New Zealand: Lake Waikaremoana

I pass through three different shops in Napier as I prepare for the last of the Great Walks; Lake Waikaremoana. I do things differently for the fist time in a long time. Instead of my now standard tuna-pasta dinner combinations, I pick up a couple of pouches of Go Native’s “ready meals”. They’re not dehydrated, which gives them a strong  chance of not being completely terrible. A chilli con carne and butter chicken. Time will tell. Stocked up, I hit the familiar twists and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway. Passing through Tutira country, over bridges I’ve crossed before. This marks the end of my last hurrah loop from Wellington, North. From Tongariro, out West. From Taranaki almost all of the way East to Te Urewera. Another 1000km on the clock. The third tank of fuel in this month alone. This then the final destination before another indefinite hiatus from the infinite road. Yellow leaved trees line the road. The cab of the van warms in the sun. It feels like October, and halfway around the world it would be. What little traffic there is goes the other way. I pause in Wairoa. In June last year I was stopped in a parking bay outside the council offices where I booked my place on the first half of New Zealand’s Great Walks. By the end of this weekend I will have completed them all. As I still haven’t figured out how to walk on water, I’m not counting the Whanganui River Journey. Not yet anyway. I turn inland, away from the coast. Towards the high country and cold temperatures I keep promising to avoid. At first the farmland rolls but then high forest covered fortress walls of Te Urewera rise up to the sky. The gravel road winds and climbs towards the slopped banks of trees. I breach the rainforest. The Southern shores of Lake Waikaremoana sparkle blue. I have finally returned to finish what I started. Time enough to take ownership of the Fisherman’s Cabin, to pack and clean up. Still time to eat. Then nothing remains but to wait for company to arrive. Matt said they were aiming for 18:30. At 19:30 I wonder if I should be concerned. It’s a long way from Auckland. The longest stretch from Rotorua, 150km of unsealed road. There’s no mobile reception, no WiFi. I can do nothing but wait for the sound of car tyres on tarmac and hope this next car is them. Otherwise I’ll have drunk all the beer.

The door opens and a familiar face peers in. It isn’t Matt, but his friend Luc who I met a long time ago on the Rees-Dart. “So good of you to come,” I say standing up, offering out my hand. Then Matt comes in, followed by their work colleague Tony. Luc unloads meat and veg into the cabin fridge. Matt unloads two paper grocery bags of lunch and snacks. “You guys are bringing a lot of food.” I tell them. This is normal apparently, after all it’s only two nights. “For that time,” Luc says “there’s no reason not to eat like kings.” They’ve got mince to make spaghetti bolognese, there’s sausages to go with a packet of instant mash. Capsicum, bananas, a floret of broccoli. I’m not sure I could carry all that weight but in reality, they’re only carrying one meal each. Tony has left his Swiss Army Knife out for Matt and Luc to open bottles of Steinlager with. Luc investigates the other tools. “What do you need scissors for?” I’ve got one too. I think the scissors are the function I use most after the knife. The cosy cabin fills with our tramping gear. A bag in each corner next to the beds. We sit around the plastic garden table, catching up one what has changed and what hasn’t since we last saw each other. How long has it been since I’ve had a few bevvies with the boys? Too long. Matt and I both cross our fingers for engines to start in the morning. He goes first. Carrying Luc and Tony he’s got the greater responsibility. His car bursts into life. Cheers and thumbs up. Now it’s my turn. Another engine kicks in. We’re good now until the end. Then we’re on our way to Onepoto to meet Dave, our shuttle driver. I’m too far away to hear the first introduction but he declares us as Team Awesome, and the one in Orange. Luc has already said something to be singled out. The drive around the Eastern shores passes quickly. Dave tells us a story many of us have heard before. Things haven’t been the same in Te Urewera since control was returned to the Iwi. There doesn’t appear to be the same focus on pest control, on trail maintenance, on improving the environment. Dave tells us there’s a split in opinion. Half of the local Maori population want to encourage tourism and bring more people to the area, the rest want to halt development and keep people out. With these two poles of opinion, getting anything done is difficult.

