Sat 6 – Sat 13 May 2017
- Km walked: 299
- Total Km: 2137
From Wairoa it is 58 kms to Te Urewera so it will take two days of walking to reach Lake Waikaremoana by my reckoning. I have been in contact with the Department of Conservation at Waikaremoana which has confirmed two alarming facts. The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk is closed for most of the route along the lake and the road is closed to all traffic between Waikaremoana and Murupara. These closures are both the result of damage caused by Cyclone Debbie in early May. The rain deluge was particularly heavy over the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast leaving many slips and washouts in its path. Despite these slight hurdles I still want to get to the lake, as this has been a dream for a long time and as I’m already at Wairoa there is nowhere else I want to go. Dad wanted to bring his boat down to Waikaremoana and meet me there but as the road via Murupara is closed sadly that won’t be happening. He has enjoyed frequent trips to the lake and I’m bummed that he can’t make it down. I gave brief consideration to continuing to Mahia, Gisborne and around the east cape but as this really wasn’t part of my plan it went no further. The forecast is bright and sunny for the next few days before another front is expected to roll in so I’m going to continue the plan to go to Waikaremoana.
There is nothing much in the way of camping facilities en route so I try to depart Wairoa earlyish (i.e. after a flat white), crossing the river and heading out of town towards Frasertown. The houses quickly give way to farmland, the race course and lifestyle blocks. Horses are popular given the proliferation of gee-gee’ grazing contentedly in paddocks alongside the road. Most gardens have feijoa trees which have dropped fruit underneath that are tantalisingly out of reach of my grasp, mouth and stomach. Feijoas (and other fruit) are delicious and all but I find that after a couple of hours of being consumed they bring on the bottom burps so I am very careful with what foods I eat during the day. The traffic is light on the road today, and with the sun out it is a pleasant walk to Frasertown. I take an obligatory photo of the Frasertown road sign for my nephew Fraser #awesomeuncle. Otherwise I don’t meet anyone until I stop at the store for an ice block. I’m offered a ride to the lake but decline and a lady in the shop is going to a bridal fair in Auckland. She is about to drive all the way and I think what a mission that would be from here especially with the road through to Murupara being closed. She must now drive down to the Napier – Taupo road or up to Gisborne to go through the gorge. I’m now more content with my walk along this unknown road thank you very much. I arrive at a large road sign indicating whether roads are open or closed. The road to Waikaremoana is open, however the roads to Murupara and Rotorua are clearly marked as closed. Nevertheless I carry on, confident that I will be able to get through, even if the road is closed to vehicles. My reasoning being that surely a walker can still negotiate the damage.
The walk is mostly uneventful. Its quiet and there is still little in the way of traffic. Occasionally a vehicle will pass, often trailed by a boat, either going to or from the lake. I arrive at a stop-go man where road works are clearing slips that have brought mud and debris across road. It is my first time on the walk that I have encountered road works and I daresay its probably the first time the stop-go man has had to stop a walker. It wasn’t long before the sign swung around to Go and I was able to set off around the digger, past the next stop-go man and on my way again. It was beginning to cool down remarkably when I arrived at the road sign announcing the Lake Road B&B. My host from Wairoa was to contact the owner and inform that I may be coming through today. However I was met with a suspiciously blank look when I arrived – indicating the communication hadn’t been successful. Fortunately Fergus and his gracious wife Tri didn’t skip a beat and I was welcomed into their home; a B&B that beautifully decorated with Thai art and furniture. Tri is an accomplished chef who creates the most divine traditional Thai meals and I ate like a king in their convivial company.
