Lake Waikaremoana: Through the mists of time

By Amos Chapple

A precious walking stick was sacrificed to the mysterious spirits of the Urewera so Amos Chapple could take a walk around breathtaking Lake Waikaremoana.

The sun shines hot and high as Tessa Marshall walks among the buttercups in a clearing. Photo / Amos Chapple
The sun shines hot and high as Tessa Marshall walks among the buttercups in a clearing. Photo / Amos Chapple

At the hut on top of the Panekiri Bluffs, heavy weather has set in. Clouds race towards us like angry snowdragons and walking guide Rob Franklin is out in the teeth of it. "Give us your walking stick, we'll see if it'll fly."

My stick was excellent during our hike. I had even carved my name into it. But it seemed the perfect sacrifice to make to the local spirits. I handed it over.

The wind works in funny ways on Lake Waikaremoana, particularly on the 600m bluffs. The breeze that funnels down the lake and hits the sheer rock face is said to create a notorious updraft, though we hadn't noticed any.

Everyone gathered to watch the fate of my treasured length of manuka. Rob took a step back, paused, then skipped to the edge and hurled the stick over. Rotating like a helicopter blade it sailed out into space, then about 10m over the edge, the wind hit it.

The updraft none of us had felt or heard hurled the thing - blasted it - straight up.

It sailed over us, over the hut and finally dropped into the forest far into the valley behind us.

The Urewera, of which the lake is the heart, is a wild and mysterious land where you tread with caution.

The start of our guided hike around the lake was a little less dramatic. Guides Franklin and Hilary Sheaff collected our group of six hikers from their various motels around Rotorua, and we spent a solid chunk of the day driving into the Urewera to arrive lakeside by mid afternoon.

We separated our gear - it was part of the service that the heavy stuff would be taken ahead by boat to our first hut - and began the walk with light daypacks only.

The sun shone hot and high as we walked, and buttercups twinkled in the clearings.

After half an hour the first finger of the lake announced itself with a steady roar, which softened as we approached and turned out to be croaking frogs by the hundred.

We remained at the water's edge for the next two days.

At first we saw only inlets, and the main body of Waikaremoana remained obscured by jutting headlands.

But on day two the main body of the lake opened up providing an endless array of stunning vistas. I was there to take pictures but when every view was a visual cliche of blue skies and sparkling water I nearly gave up.

Nearly, because this amazing place is hard to describe - easier to capture in pictures than in words.

The lake was created by a huge landslide that plugged the end of the Waikaretaheke River some 2200 years ago, yielding a huge body of water shaped rather like a sinuous map of Australia, surrounded by ancient forests and steep cliffs.

The weather on Waikaremoana (sea of rippling waters) is highly changeable, and as we approached the first of the looming bluffs the mood slowly changed.

Cloud rolled over the top of the hills like viscous surf and the cheery beech forests gave way to a more brooding kind of bush.

The people of these parts are the Tuhoe, "children of the mist", and the history is heavy with ancient memories.

The mythical pale-skinned fairy Patupaiarehe of Maori folklore are said to live in the hills surrounding the lake.

Heading up towards the bluffs when the cloud-forest is thick and silent with mist and the trees are hanging with goblin moss, a lone tramper can feel he is in a place not quite of this world.

It's that combination of incredible scenery and an almost mystical atmosphere that makes the trek around the lake one of New Zealand's great walks.

Waikaremoana is a place best experienced on foot - in fact much of it can be reached only by foot - and enjoyed with people like Rob and Hillary who know it well.

It's also rather nice to have the heavy gear, cooking, and so on looked after by someone else.

But if you go, make sure you take a good walking stick. I rather think Tane would welcome another sacrifice. And my stick could do with a bit of company.

CHECKLIST

Tour details: The Walking Legends Lake Waikaremoana Guided Walk is a four-day, fully guided hike on a 46km track with a maximum of six to eight hours' walking a day. Phone: (07) 345 7363 or 021 545 068 for more information.

Accommodation: Department of Conservation huts - food and drink is supplied.

- NZ Herald

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