Walk 3 - Waikaremoana Track 'Great Walk'

New Zealand has a well-organised system of walking tracks, headed by the 9 designated "Great Walks". In the eastern bulge of the North Island, deep in the heart of Te Urewera National Park, lies Lake Waikaremoana. The 46 km long track around its shores would be our first experience of one of the Great Walks.

We had fled the north 2 days earlier on the basis of a very bad long term weather forecast and headed for the east - the one part of the country that looked like having some rain-free days. Arriving at Lake Waikaremoana on a 70+ km stretch of narrow gravel road, winding its way over the ridges and valleys of Te Urewera National Park, had already given us a taste of the incredibly dense and lush forest in this part of New Zealand. The ominous grey clouds and sleeting rain that greeted us on our arrival made us wonder whether the weather would yet again foil our plans. However, over night the westerly wind blew the rain clouds away and we loaded up our packs the following morning on what would be the first of 4 fine sun-filled days - at last the weather had turned in our favour.

Ominous weather at Lake Waikaremoana

WARNING For those who dislike or are allergic to the colour green, do not proceed any further! This region is described as a series of ridges and valleys cloaked in a mantle of greenery. What an understatement - I think that we saw every shade of green that exists during the course of this walk, as the photos bear out.

Day 1 (the hard climb)

If you are staying at the Waikaremoana Motor Camp, the easiest and most pleasant way to get to the start of the walk is to catch a water taxi from there to Onepoto Landing where the walk officially starts.

The sight of the Panekiri Ridge, stretching 580m above the water, along the southern edge of the lake was somewhat daunting as we sped across its surface. Our first day would involve a long 5 hour climb up to the top of the ridge.

The Waikaremoana track does not beat about the bush. Leaving the boat, there was only a very short flat section before the ascent began in earnest. Soon we were shedding layers of clothing as we steadily climbed into the verdant world of the beech forest, with its mosses, ferns, lichens and various epiphytes.


Ready to start walking - Onepoto Landing


The climb up to Panekiri Ridge


27 shades of green

Looking back toward Home Bay
The track climbed steeply following the crest of the ridge. It was lined with ferns and mosses and with the roots of beech trees criss-crossing it like a bad case of varicose veins. These actually proved a blessing on the steeper parts as they held the soil in, creating Dali-esque staircases that made both climbing and (later) descending a much easier proposition. Again we were grateful for the walking poles which take a lot of the effort out of climbing. Finally we emerged from the dark greenery of the forest on to a small sandstone platform overlooking the lake. The view was even more breath-taking than the 350m climb up to it.

View over Lake Waikaremoana from lookout (930m) below Panekiri Bluff

Our climb was not complete - to the left of this superb panorama was Panekiri Bluff itself, another 250m above us. We pushed on, keeping close to the cliff edge, eventually reaching the 1160m bluff. From here began a series of steep climbs and descents as the track followed the undulating ridge line. Much of the time was spent under the deep green canopy of the beech trees, their trunks completely covered by moss, fern and lichen, the sun filtering through the canopy onto patches of the forest floor, itself covered by other species of moss and fern. At times the forest was completely still, broken only by the isolated call of the grey warbler singing somewhere in the canopy. The path wandered from cliff-edge openings with splendid views near the saddles back into the thick beech forest as we climbed and rounded the sandstone knolls of the ridge. In the dark green shade of the forest, our breaths blew steam, while in the sunny cliff-edge, the path itself steamed as the moisture from the heavy rainfall evaporated.

The final assault on Panekiri Bluff

The track alternated between deep green beech forest ....

... magnificent cliff-top views ....

... and more moss covered trees in the cool green forest

Passing through a deep cutting in
one of the rare forest openings

Four more sets of saddles and knolls finally brought us to a sheer rock face and a promising set of wooden steps. Climbing them, we came out on to a grassy clearing and the welcome sight of Panekiri Hut, our shelter for the night. We had taken 5 hours of hard walking to do the 8.8 km and, while Panekiri is 580m above the lake, we climbed over 800m in total with all of the undulations along the ridge. It was with great relief that we dropped our packs for the last time. Panekiri is a modern, well-equipped hut, but where, oh where was the beer!!!

