Tag Archives: Lake Waikaremoana

LAKE WAIKAREMOANA, NEW ZEALAND – tramping fabulous forest


Before the invention of the axe, most of New Zealand’s North Island was covered in forest, and not just any forest. Out of the island sprouted some of the biggest trees on the planet; kauri, beech, totara, rimu and the towering kahikatea, up to 60metres tall.

Little of it remains. The place has become a pine mine, with radiata plantations covering vast areas. We approve of plantation timber of course, but for tourists it’s not a pretty sight to see denuded hillsides dotted with stumps and heaps of discarded branches.

Fortunately there is one magic place where the old forest survives. Te Urewera National Park is the third biggest national park in the country and the biggest native forest area on the North Island.

To get there we negotiate a lot of winding bitumen and 15kilometres of gravel to drive in from the east coast. It’s slow going, and a relief to finally pull into the Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp and admire the view – a wide lake, surrounded by thick forest, with the rocky outcrop of Panekiri Bluff hanging over it. By the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre is a spectacular double waterfall.

Geologically, the 15kilometre long Lake Waikaremoana is brand-new. Around 200BC the Shaky Isles gave a little extra shake, and a mountain came rolling downhill, blocking the Waikare River and filling the gorge with a rock-pile 300metres high. A massive forest was drowned in the process, and even today when the lake gets low, the tops of ancient trees emerge from the water.

It’s a popular holiday spot for adventurous Kiwis, particularly those who love fishing, hunting and walking. The track around the lake is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, rated ‘moderately easy’ and most trampers manage the circuit in three to four days.

Unfortunately I can only spare two days, but local DOC (Department of Conservation) Ranger Richard has plenty of other suggestions for me. ‘Why don’t you walk out to Lake Waikareiti? Sleep in Sandy Bay Hut – you won’t need to carry a tent.’

‘What’s the appeal of Sandy Bay?’ I ask. He points to an aerial photograph on the wall behind him. Mountains covered with virgin forest surround an azure lake, dotted with little islands. Sandy Bay Hut looks out at it all across a white beach. I’m sold.

Next morning, my hut pass in my pocket, I set out climbing up the Ruapani Track, which according to Ranger Richard will get me to Sandy Bay in six hours. At the Te Kumi stream the bridge has collapsed, but a little rock clambering gets me across with dry feet.

The surrounding forest is breathtaking; at least, I assume that’s what’s making me puff. It is a mixture of mighty beech and rimu, with lush tree ferns growing underneath. The beech branches twine overhead, dripping with moss and epiphytes. Their small round leaves cover the track with a carpet of red and gold.

Bird life is prolific. I spot various ducks on the little lakes I pass, while by the tracks are silvereyes, robins, tomtits and a detachment of riflemen – tiny birds with bills upturned like rifles at ‘present arms’. Chunky kaka parrots fly overhead and at one memorable moment a morepork owl glides silently to perch on a branch right in front of me.

It all puts a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. My lungs are too busy to join in the chorus, but I know they would if they could.

The track is well marked by clear orange triangles on trees, and someone has recently been along with a slasher to clear the undergrowth that had been overgrowing the path. Nonetheless, it undulates enough to have my legs chanting ‘Are we there yet?’ for hours five and six of the journey.

I’m pleased to see a sign ahead marking the turnoff to ‘Sandy Bay’ but a little fearful that it’s going to add ‘45 min’. Luckily it says ‘5 min’ and after creaking down the last few mossy steps, I’m there. Maybe Sandy Bay needs to add a snow-capped mountain to qualify as the most beautiful spot I ever seen, but it’s a strong contender for my most peaceful award.

The Maori people who lived here for undisturbed centuries were named the Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist. And there it is, clinging to the hilltops, as the setting sun turns the last clouds pink.

The hut is a typical DOC hut. It is basic but comfortable – twelve bunk beds with vinyl mattresses, cold water in the sink, table and benches, pit toilets down the track and a grandstand view of the lake. Guests need to bring their own sleeping bags, food and cooking stoves.

