NZ North Island Road Trip

Thinking about a Tasman-Bubble climbing trip around the North Island of NZ but don’t know where to start? No problem, Tom Hoyle has all the good oil.

(Note since this piece was originally published Mt Eden quarry, Castle Rock and Whanganui Bay has been closed to climbers.)

When I first started climbing while at university back in 2002, one of the most appealing aspects about adopting the climbing lifestyle was the prospect of the climbing road trip. It wasn’t just the climbing that appealed, though going to new crags and seeing what they have to offer remains a source of great climbing pleasure for me. It was more than that, there was something about piling together a haphazard array of gear, food and companions and throwing yourself at the mercy of St. Christopher that was of great appeal, a romantic sense of Beat Generation recklessness and freedom, the idea that anything might happen and everyone was up for the adventure. Admittedly, these trips didn’t always turn out great, we slept in cars, got stranded in snow, disturbed by police, our shoes were stolen by local fauna, cars broke down and crags were wet, but even the ones that seemed like they were going wrong at the time have now become treasured memories of an adventurous time.

These days my climbing trips are crammed in between a myriad of other less joyful activities and tend to be more focused, more organised and a bit less at the will of the wind. In the sentimental spirit of those formative adventures, I thought I would outline a sketch of a North Island climbing road trip. The North Island is not as celebrated for its climbing as the South Island, there is no Castle Hill, no Southern Alps, no Fiordland National Park, but it’s arguably better suited to a road-trip style adventure than the South as most of the crags allow a quick “visit and move on” approach and are in a sensible linear journey. The well-documented problem with a South Island road trip is that at some point you will go to Paynes Ford, at which point you get sucked into the Golden Bay vortex and your road trip is over.

We’ll start in Auckland, because that is where you’ll probably arrive if you’re an Aussie, or where you most likely live if you’re a Kiwi. Aussies might want to spend some time in Auckland if you haven’t been there before, but you’ll probably realise quite quickly that it is just a smaller and less-impressive version of Sydney. Of course, you’ll have to visit Eden Park and soak in the mystical ju-ju that somehow stops Australians from being able to win at sport there. Auckland does have a couple of climbing destinations on offer, the Mt Eden Quarry being home to some famously slippery and desperate boulder problems and short, cruxy trad lines, including a few of historical interest such as Australasia’s first 26, Supergroove. Or, if you want to be free of the city and enjoy the maritime environment that Auckland is best known for, you could head to Ti Point and sample the sea air and a couple of routes.

The crux section of Bleeding Star (27) is an excellent compression boulder problem leading to a strange hanging V-slot, expertly navigated here by Bob Keegan. Tom Hoyle

Mt Eden Quarry (now known as AGS Rockwall)

Style: Technical corner and arete climbing
Gear: Trad with the odd bolt (access rules state you must wear a helmet)
Route to do: Supergroove (26)
Why: It’s a classic of the groove climbing genre, put up by Robbie McBirney way back in ’76. Legend has it Kim Carrigan didn’t believe a Kiwi could’ve climbed 26 before he did, so he came over for a look and promptly dislocated his shoulder trying to repeat it. I’ve been on a road trip where a party member dislocated his shoulder on the first climbing day, maybe you should try Thimblerigger (21) instead…

Once done with Auckland, head south to the quaint rolling green hills of The Shire. This is where my expert local intelligence starts paying dividends, as common wisdom would have you head to the Wharepapa region and the ignimbrite crag of Froggatt Edge, but you won’t do that. Let me explain why. Firstly, Froggatt is an unimpressive and unattractive crag set in swampy and humid farmland. Secondly, ignimbrite climbing is an acquired taste involving a lot of sharp pockets and although Froggatt has been widely ‘comfortised’, for your introduction to this rock type would have you at the best version of it, rather than just the first you stumble upon. Thirdly, despite extensive development due to its proximity to Auckland, Froggatt doesn’t have very many good routes. Don’t get me wrong, I think Froggatt is an excellent local’s crag, much like Christchurch’s Superbowl or Cheesedale at Nowra. These crags offer a number of challenging routes with great moves, but they aren’t that good to look at and are unlikely to be used in posters to advertise the outdoor lifestyle any time soon. For this reason, they aren’t the kind of places I’d recommend to visitors unless all they care about is how hard the routes are.

My recommendation is to instead head across to the Coromandel. Here you’ll find some quintessential New Zealand scenery, and the potential for epic adventure at Castle Rock. This crag is one of the highest points on the Coromandel Peninsula and offers stunning 360° views. Even better, the climbing is adventurous multipitch sport in the always challenging rap in and climb out style. The rock quality is also very good and I can’t think of a better place to start your adventure than the tippy top of this towering pinnacle. Better yet, if you want a swim after your day climbing there are beaches in pretty much every direction, one of which is the famous Hot Water Beach, where you can dig into the sand between the tides and make your own thermal pool, fed by the hot spring beneath the sand. Alternatively, you could head across to Opito Bay where there is the opportunity for some deep water soloing in coastal caves just along the coast. Of course, if you just want to tick some big numbers you could go to Froggatt and mash your fingers into some piranha-mouth pockets instead.

