Date: 29 December 2017 to 1 January 2018
Distance: 46km (give or take)
“The Lake Waikaremoana track has the largest area of native forest in the North Island. This region is the ancestral home of the Maori tribe Ngai Tuhoe – the ‘Children of the Mist’. Entirely within the boundaries of Te Urewera, the track mostly follows the shores of the great lake. Over three to four days, it leads you through pristine rainforest, regenerating shrubland areas of wetland, rush and herbfield and a magical ‘goblin forest’. You will also discover magnificent rivers, waterfalls and ghostly valleys of mist.
The Tuhoe people have lived in the Te Urewera region for centuries and they have deep spiritual links with the land. Isolation and the Tuhoe’s respect for their forests, mountains, rivers and lakes have kept foresters and farmers away from Te Urewera. It is a living treasure where nature is totally in charge. Home to nearly every species of North Island native forest bird, the area also gives visitors a glimpse of the avian culture that once flourished in New Zealand. The melodic call of the tui is likely to follow you everywhere as well as the Kereru (wood pigeon); make sure to listen for the call of the kiwi bird at dusk.” [100% Pure New Zealand]
After a week of merriment with friends from far and near, we were on our way to Lake Waikaremoana. It has always been on the to-do list as one of only three Great Walks on the North Island. Two, if you don’t count the Whanganui River canoe/kayak trip as a walk.
Whenever I thought about this walk, I always felt that it is close-by and easily accessible, and something we can attempt running occasionally as training for longer events. As it turns out Lake Waikaremoana is quite out of the way and a long drive to get to, so I guess using it as a regular long-run loop is not really an option.
On the way over from Opotiki the day before, it started to rain. By the evening if was pouring and the wind was blowing a gale. Metservice issued a severe weather watch and it suddenly crossed my mind that the Rhythm and Vines festival (happening in the same region) gets rained out just about every year!
Luckily, we found a cabin for the night in Wairoa Riverside Motor Camp where we could sort out gear and get the backpacks ready for a 4-day hike. The alternative would have been to pitch the tent somewhere – the same tent that had to go in the backpack as we were not going to use the huts. The storm picked up through the night and by the morning it was still bucketing down with strong wind while we loaded everything in the car. The approximately 60km drive from Wairoa to the start at Onepoto Shelter takes about one hour fifteen minutes, and from shortly after about halfway up the windy road, the paved road makes way for a gravel road.
Needless to say, it took some mind-gymnastics to leave the warm, dry car for a walk in the pouring rain. The carpark looked like a mini lake and the lake itself was only a figment of my imagination, covered under a veil of rain and mist. A last cup of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich from left over bread, and we were ready to make a bee-line to the shelter. With the warm clothes and rain gear on and not in our backpacks our packs already felt a kilogram lighter.
Day 1 – Onepoto Bay shelter to Korokoro campsite (20km)
Starting at 600m above sea level, the track winds its way up the Panekire Bluff through the forest until you reach the Puketapu Trig (1180m). Along the way, quite a few lookout points over the lake could potentially make for some great scenes – “breathtaking” as the brochure pointed out. Unfortunately, we could only see short of absolutely buggerall in the thick mist. Just as well, as I had a sneaky suspicion that we were on the verge of some sheer drop-offs on occasion.
Not long before we reached the hut, we had to make our way around a rock cliff where steps and a wee single person path was built and anchored onto the rock face. Presumably, we were in thin air with a whole lot of nothingness beneath us …
Some undulations over the mountain/bluff kept us from freezing stiff, as it was very cold by then. Despite four layers of clothes, my fingers were completely numb and the moment we stopped I started to shiver uncontrollably. Note to self: don’t pack the gloves too deep, as you never know when it will come in handy – even at the height of summer.
When we reached the Panekire Hut (where most people stayed over for the night) after about 4.5 hours we stopped for lunch. The hut made for a nice reprieve from the rain. As we started late, we couldn’t stay long and had to push on to reach our campsite before dark. Donning muddy boots, wet rain coats and backpacks over wet clothes, we were off again.
The undulations continued through the fairytale wonderland until we finally started going down the other side of the bluff. This has to be the highlight of this walk, as the way down had the most scenic forest with waterfalls and streams, amidst the lush green ferns, beech and podocarp trees. In fact, the whole walk is beautifully green and lush – almost to the point of boredom. Everywhere you look are green fronts of newly formed fern leaves and other plants.
Slogging on for another five hours in the rain, while the path turned into little streams in some places and mud-slides in others, we only reached the camp site after 7pm. It was still raining for the most part, only stopping once in a while for very short periods. With wet clothes and mud up to our knees, trying to make a semi-dry, clean bed in a tent, is near impossible. But we managed okay – not too much mud and not too many wet spots. All the soaking wet gear we hanged in the shelter in the hope that it might dry out a bit overnight. Evidently, if the humidity is solid rain, nothing gets dryer.
At the campsite we discovered that (obviously, being a lake and all) there were boaties making a holiday of it. A family of four greeted us, and while they were fully kitted out with BBQ and all, we started our late dinner of quinoa, onion and tuna, and while that was cooking we poured a tipple. A tramp will not be a tramp without a shot of bourbon during the evenings!
While still cooking, a possum decided to join us in the shelter, and the wildlife just got progressively more active during the night, with deer poop and prints all over. It rained through the night, and we knew the prospect of packing up a dry tent was zero.
