I’ve gone yes no yes no about doing the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk while I’m here. Here being in the local area. I’m definitely going to have a go while I’m here as in here in New Zealand. Before the pandemic set in my intention had been to be out there for my birthday. To do something big-ish to celebrate. Things didn’t pan out that way. Two months have passed. I’m where I want to be. The least I can do is head into Te Urewera National Park and have a look. The walk is usually completed in three or four days, with one big climb at the beginning. If the weather doesn’t look totally pants, if I can book the huts, if I can arrange transport to the start and end points, I’ll do it. To help with my confidence I start off in the Wairoa iSite. The woman is extremely helpful but she admits she can’t book the huts for me. On literally every piece of information I have been given from the iSite folks it says at least once, come and see us to book your Great Walk huts. What I can do, she says, is head into Te Urewera National Park and go to the visitor centre when I get there. There I’ll be able to make bookings for the huts.
I was expecting the road towards Lake Waikaremoana to be a challenge. Designated as a state highway, advertised as the rainforest route, it is a windy, narrow, unsealed road. I’d come in from Wairoa deliberately because the distance is shorter, therefore easier. There was almost no traffic, nothing problematic coming the other way. Too easy. Once I arrived in the national park the trouble started. The visitor centre was closed. Brilliant. The closest I could get to useful information was from the receptionist at the holiday park. I don’t think she wanted to help me to begin with but the longer I stood in front of her for, the more she tried. In the end we agreed that I probably couldn’t make a booking, largely due to the visitor centre being closed. The water taxis weren’t running. Eventually, she admitted she could arrange transportation for me if I wanted to have a go anyway. I looked at my calendar to realise that I had also made a mistake. Hut bookings for some of the other, more popular Great Walks in the South Island opened in three days. I’d need to be back in civilisation. I hadn’t given myself enough time. I left the holiday park no better than I arrived. I made a decision. I was going to do the first day of the Great Walk in the afternoon.
Confident I could get up Panekiri Bluff and back within the remaining four hours of daylight, I headed to the start of the trail and immediately took a wrong turn. Less a wrong turn, more a missing the obvious massive orange triangle marking the start of the track. After correcting myself, I started to climb the natural staircase of tree roots spread across the floor. Every step was different. The exposed wood was polished smooth from the foot traffic. Stepping on some was like stepping on ice. I skated over the top of several. I made good progress up the well marked route. I wasn’t carrying the standard 15 additional kilos required for a three day trek. If I was, and I had the full day, I was confident I could get through the whole route when the time came. The trail leaves the forest to a viewpoint halfway up Panekiri Bluff. I can see why the Maori call it Waikaremoana, the sea of rippling waters. From here it looks like an ocean. Waves spread across the surface. There are inlets everywhere. This is a beautiful, often overlooked, place. The trail turned back into the sea of trees.
Mist lingered in some of the valleys. Branches reached out like enquiring elephant trunks. Others were twisted, gnarled, like witches arms stretching out to grab, to steal. A blanket of moss covered every tree from root to canopy. I thought the bush I’d walked through before was green. This took green to a whole new level. I assumed I was in what the hiking notes referred to as the goblin forest. Easy to see why. After a steady rise the track plateaued. Rising and falling gently across the ridgeline. The act of climbing up comes with the promise of a summit, of magnificent views. Walking almost anywhere in the UK, you can stop at any time. Look back and see how far you’ve come. Under the thick cover of trees, stopping and looking back, all you could see was the same coming in front. More trees. The trail breaks out on to the edge of Panekiri Bluff a couple of times, giving a sprawling view of Lake Waikaremoana below. Beyond, forest covered peaks stretch to the horizon. This patch of New Zealand is largely untouched by farming, forestry, and the other threats to the natural order of things. The big finish, if you’re only going that far, is Bald Knob lookout. Looking out away from the lake I could see as far as the coast. The sun was falling towards the distant hills. I’d made it up, I now had to make it back down. The real, actual finish. Up is only ever half way. Down makes me nervous. Down means greater strain on my knees. I don’t trust my knees. They don’t like me much back. All this walking up high things just to walk back down again. They stick with me this time. No pain, no problem. Pack weight will almost certainly have an impact.
I decided not to return to the holiday park, having been quoted an outrageous sum for an unpowered site. Round the corner was Rosie Bay. A free site with a drop toilet. I can assure you, you really do not need much more than that. It’s little more than a road down to a boat ramp. A turning circle at the end and a few spots of van length almost flat ground. On my way in I passed a tent, the couple there waved. One of them looked vaguely familiar. I parked the van and headed straight over. As I arrive, talking, introducing, shaking hands I have a moment of doubt. What am I doing? Approaching these strangers and disturbing them on their holiday. This isn’t me. I keep myself to myself. I suppose they looked friendly, Robert and Jessie were friendly. We hung out for a bit before the cold and dark pushed us all into our respective homes. Settled in for the evening, I could hear a strange noise. A tap-tapping, a rustling. A bird on the roof. No. It can’t be. The sound is coming from inside. There was a possum up by the toilet. Had it got in while I was cooking? Possums are about the size of a cat. These sounds weren’t being made by anything that big. The rustling, I realised, was the bin. I switched my torch on, flicked open the cupboard. Two little eyes, two big ears. A mouse. Staring straight back at me. Not for long, it went deeper into the bin. How do you catch a mouse? What do you do if you catch it? I couldn’t release it. I’d have to kill it. I could trap it in the bin bag. As I committed to my plan of action the mouse left the bin and disappeared into the cab. Opportunity lost. I lay back in bed, thinking about what to do. I could close up the bin bag and bash the mouse top of the cupboard. A brutal, mindless killing. Maybe doing it outside would be better. Fortunately for me and the mouse, I didn’t hear from it again. I hoped it was a local and having raided the fast food option available within, had returned home. I didn’t much fancy having a stow-away.