The next day I set off after a quick breakfast into the crisp morning air. Fog layered the valley floor and mist rose from the river as I walked the quiet road through the shadows. The landscape opened up the further I continued and within an hour any fog or mist had evaporated. It was getting very warm and I was unsure whether I would make it to Waikaremoana on time. A couple of vehicles had stopped and asked if I wanted a ride and I had declined them all, in pursuit of my walking goals. Finally however a low slung Subaru station wagon pulled to the side of the road and I thought I’d accept this offer, however for only 10km down the road. The boot was full with an engine, bits and bobs, so I pushed aside the tyre on the back seat and fought my way onto the seat with my pack. The driver, a 30 something Maori guy lounging boy-racer fashion almost in the back seat was accompanied by a juvenile son, brother or maybe nephew in the front passenger seat. We set off immediately at break neck speed along the gravel road, my driver vaguely aware of the line of the road and doing his darnedest to fishtail the Subaru in the loose metal outside the corners. It was a high speed ride and I hoped that his driving ability was from years of rural gravel road driving experience rather than, for instance, the affects of speed or some other such substance. We quickly arrived upon the tail of an ute towing a trailer of firewood. It didn’t endeavour to let the Subaru pass and there was slim opportunity to pass on the windy road. “Get outta the way ya bastard” the kid bellowed from the front seat. I grinned to myself, enjoying the moment yet imagining that a beer in hand would be the perfect complement to round out this unorthodox ride. The driver saw his opportunity and we shot around the right hand side of the dawdling ute. I swear he swerved towards the other vehicle as we raced past. Fortunately we had quickly overtaken the ute and it was left in our dust as we drifted towards Tuai. We’d travelled the 10km journey in minutes when I was somewhat relieved to disembark. I discovered later today that a visiting English tourist, unused to driving on gravel roads, had gone over the side in the afternoon. Now I was truly relieved I’d made it thus far in one piece.
Nearing Tuai the road begins its steady climb to Onepoto where Lake Waikaremoana will finally be revealed. Without the hill however there would no magnificent lake – it is the debris from an enormous landslide 2,200 years ago which created the natural dam to form the lake. This knowledge and the view towards the Ngamoko Range, Tuai and the power generation lakes provided a little distraction from the tedium of the dusty walk. The reward would only be granted however after a prolonged slog up the road. And a fine reward it is, when I reach the Te Urewera park sign for a welcome selfie and smile upon my first view of Lake Waikaremoana, the ‘sea of rippling waters’. I’d made it to the one place that I had been determined to visit on my walk of New Zealand. The day could not have been more spectacular for such an occasion, my introduction to the beauty of the lake. The sky was clear and blue, there was a gentle ripple over the lake surface and there was no one else about to compromise my moment.
Having done a round of the carpark at Onepoto and got my photos I sadly had another 10km on gravel road to reach the Waikaremoana Holiday Park, where I will find accommodation, facilities and DOC information. I walked for an hour and a half when I hailed down a car towing a boat. The lovely couple were from Wairoa, he’d been coming to the lake for 60 years. An hours walk for me was reduced to a couple of minutes and soon enough I was ensconced in my fisherman’s hut at the holiday park. The DOC office is now on winter hours so I will have to wait an extra day until it reopens and I can pay hut fees and find out more information about the road out to Murupara.
I’m up early for the walk back to Sandy Bay. I cannot do the full Lake Waikaremoana walk but at least I can hike up to the Panekire bluffs and fit in another walk in the afternoon. There are plenty of other tracks nearby however most are short touristy ones which I can’t be bothered with. Again the weather is spectacular – perfect for the hike it is clear, not too hot and it certainly isn’t cold. At Onepoto I met an Australian couple, in their 60’s I imagine, who were hiking to the Panekire hut for the night. They were travelling about New Zealand in a campervan yet tonight they were looking forward to a sleep in the bush. Visitors here are few and far between at this time of the year, apart from the locals out fishing, there are just a smattering of overseas visitors who I meet. The road closure won’t be helping with visitor numbers either. They are mostly from France which is only surprising in that you expect to meet Germans off the beaten track, especially in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The Sandy Bay entrance to the track is through a covered shelter which has information and history of the Waikaremoana Great Walk. It was here in the 1870’s that an armed constabulary redoubt was located for the pursuit of Te Kooti, as he just wasn’t playing along with the government. From this point the track climbs gently and becomes flat for 10 minutes with pretty views of the lake. I resist taking photos as I will end up deleting them – photos further up will be more spectacular. After an open grassy area the track enters the bush and climbs steeply through the beech trees to the first significant view point on the Panekire Ridge where a trig is located. The track is very rooty which can be equally helpful or annoying. For the climb the roots are helpful as they provide footholds especially when there are steep bits to climb up. As I ascend there are also tantalising views through the trees of the lake and forest. I make good speed climbing and after all this walking of the last months rest stops to catch my breath are short and an elevated heart beat drops quickly. My heart beat rarely climbs above 128 -132 bpm with effort and ticks along above 80 bpm when chugging along. After the trig lookout the track is more gentle and there are less tree roots to negotiate. I walk until my GPS indicates that I have reached the Panekire bluff however there is no viewpoint so I continue on until bald peak where again there are widespread views to enjoy. This is a rare time when I wish that I am accompanied – to get a photo of me which is not a selfie. There is time to stop for a snack before the return back down the ridge to the start of the track. I manage to easily secure a ride back to Waikaremoana with a visiting backpacker. He’s French of course.
