Josh McArthur

Walking the Waikaremoana

05 Jan 2015

View from Bald Knob, Panekiri Ridgeline

The Waikaremoana track is one of the Department of Conservation’s nine great walks, and is located in the Te Urewara area of the North Island, inland from the East Cape of the North Island of New Zealand. Recently, Te Urewera was one of New Zealand’s many National Parks, however a recent Treaty of Waitangi settlement has made the park a seperate legal entity, managed by a board comprised of Tūhoe and crown stakeholders (This page on the DOC website has more info).

The Track is 46km long, and has both huts and campsites along the route (unlike many other great walks, which tend to have hut accomodation only). It is not a loop track, and so requires some form of transport to get between the two ends of the track - Onepoto and Hopuruahine Landings. It can be walked in either direction, but the most common direction is to start at Onepoto, the south end of the track, and walk through to finish at Hopuruahine.

I had the pleasure to walk the Waikaremoana track recently, over the 2014/2015 summer break. The rest of this post covers my personal experience of the track, it’s accomodations, facilities, and transport options.

The Track

Interestingly, although it is most common to walk the track from South to North (that is, from Onepoto to Hopuruahine), the spaces on the track when I went to book made it necessary to go the opposite direction, starting at Hopuruahine and finishing at Onepoto. I found this direction much better. It avoids the tough climb on the first day of the tramp (in the usual direction), as the climb from the other side is much better track, and is on the second-to-last day, so packs are just that little bit lighter.

The track condition is variable, depending on the track’s age. With the Urewera’s high rainfall, bogs and mud is pretty regular, with some creative workarounds on the edges of some bogs. Given the cost of doing the track (Either $14 or $32 depending on whether you are camping or staying in the huts), I would expect more work on maintaining the track though. During summer, there’s DOC staff on the track full-time, and while we saw a crew doing some weed-eating to keep the grass back around a couple of huts, there’s plenty of scope to add a bit of gravel on some of the boggier bits. To DOC’s credit, the section of track on the second-to-last day climbing to the Panekire bluff is fantastic (and looks very recent). 454 (that my partner counted) steps make the very steep ascent tiring, but over quickly. The old track can be seen beside, and at times underneath the staircases on this part of the track, and after seeing this I can appreciate the improvement.

The track is clearly marked with DOC-standard orange triangles, with a reassuring larger triangle every now and then. With no other tracks in the close vicinity of the track, though, it’s largely a case of following the track - getting lost on this one would be pretty tough (which isn’t to say it doesn’t happen!). There was just one confusing section, on the last day just past the halfway point on the descent down the Panekire ridgeline, where what looked like a new benched track had been cut, but the orange triangles followed the old track for a few hundred meters. We followed the bench track, preferring a better surface and gradient to track markers, but this wasn’t necessarily the right move. I’m not sure why there isn’t a sign or markers on both routes here to provide guidance, but can advise that the two sections of track do re-join eventually. Expect to be without markers for 10 or 15 minutes, and carry on!

A bit of a mud bog on the Waikaremoana Track
A bit of a mud bog on the Waikaremoana Track

The Accomodation

There’s two options for accomodation on the track - huts, or campsites. Generally, the huts seem to be the more popular option, especially with families with younger children (sidenote: this track has the highest number of families with kids I’ve seen - but I still think Abel Tasman is the easier track to start with). The huts, though, are twice the price of the campsites, and you certainly shouldn’t expect any luxuries. During the tramp, I checked out most of the huts on the track, and they’re all of a similar standard. You can expect a DOC-standard vinyl mattress, a roof over your head, a wood-fired stove, and, if you’re staying in one of the cutting-edge huts, solar-powered LED lighting.

Since I had a lightweight tramping tent, I went with the camping option, and was glad that I did. The campsites have shelters with water, a long-drop toilet and a cleared area of grass for tents. Each campsites have a maximum capacity of 15-20 tents, though some are smaller. I enjoyed the privacy and self-contained nature of the camping option, although I stayed in a hut the last night, at Panekire Hut (there’s no camping available there, I assume due to the fairly exposed location of the hut on the edge of a bluff, and the frequently adverse weather there.

Campsite on the first day
Typical campsite - on the first day

One important note is that neither the huts or campsites are provided with gas cookers. This is a key difference from some of the South Island great walks, where cookers are provided in the Summer season. I ran into one family starting the walk at Panekire, who only realized this after arriving at the hut after a 4 to 5 hour ascent up the ridgeline. Hopefully they were able to beg and borrow a cooker and gas for the remainer of their walk! At a pinch, you can cook on top of the wood-burner, but this’ll only work if you’re staying in huts, and will certainly add to your cooking time. Best to take along a small gas cooker and a couple of cannisters of gas.