I got up at sunrise the next morning to find Robert and Jessie had already dropped their tent. As I passed them by on my way to the toilet, they climbed in their car ready for another day on the trails. I thought I was an early riser. Not much later I was at another carpark looking at the information board for Lake Waikareiti. Here was another opportunity to stretch my legs. Two hours to the lake and then the addition of the Ruapani Circuit will easily fill the day. The trail to Lake Waikareiti is wide enough and probably flat enough to push a shopping trolley along it. I flew through the forest, steadily climbing until I reached a day shelter, a set of dinghies and the lake. In the shelter I take in the notice board. The short tailed bat, I learn, is a scavenger. Rather than hunting on the fly, it scrambles through the undergrowth using its wings like arms. The lack of native land based mammals led to a bat essentially giving up on being a bat. Waikareiti is described as having pristine water, I am usually skeptical of these claims. In New Zealand, I am coming to accept it as a true statement. The lake shimmers through the trees. I can’t really get close to the shore, there are too many trees. This blue expanse beyond the trunks, too low to be the sky, tells me there’s water out there. I keep walking, hoping to find a way down. Eventually I find a small beach, I sit on a tree stump watching the light flicker over ripples. There are several islands in the lake, one of them even has its own lake. The boats I’d passed earlier can be hired and you’re allowed to go and see the lake on an island in a lake. Assuming the visitor centre is open if ever you come here.
I leave the lake, beginning the Ruapani Circuit. The route is overgrown, ferns tickle my ankles. The trail now barely wide enough for me to place my feet side by side. One in front of the other is just about ok. The thin brown line runs into the trees. Bright green moss line the edges. I emerge briefly into the strangest of clearings. This isn’t something I’ve found often in the bush so far. The ground is soft, covered in thick moss. Liquid oozes underfoot. I stick to the trail. This was the first of several openings I’d come across. These are the Ruapani tarns. Wetlands. Each one supposedly different. Most of them looked the same. About half way along the trail I was getting fed up with the ferns. Beyond the forest canopy I could see the sky was blue, the sun was out. Down here, in the understory things were damp. The bottom of my shorts were soaked. The tops of my socks absorbed water, slowly filtering it down into my boots. The squelching within began to match the squelching without. A reminder that anything with a hole big enough to put a foot inside isn’t really waterproof at all. As if this wasn’t bad enough, I soon came to ferns that were shoulder high. Dripping water in to my collar. I was glad for every meter of trail where the ferns weren’t. I preferred clambering over the fallen trunks of giants. I preferred the thick, slippery mud. Even the ankle deep puddles were more pleasant than endless, damp, tall ferns. I took a break in a solitary patch of sunlight. The silence is total. Unclipping my lunchbox lid echoes like a gunshot. It’s a tough walk, there are no big views but the change is constant. Big trees, little trees, endless rivers of ferns. At times, the surrounding life is so dense i can’t see where I’m putting my feet. I reached the end of the circuit as I was beginning to tire. I’d noticed across the road where I’d parked was another trail leading the other way. Might as well have a look. I don’t go far before I hear the thunder of another waterfall. Two falls in quick succession make up the Aniwaniwa Falls. I wonder if there are different ways to describe the waterfalls. Are they grouped somehow? Has my GCSE in Geography finally met its match?
I head back to Rosie Bay for another night. Robert and Jessie are setting their tent up for another night. I decide to leave them alone this evening. My plan doesn’t amount to much, Robert comes down to my van and asks if I want to join them. They have a fire going. My feet are permanently cold. I am in no position to refuse. We again share the story of our day, they having smashed out Panekirir Ridge by lunchtime then went to the Onepoto Caves. I add this to my to-do list for tomorrow. I tell them about my stowaway mouse. Robert says he saw a mouse last night too, which gives me hope my little friend is from around here. I hope he doesn’t make a return tonight. I head back to the van in the dark. My breath streaming in the light of my torch. Condensation starts to form on the ceiling immediately. This is how I know it’s going to be a cold one. In the morning, thick droplets of water hang over my head. The blanket closest to where I did most of my breathing is damp. I mop the rest of the moisture off the ceiling before setting off for the day.
I make a quick climb up Lou’s Lookout. A viewpoint I could see from camp. The cold morning is perfect. The sky, cloudless. The sun, not long risen over the surrounding peaks. I soaked up the view for a good ten minutes before deciding to leave it for someone else to enjoy. I drove a bit further down the road to the Onepoto Caves. A trail weaves over fallen boulders, deep hollows, and small caves. I lose the little orange triangles several times. I walk through a tunnel, climb over the tunnel and find myself on the road. A step back into the bush is a ladder down into a cave. I have no idea if I’m still on the trail and I’m supposed to descend or if this is just a point to explore. I suppose it probably is a little harder to nail a plastic triangle to a rock. I’m hesitant at first but I take out my torch, strap it on my head and clamber down the ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, is another ladder. I remind myself that these loose stacked, fallen rocks last moved around 2000 years ago. It would be a real bad day were I to be the one person who happened to be in the cave when it decided it didn’t want to be a cave anymore. Unsurprisingly, here under the ground, it smelled earthy. I stepped on to the cave floor into thick damp mud. I squeezed further in, expecting to see light at the other end. I moved through to the far end, pulling myself up over rocks until the voice in my head that didn’t want to be in a cave screamed so loud I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I clambered back down and went back out the way I’d come. I decide I’d left the cave and stood up. In standing up, I found I had not yet left the cave and slammed my head into the overhanging roof. I decided the screaming voice was right, I didn’t want to be here anymore. It was time to get back in the van and drive the winding road back out to Wairoa.