In New Zealand, a series of 9 walks stand above the rest in stature. They are classified as ‘Great Walks’, and are New Zealand’s pride and joy when it comes to hiking. All of them are multi-day treks, and one is actually a kayak/canoe trip instead of an actual walk. 3 are on the North Island, 5 are on the South Island, and the 9th is on New Zealand’s 3rd island, Stewart Island. I touched on one already, the Tongariro Northern Circuit, when I hiked to Tongariro Crossing – the Circuit incorporates the crossing as part of a 3-4 day hike. All that being said, my direction was east, not south, as I went to the oft forgotten Lake Waikaremoana track for my first multi-day hike.
Part of the difficulty and lack of use of the track comes from it’s location – deep inside Te Urewera National Park, it’s over 2 hours from Rotoru, with a nightmarishly long 95km of windy, narrow dirt road to get there comprising much of the journey from the central part of the Island. Coming at it from the east coast is marginally easier, but there is still a considerable tract of dirt road from Wairoa…and I was starting from Rotorua anyways. For those reasons, it’s the 2nd least walked Great Walk and the least visited by international visitors. Over 5,000 still make the 3-4 day hike each year, but compared to the more popular southern island walks it pales – The Abel Tasman trounces all at nearly 30,000, but ones like the Milford and Routeburn have over 12,000 people walk them each year.
None of that really mattered to me, I’ve got time to spare anyways, and wanted a good challenge. I still almost skipped this Great Walk – you will understand why when you see the scenery. The weather wasn’t forecast to be overly good either, but I wanted just one good day. And I got that much (and none more).
The route is most typically walked in 4 days, but I chose to do it in 3 since I was doing it alone. I knew I could manage 16-20km of hiking each day without too much issue, and would rather be walking than sitting around.
The Department of Conservation here in New Zealand, which looks after the walks, huts and campsites along the way, suggest starting from the south west spot of the track, at Onepoto. So that was where I found myself on a grey day at 830am.
The first 20 minutes or so is a fairly easy stroll that slowly increases in elevation.
After that, things go much more vertical. For the next 3 hours.
The reason is this – The Panekiri Bluff (the shadowy cliffs in the background).
Rising over 600 meters above where you start, it’s a challenging way to start a multi-day hike. Especially because you have a big pack on your back. After this, everything is pie. But those first few hours are a burn. But slowly, good views start peaking through the trees.
About 2/3 my way along the bluff, I got my wish – the clouds started to break.
Finally I came to one of the best vista spots – and the skies were nearly clear at this point. Standing high above the lake, you got an amazing view of the area.
At this point, it wasn’t much further to my lunch stop, the Panekiri hut.
It was around noon, so a perfect spot for lunch. This is often the stopping spot for people for the night. I was glad I didn’t stay – not much to do at this height, and surprisingly the views here are nothing special. Too much tree cover around the cliffs obscures everything. I had a couple tuna sandwiches then began undoing all of my hard work – 3+ hours climbing down the other side of the bluffs awaited.
You still got a few good glimpses of leaving the lake behind as the path wound it’s way down steep sections of the bluff.
After that, there wasn’t much worth taking pictures of until I got to where I would be staying the night, the Waiopaoa Hut.
I arrived around 330pm and was the first to arrive. I had the place to myself, and I felt good in my choice of staying here over Panekiri. Mainly because of the beach less than a minute from the front door.
My tired feet really enjoyed the cool refreshing dip in the water. Later in the evening 7 other hikers joined me in the hut – they were all walking the opposite route. I thought that peculiar at first, given how the DOC suggested I do it clockwise. I found out that was how the local walk this track. I’ll talk more about this point at the end though.
A sound night’s sleep in the hut and then it was off again at 8am the next morning.
After the monstrous up and downhill of yesterday over 16km, the second day was a bit flatter – it still had some good hills and totalled nearly 20km this time, but certainly was less exhausting than the day prior. I even decided to do an optional detour to the Korokoro falls.
I liked these falls because it was a sheer drop they went over. Pretty neat to look at. But I didn’t spend too much time enjoying them, instead I pressed on as the grey skies got darker. I did get a good few views of the bluff I had been hiking along yesterday.
Along the way there was quite a bit of damage to some vegetation in the area – they have a problem with wild pigs. I unfortunately didn’t see any wild bacon while I walked.
