The Maori Carvings on Lake Taupo are one of the area’s most famous attractions, before I even left Miami I knew this was something I wanted to see.
Finding the 30 foot high cliff-side carving was a little more difficult than I had imagined. There were plenty of kayaking tours that would provide a guide all the way to the carving, or you could take an easier route and go on a small yacht or a peaceful sailboat. Unfortunately there was no map for the independent traveler – we already owned our kayak so we just wanted a location and launch point. We consulted several maps, free maps, maps in guide books and the AA (AAA back home) maps, but none of them marked the precise location of the carvings. We eventually read that the carvings were in Mines Bay and that we could launch from Acacia Bay.
Where are the Maori Carvings?
The Maori Carvings are located on the Northwest part of Lake Taupo in Mines Bay. There isn’t a place to launch a kayak or boat in Mines Bay, so you must find a public park or dock farther north of the carvings. If you are looking for the closest launch location head Southwest from Taupo down Acacia Bay Road. Look for the sign for the boat ramp and just beyond that is a small public beach. You have to have a permit to launch at the boat ramp, but the public beach is free for kayakers. It is a little tricky getting your kayak down the hill from the parking lot to the beach, but the trouble is worth it.
When you paddle south to Mines Bay stay close to the coast or you could easily pass the carvings as we did. I believe I read that the carvings were about a 90 minute paddle from Acacia Bay, but the entire trip took us over 5 hours. We went quite a ways pass the carvings, which was frustrating, but also gave us an amazing place to have a private picnic and swim. The coast curves in and out and it is faster to paddle straight to the edge of each curve, but I would only skip the first two curves unless you know exactly where you are going. If you are paddling for a while without seeing any houses – you’ve probably gone too far. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the many boaters in the water, everyone is very friendly and will kindly point you in the right direction.
Tip: Bring plenty of water, food and sunscreen. Also, if you aren’t an experienced kayaker light gloves can really help protect your hands from blisters.
A Picnic Spot and Swimming Location on Ancient Lava
Just one inlet pass the carvings is where we decided to break for a picnic and swim. There was a pebble beach where we docked our kayak. Next to the rocky beach were huge smooth rock formations. I believe they are ancient lava formations, because the smooth texture was similar to the rocks in Tree Trunk Gorge. The large rock shore broke in a few places which created these small waterways which were nice and warm and protected you from the lake waves. The edge of the rock ended in a perfect cliff for jumping into the lake. There was no one around so it is the perfect place to picnic and enjoy a private swim.
The Maori Carvings
Finally we retraced our steps (or paddle strokes) and ended up at the Maori Carvings. We had to wait our turn as there were several large boats and other kayaks crowding around the 30 foot artwork. We had a pretty good view of the large face of Ngatoroirangi even from faraway, and I was tempted to just paddle back rather than wait our turn. Luckily before I lost patience all the large boats parted and we were able to approach Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell’s masterpiece.
The largest and most pictured part of the carving is the famous 30 foot face of Ngatoroirangi, a Maori navigator who led the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes to the Taupo area over a thousand years ago. The carvings took four years to complete, as Matahi and his friends could only work during the summers. Matahi carved the figures into the cliff to honor Maori traditions and celebrate the multiple cultures that make up New Zealand, that is why the smaller carvings include Celtic designs. He did the carving free of charge, only accepting some small fund-raising to pay for the scaffolding needed. It was a gift that has brought Taupo fame for over three decades and will be cherished for years to come as tourist and Kiwis alike paddle in Lake Taupo to marvel at the cliff-side drawings.
I am so happy we waited to get an up close view of the carvings, because besides the large face there are several small sculptures surrounding the area. My favorite was an enormous lizard that lounged on the rocks. I wanted to climb on top of it for a picture, but I was sure if the carving were sacred or if it would be offensive to the artist so I stayed in my kayak. There were lots of figures on the rocks that I couldn’t make out, but I did recognize the south wind and a mermaid which I had read that Matahi carved.
Tip: Be careful when you enter the small bay of the carvings, when large boats approach the waters become very rough. We witnessed an experienced kayaker smash into the wall and overturn. He quickly righted himself, but we wouldn’t have been so lucky if put in the same situation.
Paddling back to Acacia Bay was exhausting. We were out for over five hours and my arms ached. Luckily Paul did most of the work, but even he was fading from the days activities. It is definitely doable, especially if you don’t paddle past the carvings, but if you’ve never kayaked before I would definitely recommend using one of the many guides available.