Did you know that Lake Taupo is on the site of a huge volcano ‘caldera’ that has produced two of the world's most violent eruptions in geologically recent times? Not erupted for ca. 1800 years……scary
Lake Taupo (slap bang in middle of north Island of New Zealand above) must be classed as one of the ultimate freshwater swimming challenges globally as it is considered the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, one of the (if not the) largest lake in Australasia and at 40.2km a tougher test than an English Channel which itself is way shorter (ca. 33km) and the EC affords more buoyancy (therefore much easier on the shoulders). It has been said that you can put the entirety of Singapore within the surface area of this lake! Until I entered the water at little Waihi beach on my birthday 4th February 2023 no British person had even attempted it although it had been successfully swum by ca.40 Kiwis and a couple of Aussies - including fewer than a handful of people who had completed a 2-way (yes, that’s over 80km!).
(The start is usually at Waihi Bay (bottom left) and finish at Taupo town (top right) with the island marking the 1/2 way mark)
The dust hadn’t even settled for a week after my successful 45.3km Lake Ontario swim 2nd-3rd August 2022 when I decided the next part of the Stillwater 8 was in my sights: Lake Taupo (pronounced locally as ‘Toe Paw’). My email to Philip Rush on 9th August 2022 got the wheels in motion:
‘Hi, I have been given your details by a mutual friend in Helen Conway. My name is Mark Sheridan and I live in Kent in the UK. I am keen to head out to NZ to complete the first British swim of Lake Taupo. I have done a little bit of swimming (!) but wondering what prerequisites are and whether we could sort dates for next year’. Phil replied immediately with a couple of options - one for January and one week in February but I opted for the latter to use January for training (including the Steve Wand 100x100s which takes place that month) and the lake would have more chance to warm up - in the end my solo was the first of the Taupo swim season.
Philip Rush isn’t just a great pilot, to call him an accomplished swimmer would be underplaying his credentials. He swam the EC 10 times. His record-breaking 3-way English Channel time from 1987 still stands over 35 years on! (see CSPF records here). He was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1985! https://www.
Just to arrive at the start line for this swim presented its very own logistical challenges. Not only is Taupo ca. 11,500 miles from where I live in the UK which presents significant jet-lag & related travel issues. In the week leading up to my departure from London on 27th January, Auckland had been inundated with rain during a recent cyclone and had seen some days with a years rainfall within a single 24-hour period. Before I even landed the local authorities had declared a 5 day state of emergency. I intended to fly LHR > DUB > AKL. In my last day in the office, on Friday 27th Jan (and only a few hours before my flight) one of my colleagues informed my that his sister who lives in Auckland couldn’t get back directly as her flight from Japan got re-routed to Brisbane mid-flight.
I had arrived in Heathrow very early for a 10pm flight believing I had completed all my necessary paperwork but was then informed by the check-in desk that I hadn’t completed a visa of NZ Esta form. This took at least an hour of panic with much help from the lovely Emirates staff to sort out. Got on the plane pretty stressed but nothing that a couple of glasses of champagne couldn’t sort out…..
Once in Dubai the same flight the day before mine had to return to Dubai after a 7 hours > a 14 hour round-trip flight to nowhere. Amazingly I was met in Dubai and informed that my scheduled connection still stood albeit 4 hours late….the flight the day after got cancelled given another storm was due in Auckland but our flight had a window to get there. Anyway - I arrived but 4 hours late which was a result in the circumstances. (At the time of writing this blog from the comfort of being back home I count myself fortunate to have been able to pull my return forward by a day to miss cyclone Gabrielle which meant my flight to Dubai was the last one for Emirates for 3 days - quite apt having downpours on the way in and way out!)
I had recruited my usual pairing of female crew. I did a review of facebook friends who might live remotely near that part of the world and Helen Conway and Sylvia Wanstall leapt out at me. Helen lives in Tasmania is no stranger to marathon swimming being one of only 9 people in history to have also swum 70km Lake Geneva and had also completed a Taupo solo (as part of an aborted double) a few years earlier. We had met in the registration queue for the Windermere swim in England in 2014 and then also serendipitously in Arizona for the SCAR swim in 2015. I was relieved to scoop her up from Auckland airport after a couple of days recovering from my flights. We at least had ourselves and all our bags! Sylvia used to live in England and likes her winter swimming but also has done a Coniston and an unsuccessful 12-hour EC attempt so also no stranger to being around the marathon swimming world. She lives in Turangi (very near the southerly most part of the lake) and is building a house in Taupo plus I remembered she loved crewing on the English Channel also for our mutual friend Dan Simonelli who was one of my 3 Lake Ontario crew. Small world.
(Me and the crew for this mission taken the day after the swim in the centre of town - note the union flag the right way up!). Victorious.
Anyway, on 4th February the alarm went off at 03:45 so we could scoop up kit and head over to the start 1 hour from our wonderful Airbnb at/overlooking Acacia Bay near the finish. I called my Mum and this would be the only day when I could call her to wish her happy birthday (13 hours behind in England) and at the same time been celebrating my own!! Priceless.
