Although the distance between Napier and Wairoa is just over 100km it is never going to be a quick trip. When we arrive in Wairoa my guide has been waiting for me for some time. Waipatu is a Maori guy with an interesting story. His father is a Maori man from the local area but his mother is French and on the trip to the start of the Lake Waikaremoana walk I learn a lot. He has recently married a woman who has 4 children to a previous marriage and together they have a young child. Waipatu has taken the opportunity to run the shuttle business and live by the lake after a career as a Rugby League player on both the North and South Islands. It seems like an idyllic lifestyle but I later discover he has all the stresses of the small business owner.
I asked Waipatu what he knew about the myths pertain to the lake. He stared out at the road ahead and said the following. "In the mists of antiquity the tipua Hine-pukohurangi came from the sky and lured Te Maunga, the mountain, to earth at Onini. Their child was born a mortal being and was named Potiki. His descendants are the Children of the Mist - the Tuhoe of Nga-Potiki, whose history and genealogy cover more than one thousand years. They are the true tangata whenua having been in this area before the arrival of the canoes. There is no way of discovering exactly how long they have lived here - it has been lost in the mists of time".
I was surprised by his erudition about this and asked to hear what happened next. Waipatu was prepared to elaborate. "Having created Lake Waikaremoana during her wild frenzy, the taniwha Haumapuhia heard the roar of the great ocean of Kiwa far to the east and decided to try and reach the ocean before daylight broke. She thrashed her way through a cleft in the mountain range at Te Whangaromanga near Onepoto but suddenly daylight, which is fatal to taniwha, came upon her. Haumapuhia was turned to stone and lay in the river bed with her head facing the ocean and her legs towards Waikaremoana. The water filled the gouges she had left, so forming Lake Waikaremoana. Maahu, her father was so overcome with remorse at having drowned his daughter that he went to the ocean of Kiwa and brought the river up to her with fishes and food for her sustenance. In so doing he earned her forgiveness. Haumapuhia lay undisturbed in the river bed for many many years until the waters of the Waikaretaheke River were diverted for the hydro-electricity scheme. It was then, just before the completion, that a landslide completely covered her and she can be seen no more".
At the DOC centre I’ve booked the hut for the following evening with plans for tonight left open ended. I had imagined that it would be possible to camp by the lake but Waipatu insists that this is not allowed and shepherds me towards the Big Bush Holiday Park. I ask about the feasibility of reaching the hut tonight and he explains it in terms of attitude, stating that it is possible as long as I’d be prepared to walk in the dark. As the track proceeds very close to the edge of the cliff it doesn’t seem like the most sensible option. In retrospect I should have given it a go as instead I am forced to set up camp as a squatter at the Holiday Park and sit around watching the bright sun slowly drop behind the hills.
When Waipatu is unable to locate the owner of the park he gets the shits about having to place a mobile phone call and then insists that my ticket doesn’t cover travel between the trail heads. I’m not sure if this is a scam but as the standard method of returning to the start of the track is by boat I have to accept that this is feasible. Again retrospectively I should have asked to start the track from the other end as I’d have been able to walk for two to three hours in the sunshine before setting up camp on the lake. This done I might have been a shot at returning to Wellington by Thursday night and seeing the first day of the test match on Friday.
If the planning doesn’t go quite as smoothly as I may have wished there are compensations. The campsite does provide an attractive vista over the Wairoa river and the surrounding mountains. I’m visited by a large house dog who insists on rooting around underneath my tent until he is dragged away by his taciturn owner who has visited with in his ute. He snorts in disgust when I ask if it’s okay if I camp here but can’t bring himself to say anything. I’m entertained by two English girls who take some time to locate their cottage. And finally the campsite has a picnic table where I’m able to set up my dinner and read my book before settling inside my tent when the temperature drops.
