Tokaanu, New Zealand 2007: Small towns on a slow up-spin

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Tokaanu, New Zealand 2007: Small towns on a slow up-spin

About 10 or so years ago I spent a few days in Turangi on the southern shore of Lake Taupo in New Zealand's North Island. I was on an assignment for the Herald. I wish I could say the story involved fishing in a town that boldly asserts it is the Trout Fishing Capital of the World but, in deference to people are dedicated to that sport, I admit my job was somewhat less serious.

I was there to write an investigative profile of Turangi as The Little Town That Should Have . . . but hadn't.

On paper Turangi had much going for it: located beside that beautiful lake and near the Tongariro River famous for its trout; within quick striking distance of the ski-fields and mountains; just up the road from a thermal region; halfway between Auckland and Wellington ...

But at the time the place was pretty shabby.

Petty crime was endemic, said the local cops, property values were low and holding, and one of the banks had just pulled out. Turangi was a town with a great future behind it.

But recently I was back in the area ... and what a difference a decade or so can make.

Although still far from realising its true potential, Turangi seemed to be alive: there were nice cafes; property prices of some places had tripled in the past five years; an enormous supermarket was under construction; the bright and informative Information Office was stacked with brochures about the many local attractions; the excellent Maori Shop offered high-quality cultural artworks and souvenirs; and I had such an enjoyable dinner at Kaimanawa Lodge -- in a warm and cosy room which seated only 20 -- that I was happy to buy the chef a drink.

I liked Turangi very much -- but ironically this time I wasn't staying there. I was a few kilometres down the road in tiny Tokaanu, a place much as I remember it from all those years ago ... but one also going ahead in its own quiet way.

The new marina is impressive and has further opened up this largely undeveloped and unexplored shore of that beautiful lake; the Tokaanu Hotel seemed larger than I recalled (but just as lively, friendly and slightly volatile near closing time); and a few kilometres down the road is the high-end Lakeland House, a restaurant with a relaxing lake frontage and a menu to drool for.

I never expected to see something quite as classy as Lakeland House in this financially depressed area. Clearly something is happening around here, and given the beauty of the location it is long overdue. My guess is developers and investors have found this side of the lake and cannot believe their luck.

I stayed at the very reasonably priced Tokaanu Lodge Motel in a quiet room with a mezzanine, good shower (and how underrated is a good shower?) and Sky TV. The lodge has its own private freshwater and thermal pools on site, although if you want more public bathing the Tokaanu Thermal Pools are just a five-minute walk down the road.

So is historic wee Tokaanu, home of Ngati Tuwharetoa for four centuries.

Just out the back, as it were, is the Tongariro National Park, created in 1887, the first national park in the country and the second in the world after Yellowstone in the United States.

The first 2640ha were signed over to Crown protection by the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, and today it has been expanded to 76,000ha.

A century ago around Tokaanu were flax mills and a regular service of vessels crossed the lake. Then the future arrived: the main trunk line in 1907 bypassed the area and the highway some 15 years later did the same. Lake crossing ceased in the mid-1920s.

The thriving hotels and local store closed and the school moved to Turangi.

Plans were mooted to move the whole town away from the lake, the level of which fluctuated after the Waikato Power Scheme arrived in the early 40s.

Most of it came to nothing.

There are things to see here: the century-old hall which once served as a social centre and movie theatre, the equally old post office which closed 20 years ago, St Pauls Church and the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception ...

All these places speak silently of busier days.

And there is the astonishingly long wharf, undergoing refurbishment.

On a bright clear day I sit for hours at various points around the lake, listening to Radio Tuwharetoa, and looking at the mountains and lake.

Sometimes thinking about today, but most often thinking about the past.

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