Lake Waikaremoana: A sleeping beauty

By Paul Rush

The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk skirts a series of stunning, pristine bays fringed with brooding forest. Photo / Paul Rush
The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk skirts a series of stunning, pristine bays fringed with brooding forest. Photo / Paul Rush

I'm climbing ever higher on the Panekiri Bluff, enveloped in swirling mists and harbouring the inexplicable feeling that my every move is being watched by the patupaiarehe.

The fair-skinned fairy people are believed to be everywhere in the Urewera forests - mystical spirits that shadow intruders who invade their sacred haunts. If I stop still, I can hear their faint singing above the sighs and murmurings of the breeze.

There are other voices penetrating the thick mist, too. A group of trampers soon overtakes me on my clockwise circuit of the fabled 'Sea of Rippling Waters' - the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk.

I'm on a great escape into a remote wilderness that is redolent with history and legend. It is the turangawaewae of the Tuhoe people, the one-time refuge of the outlaw Te Kooti and now an adventure experience for everyone who wants to get away from it all.

Panekiri Hut, at the top of 600m bluffs overlooking Lake Waikaremoana, normally has stunning views across the Ureweras as far as the Pacific Ocean - but not today.

The celestial Mist Maiden, Hine Pukoku Rangi, mother of the Tuhoe people, has wrapped her ethereal arms around the scene.

Tonight's guest list at Panekiri Hut is typically international. Gilbert from France is planning to complete the 46km tramp in two exhausting days. Colin from England and a group from Germany have allowed a leisurely four days. My five-day stroll, by comparison, is more in the nature of a camping holiday.

We join in a game of "throw the boomerang". This harmless pastime involves stepping up to the edge of the bluff and hurling a long stick into the void. It falls for a second, slowly rotating. Then it's seized by a fierce updraft of wind and catapulted over our heads to land deep in the forest.

At dawn, I eagerly go outside to take in the view, but once again I'm embraced by the outstretched arms of the Mist Maiden.

I follow the high ridge track and ignore the sombre, brooding feel of the dark forest. It is eerily hung with clumps of old man's beard, blanketed in moss and wreathed in mist, so the elusive fairies will never see me pass. Without warning, the sky brightens, the wind drops, the mist clears and from a great height I look across to my objective, the distant shores of Whanganui Inlet.

Down the steep spurs I go with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. The tree ferns and cabbage trees seem more welcoming, the beech forest more friendly, the carpet of kidney ferns more delicate. Shiny black tui sound out their shrill cry of joyous mimicry. Bellbirds ring out their purest notes to greet the homecoming sun. Tiny riflemen and fantails dart around me in the search for stirred-up insects.

The wildlife becomes my convivial dining companion as I sit on a grassy bank at Waiopaoa campsite feasting like a king. I'm enjoying a classic traditional Kiwi staple - lamb, peas and mashed potatoes, served in a nifty freeze-dried sachet. It won't win me a MasterChef title, but it will sustain me for another day.

The night is punctuated by the sound of hooting owls and croaking frogs. It wouldn't be the Ureweras if the possums didn't have the run of the camp. I long to hear the fairy people singing but have to settle for the scuffing and scratching of the pesky critters around my tent. Can they have developed a liking for freeze-dried foods, too?

A side trip to Korokoro Falls is my priority the next morning. Shafts of sunlight dapple the leaf litter on the track and promise a bright day. The exquisitely beautiful falls create a fine mist of water vapour that feels deliciously cool on my face. I soak my feet in the icy-cold plunge pool for good measure and then press on towards Maranui campsite.

On arrival, I can't resist a speedy submersion in the chilly lake. A group of Kiwi trampers join me. One member of their party is reluctant, so they offer her some old-fashioned, heartfelt encouragement: "If you don't get in, we'll throw you in."

I reassure her that the water is not too cold, but the looks that she gives me provide a true measure of my prevarication.

I share the next section of the lakeside track with a flight of black swans paddling soporifically along in a regal procession. Cicadas are buzzing a staccato melody that shows very little variation from one glorious bay to the next. Fluffy white clouds pose primly on the mountain tops and long sunbeams slant down into the forest to light ferny glades and tinkling streams. Everything is right in the world of Tuhoe.

Camping on a grassy knoll overlooking the lake at Waiharuru, I while away a few hours basking in a sense of wonder and delight at the beauty of the lake and communing with a group of taupe ducks who are very sociable if you feed them a certain brand of pasta.

At Tapuaenui Inlet, I meet up with a party of deerstalkers, one being pretty handy with a rifle. He has bagged four red deer over two days and is loading the carcasses aboard his runabout. The Ureweras offer prime recreational hunting, he tells me, being the largest remaining fragment of North Island forest.

Arriving at the track end at Hopuruahine, I reward myself with a chocolate treat. As luck would have it, a party of Australian fly-fishing enthusiasts are about to board the water taxi to Waikaremoana and they invite me to join them.

On board 'The Chief', Noel Himona's aluminium water taxi, I get the low-down on what it means to live permanently at Lake Waikaremoana.

"You have to be an outdoor person who doesn't miss the bright lights," Noel tells me. "It's stress-free, you're your own boss, there's fresh trout, wild pigs and deer at your back door - it's the next best thing to paradise."

For 2200 years, since a massive slip blocked a river and created this lake, it has slept in an exquisite setting of solitude and peace. Only now are people becoming aware of its hidden treasures.

The Tuhoe people have a saying: "Go to the mountains that you may be cleansed by the winds of Tawhirimatea, the god of storms." It's a call to past roots to gain self-knowledge in the primeval forests before returning to face the wider world. From my experience on the track, there's profound wisdom in these words. The Lake Waikaremoana Track is a Great Walk in every sense - a mystical journey that can truly change you.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: From Rotorua, follow State Highway 38 through Murupara and Ruatahuna to reach the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp. Hut permits can be obtained here. Overnight accomodation is available at the Waikaremoana Motor Camp.

The track: Huts and campsites are strategically placed around the track, providing shelter, fresh water and toilets. Huts and water taxis need to be booked agead. A water taxi is available to drop off and pick up walkers from various points of the track.

The southern starting point is from Onepoto and the northern from Hopuruahine. Most walkers start from Onepoto. This entails a five-hour climb to Panekiri Hut on day one, but the remaining days are much easier.

Further information: See doc.govt.nz and waikaremoanawatertaxis.co.nz.

- Herald on Sunday

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