We’re out of the car, sliding into backpacks, clipping straps and extending poles. Dave waves us off and we cross the first swing bridge. In the first field we come across a herd of five, maybe six wild horses. Most of them ignore us, but a big brown beast comes trotting over to investigate. Matt, who was leading us, isn’t keen on the approach of our new friend. Suddenly I find myself at the front, with the long nose of a horse sniffing around my hands, nuzzling at my pack. I stand my ground and let the horse make his mind up. “He needs a name,” Luc suggests. “Steve,” I say. “Why Steve?” “Well he’s big isn’t he. Big Steve.” We could hardly call him Dave after our shuttle driver. We squeeze past Big Steve and keep moving. He follows us for a while, another one of the horses comes along too. We pass through a couple of trees and the horses leave us alone. Maybe Big Steve was simply keeping an eye on us. Making sure we passed off his territory without a problem.

The track lacks the same level of standard I’d come to expect from a Great Walk. The mud is no worse than that on the Rakiura. There is no grey gravel super highway. We cut away from the Lake Waikaremoana’s edge. Moving across the neck of a peninsular. A fence marks a stoat exclusion zone. A kiwi nursery. Someone is trying to make a difference out here. We walk between the arms of the lake. Passing huts we agreed we could skip. A crowd comes the other way. They inform us that there is no firewood and no water in the tanks at Marauiti Hut. A ripple of frustration passes through the team. This is a Great Walk. You have to pay extra for this. Why aren’t we getting the water and warmth we’ve paid for? I start poking my head in to every wood shed along the way. All empty. Inside the huts are a handful of branches foraged from the surrounding woodlands. We take a break in a colossal hut. This must have been built not long before the Department of Conservation returned the management of the track to the Iwi.  Luc makes an absolute mess of opening a packet of wraps. Tony offers him his Swiss Army Knife. “Would some scissors help?”

On the final stretch into Marauiti Hut we pass through lush podocarp forest. Giant Totara, dripping Rimu needles, tree tall tree ferns. My face lights up. This is the last one for a while. It might lack the level of service I’ve become accustomed to but the reality is I’m not here for that. I’m here for the outdoors, for the nature, for the walk. At the hut Luc and I disappear into the bush, gathering dry and damp rotting branches. We stack wood high next to the fire. There should be enough for us and everyone else who joins us tonight, and if we’re sensible the people who come through tomorrow. Everyone wanders down the lake’s edge for water. Clear as it looks, clean as it probably is I know I can’t risk drinking this. It might be fine, but this isn’t the time to introduce new and exciting bacteria to my guts. I unpack my filter and screw it on to my bottle. I long for the clear, clean streams of the South Island. Or even just rain water in the tank.

I wake up in discomfort. Too early to get up, too awake to fall back asleep. I sneak out of the bunk room with my kindle. I put the pot on for a cup of tea, nestle in to a corner seat and am immediately interrupted my a child coming in to tell me it’s cold. It really isn’t. He looks to get the fire started with clearly no idea what he’s doing. I don’t see the need to waste wood so make no effort to intervene. I float around for an hour, watching other people come too, eat, pack and leave. The cold child informs me “You’re the only one of your group ready.” I’m not ready. I haven’t packed. The rest of Team Awesome and The One In Orange get up so late at almost 7 o’clock. They don’t mess around in getting ready. Breakfast is eaten, coffee is drunk and we’re ready to move on. We’re last out. Counting down hours of signposts to next hut, next campsite. The morning is uneventful. Bright and warm in the sun. We break for an early lunch on a rocky outcrop posing as a beach on the edge of Lake Waikaremoana. Luc strips down for a swim. His philosophy is if there’s a body of water nearby you might as well swim in it. I’ve declared myself a fair weather swimmer, but the weather is fair. So maybe warm weather? Or maybe I have to be able to get warm afterwards. I’ve got a list of excuses why I don’t go in. While we eat a fat bumble bee comes to investigate our gear. Crawling into dry bags, backpacks and buzzing around all of us. Our latest friend is christened Little Steve. We pick up our gear and continue onwards.

There’s a side trip on offer today. Korokoro Falls. Luc is reluctant. Like me, he’s seen enough waterfalls to last him a lifetime. I know I don’t have to see it, but it might be good. I suggest that we go anyway. If we do everything there is to do, then we never have to come back. We down packs and head up the trail. A wire assists a rock hopping crossing of the stream. Or it would, if I didn’t fall backwards. Pulling the wire, Luc and Tony along with me. Everyone manages to stay on their feet. On the way back, I commit to going last. Once the rest are safely across. I follow Tony uphill to the falls lookout. We reach the end of the trail. “Where’s Matt?” I ask, assuming Tony had followed him. “I don’t know,” Tony says. The trail ends here. Where can he be? Luc doesn’t come up behind us either. I can hear them. They’re on the other side of the river. Where Tony and I had followed the orange marker arrows, Luc and Matt must have followed footprints. I elegantly slide down a rock face to meet them. Korokoro falls are surprisingly impressive. They’re not particularly big, not that tall either. You can walk along a rock edge behind the leap, behind the falls.