Castle Rock

Style: Multipitch sport
Gear: plenty of draws and two ropes are handy
Route to do: Te Punga (24, 23, 21)
Why: It’s 85m long, has 33 bolts and excellent rock, how could you say no?

From here you can continue down the lovely Coromandel coast to beach party hotspot Whangamata and the nearby sea cliff climbing at Te Ananui. This location is way off the sport climber’s beaten path, but simply can’t be beaten for ambience. You park in a secluded pine forest out of town and take a track down to an isolated beach with golden cliffs at the southern end, skirting around these you get to an even more secluded beach with cliffs at each end. This leaves you with an array of options from climbing, sunbathing, swimming, chasing crabs or re-enacting your favourite scenes from Treasure Island.

Te Ananui

Style: Scruffy anchorless trad
Gear: hexes, helmets and short ropes
Route to do: Battle of the Hexes (19)
Why: None of the routes are that memorable in themselves, but you’ve got to do at least one in between relaxing on the beach to make it an ‘active rest day’, so you may as well do the one with the best rock.

Now that you’ve warmed into your trip it is time to head for the epicentre of North Island climbing, which is the central volcanic plateau. The crags around Lake Taupo and on Mt Ruapehu are the best the island has to offer and are all close enough to travel between on a day by day basis. You might be thinking, ‘But Sir!, I am up in the Coromandel and now you’re sending me down there’. Don’t lose your faith in me, this is all by design. Now you’ll travel down the coast to Tauranga, through a very nice bit of the country and, if you want a bit more beach fun visit Mt Maunganui. There is some climbing here, right on ‘The Mount’ in a superlative location locally equivalent to the crags on the Mediterranean Coast. The climbing isn’t much to write home about but if you enjoy the resort vibe in Mt Maunganui it is enough of an excuse to hang around the area for a little while.

Even if you are done with the beaches and just want some great climbing then this is still the way to go, because south of Tauranga en route through to Rotorua is one of the best kept secrets in North Island climbing, the Mangorewa Gorge. To access this crag you walk down a river hemmed in by thick and lush native forest on both sides, forcing you to walk in the river itself. You might think this is a bad thing but it is actually a unique experience. The river flows down a solid sheet of rock out of which it has carved a wide but shallow chute, the river itself is rarely more than ankle deep and so it is more like travelling along a large horizontal hydro slide than splashing along unpleasantly in a river. Some people would pay money just to do the approach! The crag is made up of two walls that rise straight out of the river offering long climbs on excellent rock in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. The climbing isn’t extensive but what has been developed is of very good quality and this memorable crag is well worth a short visit.

Hamish King coming to grips with the steepness of Whitefalls. Tom Hoyle

Mangorewa

Style: vertical to slightly overhanging sport
Gear: draws and a rope plus some expendable footwear to walk in the river with
Route to do: Dr Zeus (25)
Why: A stunning 30m route with some magnificent arete climbing. But why stop there? Many of the routes take obvious striking lines and fully deliver on their appearance.

From here you head south through the geothermal tourist town of Rotorua, where bubbling mudpools feature in the centre of town, there are more lakes than anyone knows what to do with and you’ll find the world’s best mountain-bike trails (according to AMB Magazine). Once you’ve splattered yourself with mud one way or the other, continue on to Lake Taupo and decide which of the good crags in this area you want to hit first. From north to south in short distance are Waipapa Dam, Kawakawa Bay, Whanganui Bay, Whakapapa crag, Whitefalls and The Wall of Sound at Tukino. Each of these crags has its own character and there is something here for everyone, but I highly recommend sampling them all to get the complete North Island experience.

Waipapa is an accessible sport crag just north of the Taupo region. It has had two stages of development and is host to a mix of easier routes that are often with mixed protection and some more recent bolted test-pieces. The walls are nestled amongst some very pleasant forest and the developers have put in a lot of work to make the crag enjoyable for visitors.

Waipapa

Style: low-angle, technical sport
Gear: draws and a rope with a small rack for some of the better easy routes
Route to do: The Arches (18)
Why: This route takes a magnificent curving corner crack beneath an arching roof. It is worth doing in it’s own right and if it is a bit easy for you then continue up into Fire In The Sky (30) or use it to a set up a dirty top rope on the slab classic Three Steps To Heaven (26).

On the northern side of Lake Taupo is the relatively new Kawakawa Bay. K Bay has been home to a frenzy of development in recent times and may be the most popular crag on the Island these days. You need to get a boat ride in from Kinloch, or bike/walk the biking track, but once you are there you have a well-equipped camp area with a nice sense of isolation. Much of the cragging rises straight out of the lake and due to this the routes have an adventurous and exposed feel which really adds to the experience. There is a mix of trad and sport but what it does best is long (sometimes multipitch) lower angled trad routes in the moderate grades.

