One year ago, we celebrated the new year by running up a mountain behind Nelson, New Zealand, and embarking on a multi-day kayak and running adventure in Abel Tasman National Park. I’m starting 2011 pleasantly enough here at home, but I can’t help dreaming about a return to that idyllic country. Everything good you hear about New Zealand is probably an understatement.
We spent December 2009 through January ’10 traveling the North and South Islands and running several of its trails. National parks cover roughly a third of the country, and ultramarathon-length “tracks”—Kiwi-speak for trails—crisscross the parks, dotted by huts that provide shelter for multi-day “tramping” (what they call backcountry hiking and camping).
Maybe you, too, dream of a running- and adventure-oriented trip to New Zealand in 2011 or ’12. If so, chances are the South Island comes first mind. When I hear Americans talk about New Zealand, they tend to focus on the South Island’s stretch from Nelson to Fiordland, with Christchurch and Queenstown in between. For that reason I decided to spotlight a fabulous Kiwi destination and event on the North Island instead: Rotorua and the Tarawera Ultramarathon.
Thankfully I have New Zealand ultrarunning ambassador Paul Charteris to help me out. Paul is race director of the Tarawera Ultra, held
March 19 [update: check the website for next year's date]—so you still have two-and-a-half months to register, train, and book a flight! Or, make it a goal for ’12.
The event is named for the volcanic Mount Tarawera, which rises near Rotorua. The course skirts a lake, runs through a forest, and follows a river that all share the Tarawera name.
We met Paul while touring the North Island region that Captain Cook named the Bay of Plenty, as in plenty to see and do. Virtually all roads lead to rain forests, beaches, geysers, hot springs, and lakes. We checked into a low-cost cabin at the family-friendly Blue Lake Holiday Park on the edge of Rotorua—close enough to enjoy all that the city has to offer, yet far enough away to escape the sulfurous smell of its hot springs.
Then, on Paul’s recommendation, Morgan and I took turns running through the mossy, emerald trails of the Whakarewarewa Forest next to Blue Lake. Whaka what? Don’t worry, just remember its nickname: The Redwoods. The area felt so magical, I could have sworn that fairies and friendly trolls kept peaking out around the trees.
The Tarawera Ultra begins here in The Redwoods and runs past Blue Lake before heading toward the town of Kawerau. About 300 people from at least eight countries will participate in the 2011 edition. The event, always the third weekend of March, features a 100K (62 miles), 85K (52 mi), and 60K (37 mi) option, plus a relay for 2- and 4-person teams. The course winds its way around four volcanic lakes and follows a stunning river, through exotic forestry and native bush.
“A lot of the runners will take a swim in the lakes or in the river at some point during the race. The scenery and terrain are forever changing on this course,” Paul wrote me. “For someone new to ultra-distance running and to New Zealand, you can expect a long and extremely adventurous day out in the New Zealand forests.”
Unfortunately our visit didn’t overlap with the Tarawera Ultra, but Paul took us on an enchanting hike through part of the course. We saw a double-barreled waterfall that shoots out of fissures created by lava flow, and then took turns swinging on a rope and dropping into an aquamarine swimming hole along the trail.
We also discovered the nearby Bay of Plenty beach town called Whakatane and ran another track there. If you go to Rotorua, definitely try to detour to the coast for time in Whakatane as well.
If you can’t get to Rotorua in mid-March to run the Tarawera Ultra—or you don’t want to run that far—I hope you can tramp at least part of the track and dive into its lakes or river.
Paul described running in this place and his reasons for directing the event in his blog post: “I love running through the forest. It’s my favourite thing in the world; when I am fit and healthy and running through the bush, I am a free man. On those trails I have had a number of moments of pure joy and soul-crushing agony … but it is without a doubt when I feel most alive. Putting on the Tarawera Ultra is all about sharing this joy, this freedom, this love. Yeah, I know it sounds like the rantings of a hippy run-love-guru, but I am OK with that.”
Yeah, I’m OK with that, too!
Additional New Zealand running and travel resources:
- Paul wrote an excellent article on his blog, Trail Running in Kiwi-Land, that gives an overview of the country’s trails and races, as well as travel tips.
- Our family travel blog, Away Together, features ten posts on New Zealand, including a video and tips for touring Abel Tasman National Park.
- My race report from the NZ West Coast and the Nelson Striders website give info on the Croesus Crossing and other running events.
- NZ’s Department of Conservation website details the Great Walks, and the New Zealand Tramper site has oodles of trail info.
- The official Rotorua website shows all the adventure sports and lodging options around town. So does the one for Whakatane.
- And don’t miss the Tarawera Ultra website!