Before the invention of the axe, most of New Zealand’s North Island was covered in forest, and not just any forest. Out of the island sprouted some of the biggest trees on the planet; kauri, beech, totara, rimu and the towering kahikatea, up to 60metres tall.
Little of it remains. The place has become a pine mine, with radiata plantations covering vast areas. We approve of plantation timber of course, but for tourists it’s not a pretty sight to see denuded hillsides dotted with stumps and heaps of discarded branches.
Fortunately there is one magic place where the old forest survives. Te Urewera National Park is the third biggest national park in the country and the biggest native forest area on the North Island.
To get there we negotiate a lot of winding bitumen and 15kilometres of gravel to drive in from the east coast. It’s slow going, and a relief to finally pull into the Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp and admire the view – a wide lake, surrounded by thick forest, with the rocky outcrop of Panekiri Bluff hanging over it. By the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre is a spectacular double waterfall.
Geologically, the 15kilometre long Lake Waikaremoana is brand-new. Around 200BC the Shaky Isles gave a little extra shake, and a mountain came rolling downhill, blocking the Waikare River and filling the gorge with a rock-pile 300metres high. A massive forest was drowned in the process, and even today when the lake gets low, the tops of ancient trees emerge from the water.
It’s a popular holiday spot for adventurous Kiwis, particularly those who love fishing, hunting and walking. The track around the lake is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, rated ‘moderately easy’ and most trampers manage the circuit in three to four days.
Unfortunately I can only spare two days, but local DOC (Department of Conservation) Ranger Richard has plenty of other suggestions for me. ‘Why don’t you walk out to Lake Waikareiti? Sleep in Sandy Bay Hut – you won’t need to carry a tent.’
‘What’s the appeal of Sandy Bay?’ I ask. He points to an aerial photograph on the wall behind him. Mountains covered with virgin forest surround an azure lake, dotted with little islands. Sandy Bay Hut looks out at it all across a white beach. I’m sold.
Next morning, my hut pass in my pocket, I set out climbing up the Ruapani Track, which according to Ranger Richard will get me to Sandy Bay in six hours. At the Te Kumi stream the bridge has collapsed, but a little rock clambering gets me across with dry feet.
The surrounding forest is breathtaking; at least, I assume that’s what’s making me puff. It is a mixture of mighty beech and rimu, with lush tree ferns growing underneath. The beech branches twine overhead, dripping with moss and epiphytes. Their small round leaves cover the track with a carpet of red and gold.
Bird life is prolific. I spot various ducks on the little lakes I pass, while by the tracks are silvereyes, robins, tomtits and a detachment of riflemen – tiny birds with bills upturned like rifles at ‘present arms’. Chunky kaka parrots fly overhead and at one memorable moment a morepork owl glides silently to perch on a branch right in front of me.
It all puts a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. My lungs are too busy to join in the chorus, but I know they would if they could.
The track is well marked by clear orange triangles on trees, and someone has recently been along with a slasher to clear the undergrowth that had been overgrowing the path. Nonetheless, it undulates enough to have my legs chanting ‘Are we there yet?’ for hours five and six of the journey.
I’m pleased to see a sign ahead marking the turnoff to ‘Sandy Bay’ but a little fearful that it’s going to add ‘45 min’. Luckily it says ‘5 min’ and after creaking down the last few mossy steps, I’m there. Maybe Sandy Bay needs to add a snow-capped mountain to qualify as the most beautiful spot I ever seen, but it’s a strong contender for my most peaceful award.
The Maori people who lived here for undisturbed centuries were named the Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist. And there it is, clinging to the hilltops, as the setting sun turns the last clouds pink.
The hut is a typical DOC hut. It is basic but comfortable – twelve bunk beds with vinyl mattresses, cold water in the sink, table and benches, pit toilets down the track and a grandstand view of the lake. Guests need to bring their own sleeping bags, food and cooking stoves.
Hunting in parts of the park is encouraged. New Zealand is plagued by up to 80million brush-tailed possums, which were introduced from Australia in a failed effort to start a fur industry. Pigs and deer are pests too. Nevertheless, I’m nervous around guns and people who like them, so I’m disconcerted by the notes on my brochure, advising guests to ‘unload your firearm before entering huts.’ Fortunately I have the place to myself.
In the hut visitors’ book I read recent entries from walkers from nearby Gisborne, but also from Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK. The words ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ appear frequently, but so do ‘brilliant’, ‘beautiful’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘thank you!’
I add similar comments, and for good measure sketch a rough artist’s impression of a loch monster frolicking in the water at dusk. It feels like the place where that sort of thing could happen.
I’m out of mobile range and have no radio, so I know nothing of the latest financial crisis, car bombs, political wrangling or sports results. Sure, I’ll be walking back to them all tomorrow, maybe through the rain if those threatening clouds do their thing, but for the moment it feels that this is how life is supposed to be.
Getting there: Emirates flies to Sydney to Auckland for just over $500 return.
Buses operate from Rotorua to Lake Waikaremoana (4.5 hours).
Staying there: Lake Waikaremoana Motor Camp offers a range of accommodation from tent sites to self-contained chalets (up to NZ$78). Sandy Bay Hut costs NZ$15 a night, huts on the Great Walk cost NZ$25 a night and tent sites NZ$12.
When to go: The tracks can be walked year round, though the most popular tramping season is October-May.
Website: The DOC website has information about the Great Walk and takes hut and campsite bookings. www.doc.govt.nz.
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