Most people can never believe it’s a year since any significant event in their lives took place. When have you ever heard someone say, “yes indeed, it feels like a year since that happened!” That’s right, probably never. So yes, I can’t believe it’s a year since me, my wife Aimee and our (then) baby Riley had three nights at the truly unforgettable Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mt Taranaki.
We absolutely loved our stay at this boutique, historic alpine lodge, so much so that I included it in a New Zealand Herald article about the five top sights of South Taranaki.
One year on, my Taranaki itch is well and truly still not scratched and I’m determined to get back to Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, discover more of the maunga, and further appreciate this beguiling, underrated part of the country.
My wife and I are keen bushwalkers so the initial pull to Taranaki had been a curiosity about a region we’d never properly explored, as well as a specific desire to see the aptly nicknamed “Goblin Forest” that encircles the 2518m Mt Taranaki.
As my NZ Herald article explained, the lush rainforest slopes of the province’s famous mountain are covered in twisted, moss-draped kamahi trees that feel so enchanted and fantastical you just might think they could come alive. Or, indeed, that goblins may be lurking behind every corner.
Also in my article is that there is “…no better launchpad for the unforgettable, fairytale-like walks that comprise Egmont National Park than the historic Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge”.
As for the lodge’s history…
“Built in the late 1890s, the lodge has 12 rooms with a charming old wooden Suisse-ski resort kind of vibe. Located 900m up the 2500m high mountain, just getting to the lodge is a huge part of the adventure. We drove through endless farmland in foggy, mountain-obscuring weather, then all of sudden we hit that perimeter of forest”.
That forest perimeter is something most New Zealanders will know even if they haven’t been to Taranaki. Ever flown up and down the North Island on a blue sky day? That near perfect circle of the 341-square-kilometre Egmont National Park you see out the window that encircles Mt Taranaki’s snowcapped peak is as dramatic on the ground as it is from the sky.
“Like a wild wall of impenetrable jungle”, is how I describe it and it’s not hyperbole to say that the 6km tree-tunnel from the forest’s outer wall inward to the carpark of Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge just may be my favourite small stretch of road in New Zealand.
Once inside the lodge, manager Dean and his team are a reminder that while “good old-fashioned Kiwi hospitality” is a travel writing cliche, it’s a cliche because of people like Dean. Over the course of our three nights at the lodge, Dean was always on hand to make our stay as comfortable as possible.
From espousing his local knowledge via our fireside chats, to the wines with the (outstanding) dinners, to advice on bush-walks, to helping us sterilise bottles for our baby, to giving us a suite perfect for a port-a-cot, to showing us the secret room out the back where we could dry out our post-bush walking clothes; Dean was terrific as well as terrifically down to earth.
The rooms themselves are really distinctive too with every configuration slightly different. But whether for solo travellers, honeymooners or families, all 12 rooms are decked-out in the timber-focused style of ski-lodges of generations past. As such, Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge is a great throwback and it was a delight to see not one, but two couples (on two separate nights) there as repeat visitors who’d returned to celebrate wedding anniversaries. It’s that kind of place.
It’s also ideally located so that beyond the trails of the Goblin Forest, you are in close driving distance to three of my other South Taranaki, non-negotiable, trust-me-already, must-do’s. One of those is another forest, but this one a remarkable, entirely fenced-off eco-sanctuary that’s proving to be one of the most effective breeding grounds for New Zealand’s highly endangered national icon, the kiwi.
Rotokare Scenic Reserve is 230-hectares of what a pest-free New Zealand could look like. The kiwi breeding programme has been so successful that just recently 28 of the flightless birds were relocated to Waikato’s Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, but that’s only part of the Rotokare story.
Other native birds – some of which have been extinct in Taranaki for 150-years – have returned to the province thanks to Rotokare. Birds like the saddleback, the hihi, the pateke are all found within the confines of reserve’s 8.2-km fence, as well as plenty of tui, kereru, morepork and many others.
Rotokare is also a lesson in optimism in that you only have to go back about 15-years to find an ecosystem that was ravaged by possums, rats, stoats and goats. The removal of those pests has seen the forest – largely comprised of tawa, rewarewa and mahoe – recover far more quickly than many expected. And just like the road to Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, you get to go through a sensational tree-tunnel being that one of the points of difference for Rotokare is that you can drive inside the reserve – an event in and of itself as you pass through the two Jurassic Park-like gates.
A key part of the Rotokare ethos is about it being a community-led place of recreation because in addition to the beautiful and relatively easy bush walks, there is a lake and wetland area where visitors are allowed to take their boats.
But if somehow the Goblin Forest plus Rotokare has you all bush-walked-out, there are still two other South Taranaki must-dos and both of these were also mentioned in my Herald article.
I get it, not everyone is a museum person when they’re on holiday, but trust me when I say I’m not kidding that Hawera – population 10,000 – has my two favourite museums in the whole country. Starting with Tawhiti, no photos can really do this place justice, but I’ve done my best.
A multi-decade labour of love for former school art teacher and New Zealand history buff Nigle Ogle, Tawhiti has no less than 158 life-size wax figures and 110 miniature dioramas. And not only that, there’s a fully-functioning railway as well as an underground theme-park-ride-in-a-boat called Traders & Whalers.
Give the man a knighthood already because as you’ll read in that Herald piece of mine, Ogle’s retelling of the history of Taranaki is both jaw-dropping and enthralling in equal measure.
The Traders & Whalers section of Tawhiti is inspired by the Jorvic Viking Centre in York as well as by Disneyland’s Pirates Of The Caribbean ride, something that’s clear when you’re sitting in a boat in partial darkness, meandering on a lazy river through one gripping historical, animatronic-enhanced scene after another.
As staggering an achievement as Traders & Whalers is – and let’s not also overlook how much fun it is too – the most magical thing about Tawhiti for me are those 110 miniature dioramas. Ogle has taken actual paintings from the 1800s and brought that history to life with a level of detail (including impressive experiments in forced perspective) that frequently beggars belief. Blurbs tell the stories, but so too does the art of Ogle and whether you visit Tawhiti from a place of knowledge or not, it would be impossible to not come away having learned something.
But you know what? One 5-star museum is not enough for Hawera because just a few minutes down the road from Tawhiti is somewhere that in its own way is just as unexpected and just as unmissable. Your eyes are not deceiving you, Hawera is home to what could well be the single greatest collection of Elvis memorabilia anywhere in the world outside of Memphis at KD’s Elvis Presley Museum.
In my Herald article I talked about how KD has transformed his garage into a shrine to the King that’s so glorious it really doesn’t matter how much of an Elvis fan you are. As it happens, I am a massive fan and KD is a man after my own heart. Yes indeed, I too used to have a man-cave dedicated to my music obsessions, but fatherhood has put that on the back-burner for a little while.
But who needs your own music man-cave when you’ve got KD’s!? With guests having travelled the world over to see his museum, Covid-19 means now is the time for Kiwis to discover this floor-to-ceiling celebration of the 20th Century’s most important entertainer.
Indeed, now is the time for Kiwis to discover all of South Taranaki. If we can’t go overseas, let’s seek out the corners of this country that perhaps fly a little under the radar and South Taranaki well and truly fits that bill. The combination of two unmissable museums, two unforgettable forests plus a delightful, historic mountain lodge – not to mention the actual mountain itself – make planning a domestic holiday here a no-brainer. Enjoy the photos.
Tawhiti Museum (check website for restricted winter opening hours)
KD’s Elvis Presley Museum (by appointment only)
Note: an earlier version of this article appeared under the name ‘The 5 Unmissable Must-do’s of South Taranaki’