Hiking Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera National Park

The vast untrodden
Hiking Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera National Park

by Shane Boocock

With every upward step the straps on my backpack spiked my shoulders. I was breathing heavily. At eye-level were the muddy heels of a fellow hiker’s boots stepping over tree roots that formed giant steps. My knees creaked as I shuffled my aching body further up the zigzagging trail, foot slogging relentlessly on. Wind blew in the treetops as sunlight filtered through onto soft mudstone soil and damp autumn leaves. Thoughts of another three hours of this seeped into my mind, as sweat coated my shirt and dripped off my forehead. ??It’s at times like this you wonder if tramping in the great outdoors is worth all the effort.

The intended destination was Panekiri Hut on the Panekiri Bluffs at 1,200m above sea level. At the first viewpoint on top the answer was yes. The best part of the trail had been reserved until last and that was the beauty of being part of a guided tour with a company called ‘Walking Legends’ . . . they might do things in reverse but they know how to impress their clients.

Joining a tour group is all about interaction, camaraderie and making new friends. It was like this the first day of our departure when the four Aussies in the party requested the driver to find them a grog shop at 8 o’clock in the morning! Imagine going on a four day hike without a few wines or whisky to ease the pain?

That morning I’d joined a group of 12 fellow trampers in the middle of April to hike the wilderness region on Lake Waikaremoana. It’s located in Te Urewera National Park, 225,000 hectares of dense native forest, steep valleys, pristine lakes and one of the least visited regions in the North Island. On board were a tight group of eight other kiwis from Matamata and the two grog-shop hunting Aussie couples, one from the Adelaide Hills and one couple from Sydney. Deb from Sydney was on the trip with her partner Glen. Deb was a lawyer who Nigel, the boatman, quickly rechristened Mrs. Crane from Boston Legal. In response Deb asked Nigel what he did in the off-season, “rob banks when we can” was his instantaneous reply.

For centuries Te Urewera (translated as ‘burnt manhood’) has been the home of the Tuhoe, the local Maori who earned a reputation as fierce and savage warriors as they fought other tribes to retain control of Lake Waikaremoana. Formed about 2,200 years ago by a huge landslide that blocked a narrow gorge on the Waikaretaheke River, the lake is almost 15km across at its widest point and 250m deep. Surrounding the lake is a mountainous forested region, a giant shroud of olive green that disappears into valleys and then stretches out in wave after wave of ridges, spurs and saddles.

Established in 1954, the park boasts over 650 different plant species and is one of the most diverse botanical regions in New Zealand. About 90% of all foot traffic usually hike the trail clockwise starting at Onepoto, a short driving distance from the Awaniwa Visitor Centre. However our group were on a three night/four day guided hike with ‘Walking Legends,’ who begin their walk in reverse from the Hopuruahine end. This ensures cinematic views that climax on the last two days.

As often as I have hiked with all my own gear in the past, there is always the worrying thought of how to carry enough provisions to make the end of each day comfortable with a good hearty meal and a vino or two? Joining a guided group effectively eliminates that obstacle, as they provide everything to cater for small groups of up to 13 people. Each group is accompanied by two experienced trail guides who act as organisers and cooks, as well as a boatman who stays and helps with the group for the first two days. Most of the grunt work is therefore handled by ‘Walking Legends’ except for the last two days when you have to carry all your possessions in a 40 litre backpack.

The first day from Hopuruahine to Waiharuru Hut is 10.5km which takes about four hours. We left about 11am in a relaxed mood at an effortless pace as the trail follows the shoreline of the Whanganui Inlet before a gentle climb over the Puketukutuku Peninsular where the forest is dominated by Tawa trees, Rimu and northern Rata. Soon after arrival at the hut we were eating crackers and cheese and quaffing a nice chardonnay – somehow, this didn’t seem anything like the hike I once took over ‘Striding Edge’ on Helvellyn in the Lake Districts one bitterly cold Easter in 1970, with just Kendal Mint Cake as a snack! Hiking on Lake Waikaremoana can definitely be more refined.

The hut was on the lake’s edge and so Nigel (nicknamed Mr. Hobbit by his wife), a vet from Matamata, and I spent 45 minutes casting for any wily trout that might fall for a lure – they didn’t. We therefore retreated to the hut for more wine and a steak dinner, kumara mash and salad by candlelight along with a discussion on how well Kiwis know the words to the Australian national anthem.

