Ski New Zealand's Northern Heart At Whakapapa

27 March 2015

The first thing you need to know about this ski destination in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island is how to say its name.

It’s Whakapapa, with the first two letters combining to form a soft f, so it’s pronounced fakka-pappa.

Yep, that’s it, sounds a little rude, right?

 Gazing out over the craters in Tongariro National Park (image: Getty)

The first time I visit the resort on the side of Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest peak and sitting inside the boundary of the Tongariro National Park, I’m too scared to say the title in more than a whisper for the first couple of days because I fear it will summon my father with a cake of soap.

The second thing you need to know is that Whakapapa on the north side of the mountain combines with neighbouring Turoa on the southern slope to form New Zealand’s largest ski area, boasting 1800 hectares of terrain.

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You're Skiing On An Active Volcano

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Whakapapa alone covers 550 hectares – that’s roughly 440 cricket ovals or 550 rugby fields – with 67 named runs accessible by 14 lifts and territory graded so that 25 per cent challenges accomplished skiers and boarders, another quarter is ready for beginners, and the rest is perfect for those who slide down the hill at an intermediate level.

While we’re on the facts and figures, Whakapapa’s base elevation is 1630 metres, the highest lifted point is 2320 metres, and the mountain enjoys four metres of natural snow every winter with the season starting in June and extending to October, or even early November when conditions stay cold.

Oh, and one more thing: Whakapapa sits on the side of an active volcano.

Mount Ruapehu marks the southern edge of the Taupo Volcanic Zone – a string of active and extinct volcanoes stretching through Taupo and Rotorua and finishing at White Island 49 kilometres from the coast near Whakatane. The mountain regularly grumbles, rumbles and belches to emphasise that this is not an average ski resort.

 Whakapapa sits on the slope of an active volcano

The last burp happened in 2007, when the only injury was to a hiker who was hurt when a rock expelled from the crater landed on his leg.

There’s been occasional advice on subterranean activity this century, but not much more than elevated warning levels and clouds of venting steam to indicate any activity below.


Check out New Zealand's ski resorts. New Zealand’s Ski Resorts Are Part Of The Family

Get away from the crowds. Into The Wild – Skiing New Zealand’s Backcountry


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Abundant Terrain For Those Who Savour The Snow

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The first time I ski Whakapapa I stick to the comfortable blue runs beyond the Amphitheatre Bowl, where I spy the gleaming water of Lake Taupo to the north, but am tempted to venture into Black Mountain Country beyond the southern boundary and another corner of the resort offering additional terrain to accomplished skiers.

Whakapapa is also home to Happy Valley, a sheltered enclave celebrated as New Zealand’s “premier beginners’ area’’, where rookies can build confidence on baby runs well away from the crowds. There’s a terrain park with a halfpipe on the hill.

 Skiers at Wakapapa overlooked by the active volcano (image: Getty)

Scoria boulders mark the boundaries of the wide runs, and with no trees above the tiny village there’s a feeling that the whole northern face is ready to ride.

The patterns made by lift cables reaching across the slope remind me of messy stitches on a piece of perfect white fabric.

New Zealand’s North Island isn’t always the obvious choice for Australians looking to jump the ditch for a dose of winter adrenalin, with most people heading to the peaks around Queenstown on the South Island, but Whakapapa promises more than an abundance of terrain to those folks who savour the snow season.

It’s a chilled spot, a resort that feels more like a club hill than a bustling winter destination, and in the middle of the week there’s rarely more than a couple of hundred skiers and boarders on the slopes, which only adds to that appealing laidback vibe.


Sarah Nicholson

Sarah Nicholson has been a journalist since 1999, combining her passion for writing and travel full time for the past six years, with work adventures taking her from South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. While she has visited 57 countries on six continents, and snapped thousands of photos during her jaunts around the globe, Sarah's heart belongs to Asia with Vietnam topping her list of favourite destinations.