Over the last few years, Jamie and I have started a tradition. Each year, between Christmas and New Year we’ll head off on a trip somewhere for a few days.
This year we decided to head to the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island for a few days. We’re leaving the North Island soon and we’ve yet to travel up the east coast and knew this would be our only opportunity. We decided to spend a few nights of camping in Napier exploring the surrounding area. Then another few nights in what used to be Te Urewera National Park.
Te Urewera National Park
Te Urewera National Park was the North Island’s largest National Park, located in the northeast corner of the island. In 2014 the park was dissolved due to a land dispute with the Ngāi Tūhoe tribe. A local tribe which had the land taken away from them in the past.
Ownership of the land has since been handed over to a board of trustees, which will manage it in future.
What this means in the short term is little. If you get a map, chances are it still has the national park on there, even Google Maps still says it’s a national park. Our copy of the Rough Guide to New Zealand still has the park inside of it.
The land still goes on as it always has with all the facilities within continuing to be run by the Department of Conservation.
The park itself is situated in a remote corner of the country and can only be accessed by a long unsealed, gravel road from either Rotorua or Wairoa. Despite being one of the largest national parks, it was also one of the least visited because it’s such a pain to get to.
We overlooked the national park when we first travelled around the North Island because the unsealed roads scared us. The park is also completely out of the way in terms of most travel routes. The park is so far out of the way that most won’t think it’s worth going to, but that makes it appealing to me. After all who wants to visit the same places as everybody else?
The main focal point of the national park is the huge Lake Waikaremoana. No, I’ve got no idea how to pronounce it either. When I attempted to tell my co-workers where I was going over Christmas they just laughed at my terrible pronunciation. In the end, it turns out they hadn’t even heard of the park, that’s how little known it is.
The Road to Te Urewa
A place so little known has lots of appeal. I was imagining a tranquil untouched paradise with barely a soul in sight. Unfortunately to enjoy such a thing we had to get there first.
As mentioned, the only way to get to the park is along an unsealed road. The whole road snakes its way through the park for about 120km, so it’s not for the faint of heart. However, if you travel from the south (Waiora) end of the park you only need to take the road for 15km or so.
Still, 15 kilometers of unsealed road in our car is enough to drive anybody crazy. Jamie has previously written about our old banger of a car named The Bloody Legend and the pains of driving him. We weren’t sure he had it in him to take us into the park and before we left I was having constant visions that one of our wheels would explode.
The idea of breaking down in the middle of nowhere, on a narrow, unsealed road didn’t exactly fill me with glee. I felt even worse when we were on the road. We could only go at around 30 kilometers per hour, any faster was too scary. The car threw up large pieces of gravel and each bump and crash had me afraid the worst had happened.
To make matters worse the road twists and turns through the hills. That added to the dust getting kicked up quickly made me queasy.
In the end, it seems all the worry was for nothing. The unsealed section was only for 15km or so and all over quickly. We saw plenty of others cars along the way that would have bailed us out if we ran into trouble. Yet it was still with much relief that we pulled up to the camp ground within the park. When managed to take our first relaxed look at Lake Waikaremoana we knew we’d made the right decision.
Camping by Lake Waikaremoana
Now, despite the fact its so hard to get to, Lake Waikaremoana still has a fully functional holiday park. It has a general store, electricity, warm showers and a huge kitchen. Quite impressive for a place so hard to get to. And although I mentioned that it was one of the least visited national parks, it wasn’t quiet in the slightest.
The holiday weekend is one of the most popular weekends for people to go camping, so it was no surprise that the site was completely sold out.
We parked up in the small camping section and set up our tent between a German family with two young daughters and an old elderly couple. Our camping spots so close together that privacy was non-existent.
If you ever find yourself camping in a holiday park over Christmas in New Zealand you will find yourself in a special type of hell. Any fantasies I had of a tranquil camping trip were immediately quashed when a six year old German girl walked up to us, spraying us both with a water gun. She laughed, I sighed.
What annoys me is that in this situation it seems there’s nothing I can do. If a little kid shoots you with a water pistol you just have to grin and bear it. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in an argument with their parents. “She’s just having fun! No need to be so sensitive!” Something along those lines. Well, believe it or not, I don’t go on holiday to get shot by strangers with water. I’m here to relax, so fuck off. But no, smiles all around.