One aspect of the track accomodation that disappointed me was the communication and service from the rangers who are assigned to stay at the huts for a number of days. Previous great walks that I’ve done have had weather forecasts posted somewhere in each hut, along with any notes about upcoming sections of track. Waikaremoana huts do not do this, and this was unanticipated by me, as I had expected to be able to get updates on the weather in this way. I’m also used to rangers carefully checking hut and campsite bookings to make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be, and this only happened for me at Panekire Hut. To be fair, this is the only hut I stayed at on the track, but the campsites all require booking plenty of time in advance as well. It was really disappointing to have paid for a space in the campsite, and then not have this enforced at all. I heard after I got off the track that this is fairly well known amongst backpackers especially, and quite a few people camp the track without a booking and just gamble on not being checked on. I feel like this is a dishonest way of doing the track, since the fees go into maintenance and upkeep of the facilities, but I also feel like it reflects a failure of DOC to enforce their own restrictions on usage of facilities. At a minimum, having a ranger visit all of the campsites that are easily accessible from their assigned hut should really be happening - it gives campers the opportunity to ask questions and find out about the track ahead, and is probably useful for search and rescue purposes if trampers are checking in with a ranger as they reach each campsite.

Start & End Accomodation

DOC recommends the Waikaremoana Holiday Park for accomodation before and after the track - which is reasonable, since it is DOC that runs this park. Instead of the Waikaremoana Holiday Park though, I would recommend Big Bush. Big Bush Holiday Park is a few kms down the road from one end of the track at Onepoto Landing, and has campsites and backpackers. It also looked to have some cabins as well. Big Bush is the base of the water taxis and the predominant shuttle service in the area, and is also a lot closer to the start (or end!) of the track than Waikaremoana Holiday Park, which is right in the middle between the start and end.

I got the impression that they weren’t particularly impressed with the DOC holiday park - apparently, Big Bush used to be the Waikaremoana Holiday Park, and DOC renamed their park to match, forcing them to re-brand. Between that, and DOC recommending their park on all the track documentation, I believe that the DOC Waikaremoana Holiday Park gets the lion’s share of the visitors.

Full disclosure though, I stayed at the DOC park. Why? Really, it never occurred to me as an option. I left the car parked at Big Bush while I did the track though, and I wish I’d stayed there. It was a pain to travel the 13km (20 minutes on gravel road) between Waikaremoana Holiday Park and Big Bush, especially after finishing the track.

Even without this, I wouldn’t rate Waikaremoana Holiday Park. It’s typically extremely busy during the summer months, and seemed a little cramped in places. Tent site boundaries are strictly enforced, and as a tramper with an early start, it’s not great to be randomly placed next to a multi-family group, all with excitable young kids. So I think - stay at Big Bush. There’s tonnes more room for camping, seems that you can pop your tent wherever you want, and the water taxi van leaves right from where you’re staying!

Transport

Transport arrangements depend on which end of the track you start from, and how you want to get there The most common option seems to be a water taxi from Big Bush (there’s theoretically other providers, but I saw no sign of them). Road shuttles are also available (either from Big Bush, or others), but the gravel roads in the area are downright unpleasant and should be avoided wherever possible. The water taxi is a pretty typical dual-engine type similar to the smaller water taxis used on the Abel Tasman track (they seat about 15). I opted to start from Big Bush, with a short ride in a van packed with people and packs to Onepoto Landing (one end of the track), and then a 20 minute water taxi across the lake to the opposite end of the track and Hopuruahine Landing. This costs $50pp, and included a pick-up at Onepoto Landing a few days later to return to Big Bush and save me from walking the extra 4km down the road to where the car was parked at the holiday park.

One thing that I was unsure about before heading into the Ureweras was track parking. DOC holds no responsibility for vehicle break-ins or theft, which is fair enough - both ends of the track are remote and unmonitored, and there’s not really anything stopping thieves. Because of this, I parked at Big Bush Holiday Park for the duration of the track, so at least there’d be people around. I did see a few cars parked at the track end though, so it does happen. Really, it’s the same conditions as any other tramp - there’s no guarantee of security, but in many ways, the remoteness is in your favour. There’s plenty of parking space at Onepoto Landing, but there wasn’t much space at Hopuruahine. If you’re determined to park at the track end, you’re probably walking from Hopuruahine back towards your vehicle parked at Onepoto.