By the time we get back to the backs we’ve all admitted to starting to sufffer. Knees, ankles, hips. A little chaffing. As is the way, when we made plans I committed to fewer nights and bigger days. “It’ll be fine,” I said, “It’s a Great Walk.” We hobble on to Waiopaoa Hut, the best looking, with the nicest views and it is completely deserted. All of us consider some facts. It might be better if we stopped here but our booking is up the hill. The sign at the junction for this hut came with bad news. Panekire Hut – 4 hours. I remain confident. “We’ll do it in less than that!” The climb begins gently, then stairs make short work of the height gain and of our bodies. Each additional staircase was greeted with a mix of swearing and shouts of no. We keep moving. We reach the goblin forest as the light turns golden. The temperature drops rapidly as we close in on 1000 meters above. Matt says “I hope we make it for sunset.” One of the guys lets out a shout ahead. The toilet, then the hut. We made it! We drop our packs and sit on a bench. A crowd of others mill about on the deck as everyone watches the sun drop behind the distant hills.

As is required when tramping in a group, somebody is responsible for bringing the entertainment. I let the team down on this one. Used to hiking alone, I only packed my journal and my kindle. Fortunately, Luc was well prepared with a set of Monopoly Deal. Having played once before and been beaten soundly by a child, I didn’t like my chances. The first two rounds, Luc beat us all comfortably. Tony wasn’t happy about this so he changed his strategy. Whatever game he was playing previously became “screw Luke.” Seemingly without even trying to win, Tony ended up winning the next couple of games. The problem, I realised was I had also bought in to his strategy, focusing on ensuring Luc didn’t win. For the next few games, I let Tony keep Luc in check and concentrated on trying to win my own game. With Tony focused on destroying Luc, Luc intent on exacting his revenge, I only had to worry about Matt. It didn’t take long for me to work out I didn’t really have to worry at all. Was Matt terrible at this game, or was he constantly dealt bad cards? By the end of the evening we’d all won at least once, except Matt.

Our late arrival, possibly even last to Panekire Hut meant we had to make do with whatever bunks remained free. All four of us had to squeeze between the third level of platform bunks and the corrugated steel roof. This was easier for some of us than others. Why hadn’t the 11 plus children in the hut commandeered this pokey little hole? Children are supposed to love the top bunks. They’re exciting and fun. Fortunately we found the struggle of getting in and out, of unpacking and settling in unreasonably funny. For our final day there is no rush. We let the crowd disperse, the children disappear. Luc and Tony even make sure to sweep down the tables before we leave. Along the ridge line the trail moves swiftly. The terrain, almost flat. We reach Bald Knob lookout. The furthest I’d reached when I climbed up alone almost one year ago. The view out over Lake Waikaremoana is magnificent. The surface mirror calm reflecting the blue above. Matt points over the ranges beyond the lake. “Is that snow or cloud?” Way further than we should be able to see are the jagged peaks of Ruapehu, wearing a lot more snow than they were two weeks ago. “We’ve been lucky with the weather.” Luc and Matt reckon they only ever get good weather. Unlike me, the bad weather magnet.

From here we start to go down, and things start to go wrong. Very wrong. My knee has remained a constant source of bother and it’s getting worse. I fall further and further behind. Luc holds the guys to wait and check if I’m ok. I’m ok. I can still move forwards, and down, if only slowly. I end up moving very slowly. Trying to find a rhythm that doesn’t hurt is almost impossible on an ever changing gradients criss-crossed with tree roots. Luc says he has to go. When you have to go, you have to go. I had already considered the possibility of waving my friends off and making the rest of the way down on my own. Luc and Tony make a dash for the toilet at the carpark. Matt, gentleman that he is stays with me. “Is it the kind of pain that disappears when you walk backwards?” he asks. I’ve never tried. So I do. And it does. Now my problem is I can’t see where I’m going. Falling backwards over a tree root isn’t going to help the situation. Matt offers to take my pack. He still has his own. And I’m too stubborn. I started this, so I will finish it. The trees begin to thin. The track flattens out and I find I can almost walk normally again, next to Matt until the final short drop to the car park. I get to the bench Luc and Tony are sat at and drop on to the floor. Finished. Done. It hasn’t always been easy, especially not the last two but I have just completed my goal. New Zealand’s Great Walks? Completed them mate.

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