"Visit the most beautiful lake in the North Island and see it sparkle like a gemstone amidst the mystical forests of the Urewera National Park."
Sounds quite appealing, doesn't it? A nice multi day walk around a magical lake, with awesome views, mystical forests and plenty of swimming opportunities? We were definitely hooked!
Being one of the 5 Great Walks of New Zealand, the Waikaremoana track is a 3-5 days hike that circles around the lake by the same name. It lies in the western part of the north island, in the middle of the Urewera national park and can be approached from both East and West, the West access being the shorter and more preferable one. If you are coming from the East however (Rotorua) be prepared for approximately 90km of gravel road.
For centuries Te Urewera was the shelter for the Tuhoe and Ruapani, the local Maori tribes, and they still hold a considerable amount of private land in the national park. The lake itself was formed some 2200 years ago, as a result of a massive landslide that blocked the nearby Waikaretaheke River. The native wildlife consists mostly of birds, the endangered brown kiwi being one of them. But one can also encounter not so native wildlife throughout the park, like deers, pigs and possums.
We decided to take it easy and do the walk in 4 days and 3 nights, thinking that there is no need to rush as we can probably fill the extra time with activities on the lake (swimming if nothing else). Unfortunately that plan didn't quite work out for us, partially due to bad weather and partially due to our misconception of the layout of the track itself (apart from a few place and campsites, the track is not directly on the shore but higher up in the bush).
Let's do this!
We had to pack our camping gear, tent and mats, as most of the huts on the track were already booked out, and it soon became apparent that carrying those bags for 4 days might prove to be a bit challenging. The weather forecast wasn't too great either, and it looked like we were in for 3 mediocre days and a realy bad one. But we were still in good spirits, and after buying a block of chocolate for emergencies (thank god for that) we took our boat ride to the start of the track at 9am.
Day 1: We knew we were in for a long first day. The track starts with a hill that goes up to the first hut at 1180m altitude. The first campsite, however, lies at the bottom of the hill, so we had to get down on that same day. Altogether we were looking at approximately 17km of steep bush, with an estimated 8-9 hours of walking.
Although the weather wasn't great we managed to get a couple of nice views of the lake on our way up. At the hut we had a quick lunch and started our decent straight away. The terrain was steep and muddy, the air stale and damp, and somehow the bags were getting heavier by the minute. That however was not enough to stop us and after a moderate amount of cursing and a few tears we arrived at the Waiopaoa campsite, which is situated directly at the lake, around 7pm (this was the first time since the start of the hike that we were actually at the lake). I remember thinking that putting down that bag was one of the most pleasant feelings I had in a while.
"After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."* - Nelson Mandela
Day 2: Looking at the map, we expected the second day to be a nice short stroll along the lake, especially considering day one. And it was, for the first 40 min. After that the path was leaving the lake shore, going back uphill into the hinterlands. So back to bush bashing it was. From there on it was pretty much a mud fest through the bush, up and down, up and down, until we finally reached the second campsite.
The Maranui campsite turned out to be everything we hoped for on this hike. Lying directly on the shore, surrounded by long grass, it had the perfect access to the lake and an amazing view looking at the mountain ranges we crossed on day one (we were both quite glad that part was over). What made this even more enjoyable is that the sun came out for the rest of the afternoon, and we even went for an icy swim. Happy times.
Day 3 started with a foreboding drizzle. We knew that according to the weather forecast this was only going to get worse, so we quickly packed our bags and started walking. The plan was to "quickly" arrive at our next campsite which was some 4 hours away, set up the tent, sit the rain out, and then walk the remaining 1-2 hours to our scheduled water taxi pickup on the next morning. The rain was getting stronger, which had some instant effects on the already very muddy ground (as well as on our morale). We were also running low on food and the prospect was that the last day will be without breakfast (remember that chocolate bar?).
A couple of hours after we started, Nikki had an idea which wouldn't let her go: "How about we try to get out today?". Although this idea seemed quite appealing, I was concerned for various reasons. My main concern was that I remembered someone saying the last water taxi was leaving at 4 pm, which was an uncomfortably tight time schedule (not to mention that we didn't have a booking for that time and the boat wasn't very big). If we should miss the pickup (or if there wasn't enough space on the boat) we would have to backtrack for 2 hours to the last campsite, which would mean 8-9 hours of walking in the rain on that day.
Nikki, however, wouldn't have any of that... She was determined. And so we started our final dash to the finish line, all guns blazing. There was one last obstacle in our way that we've been warned about: The kiwi refuge hill. The Waikaremoana kiwi refuge is aiming to restore the brown kiwi population, which at it's lowest point was less than 35 birds in over 5000 hectare of forest. The area is situated directly at the shore, which forces hikers to climb the hill behind it as it is closed to public. We knew it was coming, we knew it was steep, we knew we were short on time. And we crushed it. Utterly.
The rain was quite strong by the time we reached the end. We were pushing so hard we arrived one hour early. And we were knackered. The boat arrived at 4 pm, and luckily there was enough room for us. Half an hour later we were back in the cosy refuge of Nikki's Mini Cooper.
Bye bye Waikaremoana. Hello TECHNOLOGY!