For NZ$125/pp, we got a 30 minute tour that took up and around Mt
. Tongariro. The scenery was incredible! We got to pass right by the summit of Mt. Tongariro and look into its crater, also pass over the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, and see Mt. Ruapehu in the distance. It was a cozy little plan that fit the pilot, co-pilot and just 4 passengers. We did encounter a bit of turbulence on the way back which made for a bumpy ride back to Mountain Air's office. The ride was well worth it and we'd highly recommend it!
We then drove northward towards Lake Taupo. We ended up going to the Taupo Hot Springs & Health Spa. They actually pump up mineral-rich thermal waters (they had the minerals and % listed but we can't remember). The water there comes out of the ground piping hot and the spa cools it down to around 40C or so. We didn't do much else in Lake Taupo except for catching up on some boring but necessary administrative stuff (like researching next things to do, email, bills etc), and before we knew it was dark and almost 10pm! We pushed on further north to try to get near our next destination, but it was so dark that we ended up pulling into the first campground that we saw a sign for - at Wairakei Thermal Valley.
From Bulls, we drove north towards Tongariro National Park. We first headed to the Whakapapa Ski Area, which was the scenery used for LOR Mordor. The scenery was fantastic, check out the pics! We walked around a bit and had great views of Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Tongariro (used as Mt. Doom but digitally enhanced in LOR). We were also thinking about doing the famous Tongariro Crossing the next day, reportedly the best 1-day walk in NZ. However it was an 18km hike, you had to get up really early to do it as it would be a long day (estimated 7-9 hrs) and we needed to have proper hiking boots, which we didn't have. After much hemming and hawing, I wimped out on the hike, preferring to sleep in, not deal with finding proper hiking boots to rent, and not walking around on hot lava rocks for 7-9 hours (yes I'm a wimp!) The next morning we got up late at the DOC campsite, and decided since we still wanted to check out the scenery around Mt. Tongariro, we instead chose the much easier but much more expensive chartered plan tour.