After a restful night interrupted only once by chanting children I wake early and set about dismantling the tent just as the sun doth rise. This is a matter of pride as Waipatu had offered to pick me up and drive me the two kilometres to the start of the track. Even though he had warned me that it was two kilometres uphill I wasn’t about to have him dictate when I would start my day. I had plenty of time to consider my churlishness as the dirt road wound its way up the hill with a series of hairpin bends. Fortunately traffic is scarce though it is somewhat galling to be passed by Waipatu just as I arrive at the start of the track. He has news to pass onto me about the transport options available from Wairoa. He had said to me that there was an afternoon bus between Wairoa and Napier but he had looked into it and discovered that this was not the case. This made a difference in getting back to Wellington as I would not be able to catch the early morning bus which arrived by about midday and would allow me to see most of the first day’s play. I would have to catch the afternoon bus which arrived in Wellington in the early evening. It was the sort of information a shuttle bus driver should have at his fingertips.
The topography is surprising. I did not expect to have to climb into the mountains to reach a lake. Having done so I assumed the track would start at lakeside. Instead the lake is 50 metres below and from here the track is only going to climb. Fortunately I have the wherewithal to photograph the sun sparkling on the blue waters of the mountain fringed body of water. An hour later the lake is monochromatic, a silver luminescence being swallowed by rapidly descending fog. Brett had forecast this weather several days before but it wasn’t going to stop me undertaking the walk.
As the first day is slated as a five hour walk there is time to take the only side trip on offer. This involves inspecting the digs of the infantry unit stationed in the area during the Maori wars during the 19th century. There is a brief track which arrives at a dishevelled tarn. It would have made an adequate camp-site had I known it existed. There is a curious cemetery nearby, ghoulish in its juxtaposition. Two of the graves are of babies who died over a hundred and fifty years ago. It is strange that creatures that barely had any consciousness are in effect immortal. Would their skeletons look any different from that of a small animal? The other notable tombstone is that of Private Michael Noonan from the Armed Constabulary. It is noted that he was shot on June 20th 1869 carrying dispatches from Wairoa to Onepoto. What plans did Noonan have for his life, what more would he have liked to have done had he not been shot like vermin making the trek to the lake? Now he lies in a grave some distance from the lake, a small family group containing young, silent children, a quarter acre block to call their own, build a house, a vegetable garden, perhaps a workshop and stable for the horses.
I usually steer clear of the Great Walks on the South Island, mainly because I did them all ten years ago and prefer to roam the backcountry. The track began a moderately steep climb along the ridge line, making occasional use of tree roots and requiring quick scrambles over rocky outcrops. It doesn’t take long before I encounter trampers taking a break. It is a different experience to encounter rookies, wearing jeans and struggling with the climb to Panekiri hut. Though the climb is something of a grunt it is pleasant work and no more difficult than stair climbing. It’s obvious though that it presents a significant challenge to the groups that I pass by. There appears to be three couples, two of whom appear to be a family group. There is also a lone male tramper who I pass and rapidly leave behind. I’m surprised when he doesn’t make any show of attempting to match my rate of progress. If it was me I’d have been roused to keep pace.
Every now and then the track breaks out onto a clearance which provides a view of the lake which is at least visible underneath the pall of cloud. There are spots where it is possible to step out on ledges and take in the 600 metre drop to the lake. The turquoise shallows lead onto a thin band of rocks which might provide limited scrambling around the shore. After several hours of climbing the track levels out and follows a flat ridge line through the forest. Here the Pukenui Trig is encountered and it is welcomed as the point where the track begins to undulate rather than continuously climb. After a couple of hours of intermittent views I’m beginning to wonder if the walk is going to take much longer than I anticipated and the trig point will be found further ahead. When a rock bluff looms ahead this seems to be the denouement of my delusion but instead it turns out to be the staircase that announces that the hut is minutes away.
Inside the hut are two entertaining women who refer to me by my first name and then exultantly explain that Waipatu has asked them to pass on a message. I explain that I caught up with Waipatu earlier in the day. They also stayed at the Big Bush Holiday Park but they’d joined their hosts for a bottle of wine and had a cracking evening. These girls look like they’d bring the fun to any venue. One was from Oxford, England while the other was a local from Wellington. As the weather was so bleak and it was still early afternoon their plan is to keep walking and to stay at Waiopaoa Hut on the lakeside. As there are no views to be had from the highpoint I cannot fault their logic.
