Derek Greslewski, author of My Trout Diaries, A Year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand, takes a close look at the Tongariro River loop track, through trout-fishers’ paradise.
When you come to the Tongariro River, in and around Turangi, you enter the national shrine of trout and all things fly fishing. Ever since Zane Grey, an iconic American sportsman and prolific author of cowboy romances, fly fished here in the 20s, declaring the area as an angler’s El Dorado, trout enthusiasts from around the world have been making pilgrimages to Turangi, and for a good reason: no other stretch of water in New Zealand is so steeped in angling history and tradition. Every pool here has a name and many stories. And an access trail made over a century by countless feet eager to reach the hallowed waters.
Even if you don’t fish, let not the river’s fishy fame deter you from coming here because the anglers’ access trails, long ago linked into a fabulous riverside walk, are alone a good enough reason to visit Turangi. There are three bridges over the river: one on the main highway where the SH1 enters the town and two suspension footbridges further upstream at Major Jones Pool and Red Hut Pool. Meanwhile, tracks run parallel to the river on both sides so you can easily choose the sections you want to walk.
The entire loop takes about three hours to complete and the track is a comfortable all-weather thoroughfare, sheltered from too much wind and sun, undulating through native bush and along the edges of farmland but never too far from the sight and sound of the river. In summer, the woods are deafening with the song of cicadas, but in winter, above the powerful murmur of the river, all you are likely to hear is the swish of the fly-lines being cast across water steaming in the frosty air. The track is dog-friendly and you also mountain bike it although there are a couple of steep staircase climbs to negotiate the bluffs sculpted by the river.
Trout spotting from the bridges seems to be a favourite local pastime. You will see people staring down into the green depths of the river, pointing fish out to each other. If you want to join them, polarising sunglasses are a distinct advantage. And while we are back on the subject of trout – easy to do here since the entire region, its economy and hobbies are largely based on the presence and abundance of these noble fish – do not miss the Tongariro National Trout Centre, which is about halfway between the two footbridges.
Once a working hatchery and now a museum of all things trout, this education centre, aquarium and a fishing pond for the kids right on the bank of the Tongariro River is a must-visit for any fly rod enthusiast. The centre is open daily from 10am to 3pm and about once a month, the local volunteers put on a Take a Kid Fishing Day where pint-size anglers-to-be receive basic tuition and a spark of inspiration, and (above all) are guaranteed to catch a fish. For the rest of us, an underwater viewing chamber provides a rare but equally magical window into the world of trout. For more details and schedules, visit www.troutcentre.com .
As if all this wasn’t enough, the industrious locals in Turangi have embarked on an ambitious project to extend the Tongariro River Walk into a 20km hike and eventually into a two to three-day trail to include hidden upstream treasures, like the Tree Trunk Gorge and the Pillars of Hercules, and to rival the nearby Tongariro Crossing, which attracts some 70,000 trampers every year.
The Tongariro River Trail project manager, Ross Baker, says that, once completed, the track has the potential to become Turangi’s answer to the Otago Rail Trail. It would also open to anglers another 10km of water which so far has only been accessible by rafting. Personally, I cannot wait. Can you imagine it – a mountain bike, a dog and a fly rod and unrestricted access to the entire length of one of the best trout rivers in the world – and after that, a sundowner by the fire and perhaps a soak in Turangi’s thermal pools? Surely this is a recipe for many happy days.
For now, and for another year or so, we have to content ourselves with the existing river walk. Be aware that there have been security issues in some of the Tongariro river car parks, especially the smaller ones near town. Broken windscreen glass, police warnings and all the associated hassles. Just the day I arrived, I met a local fishing guide who had the back window of his truck bashed in, his sad face a testimony that he had lost much more than a windscreen. The Red Hut Bridge car park seems fine: there is plenty of room, a shady picnic area and enough steady traffic to keep the opportunistic villains at bay. If you have concerns about the security of your RV it is the safest to leave it in the rest area by the main highway bridge. There is enough room there to turn around a 16-wheeler and plenty of vigilant eyes around to discourage any mischief. The river trail starts just across the road.
For updates on the opening of new sections of the track, visit www.tongarirorivertrail.co.nz.
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