I haven’t determined the correct spelling of Panekire – is it Panekiri or Panekire? I’ve seen both spellings being used, even in the same document. The pronunciation would differ however. So I called the visitor centre and am informed that either spelling can be used although the pronunciation favours the spelling of Panekire. Well there you go, I can save both spellings to ‘Add to Dictionary’ on my computer.
This afternoon I prepare a pack for an overnight walk to the Sandy Bay hut at the idyllic northern end of Lake Waikareiti which is the smaller relative of Lake Waikaremoana. I leave the tent at the holiday park to save carrying 2kgs. Also there is no need for too much food nor water. I have plenty of lightweight dry food and the hut has water apparently. There is a 20 min walk from the road at Aniwaniwa to the shore of this lake which is renown for its crystal clear water and tiny islands. One of these, Rahui, itself contains a tiny lake – one of New Zealand’s very rare lakes within lakes. In the summer season small dingys can be hired for a spot of rowing out to the island. I’m out of luck however. The dingys are securely chained and locked plus I understand that Rahui is off limits at the moment.
The walk to the hut is supposed to take about 3hrs but as I only have 2.5hrs of daylight left I need to get the pins going. Typically I find the DOC approximations allow for slower walkers and can complete distances in half to two thirds of the time indicated so as Catherine would say I’m ‘not bovvered’… The native bush is magnificent. There are ancient, massive rimu trees standing above the canopy of ferns, beech and other podocarps. The bush teems with fantail, tui and would you believe I saw my very first flock of kereru; not just one or two but a flock of woomph woomph woomph wood pigeons. It was dimming towards twilight when I reached the Sandy Bay hut but there was still time to get my bearings and settle in before night closed in.
Three large bags of firewood had been dropped by helicopter behind the hut. Two were open to the elements with wood that was wet from recent rain. I took some wood from the third bag and after a couple of non-successful attempts managed to get the fire lit. I am grateful to the previous hut occupants who had left a decent amount of brush and light wood beside the little stove. The unwritten rules of hut etiquette require those staying to be courteous and thoughtful of others. One example is to replace any firewood used so the next occupants are not inconvenienced. Tonight’s dinner is the usual noodles and couscous with a cup of tea which only require some boiled water to prepare. I stoke up the fire as I want its heat to preferably radiate long into the night. It is already cold and the temperature will drop further tonight and into the early morning. A mattress moved onto the floor beside the pot belly will be my bed for the night.
With the wood replaced in the morning and the hut clean and tidy 🙂 I set off on the return walk to Waikaremoana. I have more time than yesterday so my walk through the primordial forest alongside this gorgeous track can be enjoyed to the fullest. The Utopian peace only broken by an American hiker yakking at the top of her voice. I believe her male companion actually gave me a look of pity as we passed each other (I found out later that he was French). Time to hit the road again, literally. It is goodness knows how many hours to reach Ruatahuna which is the nearest town on the road out to the north west. It is beyond Ruatahuna that the road is closed so my plan is to walk there and then reassess how to get further. I have the road to myself and have fun putting a little song together and videoing it before the stunning scenery overwhelms my amateur artistry. The road has been carved from the rock of the cliff and it hangs like a magnificent crown above this regal landscape.
It is near twilight when I reach Ruatahuna. Un-tethered horses graze the road side on land that is unwaivingly held in local ownership – I have been warned not to assume that I can camp anywhere I please and for my safety it would be advised not to do so. I hear singing coming from a tree near the road. I keep walking but then turn around when I consider that there may be somewhere to put my tent up nearby. I hear the singing again and peering through the waning light spot a young girl up in the branches. The land belongs to a trust which are developing the business and accommodation centre opposite and they kindly agree to me pitching my tent under a tree on their property for the night. There may even be a ride for me to Murupara tomorrow. I have a simple dinner and retire for the night. It is pitch black in the countryside, there is no ambient light common in an urban environment. It may be dark but there is plenty of noise – I can hear the conversations of residents word for word even though they are a good few hundred metres away. Horses clip clop around the tent and even the leaves which have succumbed to the autumnal change tap faintly on the tent fly during the night.