After they leave I have the hut to myself for an hour before the first of the stragglers arrives. He is an English nurse who has relocated to the Gold Coast. His first comment on coming through the door is that “this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. Admittedly it has been a strenuous walk and I’m not going to diminish his sense of achievement by comparing it unfavourably to other tramps. Nobody likes a show off and now is not the time to talk about my experiences.
The next couple through the door are a curious couple. These are the people who were at the DOC centre in Napier the previous day, making enquiries about the walk. They are also from Queensland though she is originally from Texas. They talk to the Englishman about whether the track description of easy is accurate. I would have to agree with them that a walk gaining 600 metres over four hours is not easy but I’ve long given up on expecting accuracy from the classifications and the uncertainty can be guaranteed to add excitement to any day.
The Queenslanders discuss the slow going of the family group who they passed earlier in the day. When the American expresses doubt as to whether they will make it by nightfall I announce that if they haven’t arrived by 1700hrs I will go have a look for them. She asks if I’m the hut warden but then settles for good Samaritan. The problem is that if the party is too unfit to continue up the hill the most sensible option would be to return to the car park. If they did this I’d have no way of knowing. Outside the rain has increased and the fog is sweeping over the ridge and sweeping into the lake basin with all the urgency of something sinister and foreboding. For a substance that it is just moisture laden air, fog has a singular capacity to play on people’s imaginations. Having traversed a ridge with a precipitous drop on one side this becomes more than understandable.
In order to prepare for my late afternoon reconnaissance I begin to prepare an early dinner. So far the afternoon has consisted of opening up windows to let out the disgustingly large blow flies, boiling water in order to enjoy hot drinks and reading a couple of New Scientist magazines. By the end of the afternoon I’ve removed ninety percent of the blowflies from the room, though working out how they get in occupies my curiosity. Presumably they just fly through the doors and windows but the hut has a remarkably high sloped roof which appears to have some entry points available.
I’m not looking forward to heading out into the rain and scouring the ridge for the slow going party. My intention is to check to see if they have any injured people in their party and if so to then determine whether to get them to the hut or set up my tent for them to stay in overnight. If they have become lost and wandered off the track there isn’t anything I can do for them. If they are immobile and need to be removed I might be able to set off my PLB. Fortunately the first of the party arrives at 4.30, dropping his pack and heading off again. Clearly he has gone to carry his mother’s pack. The group arrive at about 5pm having taken nine hours to walk the nine kilometres of track. It’s a gutsy effort though clearly they haven’t researched what was required of them. DOC could probably promote the benefits of doing the track in the opposite direction so that the unfit have at least two days of walking under their belt and have lightened packs for the walk up the hill. Having been in the same situation some years ago I could understand how they had been surprised by the demands expected of them.
It turns out that this group is also from Queensland. They begin preparing the most elaborate of meals. While I stay in the corner of the large room the rest huddle communally around the gas heater which is generating a small amount of heat. It actually makes sense to retire to the bunk room and continue my reading here so I do so, but at the risk of alienating myself from my colleagues. Although I’ve conversed occasionally with the groups and on several occasions provide hot water I haven’t made socialising my focus. The following morning I rise early with the intention of getting off the hill as quickly as possible in order to make the maximum amount of distance around the lake.
The fog remains close to the ground but the track is superbly graded, allowing the walker to appreciate the beauty of the lush beech forest. After several hours I encounter a large group of pensioners who announce that I “must be Tony”. I’m rather chuffed that my notoriety precedes me and I have a chuckle at how chatty the girls I met the previous afternoon must be. I provide information about how many people are still at the hut and how long it will take. Soon after I arrive at Waiopaoa Hut, a large, freshly painted edifice with tent canopies hanging from the balcony for drying. I have no interest in approaching the hut and making small talk and am grateful for the open air shelter that has been provided for campers. Taking the opportunity to have a look at Lake Waikaremoana up close for the first time I discover black swans in large numbers just off the shore. Mist hangs low above the forest dulling the natural beauty of the tranquil scene.
