The day had finally come: the final of our 9 Great Walks in 9 Weeks, Lake Waikaremoana. Upon arriving in Hawkes Bay, we’d had mixed feelings. Satisfaction and pride in knowing that we were 99% sure we would complete this challenge, something we weren’t sure would be possible after flooding on the Milford Track, high winds on the Kepler and many other obstacles along the way.
However it was mixed with sadness. The Great Walks had consumed our lives for the better part of six months. There was so much planning, research, and bookings even before starting the first walk, that we haven’t really thought about much else in this time. Now we were on the brink of it all being over. It’s a strange bitter sweet feeling.
Before the hike we thought it would almost be a victory parade, a relatively straight forward three day hike that would be pretty easy after some of the tougher alpine tracks. However, New Zealand never seems to work that way…..
Day 1, Section 1: Onepoto – Panekire Hut
3 hours 12
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For the last week we’d enjoyed beautiful sunny days. The weather was almost tropical with warm temperatures that lingered well into the evenings. For the first time since arriving in New Zealand, the thermals were off and the shorts were on. A late summer was here!
This all changed as soon as we stepped out of the car at Onepoto, the start of the Lake Waikaremoana Track. As if knowing we were there, a front suddenly came over, darkening the entire landscape and the wind began to pick up.
The start of the track was an uphill climb through a forest that was loosely marked by tree root steps and trodden path. Despite being 10am it felt like 10pm as it was so dark. It was a truly beautiful forest though, made all the more mysterious for the lack of light. Then came the rain.
At first it was gentle, then it was heavy, then it was hail, then the temperature dropped to 3C. Our final Great Walk wanted to give us a Greatest Hits of all the weather we'd had on the previous tracks.
In the breaks between downpours, the forest was covered in a beautiful mist and fog that made the moss covered trees even more magical. It felt like we were entering an ancient and mystical forest, and the hoods were regularly lowered to take it all in.
By the time we’d made it to Panekire Hut at the top of the hill, we were shivering, even through the thermals. Stopping only made this worse, so we ate as quickly as possible to get back on the track. We were disappointed to miss the glorious views that we knew were out there somewhere, but I guess you can't have it all!
Peace and Tranquility
Once we'd arrived at Panekire Hut we'd noticed that we'd barely seen anyone all day. The Routeburn, Milford, Kepler, Tongariro and Abel Tasman were pretty busy. You were likely to pass by day trippers or other multi-day hikers every 15 - 30 minutes. But we saw just two other hikers on the whole of the first day of the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk.
If you're looking for a Great Walk with the peace and quiet of a back country hike, then this is the one for you.
Day 1, Section 2: Panekire Hut - Waiopaoa Hut
1 hour 54
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Cat even started running in the hope that this would warm her up. No other Great Walk had cut to the bone with freezing cold temperatures quite so much. It's definitely testament to the fact you need to be prepared for any weather on any New Zealand hike, even when the forecast looks to be in your favour.
After hopping down some steep steps, walking through a forest path that was getting wetter by the minute, we arrived at Waiopaoa Hut, a haven by the lake. The hikers who had arrived earlier had created a roaring fire which began to warm our frozen bodies. We quickly changed, dried our clothes by the fire and thought about how little you really need to be happy. A dry set of clothes, a warm fire and a cup of tea. Life is very simple on the tracks, and that is something we will miss terribly going back into 'real life'.
Once we had warmed up, we realised that there were only five other people staying in the hut (which has a capacity of 30 people). It felt like we had escaped to the countryside with only a select few others. We only had one other person in our bunk room, result!
We also had ample space to cook our meals, relax and rest up before day two.
The hut is in a glorious spot by the lake, and if we'd had better weather a dip could have been tempting!
Day 2, section 1: Waiopaoa Hut – Maranui Hut
4 hours 44
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The rain continued relentlessly throughout the night, rattling on the hut roof. Even more surprisingly, in the morning we woke up to find that it had been snowing! The smattering of white was a beautiful sight to wake up to. It wasn’t the usual kind of weather for the North Island of New Zealand in early April, in fact, locals told us they hadn't seen snow in April in over a decade!
We headed out early, knowing we had a long day ahead of us to make it to Waiharuru Hut, via a side track to Korokoro Falls. We soon made the turn off to Korokoro Falls, something we were looking forward to, having seen many breathtaking photos. However after 2km we saw the path crossed the river, but due to the rain, the river had risen and covered most of the stepping stones. It was impassable. We were so disappointed to miss them, if you've seen them, please let us know what they were like!
We sadly turned back, and began making our way towards the next hut, a further 10 kilometres on. The path meandered through some beautiful forest, up and down hills, it felt really wild. The path wasn't a clearly defined gravel path, but something which merged into the forest. It felt like we were taking a walk through secret woods, that only we knew about.
The rain stopped and the clouds cleared just enough to see the mountain tops covered in snow. We took a moment to take in what we truly didn't expect: panoramic views of snow capped mountains.
After a short while we walked through a forest of tree ferns which towered overhead. Not long after we reached Maranui Hut where the fire was blazing and we devoured our lunch.
Day 2, Section 2: Maranui Hut - Waiharuru Hut
1 hour 45
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Not wanting to leave the warmth of Maranui Hut, we reluctantly peeled ourselves away from the fire, and went back out onto the track. The track hugged the lake shore for most of way, and was clear enough to afford some lovely views.
Just as it was beginning to get dark, we reached Waiharuru Hut, hoping to warm up as soon as we got inside. We were wondering about what it would be like as we knew that we would be sharing our hut with a group of hunters.
Due to the amount of deers in the park (an animal introduced by the Europeans which has devastated the vegetation and native plants in New Zealand), hunters are allowed on the track. At first we feared that this would mean we were sharing a hut with a rowdy bunch of men with guns, drinking beer and shooting animals. What we found was the complete opposite, some really interesting guys who were lovely, and even shared their homemade fruit cake with us!
We spoke about all kinds of things: Brexit, the New Zealand flag referendum, the Great Walks and the fact that one of the men there used to live in Wokingham (a town five miles from where I grew up). Despite the cold and dark, it was a fun evening.
We retired to our bunks to see that again there were only seven of us in a hut built for 40!
Day 3: Waiharuru Hut – Onepoto
1 hour 42
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Back to Autumn
The final day started with completely clear skies and a very different landscape. We saw the lake bathed in a golden glow. The whole area looked stunningly beautiful and a huge change from the grey, gloomy and wet path we had suffered for the last two days. Luckily as the walk is so quiet, if your dates weren't set in stone as ours were (with an international flight looming) you could check the weather and book for a few days later. This is quite unlike the rest of the Great Walks where bookings are so competitive.
This was the day of our challenge, a simple two hour walk to the end of the track. In the sun we walked beside the lake and took in the views and contemplated the last nine weeks. At 10.30am on April 12th we had finally walked all 9 of the Great Walks of New Zealand in 9 weeks. It felt great as we got the water taxi back to Onepoto and our car. The lake was the prefect place to sit and contemplate our adventure, quiet and peaceful, with no one else around.
That night we celebrated with a big dinner, some champagne and a warm fire in our accommodation. However, the challenge is only over for now. In the next year DOC announced a 10th Great Walk will be opening with the potential of more in the future. Maybe our challenge has only just begun.
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Would you do the Lake Waikaremoana Trail? Would you like to do all 9 Great Walks of New Zealand? Let us know in the comments below.