The First Great Walk – Lake Waikaremoana

New Zealand is home to hundreds of incredible hikes, or walks as they call them here. We knew in coming to NZ that we wanted to spend a good portion of our time backpacking, or locally referred to as tramping. In reviewing our “Tramping in New Zealand” Lonely Planet guide we were overwhelmed and just needed a place to start our planning. The NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) has labeled eight walks and one river journey as “Great Walks.” According to our guide, “The Great Walks are New Zealand’s premier and most popular tramping tracks… This is because of

Here we go

Here we go

their outstanding scenery…” The walks are extremely diverse–not one is like the other. It seemed most obvious us to begin with the Great Walks. Now, we can’t do them all, but we hope to do five of the eight, totalling 20 days in the bush. We have gotten some funny looks from Kiwis when we tell them our plan. Many of the locals we have talked to haven’t done many, if any, of the Great Walks. At the first Great Walk the forest service rep hadn’t actually even done the walk. We found that to be a bit odd–you’d think it’d be a prerequisite.

 

 

 

Here’s a quick look at what our first Great Walk at Lake Waikaremoana experience was like:

 

DAY ONE

We were starting to get the feeling that rain in NZ was just a shower here and there. That feeling has changed… Around 7am the rain began and it didn’t stop until–well, it didn’t stop. In fact, as we ascended 1500 feet to the summit at 3700, it was no longer raining, it was snowing (and sticking). The wind was whipping around 30 mph (uh, 50 km/hr sounds better) and we were frigid. Thankfully, the Great Walks have these super cool things called huts spaced throughout the track and there was a warm hut right at the summit with people waiting to greet us. Unfortunately, this was not our ultimate destination. Also a bummer, the view from this hut is supposed to be spectacular looking one way at a panoramic shot of the lake and the opposite view all the way to the sea. We could not see either. All we could from here were a few bushes 10 feet away and a mass of clouds covering everything else.

 

Motivated by hearing the next hut had a roaring fire and knowing we needed to get off the summit before the weather got worse, we marched ahead through some of the muddiest track and coldest weather we have ever experienced hiking (save for the trip to Middle Sister with the Schneiders when it dumped snow on us in September–we thought about you guys a lot on this hike!). Nearly 6 and a half hours and 16.5 km (10 miles) after we began walking, we arrived at the Waiopoa Hut soaking wet and chilled to the bone. With water squishing between his toes, John realized that the word “waterproof” labeled on the side of his boots did not mean the same as what he thought waterproof meant. We were immediately welcomed by Tom, the hut warden. **Sidenote on the hut system: Prior to leaving the trailhead, hikers must make a reservation at each of the stops they will make along the journey. If you plan to stay in the huts, you have to know in advance which huts you’ll be staying in and pay for those huts. You cannot change your reservation once you are on the track. You must stay where you say you are going to stay. You can also choose to camp (which was our choice as it was half the price of the huts) but the same rules apply: you cannot upgrade to the huts when it’s pouring down rain, unless it’s a matter of life or death.**  As we mentioned to Tom that we would need to set up our tent he said that there was plenty of room in the hut and that it didn’t seem like tenting weather.  John said, “I thought we couldn’t do that.”  Tom said, “I won’t tell if you don’t.”  So we decided to quickly claim a bunk before Tom changed his mind. We came inside, changed into dry clothes, and stood by the fire for a least hour until we could feel our fingers again.  We were extremely thankful that we didn’t have to sleep outside as it continued to rain and the temperature dropped below freezing overnight. 

 

DAY TWO

What a difference a day makes. The weather we were expecting the day before was finally appearing. We woke to frost on the ground, but sun in the sky. This day’s hike was much easier than that of Day One. We had only 12 km/ 7.5 miles to go and most of it was around the lake so the track was relatively level. Lake Waikaremoana is a beautiful lake–we won’t bore you with details, but check out the photos for a look at what we were seeing. One of the coolest wildlife we continued to see were black swans with their baby swans, which were white. They were fascinating to watch.

 

15 minute exposure of the night sky

After hours of battling a mosquito like bug, we realized we had run into the infamous sand flies we had been warned about. They are just as awful as the legends tell. They draw blood and leave big welts that itch for days. As innocent as they look, they are viscious little creatures. 

 

DAY THREE

We woke up early and had to get going in order to arrive at our final destination by 2pm to catch the water taxi back to our car. The track today was similar to that of the day before, mostly lakeside walking. As we looked across and saw the summit we had been at just two days prior, we were bummed that we had missed such a spectacular view, but were grateful for the sun. Rather than wearing five layers of every piece of clothing like we had been the day we set out, we were wearing shorts and t-shirts and were sweating!

 

We got to the water taxi pick up point just in time and enjoyed cruising across the lake, seeing it from a different perspective. With tired bodies we climbed into the van and headed to our next destination back on the coastline, Napier.

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4 Responses to The First Great Walk – Lake Waikaremoana

  1. Joy says:

    Tom the hut warden is my new favorite person! What a tramp you had. My legs are aching just thinking about it.

  2. Joel Bock says:

    What an adventure! We had a similar experience being upgraded to a sleeping train from Italy to London once, and it sure makes all the difference in those situations! Great night exposure, by the way.

  3. Robby says:

    I’m just catching up on a few weeks worth of blogs, and this one kind of made me emotional. I got thinking about my three Great Walks, the green and yellow signs, the hut wardens, and the New Zealand rain (even though it can make a great walk fairly miserable). To be completely honest, as much as I hate sand flies, your first encounter made me pine for the chance to be in a place that I would have such an encounter again.

    Thanks for sharing you guys! You made my night.

  4. judi mittelstaedt says:

    Hey, John and Erin! it has been SO long since we visited with you, but guess what?? We are finally making our trek to New Zealand, and we would LOVE your recommendations. Do you have time to give us some “don’t miss” tips? We will not be backpacking, but we definitely travel light, love camping and roughing it, hiking, adventure, etc. We are thinking of renting a VW bus or other small RV. We leave Jan 4 and plan to wander for about two months. Gary’s Intel sabbatical serves us well. 🙂 of course, we would love to have time to sit down together with you, but we’ve just made this decision in the last month, have booked one-way tickets for flexibility, and plan to just go with the flow because we don’t have time to plan otherwise! Crazy, huh?! hope to hear from you, but can imagine how full your lives are. Much love,
    Gary and Judi

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