Views of Wairaumoana, one of the lake arms of the larger body of water open up after a further half an hour of walking. At At Te Korokoroowhaitiri Bay there is a sign post to the Korokoro Falls. The walk is supposed to take half an hour each way so represents a reasonable slab of time and energy. I’m usually not impressed by views of waterfalls, particularly ones requiring a lot of effort to get to. Two things prevail on me to take this side trip however, one that it will be the only opportunity to do some walking without the pack strapped to my back and secondly I might as well use all of the daylight hours available to me to absorb the scenery. Five minutes along the track I locate a spot where I can hide my pack and walk unencumbered and then continue along the attractive track making passage along the secluded stream. The trip requires crossing the stream via a wire rope linking up a series of boulder hops. The presence of the rope adds a disconcerting distraction to what would ordinarily be a straightforward task.
Soon after the track arrives at the viewing spot for the 22 metres a high waterfall. To my delight the falls present one of the most scenic white water cascades in the country. The beauty is derived by the width of the falling water, a misty, tremulous curtain of silken threads wafting over smoothly carven boulders. That the waterfall is centred in a grotto of lush, meridian forest provides a perfect setting. Most waterfalls involve craning ones neck upwards to the sky and observing a thin band of water tumbling into space. Here everything is in remarkable proportion and the setting demands exploration. Presumably it is possible to swim in the pool and there is a track inviting the bold to make a visit. The glum weather makes the proposition uninviting and instead I begin the walk back to the lake, pleased by the gorgeous discovery.
As I approach the wire marking the spot for stream crossings a young woman skips across the boulders with confident agility. We have a quick discussion, me informing her that the waterfall is five minutes away, her telling me that she has come from a hut further around the lake. Back at my pack I shackle myself to the weight and begin the day’s main haulage. Views of the lake are sporadic and such is the windswept, squally nature of the day staying in the confines of the forest isn’t such a bad thing. After an hour or so the juncture to an inland track is reached. Checking the map this appears to offer a journey into the remote heartland of the park and a challenging walk along the Huiarau Range to Whakataka Hut. No time!
Getting towards 4pm I pass the location of Marauti Hut, set on Whakaneke Spur. Viewing the hut from the other side of the Bay it seems like a most attractive location at which to spend the evening. I have been walking for eight hours and can perhaps justify an early halt to tramping. I doubt that the girls have decided to stay here but I can’t be certain that the hut is empty. If it isn’t I’m fairly certain that I will have been spotted in the relatively clear spot from which I observe it. And so I backtrack for ten minutes to reach the hut and discover that it is occupied. For a moment I consider just walking off without even going inside but I do and meet two brothers from Auckland. They have met the girls earlier in the day and I learn that they passed this way about 3 hours ago.
Being forced to continue isn’t so bad as it is distance I won’t have to cover at a clip the following morning. The only other party I have encountered during the lake circumnavigation has been a long line of seniors who are being shepherded by a guide who I find sitting by the track reading a magazine. At least the track is relatively flat and it is possible to make quick time even after many hours of footslog. The cloud never threatens to lift but nor does it presage rain. Thankfully I arrive at the Waiharuturu campsite just after 6pm with half an hour of fading light still available to me. The campsite has a good shelter next to it and I’m able to rearrange my pack, get my tent up and prepare the evening meal all at the same time. I’m in full view of the large hut. There is a small glow of a candle in the window but no sign of activity and I wonder if those in residence have already retired for the evening. At the lakeside I discover more black swans wading in the shore waters. After eleven hours I have thoughts only for rest and sleep and not even the onset of light rain can dampened the overwhelming need to relax and drift away.