Generally though, I had no problems with transport. It was smooth, quick, and pretty affordable considering that the $50pp fee covered two van rides, parking for the duration, and the boat ride itself.

Timing

This is one of these tracks where you can spend as little or as long as you want doing it (DOC bookings permitting of course!). Three or four nights seemed to be the common number, and I did it in three, starting at Hopuruahine, staying at Waiharuru campsite, Waiopaoa campsite, and Panekire hut. The obvious effect in how long you’d like to spend doing the track is how long you’d like to spend each day walking. I ended up with a fairly short day the first day of about two hours, resulting in a lazy afternoon at the campsite, but meaning I had a long, seven-hour day the following day to reach Waiopaoa. The final two days were fairly consistent at about 3 hours each. Many families add an extra night to break that 7-hour day up, but conversely, quite a few people seem to do it in two nights with long walking days, and there were two or three people I ran into doing the whole track in a single day.

I feel like the three night option is about right for most people, but it was restricting being required to choose the campsites we would stay at months in advance. Looking at a map, the track between Waiharuru and Waiopaoa looks like it follows the lake and would be pretty flat, but it had a couple of saddle crossings, rocks to clamber over, mud pools, and the terrain undulated right through the day, meaning that it was unexpectedly tiring. If I’d known how tough that day was going to be, I would have stayed at the campsite back from Waiopaoa, at Korokoro, and made up the time the following morning. I guess the lesson here is to consider not only the distance, but also the type of track you’ll be travelling. DOC times tend to be slightly imprecise due to the need to cater to many different walking paces, and I usually run shorter than the DOC time - I wasn’t expecting to take as long as the track guide said it would on the second day, and didn’t have a great time then.

Equipment

I almost always over-equip when I tramp. I’m a bit of an accessorizer, but that’s not uncommon on Great walks I think. I’m slowly coming round to more minimalist view though, which is why I’m writing this section.

If you’re doing a great walk for the first time, this is probably your first serious multi-day tramp. The temptation is to throw everything in you might possibly need, and it’s surprisingly tough to resist (I know, I’ve been there). The trick is to focus on the essentials, and prepare to make-do for anything you might forget to bring.

If you’re camping, a tent and a sleeping mat are pretty important. Remember you’re carrying the tent for hours, not just from your car to the ground. I split our two-person tent with my partner - she takes the poles and pegs, and I take the tent itself. This works out pretty evenly.

Clothes are also important, but you don’t need as many as you think you might. I now take one set of walking clothes (light and breathable), one set of clothes to wear around the campsite (relatively warm and comfortable), and a few clothes designed for particular conditions (thermals and fleece for if it’s cold, rain jacket for rain, sun hat and glasses etc). The epiphany I had was that, after a couple of hours walking with a heavy pack, after the first day - everybody smells. There’s no point taking different clothes to wear each day for a 3 or 4 day walk - just make sure that when you’re going to finish up your day, you’ve got a less whiffy set of clothes to change into for closer quarters, such as a hut or tent, where your stench may be more noticible.

Food is vital (for me, anyway). Try and take lightweight things that don’t need a bunch of ingredients to cook. On this tramp, I took these neat things called Backcountry Meals. They’re full “gourmet” meals that have been dehydrated, so they weigh less than 200 grams for a satchet that feeds two people. To cook, you boil water, add water to sachet, seal and wait for 10 minutes. Delightfully easy after a long day. Each sachet costs about $13-15 each though, so they’re not the cheapest option. Dehydrated food also has a kind of distinctive texture as well, which can get tiring after a few days. Next trip, I’m planning to do more soup & noodle type dishes, and might even splash out and take some veggies. Perhaps just one Backcountry Meal, as a treat, but I found it too much night after night.

I just used my Android phone for photos on this trip, and it did mostly fine. I turned Airplane mode on and the battery lasted the whole trip (I turned the phone off about 7pm each night, but it was on from about 8:30am each morning til then, so lasted well). Don’t take an SLR unless you’re going on a dedicated photography trip and are willing to take care of it constantly! I also took a cool little HD video camera that I have called a Polaroid Cube on this walk. I did way more videoing than I usually do, and I hope that it’ll eventually become my main image AND video capture tool when tramping, since it’s cheap and fairly resilient to damage, but I still don’t quite trust it to not lose anything yet, we’ll see.

I do hope that this post hasn’t become to preachy. When I was researching my tramp on the Waikaremoana track, I was struck by the lack of guidance aside from the official DOC great walk guide, and I hope that this provides just a little useful information when anyone keen to get out there and knock this one off!

Helpful information: