RUGGED, REMOTE and wreathed in mist and mysticism, Te Urewera is the home of the Tuhoe people.
Revered for its lakes and forested beauty, Lake Waikaremoana is just the first of many highlights. Across Te Urewera Forest, the terrain resembles a vast and undulating green korowai, mantling countless ridges, where some mountains slope steeply while others are crumpled like used tissues.
Departing at the crack of dawn from Whakatane, Dermott from the local council and I ventured to Murupara's DoC visitor centre, our staging post for a wondrous day in the Te Urewera wilderness.
Horses neighed in the fresh morning air as we threaded our way through eastern Bay of Plenty's velvety emerald landscape to reach the timber town of Murupara.
We met up with Hinewai McManus from Te Urewera Treks, our exceptional host and guide, who would keep us enthralled all day.
First established by Hinewai's uncle 14 years ago, Te Urewera Treks is a remarkably striking eco-tourism business, born from the desire to create employment for the local area and inspire the next generation by demonstrating how an indigenous owned and operated business can flourish.
The business is now managed by Hinewai, who was tramping in Te Urewera from a very early age. At 3 weeks old, she was carted off to the bush in her mother's rain jacket. The wilderness is still her natural calling, living largely off-the-grid within the forest.
As a former DoC ranger of Tuhoe descent with a deep reverence and commanding knowledge of history, nature and culture, this effervescent, endearing wahine is ideally equipped to be at the helm of this guided walk business.
Six years ago, Te Urewera ceased being a national park with Tuhoe assuming legal guardianship of this living entity.
The name Te Urewera has the capacity to make you blush or feel slightly uneasy. The name translates as 'The Burnt Penis'. It originates from the tale of a Maori chief who died after rolling over in his sleep while lying too close to a camp fire. Ouch!
Hinewai has a deep sense of manaakitanga, she's instantly engaging and throughout the day, kept us engrossed with easily digestible insights into the region and its people. Tuhoe are working on a ground-breaking eco-friendly initiative in which their gravel roads will be sealed in a tree pulp surface.
Setting off from Murupara, right on cue, wispy clouds of mist rose, clung on to and shrouded the forest as we made our way on Te Urewera Rainforest Route to Whakatau rainforest retreat, base camp for Te Urewera Treks.
Tuhoe are famously known as the 'Children of the Mist', a product of the forest, in reference to the tradition that they're the offspring of Hine-puhoku-rangi — the celestial mist maiden.
Enjoying some freshly brewed Kawakawa tea, Hinewai invited us to plant a native seedling in an area of bare land on her site. Tuhoe traditions run strong and every activity begins with a prayer. As Dermott and I prepared to pluck a seedling from the forest to plant in the cleared area, Hinewai encouraged us to surrender to the forest, confident that we would be naturally drawn to the right seedling to dislodge from its floor to relocate.
After feeling suitably lured to a lancewood, Hinewai encouraged me to grab hold of it assertively and pull it out. If it released itself from the earth effortlessly, my intuitive communion with the forest was functioning, she told me. Thankfully, little Mr Lancewood dutifully delivered.
The afternoon was spent in the truly magical Whirinaki Forest, walking under fully mature podocarp trees, planted by nature hundreds of years ago. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these primeval and ancient giants is an awe-inspiring experience. The Japanese refer to spending time walking the forest as "forest bathing." It's a very apt description, for its restorative properties.
For Tuhoe, this domain is the essence of life. The forest was abuzz in birdlife, diverse and abundant, spanning North Island brown kiwi, red and yellow-crowned kakariki, kereru, the North Island kaka and the endangered karearea. English botanist David Bellamy described the Whirinaki as 'one of the great forests of the world'.
You'll come away from this historic hinterland, this world unto itself, with a profound sense of respect and reverence for Te Urewera, its people, its spell-binding beauty ... and those mists.