Light filtering through the moss laden beech canopy

At last, the welcome sight of Panekiri Hut

There were only 8 of us in the hut that night, and we passed a pleasant evening chatting and playing cards with our companions du tramping. Late in the afternoon, a dense layer of cloud formed over low countryside to the south and, as the sun set, swirling cloud began to form over the lake to our north. Soon we were surrounded by pink-fringed cloud beneath us. We slept well that night - on the island of Panekiri in a sea of soft white clouds.

Evening light over the large band of cloud covering the country beneath us to the south

Evening clouds forming over Lake Waikaremoana

Day 2 (back to the lake)

We awoke next morning to a cold clear day - a strong westerly had arisen overnight and blown away the clouds. Our legs were much less sore than we had expected. Most people spend the first night of the walk at Panekiri, but from here there are two choices; a long walk down the ridge and around to the northern shore of the lake at Mauruiti Hut, or an easier day stopping after the descent at Waiopaoa Hut at the southern end of the Wairaomoana arm of the lake. The Austro-American couple were heading in the other direction, Theo and Michael, the strapping kiwi father-son tramping team had opted for the long haul and had set out very early. An English couple, Linda and Gary, and the fair Nello and I, had booked Waiopaoa - after the climb up Panekiri an idle afternoon in the sun by the lake shore sounding more pleasant than a long day with a pack.

It was a chilling 6ºC when we set out, although the forest offered good protection from the wind.

Again we followed an undulating route descending down to saddles and climbing over knolls as we gradually lost altitude along the ridge; the eternal greenness of the beech forest and its mossy, fern-covered cloak as impressive as on the previous day. After a few kilometres, the track began a sharp descent under a rocky green-walled overhang before we quickly lost more height via another set of wooden steps fixed to the rockface.

From here the descent gradually became less steep as the track followed a long spur northward toward the lake shore.

Tree ferns began to appear on the
lower slopes

As we descended from the ridge, distinct changes in the vegetation became obvious - the first tree-ferns appeared, tree trunks were no longer completely moss-covered and we saw the first dark buttressed silhouettes of the mighty black beech. Different bird species also crossed our path, from the black and white flash of the tom tit to the iridescent bush-thumping of the large kekeru (wood pigeon).

The large buttressed trunk of the
black beech


Finally after a short steep climb over a knoll at the end of the ridge we arrived at Waiopaoa, the oldest and smallest hut on the track, in time for a well-earned lunch. The afternoon was spent lazing in the sun on the sheltered grassy lakeshore, shared with the resident black swans (ex-pats are everywhere) and collecting some dry dead wood for the fireplace, around which Linda, Gary, Nello and I passed a pleasant and comfortable evening.

Waiopaoa Hut

A lazy afternoon deep in the heart of Te Urewera National Park
Day 3 (a long day around the lake shore)

We were on the road by 9am, and after crossing a small wooden bridge and longer swing bridge to round the inlet, soon found ourselves heading northward along the flat edge of the lake, lined with kanuka bushes. After the steep climbs and descents of the previous two days, we seemed to fly along this section. Only the numerous muddy stretches of track, still wet from the earlier heavy rains slowed us down. A second use for walking poles soon emerged - they make great mud depth detectors and confirmed the theory that a tripod is less likely to fall in the mud than a bipod. Soon we reached a fork in the route, marking a sidetrack that led up to the Korokoro Falls. Dropping our packs at the base of a large tree-fern we turned left.


Kanuka lined foreshore near Waiopaoa Hut

The side track followed the left bank of Te Korokoroowhaitiri Stream (get your mouth around that name!) for 1.5 km deeper into the heart of Te Urewera National Park. Eventually we reached a rope stretched across the stream, which enabled us to leap from mossy rock to mossy rock and cross over to the right bank. A short climb brought us out to a mist-sprayed ledge from where we could view the 20 m high Korokoro Falls glistening in the sun, as water channelling down from the numerous deep valleys beyond plunged out of the luxuriant forest vegetation.