We woke the next morning to heavy drizzle – something not unusual in this neck of the woods. After bacon and eggs and making up our own lunch packs, we left the hut suitably attired in rain gear. This was our longest day, an 18.6km hike from Waiharuru Hut to Waiopaoa Hut – upwards of 6-8 hours. The trail was now pools of mud and bogey clay underfoot. Here and there the track undulated with slight variations in altitude and vegetation that included silver ferns, tree ferns (Ponga) and groves of young Kamahi.

At Korokoro Campsite we took an extra hour to walk to the Korokoro Falls over water-soaked logs, beside broken tree stumps, giant boulders and across a fast flowing river as raindrops sparkled on nearby emerald green ferns – this was an effort worth the extra blisters.

Night time in the huts is often a way for families, couples, single hikers, school outings and groups like ours to interact. Card games are common, as is scrabble and trivial pursuit which we played on the last night – the group of eight Kiwis against our van load. We’d spent the day making up ten questions. With a few wines under our belts it turned into a communal event as more hut people joined in! It’s what makes staying in DOC huts so great – with no phones, no email, no television, no electricity and no showers – just old-fashioned, slightly smelly fun times.

The third morning was a blue diamond clear day with a 7.6km hike to consider. In a matter of minutes the heels of the person in front splattered mud. We started the ascent to reach the ridge, climbing a trail of tree roots higher and higher. Below us out of sight roamed wild deer and pigs, stoats and possums and more than a few hunters. The path steepened then finally a glimpse of the lake 30 minutes from the top. Below us lay a giant carpet of forest; Rimu, Miro, giant Rata, Totara, Kahikatea and Red Beech.

On top of the Panekiri Ridge, the wind tore at moss encrusted silver beeches, drooping like hemlock in a goblin-like place where forest spirits and mythical beasts might dwell. The eerie forest became witch-like when the wind relented, but as Nigel eventually pointed out, “when the wind blows it’s as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss.”??On the last day’s hike, amazing views of the lake and mountains emerged from wind-swept bluffs as we looked out at a cathedral in the wild. It was an 8.8km hike and mainly downhill to Onepoto. For us it would soon be time to drink cold beer or champagne – on completing one of New Zealand’s most exhilarating hikes.

WHAT TO BRING:
Well worn in boots
Two sets of socks
Light shoes/sandals
Warm hat and gloves
Sleep wear
Drink bottles
Small torch or head torch
Toiletries and medications
Sunscreen and hat
Ear Plugs
Blister kit, plasters
Camera, batteries
Bathing suit and towel
Thermal clothing
Rain wear
Change of clothing for nights
Snacks/trail mix

WHERE TO STAY:
Department of Conservation (DOC) Huts:
If you are hiking with ‘walking Legends’ the huts/beds are pre-booked for you. Solo travellers need to pre-book beds in all the huts; it is a requirement. All huts are communal dormitory style sleeping arrangements so there is little privacy except in darkness. Toilets are external long drops. There are no showers available. ??Funky Green Voyager Backpackers: 4 Union St. Rotorua. t: 07 346 1754
This is a great place to stay in Rotorua with a good atmosphere and very friendly and helpful staff. They offer private rooms as well as double, twin, share or dorm rooms. Prices start from $21.00 for a dorm room which houses 6-8 people.

FACTS:

Walking Legends: Rob and Hilary, PO Box 267, Whakatane , New Zealand. NZ Freephone: 0800 WALK NZ / 0800 9255 69. t: +64 7 308 0292, m: +64 21 545 068. w: www.walkinglegends.com
This company has been specialising in guiding groups on Lake Waikaremoana (and Tongariro) for over seven years so they are extremely experienced. Equipment can be borrowed from them including 3- eason sleeping bag, bag liner, pillow, raincoat and 40lt backpacks. ??Enroute: cooking equipment, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, breakfast, lunch and dinner and a glass or two of wine is provided, so you don’t have to worry about a thing. Shuttle service to and from Rotorua is also provided in the price of the trip.??Cost: valid to June 2010 – NZ $1,190 per adult, $990 per child (12 years & under). ?• 4 days / 3 nights all-inclusive 48km guided walk
• 4-8 hours hiking each day over varied terrain on formed trails
• support boat transports most of your gear
• 2 days carrying a day pack only, 2 days carrying a small pack with gear for 1 night
• Pack cartage available by prior arrangement
• Fitness level: moderate
• Experienced, passionate guides