Losing Track of Time
Our Track Story
Have you ever had the desire to retrace the footsteps of your youth? To visit a place that makes one feel like going back in time to when one’s future was bright, but the way was as dark as an unlit midnight path? For me, it is hard to imagine a quarter of a century has passed since I took my first ever multi-day tramp at Lake Waikaremoana. This was a time when I was writing university cartography essays by typewriter and mobile apps, which my career now relies on, were still decades away. Sometimes I lose track of time.
However, today work has returned me to the lake - the site of my first hike. Here I can use the mapping skills I learnt during my studies, to write content for the Great Hikes App while still clocking up the miles exploring one of our country’s greatest walks.
I remember little about that drive south a long time ago. What I do remember is driving with friends and my wife-to-be, the long 100km of gravel road over windy, mountainous passes to reach the lake. Some things (the gravel road) remain unchanged. Also unchanged is the vast tract of virgin forest that circles the lake which is perched 600 metres up in the Te Urewera ranges. Today the weather is fine and clear, however, there is a mean-looking heavy rain warning in three days that is sure to affect the track’s walkability.
Given the weather and my schedule to complete three of the North Island’s Great Walks, I decide on a brief two day trip of the entire track … not something recommended for the relaxed recreationalist. The day before my plans remain fluid (I got rained out on the Tongariro) and it is too late to book a water taxi. Crossing my fingers I park up at the northern end of the lake. I’m a little tired from an early start from Rotorua but once my pack is on I find my stride. I march off to hopefully reach a water taxi before it departs.
I have yet to see a pickup point but I do see the taxi zipping away on the lake without me. The map I was using was possibly old or maybe the taxi stand is incorrectly marked (can a cartographer be geographically challenged?), either way, that is my boat … and I am not on it. A brief thought comes to me, is hailing a water taxi the same as getting one from the streetside. As the water taxi became more distant my crazy-man dance intensified. Hey, there ain’t any city folk watching me out here!
As I jump and dance around I hope the captain might opportunely glance sideways and see a shore-side clown. I am in luck. The circus act pays off as the boat makes a wide arc into my bay. I’m relieved he judges me sane enough to pick up. As we depart for the opposite shore I relax, leaving the morning’s tension embedded in the beach with all my scuff marks looking like a lumpy court after a beach volleyball game.
It’s windy and the boat cuts through the chop which splashes on the sides of the hull which sports a faded Department of Conservation logo. The former national park was part of a recent treaty settlement for Ngāi Tῡhoe. It is now under their guardianship and includes the lands of Te Urewera which, in a world-first, has been granted the legal rights of a person. The iwi has plans to redesign the experience of this Great Walk to reflect their stories. I look forward to a time when I return next to see how their culture is embodied within the walk that I am about to retrace.
Soon the roar of the boat’s motor eases as we arrive in a small cove at the south-eastern corner of the lake. I hop off, thank the driver and begin lugging my pack to the carpark and the awaiting trailhead. I am surrounded by forest not people here, but I am sure to meet some walkers soon given the stacked carpark. I pause only briefly in the carpark to turn on my three GPS units that will gather data for the Great Hikes App, before heading up into the hills of the Te Ureweras ranges.
I say up because that is exactly what it is. Tackling the track from this end of the lake means climbing to the track’s highest point on the first day. It is a decent climb to 1,180 metres above the distant Hawke’s Bay, which can be seen far to the east through the wiry branches. While many would find the climb steep and tough I find it fascinating particularly near the top in the cloud forest. The track seems to make its way up the edge of Panakire Bluff – a razor edge like escarpment that drops near vertically into the lake half a kilometre below.
Finally, I reach a side trail, although not signposted, I remember from my youth that there is an epic outlook just beyond. I take the trail out of the cloud forest, past a dead-spar skeletal forest towards the rocky precipice. Before I see the view I feel the draft of wind near the edge … the edge of a vast space of wilderness. What a sight! Below me is the entire star-shaped lake surrounded by a universe of dark forest. Yet behind me is an earthly civilisation complete with pockets of farmland and homesteads extending past Wairoa before terminating at the end of Mahia Peninsular - the home to the launch pads of Rocket Lab. Up high and on the frontier of wilderness, I stand alone at the gateway to the heavens. The wind is on my face as I close my eyes and dream of flying.
This is where I have my first encounter; it is no alien but a fellow tramper. I’m okay with that. At first I do not see him as he pops out of a hole like a hobbit having been sheltering from the wind. He is in a trance like state, being transfixed on the otherworldly rock strata formations around us. He is fascinated by something which draws my attention. I do not recall his name but I will call him Geo, as he is on a geological fieldtrip. After introductions that I have forgotten, Geo begins to explain the origins of these layered features. He has a knack for sharing his knowledge simply and informs me that what I see in this landmass was formed long ago underwater in a shallow warm sea.