Mark Watson high as a kite on the Kawakawa Bay megaroute High Hopes (16). John Palmer

Kawakawa Bay

Style: lower-angled trad and sport
Gear: a decent rack and double ropes if you want to do any of the Odyssey wall epics
Route to do: High Hopes (16)
Why: At 45m this route is officially a two pitch outing but doing it as one really lets you absorb the way it just goes on and on! If you want something a bit harder then The Hecklers (19) is also long, excellent and fully trad.

On the western shore of Lake Taupo sits Whanganui Bay, probably the North Island’s best known crag. The challenging vertical nature of the routes and the dodgy road access mean Whanganui Bay is not as popular as it once was, but in my opinion it is still easily the best crags going. Even if your car’s clearance doesn’t let you drive all the way in, you still don’t have to walk as far as into Kawakawa Bay. The pocketed ignimbrite is certainly demanding on the three T’s; your tendons, your toes and your technique, but in the grade ranges 19 and above The Bay has as many three star routes as all the rest of the crags put together. Combine that with a peaceful setting and swimming in the country’s largest internal water feature and you have an idyllic climbing spot.

Whanganui Bay

Style: vertical sport and trad
Gear: draws and a rope plus some gear is useful too
Route to do: Duudooduudo (21)
Why: There are a cornucopia of three star routes to choose from, with Bizarete (22), Eternity Road (22), On Patrol In The Ruins Of Your Body (23), Zen (23), Sister Europe (23), Drive In Bank (25), El Topo (28) and Twilight of the Gods (30) all thoroughly deserving classic status, but you haven’t climbed at The Bay until you’ve done Duudoos as one looong pitch.

From here it is a quick jaunt down to the mountains where Mt Ruapehu has a crag on the western, northern and eastern sides, giving you access to steep sport climbing and some very high quality vertical or slightly overhanging routes. These crags are all at altitude and offer cooler temperatures during the summer months and generous views from the highest point in the North Island.

Each of these crags is accessed from a ski field, the main field being Whakapapa. The Whakapapa crag has two contrasting styles; a small central golden wall with finer textured rock and some very good quality routes in the mid-20s and the surrounding walls which offer moderate bolted and trad routes with a more adventurous vibe.

Zen (23) at Whanganui Bay climbs an unbelievable free standing pinnacle straight above the waters of Lake Taupo, here Esther Packard Hill keeps calm to avoid becoming trout food. John Palmer 

Whakapapa Crag

Style: moderate sport and trad
Gear: draws and a long rope plus a rack for some routes
Route to do: Ape To Angel (24)
Why: This route was touted as the best 24 in the island after it was first climbed. Whether or not that is true, the fact that it’s in the debate means it is a must-do. From the harder-than-it-looks starting face to the steep and powerful crux and sapping headwall, this route has all the attributes of a classic sport climb.

Whitefalls is home to plenty of 30+ routes in a powerful and athletic style. It has the classic outdoor gym feel of a steep modern crag, with many permanently equipped draws, tick marks and lots of link-up madness. If that is your thing, you’ll love it, if not then best stay away.

Whitefalls

Style: steep sport
Gear: draws and a short robust rope
Route to do: First Breath After A Coma (29)
Why: Burning Man (30) is a better line but it’s unrepeated so hard to recommend. While Coma is a dog-leg link-up the moves are super and the crux is one of a kind.

The last crag included here is one of the newer ones and a personal favourite of mine. Situated on the desert side of the mountain it resides in a martian landscape of barren tephra and scoured lahar channels, adding up to plenty of atmosphere and more than a little intimidation factor. Having said that, the climbing is entirely bolted without significant runouts. The climbing itself is a strange mixture of technicality and power, leading to some quality thought-provoking routes and an immensely rewarding climbing experience.

The Wall Of Sound

Style: technical slightly overhanging sport
Gear: draws and a rope
Route to do: File Under Easy Listening (24)
Why: An absorbing line tackling the seam feature directly up the centre of the wall. Features a number of cruxes followed by recovery positions, typical of this wall, but seems more sustained than most. Once you’ve flashed this one move on to Bleeding Star (27), Shoegaze (27) and Jean Paul Sartre Experience (28), which are all super too.

There is plenty of quality climbing in this central region to keep you occupied, but once it’s time to move on you have two options. If you want to head on to the South Island then continue to Wellington and while you are waiting for the ferry you can visit the old school bouldering area of Baring Head or the new school bouldering area of Tuakirae Head, or both! Both of these areas are glorious on the right day, but given the notoriously fickle Wellington weather this is far from guaranteed. Alternatively, if you are heading back up to Auckland you can take a more direct route and pick up two popular crags that weren’t on the route down; Mangaokewa and Froggatt Edge. Enjoy your road trip!

The best and only available guide to all of these areas is Rock Deluxe North by John Palmer, Tom Hoyle and Kester Brown, available from the New Zealand Alpine Club.

See Part Two of our NZ Road Trip series detailing the best of the South Island here.

This piece originally appeared in Issue 14 of Vertical Life.

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