Rippling waters and ancient forest at Lake Waikaremoana

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Despite living in the Bay of Plenty for 13 years, with Lake Waikaremoana virtually on our doorstep, I had never taken the opportunity to visit the area and enjoy hiking one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. When we finally did make the trip in March this year, I realised our Tauranga doorstep was in fact quite some distance away. From Rotorua, it’s more than 150km, over windy, gravel roads.

After the initial shock of travelling what seemed like South Island distances in the North Island, we revelled in the isolation, far from the city hustle, and now immersed in the awesome beauty of Te Urewera wilderness.

Water, mountains and bush greeted us when we got out of the car – not unlike any other New Zealand vista – but there was something very special about this area; the vastness, the noticeable change in temperature, and a moody ambience that hung over the lake as though weighted down by layers of stories.

Indeed the area has a rich history and holds deep spiritual meaning to tangata whenua, Ngai Tūhoe – the Children of the Mist. Lake Waikaremoana means sea of rippling waters, which legend says is the restless spirit of Haumapuhia watching over the waters. It felt as if the lake and forest were waiting for the intrepid traveller to peel back a corner to see what treasures lay underneath. We felt incredibly privileged to be able to explore this beautiful, spiritual place.

Getting started

The Waikaremoana Holiday Park is one of the accommodation options in the vicinity and a great place to spend the night and sort packs for the four-day journey. It offers an array of cabins and tent sites catering for small and large groups, a big kitchen, excellent bathroom facilities and secure car parking for trampers and boaties while they enjoy their time in the wilderness. The nearby jetty is the water taxi pick-up and drop-off point, and at 9am our large group of 16 hopped aboard for the 20-minute trip across the lake to the trail head at Onepoto Shelter.

The 46km walk covers roughly half the lake’s circumference and trampers can choose to walk in either direction – you either tackle the steep uphill climb to the bluff on Day 1, or you build up to it. We opted for straight up first – thinking we would enjoy relatively flat terrain in the latter part of the trip – and were rewarded with breath-taking views from the top. Had we walked in the opposite direction, our summit views on Day 4 would have been marred by misty cloud.

On top of the exposed Panekire Bluff, looking out over the windswept water, I imagined what it would be like if my backpack was a parachute – I could run off the edge and take in the endless views like a bird. Such a majestic sight, but after several selfies and group photos, we were pleased to retreat back to the bush and away from the biting wind, and enjoy the walk along the undulating ridgeline to Panekire Hut.

With our large group and some other groups walking in the opposite direction, it was a full house and we spent a cosy evening getting to know one another. How exhilarating to be perched on the side of a mountain in an aging, back country hut that had suddenly become a hive of bustle and buzz.

Back to lake level

Day 2 dawned with the renowned Urewera mist hanging moodily over the lake and, with raincoats ready, we set off for our easy day – just 8km and mostly downhill. I loved this part – the track ambling through ancient forest while that broody mist fingered its way through the branches as though eves-dropping on hushed conversations; flecks of coloured clothing splattering across the shades of green; and birds tweeting, unseen, in the frosty backdrop.

By the time we reached Waiopaoa hut at lake level, the sun was out and we risked a refreshing dip. Because we’d made good time we decided to walk up to Korokoro Falls after lunch, which would save us at least an hour on our big walk the following day. The waterfall – a sheer plunge surrounded by pristine bush – and the 30 minute walk up, including a fun river crossing, were absolutely worth the effort and helped us work up a hearty appetite for our evening meal, another ‘Masterchef’ creation from one of our group, this time involving fresh lime and coconut milk powder – my latest fav tramping ingredient!

The writer at the ‘must-see’ Korokoro Falls

Note to self – always take a topographical map! An elevation diagram led us to believe the next two days were relatively flat, yet given the number of bays and inlets en route, we would obviously have to climb up and over the headlands. Of course, these inclines rewarded us with glorious lake views and the numerous rest stops allowed us to pause and take in the sights, smells and sounds of the forest around us. It was however a more challenging day than expected, so arriving late afternoon at the fabulous new 40-bunk Waiharuru Hut was a relief. By evening the temperature had plummeted, and with wood burner ablaze we were toasty warm as we read books, drank tea, shared stories and enjoyed another tasty meal.

Misty lake view on Day 3

Staying at Waiharuru Hut meant we could easily manage the two-hour walk out next morning to catch the 10am water taxi back across the lake (note, some trampers walk another 4km to the trail end at Hopuruahine Landing). As we motored across the wind-whipped water, we tried to look back on where we had been – maybe a hut we had stayed in, or a bay we had passed – but the detail was lost in the vastness and those hidden treasures were once again concealed, waiting for the next intrepid traveller to peel back a corner and venture in.

Images Millie Freeman and Brynja Bell