’s centre with professional child care caters for children 2-5. Bookings are recommended as space is limited, on 06-385 8456. A baby sitting referral service is also available at both ski areas. Kids Explorer group lessons are for children aged 6-12 for skiing and 8-12 for snowboarding. It’s a fun way for children to learn to ski while exploring the mountain.
National Park Village has plenty to do on a wet day, with the climbing wall at National Park Backpackers a favourite. A collection of quaint cafés and restaurants can be found throughout the town.
Ohakune’s night life is centred on two distinct areas of the town, each with its own character. The Junction part of town features the iconic Powderkeg bar and restaurant and Turoa Lodge. The “town end” has a variety of restaurants and bars.
A Fascinating History – Eruptions & More:
Get all the facts on Ruapehu’s eruptions, as one of the world’s most active volcanoes, at the superb Whakapapa Visitor Centre. The centre is located just behind the Chateau in Whakapapa Village, where the road to the Whakapapa ski field begins. Rightly described as a must see for young or old, it’s a great family attraction with audio visual shows telling two of the region’s most important stories (modest entry fee). The first show focuses on how the land for the park was gifted by the paramount chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe. The second story is about the unique volcanic history of the park, and its three main mountains of Ruapehu, Ngaruhoe and Tongariro. The Visitor Centre has a well stocked shop with maps, souvenirs, and walks information. It's open from 8am to 5 pm, April to October.
Money Saving Tips
Ski Gear: Take the second-hand trail. You don’t need the latest designer jacket and Trademe has loads of stuff, much in pretty reasonable condition. You can pick skis up on Trademe for around $30, to $800-plus for little-used, newer model carving skis. Beware of buying pre-carver era ‘straight skis,’ they’re not worth the money. All skis must have the ‘DIN’ setting on the bindings adjusted for your weight and ability.
All the gear you’d ever need can be hired on the ski fields – including skis, boots and poles, jackets, pants, etc. Hiring jackets and pants on Ruapehu, for example, will cost $36.If you hire for two or more days, you’ll get a discounted rate. You can also hire by the season – an adult snowboard for $205 (youth $150). Adult recreational skis $209 (youth $130). For more details: www.mtruapehu.com
You can also hire gear from specialist rental shops in towns like National Park, where there are several to choose from, with Roy Turner’s one of the longest running, best shops. In school holiday times or weekends, it’s smarter to hire off the mountain the night before, to avoid the queues.