Hunting in parts of the park is encouraged. New Zealand is plagued by up to 80million brush-tailed possums, which were introduced from Australia in a failed effort to start a fur industry. Pigs and deer are pests too. Nevertheless, I’m nervous around guns and people who like them, so I’m disconcerted by the notes on my brochure, advising guests to ‘unload your firearm before entering huts.’ Fortunately I have the place to myself.

In the hut visitors’ book I read recent entries from walkers from nearby Gisborne, but also from Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK. The words ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ appear frequently, but so do ‘brilliant’, ‘beautiful’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘thank you!’
I add similar comments, and for good measure sketch a rough artist’s impression of a loch monster frolicking in the water at dusk. It feels like the place where that sort of thing could happen.

I’m out of mobile range and have no radio, so I know nothing of the latest financial crisis, car bombs, political wrangling or sports results. Sure, I’ll be walking back to them all tomorrow, maybe through the rain if those threatening clouds do their thing, but for the moment it feels that this is how life is supposed to be.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Emirates flies to Sydney to Auckland for just over $500 return.
Buses operate from Rotorua to Lake Waikaremoana (4.5 hours).

Staying there: Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp offers a range of accommodation from tent sites to self-contained chalets (up to NZ$78). Sandy Bay Hut costs NZ$15 a night, huts on the Great Walk cost NZ$25 a night and tent sites NZ$12.

When to go: The tracks can be walked year round, though the most popular tramping season is October-May.

Website: The DOC website has information about the Great Walk and takes hut and campsite bookings. www.doc.govt.nz.

OTHER GREAT NEW ZEALAND HIKES: HOLLYFORD TRACK – the most beautiful valley?

TONGARIRO CROSSING – the best one day walk?

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – New Zealand’s top hikes

Mt Ngauruhoe

When it comes to playing outside, those Kiwis punch well above their weight. They’ve done a brilliant job of turning their country into an open-air gym, and when the skiing season ends around October, there is what Kiwis call ‘tramping’.

In New Zealand anyone with limbs in reasonable working order can enjoy some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. So assuming you have a few days and some excess energy, which tramp is for you?

Nine routes are officially designated ‘Great Walks’ by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The tracks and huts are kept in better condition than those on other routes, and in peak periods booking systems allow hikers to reserve accommodation. DOC huts are an affordable and comfortable alternative to carrying a tent or paying serious money for a luxury lodge.

NZ9 08 025Tongariro Northern Circuit. 41km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

Is there anywhere on the planet quite like this amazing volcanic moonscape in the centre of the North Island? The Tongariro Crossing is regarded by many as the best one-day walk in the country, and in the high season you’ll share it with dozens of others who pour out of backpacker shuttle buses. They’re there for good reason. Barely a blade of grass grows along the track past Mt Tongariro and the pile of volcanic scoria that is Mt Ngauruhoe. Sulphurous smoke oozes out of cracks and the colours of the Red Crater, Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes are extraordinary.

Three or four days walking will take you away from the backpacker hordes, on a circuit past the active volcano Mt Ruapehu, and through areas of lovely forests and streams.

Where: Central North Island
Closest towns: Whakapapa Village or Turangi.

NZ11 08 062Lake Waikaremoana Track – 46km, 3-4 days, 5 DOC huts

Driving on unsealed roads to reach this remote lake, and remembering its name when asking directions, may be harder than doing the walk itself, an easy loop with only a few lumps to clamber up. But you’ll certainly feel you’ve got away from the crowds, and seen some of the most spectacular old growth forest on the North Island. It’s apparently a great fishing spot too, though I’m no expert there.

Where: Central North Island
Closest town: Wairoa

NZ11 08 051

Queen Charlotte Track 71km, 3-5 days, 6 DOC campsites and a number of lodges.

