Getting into the outdoors is a much bigger focus I admit, post-2020. When DoC reopened hut bookings on New Zealand's top tramps last June, I leapt at the chance to finally tick off Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk while spaces remained open.
This remote and rugged track is hidden in Te Urewera, at the heart of the North Island's East Coast. Access to the start is either one hour drive from Hawke's Bay's Wairoa or three hours from Rotorua, the last half of which feels like time has actually stopped. The shingle road gets narrower, and the only sign of life is an occasional SUV hurtling around a bend towards us – yes, I did shriek like a true city slicker the first time this happened, according to my friend Debbie. There are horses to dodge too, happily roaming near overgrown berms.
DoC notes this 3 to 4-day tramp is more of a "backcountry, off-the-beaten-track" experience. That's evident when we finally arrive at the grand entrance to Lake Waikaremoana Holiday Park, nestled right on the lake's edge. The check-in office is empty and our phones dead to the outside world. A note and a key directs us to a cabin with beds for the night and, apart from a handful of other guests, the camp feels airily quiet and far removed from the bustle of city life.
Our starting point the following morning turns out to be only a short drive away. We park in a grassy paddock near Onepoto and a signpost directs us to a nearby hill, where we hoist on heavy packs and embark on the 46km journey. The track continues to climb steadily through beech forest for the next four hours, as we gradually scale our way to the top of the towering Panekire Bluff.
This first section is described as the "most strenuous" and we break the climb up by several compulsory photo stops, with views spanning Lake Waikaremoana and mountains blanketed in native forest.
The land looks and feels untouched, with its ancient trees and no sign of civilisation as far as the eye can see. It's the ancestral homeland of Ngāi Tūhoe and is now back in their hands to protect and manage, after a long struggle to be recognised as its rightful guardians.
At Panekire Hut on the top of the bluff, 8.8km in and a popular first-night stop, we pause briefly to snack and breathe, then push onwards and down through the stunning light-filtered forest and a zig-zag decline, before a rapid descent via a staircase.
The legs then get a bit wobbly but, after about eight hours of walking, it's understandable. We eventually break through the forest to find the welcome sight of Waiopaoa Hut, fellow trampers, and the ultimate picture-perfect lake-side setting.
We plunge into the water to freshen up, then all guests are formally welcomed by our friendly host and Tūhoe hut warden, Bill Beatie. Our group of 30 includes scientists, government employees, artists, teachers, tourism operators, and health workers from all over the country. Bill's overview of history and Tūhoe customs makes us feel welcome and privileged to spend a night in the bush.
Freeze-dried meals, cheese, crackers and salami are the order of the day for dinner – and anything else (red wine included) to lighten pack loads. Both bunkrooms sleep 15 cosily, side by side and, as darkness descends, soon fall silent apart from the occasional rustle of sleeping bags and deep breathing.
The next morning, we refuel on porridge and filter coffee then set off on grassy flats along the lake's edge. A side trip to the Korokoro Falls about an hour in takes a bit longer than expected – another hour return - but the journey is well worth it to see this impressive sight.
We continue into young rimu forest, clambering up and down an undulating path that doesn't match the descriptions we anticipate of "flat" and "easy". We intend to stop at Marauiti Hut for lunch but by the time it finally comes into sight, after several false (hopeful) sightings and signage, we pass on lunch and push through to Waiharuru Hut, where we can ditch our packs for the night.
This next stretch takes another few hours to complete our second eight-hour day on foot. I'm struck by the range of abilities in people we meet on the track. We both are relatively fit from Crossfit training but this walk is certainly a good challenge. And yet, there are kids as young as 8 years old and a first-time tramper in her 60s with a bad knee. Everyone is banded together in our quest for survival, including a man we dub "Bear Grylls", who singlehandedly culls four possums with a stick on the first night.
Waiharuru Hut is the kind of place you could easily stay for a while. It sits on the edge of a small inlet, providing an ideal sheltered swimming bay out front. The surrounding bush is home to deer, kiwi and a few possums. And the night sky is a kaleidoscope of twinkling lights. Admittedly, I collapse on my bunk bed not long after a dinner of freeze-dried teriyaki chicken – out cold before the sun has even set.
The next day, our last, I'm relieved to find the final leg an even, relatively short stint out to the bay where we wait for water taxi pick-up. This seems a perfect finish, to see the lake by boat and reflect on how far we've travelled. We're back before lunch to our parked car, completely drained yet revitalised, all at the same time.
CHECKLIST: LAKE WAIKAREMOANA
This 46km one-way hike takes 3 to 4 days and is graded as intermediate. Bookings for the July 2021-June 2022 season open in June. For more information and to book huts, go to doc.govt.nz or greatwalks.co.nz