Before we started all the feeds etc were shuttled from the rib to the big boat in the darkness whilst Sylvia kindly applied a decent layer of sun cream P20 (factor 50), zinc sudocrem and Vaseline under the armpits/on tops of shoulder to prevent chafe.
(Picture above of starting 'beach'/slipway with debris galore post recent floods - this is where the pumice stone floats in the water - I head-butted a couple of big pieces of wood in the first hour which was largely unavoidable but probably knocked some sense into me & sorted out my jet lag)
At 06:06 with daylight gradually appearing we got underway. Phil the pilot clocked the water at 20c (a temperature he had suggested to expect on his original emails) and my idea of perfection. My winter training venue at Charlton Lido is heated to 20-21c so that was ideal for this and this was even warmer than 19c we had when originally dipping in the lake at Acacia Bay.
The first 3 hours felt effortless. I even commented to the crew that it felt like i was doing nothing. Thumping out my typical 48-50 strokes per minute rate I settled into my routine, reminded myself I was swimming on holiday on my birthday and enjoyed the views of going past the town of Kuratau which were now fully in daylight. Apparently we vanquished the first 10km in 3 hours 18. There was almost nowhere else in the world I would rather have been at that moment.
I didn’t look ahead too much but now the whole lake was wide open with a small headwind of 3-5mph and the next landmark of the island (only island on the lake) marking the 1/2 way mark. After my 7th hourly feed we finally passed it but the landmark provided a bit of an optical illusion as I thought I was at/close to it on hour 6. Having been told that was now behind me I informed the crew ‘well that was a mind-f*ck wasn’t it’!
Little did I know at the time but we apparently swam directly over the epicentre of a 5.0 earthquake which was felt across the whole of the north island (pic below). We were none the wiser at the time but I said to Helen Conway that each swim has a story and this was special to ours! See link here
My hourly feeds of heavily diluted maxim (one scoop per 500ml) with orange squash were supplemented by some salty new potatoes I had boiled up the evening before. Nice to have real food (rather than loads of fabricated sugars) and hadn’t used potatoes on a swim since 2012 which was silly as they work so well. I had many messages back n’ forth on feeding strategies with Courtney Moates-Paulk (no.9 Lake Geneva soloist) as she swore by mashed potato on her swim administered in squeezy bottles. Genius & must try that next time.
Within the final 10-12km of the swim I switched to flat coke and some Anzac cookies (a local find which are oat-based but similar to a flap jack) - thought it would be rude not to use a local treat on the swim. Feeding plan was spot on and we never had to bring them forward and stuck to hourly so the crew could swan around and enjoy themselves.
I then hit the wall. Perfectly normal during the swim where the body takes a while to convert from fat stores rather than immediate feeds. The wind died to an almost flat calm and the lake was now like glass with the only ripples caused by the swimmer and the boats. The water was stunning fresh blue and I could see at least 12 foot below me in this crystal clear water but didn’t see a fish the whole day. Mike on the rib took some GoPro footage of my stroke under water. Helen was presenting the world with regular updates on Facebook complaining it was all getting rather boring (!) and people were following the tracker in real time. No pressure! Given my feeds were hourly the crew had nothing to do but encourage and encourage they did. The stretch from the island to Rangatira point marking the door to the final 10km stretch into Taupo town itself was mildly tortuous and never came closer. Hour by hour kept clocking off the miles/feeds still notching up 48spm.
Eventually we pulled alongside and past the houses & small jetty at the point and the jut of trees which markedly encroached into the bay I had seen mentioned as 8.3km to go. I could now at least tell I was moving and the mind games/optical illusions were over as had perspective of the trees moving behind me as I went passed them. My massive slump was far behind me. Pilot Mike informed me that I was also going to now benefit slightly from the current as the outflow at Taupo of the Waikato river aided the swimmer. Bonus. I knew in my head that the western shore now had 2 bays to pass before the double bay at Acacia bay then we were home and hosed. I filled my head of thoughts of finishing and that I had 9 days left to swan around taking in the sights/sounds of this beautiful country. What was I going to do with all that time and no swim?!
The Rib switched over crews and now I had Phil back on the Rib and for the first time of the whole swim I was allowed to hear a distance measurement ‘2.2km to go’.
I decided to count to 100 in my head at least 10 times and then I was gonna be in the last 1km…..Acacia Bay was long behind us now and only a short stretch with trees on the left and the odd bungalow. The boat traffic increased slightly and I stayed very close to the support vessels to avoid any mishaps.
I knew I had it cracked and the was much activity on the boat in what was now dusk with Helen and Sylvia putting on swimming cosies, caps and googles for the final ca. 300m. Would they keep up ?! Light was fading fast but I could make out the flashing markers to the river channel and the yacht club finishing beach. Yes - I could now see the bottom (just about) through my tinted goggles and the water became shallower. Swam over the last set of rocks and managed to get my feet on some sand to walk up a very pleasantly-slopping beach to exit the water. YES! Stop watch clocked at 14:46 and the first British swim of Lake Taupo was registered. I was met by Phil who shook my hand and gave me a hug and said it was the easiest swim he had ever piloted for which meant the world to me. What a great day out.
(Pic from start taken in daylight the day after the swim. Can't see 1/2 way let alone the finish!)
Helen Conway (HC)