After another tuna sandwich lunch at a hut along the way, I arrived at the Waiharuru Hut at around 330pm, this time with spitting rain instead of sunshine. The newest Hut on the track, this place was fantastic.
At around 4pm the rain came, but I was already nicely settled in. And it turned out I had the hut all to myself tonight. So what did I do? Made a cozy warm fire, cooked dinner on it and enjoyed a great night reading while listening to the rain pound down on the roof.
On the morning of my third day, I only had about 8 or 9km left to cover of relatively flat terrain on my way to my pickup spot. I had 4.5 hours to walk that from when I left the hut, so I walked at a leisurely pace, enjoying the damp grey drizzly surroundings.
If it hasnt’ been apparent already, the scenery I mentioned being part of why I almost skipped this walk? Pretty much exactly like hiking on the BC coast, weather and all. It was just missing the smell of salt in the air.
Being a rainforest like environment, there was also a lot of greenery, as there had been for the rest of the walk.
Finally I came to the Hopuruahine Suspension Bridge. Cross it, and I was finished!
I was finished. About 51 hours after I started, I was done walking. All in I had hiked for about 17 hours spread over 3 days (including breaks). A good amount of walking either way. And it was a good experience. But overall, I was left a little underwhelmed.
This isn’t something that has happened often to me here in New Zealand – Almost everything has lived up or exceeded my expectations. And I had tempered what to expect from this hike a lot before starting it. I had expected poor weather and still got one very good day of weather. I expected the area to be pretty much identical to the Pacific Northwest in scenery, and it was. And being a Great Walk, I expected first rate huts (the GW huts being the most expensive type of huts in New Zealand – some are $50/night!) and excellent trail condition. The walk failed on both those accounts.
The Waiharuru Hut was the only hut of the 5 that I would say was up to any kind of standard. 2 of the huts were fairly shack like and poor conditioned. The trail had numerous problems along the way, from lots of overgrown vegetation to places where the ground had given way along the track, river crossing has been destroyed by trees, or numerous other small things. It just felt like the entire track isn’t well loved by the DOC. Very disappointing in that respect, as Great Walk huts and tracks are supposed to be top notch. Hence the ‘Great Walk’ moniker.
The scenery itself is also decidedly ‘meh’, with the exception of when you are up on the Panekiri Bluff. THAT part is fantastic. The rest, you are mostly surrounded by green forest. Which is nice, but I’ve been on numerous hikes here in New Zealand with the same thick forest surroundings. Because of that, as a multi-day hike I really didn’t feel the love of it. The Panekiri Bluff would make an outstanding one day, or 2 day, one night hike, akin to the Pinnacles. The views from the top are outstanding and it’s a good 3-5 hours one way to reach the hut at the high point. And that’s what a few people I met along the way were doing – just a day walk. The rest of it just didn’t compare after that highlight, and it wasn’t even close.
I also felt the DOC instruction of doing the Bluff first to be an erroneous idea, and I understood why nearly everyone else was doing the opposite direction of I. The log-books verified this – you write in each hut your time in and next destination, in case something goes wrong and they have to look for you. Going the DOC recommended clockwise route, you climb and descend the Panekiri bluff as the first thing you do – your pack is at it’s heaviest, your legs are freshest but also least warmed up, and you still have 30+km of hiking afterwards. Here’s what I kind of approximate the hike elevation to (not technical or accurate in the least):
Going in a counter-clockwise fashion, you have several gains – your pack will be it’s lightest when climbing the bluff, your legs shouldn’t be tired, but warmed up after 2 relatively easy days that gradually increase your hills climbed, and you also know it’s your last day. I know the fatigue from the grueling first day hit me mid-way through my second day of hiking. Going the opposite way, I know my legs and body could have handled the first two days and still been at 100% for climbing the bluff, simply because of how I felt on my 3rd day . As it was, I felt like I had only 75% on my second day, yet was back to 100% for my third day since the 2nd wasn’t terribly difficult.
Overall, it was still a great experience. It’s just one that could have, and in my mind, should have been even better, if the DOC spent a bit of time on the area.
Weather permitting I’m going to attempt a second Great Walk in less than a week’s time, and I’m hoping this time some of my complaints from this experience don’t crop up again. I know at least 1/3 of it, there won’t be a problem. The Great Walk I’ll be doing is the Tongariro Northern Circuit. I’m making a return to the spot of my single favourite day of hiking, and adding a few more onto the experience. I can’t wait. Well actually, I can. The weather is crap right now.