Morning brings birdsong, seemingly deep within the unconscious of my mind for surely it is not the swans that are vocal. Though I rise at 7am I do not need to get away early as I am not meeting Waipatu until 2pm. When I prepare to leave the campsite one of the girls calls out for me to come over to the hut for a cup of tea. I agree to the invitation despite the mild inconvenience of delaying my departure. They are surprised that I have been camping nearby as they were oblivious to my presence and a little stung that I have not visited them. Too late I realise they would have been receptive to me dropping in and it would have led to no more than an evening of card playing and yarns. Being only too aware of their charm I immediately regret the missed opportunity.
The girls briefly contemplate walking out with me in order to meet Waipatu this afternoon. They need to travel to a nearby town in order to pick up their car and as the garage it is being stored in closes up at 6pm they could not make it in time. In any case what is the rush? People plan these trips to get away from it all for months and as soon as they get away they rush with unseemly haste to get back. They intend staying at Whaganui Hut tonight, an older style hut no more than two hours walk away. Waiharuru Hut is a cavernous construction and the girls have found it somewhat barren when empty of people.
I have my eyes on getting out of the park and moving on the Wellington test match although I’m close to conceding that there is almost no chance I’ll be able to reach the city for the first day’s play. I ask if there’s any message they would like me to pass onto Waipatu and they ask that their pick up time be brought forward.
The walk out provides occasional glimpses of Whanganui Inlet though the cloud clings shroud-like to the mountains. Whanganui Hut show signs of occupation though the owner of the backpack is nowhere to be seen. There are eggs and other produce on offer but other people’s abandoned food has never appealed as appetising. Not far beyond the hut is the best lake view I’ve had all trip, looking out from the end of Whanganui Inlet through to the main body of the lake and the dim hills beyond Onepoto Bay. The main interest for the day is presented by signs announcing that the fence running through the bush is there to keep out mammalian predators such as stoats and rats in order to provide a safe breeding ground for flightless birds. The mountains behind are meant to act as a natural barrier. These kinds of sanctuaries are created all around the country at the same time as swingbridges and other construction provide channels of access previously denied to the introduced species. Despite the contradictions there are successes and the alternative is to let the invaders obliterate the natives.
It is a short walk from the Hut to a final opportunity to walk on a sandy beach. From here the track follows Hopuruahine Stream to a sturdy swingbridge and a small shelter by the dirt road. I am about an hour early and I hang my fly from the bridge cables in order to let it dry but after about 15 minutes Waipatu ambles along the road and I must quickly stuff the fly back into its bag. As we drive along the dirt road the weather starts to lift and by the time we reach the other side of the lake the ridge running along the Panekiri Range can be fully appreciated for its sheerness. I don’t have the nerve to ask Waipatu to pull over so that I can take a tourist snap of the view, mainly because there is nowhere to pullover.
Waipatu is in fine form, telling me the story of how the lake was the scene of a gathering of warriors who streamed down from the hills to take up war canoes. I ask for a date and he provides a century but perhaps this cataloguing concept of history is out of place and the imagery if more important. As we approach the Onepoto Caves Waipatu tells me these were used by the Maori during the war as a base and a means of escaping pursuers. I ask if they are used by cavers but Waipatu responds that the location of the caves is protected as they don’t want recreationalists traipsing through burial sites.
I’m safer territory discussing tramping opportunities in the area. I quiz him about the Huiarau Range and the backcountry that is accessed from the Maori village of Ruatahuna. As we pass along the Waikaremoana Road I ask about the Manuoha Track and the Lake Waikareiti Track to the north. These obviously offer more challenging tramping routes in the same way that there are multiple byways to explore from other great walks such as the Routeburn. I ask about interior exploration of the park and Waipatu has an interesting story about horse riders who spent three months making their way north. I was mainly interested to know if Maori used the park for trading routes.