Alternating layers of sandstones and siltstones settled in the seabed after ancient landslides with the coarser sand grains settling quicker than the lighter silts. Thus the two different types of rock layers formed. Over geological time the area was uplifted out of the sea and what I see now as alternating bands of bedrock that make up the massive escarpment was once the seabed. I leave Geo, his rock hammer and the whistling wind behind having become a little wiser about the seabed below my feet.
Onwards I trek to reach the first hut just after lunchtime. Years ago I had stayed in this hut, and like me now, it too is looking a bit tired and rundown. I have heard that iwi is starting to develop a vision to refresh and transform some of these huts to impart their culture. This sounds exciting and I am keen to return to see these changes. I stop here for a brief bite; watch the lake while being blown about by the wind’s force. Moving out of the wind and back into the forest it becomes clear why this hut right beside a trig site has no campsites.
The track from here continues along the escarpment edge before dropping swiftly via a series of staircases down to Waiopaoa Hut – my first night’s stay. This hut is idyllic, as it sits on the waterfront with the white pumice sands dropping into a shallow bay. I am greeted by a couple of families with adults sunbathing on the grass lawn while I can hear the joyful sounds of children at play not far away. It is the perfect place to relax, have a refreshing swim, watch family members toast marshmallows over the outside fire before bunking down for the night in preparation for tomorrow’s big day.
I am up early. It’s still a little dark but most people here are up too to make the most of their day. With muesli munched and pack packed I head off around the lake. From here the track hugs the weaving shoreline never venturing far from its embrace. The only exception is when I reach a little bay in the first hour of my morning's walk which leads to Korokoro Falls. I take the side trail partly because I cannot remember the falls from my last visit and also because I need to collect all track data for the App.
I drop my pack at the junction and follow up beside a stream, then ford its waters using a wire cable for balance before hearing the falling water. What a sight! While it’s not the tallest (Sutherland Falls on Milford Track is outstanding), nor has it great volume like Huka Falls, Korokoro Falls is simply beautiful. Before me is a fine cascade of water that seems to effortlessly drop out of the canopy of green onto the forest floor. It’s a worthwhile side trip to observe nature’s beauty in both symmetry and gracefulness.
Onwards I stride, still collecting data and taking photos at stopping points. I pass a couple of campsites before reaching Marauiti Hut where I take a break. On my last visit, we stayed in this hut with an interior painted in a vibrant shade of retro green – I was glad to see this brilliant feature remains unchanged all these years later. I have a snack here and continue onward along the shoreline through the virgin forest with tree trunks as wide as some small backcountry huts before reaching Waiharuru Hut. This large hut also sits beside the water. I take more photos before inhaling a late lunch. The lake is calm and seems timeless, yet this is far from the truth. The Māori meaning of the lake’s name is the ‘sea of rippling waters’ and the lake is also a relatively recent phenomenon.
Lake Waikaremoana has formed 2,200 years ago - around the same period Stonehenge was raised. It formed as a result of a giant wedge landslide near the current outlet. The wedge was massive; an 8x4 kilometre slab that slid off the mountainside and dammed the river catchment, the forest was flooded and in time produced the North Island’s deepest lake. The forest that once sat at the bottom of the catchment is preserved by the lake’s cool waters. Divers have photographed their leafless crowns that still stretch towards the sky even though they are deep underwater harbouring schools of fish between their limbs rather than swooping birds.
Looking up from the lake and down at the track pamphlet I can see I need to map one more hut before a relatively flat walk out as per the elevation profile. Oh, how wrong I was! While the cute Whanganui Hut is there, the flatness is not. Just after the hut and after a long day of over 30+km of track and side trails I reach a menacing and unexpected climb. At first, I was sure that I had taken a detour or a side track, as it climbs 130 metres via switchbacks. Panting and sweating the grunt finally abates and drops just as fast as the ascent dropping me back to the lake edge. It wasn’t a mistake. This is the only track.
By now I was beaten – but I only had a short walk back to the Hopuruahine carpark. As I drove back to Rotorua on the gravel road I reflected wearily that most of us encounter unexpected journeys in life and how it is easy to lose track of time in today’s world. Was my rushed walk was a metaphor for life? Reentering the Te Urewera forest has rekindled fond memories of my youth, a place to which I am sure I will return older, slower and I am sure I will be enriched again. Lake Waikaremoana will remain with me, a place to reflect and recreate; it’s one of the North Island’s largest yet less frequented lakes filled with forest to its core and culture along its shore.