Next morning I am up at the crack of dawn to pack my kit and be out on the road for the shared ride. Bless the Maori man with full face moko, tattooed arms and hands who offered me a lift to check his possum lines an take his skins into town. However I was thankful for having an excuse not to take his offer of a ride and ending up as a skin too – shades of Silence of the Lambs. Before long my ride arrived. It was a full car but I wasn’t complaining as our destination is a school sports tournament in Murupara. We confidently pass through the ‘road closed’ sign and sail on down the road until being pulled up short by an ute with flashing lights. The lucid orange vested man is aghast at our breach and it seems we might have to turn around and use the detour, which would add at least another 90mins or more to the journey time. However the driver and local passengers (other than me) were persuasive and we ended up with a personal escort through the kilometres of roadworks. The road was in a dreadful state. Caused by the floodwaters of Cyclone Debbie, parts of the low lying road had been completed washed away. Mature trees had been uprooted or their trunks broken and they lay across the road or stream. Slips engulfed much of the road at every turn.
The road had been closed in order for the repair work to progress quickly with no interruptions from traffic (just as we were doing). In Murupara I am met by Nadine, who along with her husband Karl, own Kohutapu Lodge. It is an amazing Maori experiential tourism venture which has introduced thousands of visitors to the food, culture and hospitality of Maori family and community. The weather forecast is looking shifty so Nadine adeptly arranges for me to speak about my journey at two local schools the next morning.
The rural school at Galatea school reminds me of Naike school which I attended as a kid. Ruddy faced farmers kids watch and listen with earnest. They know about St John, at least as an ambulance service. I had met two of the local St John volunteers at the school sports day yesterday. Some can relate my walk to their overnight hunting trips in the wild pig and deer country which surrounds the area. Carrying my pack is always a hit with the kids and these kids had my toilet habits thoroughly researched before a teacher could close it down with “enough with the toilet questions!” The second visit was to Murupara area school, an impressive, brand spanking new education centre where kids are learning in an open plan environment, like learning pods rather than traditional classrooms. These kids have been exposed to foreign visitors who have visited the school because of Kohutapu lodge and are engaging, attentive and proud of their school. They give me an exuberant and moving korero before I depart.
I had wanted to set off through the Kaimanawa forest this afternoon on route to Rotorua however solid rain has set in and so it is with ease that I accept Nadine’s warm hospitality and put off my departure until later. I arrive in Rotorua later in the afternoon having caught a ride with the deputy principal. The bus I had planned to catch didn’t stop for me. Fortunately the local heroines at the Station Cafe swung into action and I was sorted.
The following day my dear friend Heather has arranged for me to speak at her old Rotorua school, St Michael’s Catholic. It is teeming with rain when we arrive and skip quickly through the puddles into the shelter of the school buildings. Heather and I were going to spend a good deal of the day walking however as it is so dismal outside I end up addressing two classes at the school which I am delighted with. I am encouraged to learn that some of the kids here are actively involved in St John youth. Heather isn’t done with me yet however. A call to an old acquaintance results with us in the office of the Rotorua Daily Post for an interview. I could not have imagined doing this, even this morning, and so once again I am astounded at the fluidity and serendipity of life on my journey.
After lunch and a catch up with Minka, Heather and I head to the Redwood forest to do some walking. I had wanted to do some walking in the Kaimanawa forest with her but it wasn’t to happen. It is still chucking it down but we figure that the gigantic trees might provide some shelter to walk under so it logically seems like our best bet. It is very wet and muddy and to some degree the trees provide more shelter than standing out in the rain. We make an attempt of a couple of kms before returning on the circuit to the carpark and calling it a day. Heather has to return home in this unpleasant weather. I get to have an espresso martini later at Ponsonby Rd – I’d call that a win. Heather 0 – Mark 1. Not that it’s a competition…