The Queen Charlotte is not exactly a wilderness walk, since it passes through attractive farmland as well as forest, but it has the advantage of great flexibility if you don’t have the time or inclination to walk the whole route. Highlights are the great views of Queen Charlotte Sound on one side and Kenepuru Sound on the other.
Access is from Picton by ferry or water taxi, so day walks on the track are easily organised. By arrangement, water taxis will also take your gear to the following night’s lodge or campsite, so wussy trampers need only carry daypacks. The track can be walked year round, but is most popular in the summer.

Where: Northern tip of South Island – the Marlborough region

Closest town: Picton

Routeburn Track 32km, 2-3 days, 4 DOC huts.

The Routeburn can be done as a guided walk staying in commercial huts, with showers, food and wine available, but it is also well served with DOC huts. It’s a spectacular and relatively easy alpine trek (consequently very popular), and can be combined with two more days on the slightly tougher, less well-maintained and less busy Caples Track or Greenstone Track to make a loop walk.

Where: Mount Aspiring National Park, central South Island
Closest towns: Queenstown and the lovely village of Glenorchy on the end of Lake Wakatipu.

Kepler Track 60km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

The Kepler Track in Fiordland was opened to take some pressure off the very popular Milford and Routeburn Tracks. The track being relatively new is in excellent condition, and the alpine scenery is brilliant. The tramp begins with a solid 850metre climb from Te Anau to the Luxmore Hut, but after that the walking is comfortable, and the descent into the forest by Iris Burn Hut is particularly beautiful. We did it during a light snowfall and the effect was magical. Probably my favourite of the Great Walks.

Where: Fiordland, south of the South Island

Closest town: Te Anau. The route is a circuit beginning and ending in the town itself.

Abel Tasman Track 52km, 3 days, 4 DOC huts

Walking the coastal Abel Tasman Track is not too demanding, and the route offers beaches and a range of accommodation from camping to up-market lodges. If you want to combine a day of sea kayaking with a couple of days walking, this can be arranged. Another two days of (harder) walking will take you over the higher Inland Track to make a loop with the Abel Tasman.

The track can be walked year round, but is crowded during school holidays in January. Best times are probably February-May.

Where: Northern coast of South Island
Closest town: Nelson

Mitre Peak, Milford SoundMilford Track 53km 4 days No camping permitted. 3 DOC huts for independent walkers, and separate huts for guided groups.

Number one on many trampers’ list of New Zealand hikes is the famous Milford Track, though I confess it’s one Great Walk I’ve never done.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, and others speak highly of it, but I’ve been slightly deterred by its very popularity. Advance bookings are essential, which means no flexibility in case of bad weather, though guided tours with up-market huts are also available for those who want more creature comforts in the evenings.

Where: Fiordland South Island
Closest town: Te Anau.

NOTES:

Hikers using DOC huts need to bring their own food and sleeping bags, but the huts offer gas stoves and bunks. There are toilets and cold water, but generally no showers. Arrangements are pretty communal, but that can be a plus. You meet nice people, all in high spirits and excited about what they are doing.

Buy hut passes on-line (website address below) or at DOC visitor centres in towns before beginning your walk. Costs are different for each route, and are cheaper in the low season, but are between $12- $45NZ (about $10-$35) per person per night.

Safety and weather

The weather, particularly in the alpine areas, can turn nasty at any time of year. Good footwear and wet-weather gear are essential, and a bit of physical condition will help to make your tramp a pleasure rather than an ordeal.

When to walk

In the winter, the alpine routes (Tongariro, Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks) can turn into serious mountaineering adventures, suitable only for very experienced and well-equipped parties. Best times to walk are October to May.

Days required

In good weather, fit trampers can do the walks in fewer days than those given above, but what’s the hurry?

ReadTramping in New Zealand Jim Dufresne, Lonely Planet Publications
Website: www.doc.govt.nz (search site for “Great Walks”) gives information on all walks and operates an accommodation booking service.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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