Taupo is situated on the eastern bank of the Waikato River at its outlet from Lake Taupo, and at the head of Tapuaeharuru Bay. Mount Tauhara (3,566 ft), the reputed geographical centre of the North Island, is about 5 miles east. The surrounding country is mainly undulating to hilly. The main Auckland-Wellington highway via Atiamuri passes through Taupo. By road Taupo is 53 miles southwest of Rotorua, 40 miles south-east of Tokoroa, 96 ½ miles north-west of Napier, and 91 miles north-east of Taihape via Waiouru and Turangi.
The main farning activity of the district is dairying, but some sheep raising is also carried on. Large exotic forests of Pinus radiata (q.v.) extend discontinuously north-west and north-east from Taupo and, associated with them, are milling and related activities. A limited amount of indigenous timber also is milled in the district. Near Wairakei (5 miles north) a geothermal-steam project for the generation of electricity is in progress, and at Aratiatia (about 7 ½ miles north-east) a hydro-electric power project is under construction. Areas of pumice land lying generally north of the town are being developed for farming by the Departments of Lands and Survey and Maori Affairs and, to a lesser extent, by private interests. Taupo functions as a tourist resort and commercial centre. The main industrial activities of the town are sawmilling, timber treatment, the manufacture of joinery, boxes, pre-cut dwellings and furniture. Other activities include the manufacture of concrete products and diamond drilling bits; general, mechanical, and precision engineering; and boatbuilding.
In pre-European times Taupo was a relatively closely settled area. It was called Tapuaeharuru, “the place of echoing footsteps”, which is also the name of the bay where the present Taupo stands. Several villages were located around the lake shores. The first European known to have visited Taupo and district was Andrew Powers, a Maori captive. The Rev. Thomas Chapman, of Rotorua, travelled to the northern shores of Lake Taupo early in 1839. During February-March John Carne Bidwill passed through the area on an expedition to Mount Ngauruhoe. The Rev. Ashwell also visited Taupo in 1839 and, at the end of that year, the Rev. Henry Williams and the Rev. James Buller. Dr Ernst Dieffenbach and Captain W. C. Symonds visited the locality in 1841. Dieffenbach was the first scientist to describe the thermal phenomena. The town is considered to have been founded in 1869 when an Armed Constabulary redoubt was constructed there in connection with the campaign against Te Kooti. On 7 June 1869 several Hauhaus attacked an Armed Constabulary camp at Opepe (11 miles south-east) and nine troopers were killed. A military force was soon after sent toward Taupo from Napier. At various strategic points along their route parties were detached to build and garrison blockhouses. The tracks linking each post became the basis of the Taupo-Napier road which was practicable for wheeled traffic after 1874. A vehicle road linking Taupo and Cambridge was in fair condition throughout in 1880. In 1893 a road was formed round the eastern shore of the lake. In comparatively recent times this has become part of the main highway. For many years a steamer service carried passengers and mails across the lake from Taupo to Tokaanu, a distance of 25 miles; this formed a link between the coach services from Auckland via Rotorua, to Taupo and the journey was continued from Tokaanu by coach. The contract for carrying of mails by steamer lasted, at least, till 1921, and the steamer service was a regular one till 1926. At the present time there is no regular service across the lake, but launches may be hired for pleasure trips.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s the thermal activity around Taupo began to attract numbers of tourists. At the Spa (1 ½ miles north-east) Lofley provided primitive facilities and was succeeded in 1888 by John Joshua, who developed it further. In the 1880s other thermal activity at Onekeneke Terraces, now called the Terraces (2 miles south-east) were also developed. The thermal area of Wairakei was developed first by R. Graham about 1878, but is now managed by the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand. By the 1890s Lake Taupo and tributary streams had been stocked with rainbow trout and Taupo had became a popular headquarters for anglers. For a long time Taupo was predominantly a tourist town and in 1945 had only 753 inhabitants. The town grew rapidly between 1949 and 1953, due partly to the geothermal project at Wairakei, the expansion of the timber industry, and farm development. Taupo became a road district in 1946 and, in 1953, was constituted a borough. Taupo is an abbreviation of Taupo nui a Tia (the great cloak of Tia). The meaning is obscure, but according to legend Tia on one occasion slept long at this place.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,358; 1956 census, 2,849; 1961 census, 5,251.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.