The girls have done me a massive favour by bringing their exit time forward as Waipatu decides it makes more sense to take me out to Wairoa this afternoon rather than the following morning. I had been dreading the thought of another wasted afternoon at the Big Bay Bush Park and I readily agree to being taken into town. With this agreed I can relax a bit when we pass by the Maori school just beyond the camping site I’m able to identify the source of the chanting I’d heard. The design of the school is unique as the buildings curve to represent life flow, not dissimilar in shape from the well known yin-yang symbol. Waipatu mentions that the design has created some maintenance issues as most building products are created with more linear constructions in mind.
On the way to Wairoa I learn more of Waipatu’s education at a agricultural boarding school where fees were minimised by having the student’s work on the farm. I mention that I had a similar experience at Farrer agricultural high. Closer to town I ask about the local Rugby teams. The local area sustains its own Rugby Union competition but for league the players must travel relatively long distances to play other towns. For the Rugby players the competition is supplemented by a regional comp which accommodates the more elite players.
Waipatu drops me off at the Information centre and I make a point of thanking him for the assistance he’s provided over the last three days. He charges me an extra $40 for the leg around the lake but this merely brings the cost to what I consider a fair price, given he’s been required to undertake about three hours driving to get me to my requested destinations. At the Information Centre I get confirmation that there is no transport to Napier available tonight. Directions to the local camping site are provided and as an addendum I ask for an insight into what might be worth doing in Wairoa. The Germanic woman running the centre provides a map and suggests that I follow the River to the ocean outlet. It is an inspired suggestion, one I’m determined to take up.
At the park I’m offered a small caravan for $25. I accept with delight as I haven’t stayed in a caravan for over ten years. Not only don’t I have to worry about setting up a tent I can walk away knowing my gear is secure. The local supermarket is nearby and I purchase mussels, savoury biscuits and the local newspaper. The Wairoa River is probably modest by New Zealand standards but where I come from it would be considered a behemoth being well over 100 metres wide. The walk is one of the best things I do on the trip, being much longer than I expected and possessing an edge of uncertainty about whether I’m going to make it before sunset. The path takes me through the backblocks of Wairoa, really the town is all backblock but it’s always interesting trying to discover what it is that makes people live where they do.
The cloud that has dominated over the last couple of days has all but lifted and I’m able to walk in the sun, casting long sharp shadows. The light brings the setting alive, the grassy banks, the glassy surging water, the abandoned wharves on the far river bank. As I’ve walked along the river I’ve passed from a suburban setting to a rural scene of paddocks, crops and rolling hills. Ahead of me is the opening to Hawke Bay and on climbing the final rise I discover breakers rolling onto a thin embankment containing a matchstick array of disgorged logs and stripped branches. In the foreground are fields of deer grazing smooth slopes. I hadn’t expected anything quite as scenic as this and upon turning around for the walk back into town I discover a bucolic array of farmhouses and burnished husks offset by a backdrop of ranges bathed in the late afternoon light. It’s time to enjoy the mussels by the shore and appreciate the rusting splendour of decaying machinery and skeletal carcasses of weirs in the distance, the bones polished white by the relentless tug of tidal waters and brisk winds.
As the sun begins to drop behind the hills the warmth rapidly disperses from the day and it is time to move on. To break up the walk I elect to try a road leading away from the river and this leads soon enough back to the quiet suburban streets. Two brothers kick a flat football to each other from different sides of the road. They say hello when I walk by. As Howdy had explained a few days before after a similar encounter in Napier that is just the way it is with country kids.
Returning to the main street I must make a decision about dinner and opt for the simplicity of fish and chips which I can eat at the caravan. On TV there is an aspiring chef show on which involves the participants being divided into two teams and then requires them to turn a restaurant concept into a running business in a short period of time. One team wins on the strength of having the best front person greeting the customers and the other team’s conceptualist is removed on the basis of her poor people skills. I’m surprised by how much of the show I’ve retained after several months, the various storylines stay with me, the romantic dalliance between two chefs, the failed desert, the pompous judges just walking off when left unattended. Although there is a hint in the paper that there is a concert in town I’ve expended enough energy to feel fully satisfied with the day’s encounters.