Gary and Linda crossing the stream

The impressive 20m Korokoro Falls deep in the heart of the Te Urewera forest

Te Korokoroowhaitiri Stream

A section of moss-lined path - almost manicured

From the Korokoro turn-off, the track crossed another swing-bridge and soon arrived at a mudstone clearing on the lake shore. It was a good place to soak tired feet in the icy lake water. As Nello did so, a 50 cm long trout swam lazily by - Lake Waikaremoana has a very good reputation for fishing.

From here the route changed character as it meandered through a landscape of inlets and promontories jutting steeply into the lake. The track headed away from the shore and began a series of short sharp ascents and descents; down damp fern-filled gullies, crossing the small streams and cascades that tumbled down into the lake before climbing up and over drier ridges of beech forest - the soft crackle of dry beech leaves on the path replacing the muddy squish of the gulley track.

On one of several swing bridges

A good place for reviving the feet -
Panekiri Ridge in the background

The track followed a series of inlets and promontories ......

.. alternating between fern-filled gullies ..

... across sparkling cascades ...

.... before climbing up and over the next ridge

Lunch on a bed of beech leaves

Rounding one last promontory, we began a long stretch eastward along the edge of Maraunui Bay and the stream flowing into it. Eventually a bridge enable us to cross over and double back along the north shore of the Bay. Emerging from the forest into a grassy clearing, we were treated to a great view along the length of Maraunui Bay to distant Panekiri Ridge. It was hard to believe that we had been up there just a day earlier.

Emerging from the deep forest

View across Maraunui Bay
A 60m steep climb and descent over Whakaneke Spur soon put and end to any day-dreaming, but brought us out to another grassy flat, housing the welcome sight of Marauiti Hut. Here we crossed paths once again with Gary and Linda, who were staying there that night. We had booked in to Whairaruru Hut, 6 km further on and it was not without a little envy that we left them sunning themselves on the verandah of the hut as we loaded up our packs again for one last effort.

Even the water is green - Marauiti Bay

The impressive trunk of the black beech

Marauiti Hut on a grassy flat tucked beneath Whakaneke Spur

Leaving Marauiti Hut, we pressed on for the 2 hour walk to our destination. The track was relatively easy, following the shoreline with only one short steep ridge to cross and a steady climb and descent over the saddle between Te Kopua and Te Totara Bays, but more and more our musings switched from the beauty of the forest and lake scenery to the freedom of shedding our pack for the day and the comfort of a hut bunk.

View across to Te Puna Bay from the hut

Brand new Whairaruru Hut

Finally, after a 21 km day, we rounded one last bend to see the twin buildings of the brand new Whairaruru Hut complex. The hut had places for 24, but we shared it with a fisherman, a passing deerhunter and a pair of paradise shelducks.

Male and female paradise shelducks

Day 4 (homeward bound)

We awoke to a cloud-covered sky, but soon the sun began to break through - we were going to complete the walk without rain or wet feet!! The final 11 km section involved a lakeside walk around Te Puna Bay and a steady climb over the saddle separating Puketukutuku Peninsula from the mainland. This peninsula is being managed as a kiwi preserve and, as we climbed the saddle, we passed predator-proof fencing and a series of rat and stoat traps (baited with fake kiwi eggs), part of the management program designed to keep the gamut of introduced predatory mammals out of this isolated region of the park. Bon courage, les kiwis.


One of several million ferns encountered on the route

Stoat and rat traps

Whanganui Hut - only 45 minutes left

Reaching the long Whanganui Inlet on the other side of the saddle, we turned north and quickly found ourselves at Whanganui Hut, set back from the lake in a sun-drenched grassy clearing. With time up our sleeve before our midday boat pick up, we relaxed in the sun on its verandah for half an hour before setting out on the final 45 minutes of our walk. Soon we could see the white plume of the water taxi as it skimmed up the lake to our pick-up point at Hopuruahine Landing and before long we were skimming back across the lake to Home Bay, feeling a great sense of achievement at completing our first "Great Walk".

The weather had finally been kind to us and, as in introduction to the lakes and forests of New Zealand, it had been in every sense a great walk.

The water taxi arrives