Relaxation was off the cards in the camp ground, so we decided to explore the surrounding area. We found a hidden beach nearby to watch the sunset. The sun was going down over the lake lighting up the hills and clouds. We sat in our camp chairs watching the light change in the distance and I entertained Jamie with my ideas of a perfect sunset.
For me, a perfect sunset can only happen in an expansive place with lots of geographical layers. A sunset at the beach isn’t that good as there’s no focal point for the beauty. The sea is just like a long sheet underneath the sun.
Yet, if you see a sunset in the mountains it is more beautiful because you see the layer of the mountains moving away from you.
Close to you, you can see the land clearly, but the further away the land is the more misty and shrouded it becomes. Until, there in the distance is the sun, painting the sky and clouds in different shades. There must be clouds too, of different lengths and varieties as this adds to the scene.
Looking out over the lake at the sunset I had to exclaim that it was one of the better ones we’ve seen. All the pieces were in place. It all made the crappy camping situation seem like it was worthwhile. I changed my mind later that night when I woke with a start. From the tent next to ours came the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard.
The elderly couple, although quiet during the day, turned into a loud din at night. Snoring in unison with each other. They must have slept together so long that their snores had synced. Snort, pause, buzz. Snort, pause, buzz. I had to resort to earplugs to sleep. Then a pillow over the head. Typical.
A Trip to Waterfalls
The next day we woke as the sun passed into our tent. Bright and early at 6.30am, giving us the whole day to explore the park.
We first headed on a hike to some nearby waterfalls. Walking through the forest finally gave some tranquillity. All we could hear was the sound of birds in the trees. The forest in Te Urewera is mostly composed of native plants, which makes it quite unique.
When the Maori and British came to New Zealand they destroyed a lot of the native forest. Replacing it with grass for grazing animals or more European plants. In consequence there is little untouched forest in the country left.
There’s something scary about a New Zealand forest. All the plants look strange, like monsters exploding from the ground to gobble up the world. Ferns line the ground, pushing their way in front of you like they’re trying to reach out and take your legs. The leaves constantly rustle, either because of the wind or birds, leaving you on edge. But the sweet song of birds ringing out through the trees is relaxing, making the whole thing a confusing experience.
Arriving at the waterfalls, I could only feel disappointed. I always feel like waterfalls seem to offer more than they deliver. You expect something amazing, but then you get there and you realise: Oh, it’s just water…falling. I can’t seem to understand the appeal. Unless it’s especially unique, giant or crazy looking, a waterfall is a waterfall is a waterfall.
I’m tempted to pull out that age old saying. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. All I can think of when I look at them is that its just a running tap magnified. Do we stare at our taps in amazement? Only if we’re crazy.
A Hike Upwards
Now a lot of this is starting to sound negative, like we didn’t have a good time. But we soon did, as we set off on another hike up Panekire Bluffs. The hike promised stunning views of the lake and no mention of waterfalls.
For an hour we struggled along a trail that was uphill all the way. Glancing through the trees we could see ourselves getting higher and higher. Finally we made it to the lookout and wouldn’t you know it, the view was stunning.
We ate our lunch in silence looking out over the edge. In such circumstances there isn’t much to say. All you can do is sit back and admire the world around you. Part of me was amazed by the view, but another part was uneasy. The cliff edge was so close and the wind was blowing hard. One slip or especially long gust and I could be over. Falling to my doom. The only way to take a photo was to inch toward the edge on our bums, too scared to stand up.
Once we’d had our fill of the view, we had a choice. Continue on or go back to camp to relax. We decided to do the latter. The view was so good that it seemed it would be hard to top, so any more effort in hiking would have been in vain.
As we reached the end of our hike, I decided that I couldn’t come all the way to Lake Waikaremoana without going for a swim. Jamie watched in amusement as I lowered myself into the freezing cold water. I lasted about 45 seconds before getting back out to bask in the sun. Sitting on a rock like a lazy lizard.
Was It Worth it?
Now the question is, was it worth it? To travel all that way along a horrible unsealed road. Stuck between a terrible German family and a snoring couple. Both hell bent on ruining the trip.
Well, I’d say it was. Because how often these days do we get to experience places that are so untouched by human hands? Where we can sit in silence alone, eating our lunches?
That’s worth all the snores in the world.