Day 2 – Korokoro campsite to Maraunui campsite (7km – or so they say)
After a long, hard day, and a late night we only got under way at 10:40am. With everything still pretty much soaking wet, we started off in a drizzle, hoping it would clear at some stage.
Although the mist made for a magical walk in the forest, I was looking forward to a change in scenery. I’m sure even the fairies went into hiding as all we saw were the odd tree monsters. What was meant to be a two and a half hour walk, turned into almost four. I knew I wasn’t going very fast, but we are usually a fair amount faster than the DOC times. This made me question my own capabilities and DOC’s estimates.
Finally the rain stopped (for the remainder of the trip) and when we reached the campsite mid-afternoon, we decided to spread out all our gear to dry out. Boots, socks, rain jackets, backpacks, clothes, tent, fly-sheet, mattresses, even the sleeping bags got wet from sweat or damp (and a spot from my leaky 20-year old backpack where the sack-liner must have had a hole). Some locals were towing people on a tube behind a boat, and later on a noisy bunch with loud music were screaming and cajoling from another boat in the inlet. Luckily, it didn’t last too long, and we had peace and quiet throughout the evening.
During our leisurely afternoon, reminiscing on the day, the walk, and life in general, some more campers (about 10) arrived and it turned out everyone took much longer than what DOC indicated as being the distance.
In the evening we cooked up a storm of green lentil curry, accompanied by a couple of tipples, before turning in for a good night’s sleep.
Day 3 – Maraunui campsite to Waihoruru campsite (7km)
I’m surprised at how busy this walk is. Droves of people coming and going, some with day packs, others like us with backpacks, a few runners with only hydration packs, kids and even a whole extended whanau, dogs and all, who chose to spent new years in the Marauiti Hut. After exchanging some greetings and personal information, we learned that the family are some of the landowners of the area. The bulk of the group walked in while others stayed behind to cook up a feast for the whole family that would be brought by boat later in the day for a huge year-end party. As the head of the family said, they are “meat and potato whanau, not noodle people”.
Another leisurely walk in the forest, occasionally reaching the lake shore where swans were peacefully floating around, while fishermen from boats and kayakers completed the scene.
By lunchtime, we reached the camp and spent another lazy afternoon in the sun. It is a beautiful and seemingly very popular campsite. Lots of other campers joined later on, and most went for a swim. Not brave enough to dive in, I watched from the side with my long polyprop pants and vest, being cold all the time. (As it turned out, I was at the beginning stages of a cold that would plague me for another week or so).
Later on we poured a tipple and started dinner, while the swans were tooting from the lake. It remains one of the nicest ways to see in the new year – somewhere in the sticks away from it all, especially if the weather is good, like it was.
The hut warden made a fire and encouraged everyone to join the festivities. Still later we made some tea by the side of the lake and ate the last of our chocolate, before retiring to the tent. Happy 2018 everyone!
Day 4 – Waihoruru campsite to Whanganui hut (6.5km)
We woke up at 5am for an early start to reach the water taxi in time for the 10am departure. We didn’t book ahead of time and were worried we might not get a seat. Should the first taxi be full, there’s another one at 2pm to try so we wanted to be sure to have both options. If both failed, we would just stay another night.
This day’s walk was easy and enjoyable. We reached Whanganui hut landing (a couple of 100 metres from the hut) before nine. We were 24 people waiting, and luckily being the legal limit of the boat, we could all jump on board. It was a very tight fit with everybody’s backpacks and all, and the boat was sitting quite deep in the water, but we made it back to Onepoto in about 20 minutes.
This walk is deceivingly difficult. A few reasons for this might be that 1) the DOC Great Walk brochure shows the walk profile as completely flat apart from the bit over Panekire bluff. This implies an easy flat walk. Granted, we should have bought a proper map which would show more detail, 2) the terrain is a combination of mud, tonnes of tree roots and stone, causing one’s feet to land at strange angles with every step, and 3) the DOC times and distances seems completely whack. And it wasn’t just us, everyone complained about the times/distance indicators possibly being wrong.
Also, the difficult terrain underfoot made sure just about everybody were nursing blisters every night. Even Gerry who never gets blisters, ended up with a monstrous blister that went from being a hotspot to no skin within a few kilometres.
There’s also some confusion in terms of the water taxis. I will confess we did not do our homework, but again, the DOC brochure shows the “landing” or pick-up spot about 6km further up the track. After some discussions with other trampers, we found out that there’s more than one operator and currently most people seemed to be using the Big Bush company who does picks-ups at the Whanganui Hut. They also have a campsite/accommodation not far from the start at Onepoto. When we searched for accommodation in the area for the night before the start, there was no sign of this place, and all we could find was the Lake Waikaremoana Holiday Park which was fully booked out.
The walk is mostly in indigenous forest, so in the shade, and thanks to the rainy start, we didn’t have the promised views over the lake. Unfortunately, we also missed the waterfall for that same reason, and also because the day was already quite long without the 30 minute detour.
Of the Great Walks we’ve done, the campsites at this walk are much nicer than any of the others. They are all nicely groomed with a cooking shelter and toilet.
We had a hectic year, always a few days (weeks!) behind schedule, packed very half-arsed, carried too much, didn’t prepare at all, and didn’t look at any info with regards to the walk apart from booking campsites and taking the DOC brochure map along. Hence, we have unfinished business with this walk. Whether we do it as a run, a fast-pack over two days or the whole walk again, but planned better – we will be back.