Lake Waikaremoana was a brutal introduction to the realities of the wilderness. Post-Tongiraro Crossing I confidently believed I had faced much of what Mother Nature had to offer. Sun stroke? Summit? Lahar? Easy. I entered my next tramp brimming with naïve confidence; the New Zealand wilderness had nothing new to throw at me.
I was wrong.
Mother Nature taught me some brutal lessons on my first multi-day hike. I now know I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to outdoor survival. As a recently converted metropolitan and nocturnal Londoner there are things I have simply never been exposed to. It turns out you cannot reverse your vampire-like existence overnight. Or even three nights.
Here are the lessons I learnt at Lake Waikaremoana, sea of rippling waters.
Location: Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera, North Island, NZ
Length: 4 days, 3 nights
KM: 56.07 km
Lesson One: Rainfall
As we pulled up to Onepoto rain lashed down, a hiccup we had not expected. Fortunately, the Onepoto shelter allowed us to organise our gear drly into our packs. We foolishly had one waterproof packliner between us so we were forced to empty our packs and divide our gear into waterproof and non-waterproof piles. This turned out to be a wise decision for events to come.
By the time we were packed it was already 2pm but we aimed to make it up the Panekire Bluff by nightfall. Loaded wth four days worth of food, our packs were the heaviest they would be on the trip. This coincided with a steep uphill climb, time constraint and heavy rainfall. The climb itself was steep in parts but manageable. It is an intense cardio workout but flatter sections of the track provided some recovery time. Our positive spirit pulled us through and we embraced the ascent. The bush was green and luscious, drenched in life-giving rain and teeming with creatures of all sizes. Fraser was lucky enough to spot a stag.
The foliage of the trail sheltered us partly from the rain but we were soaked before long. The contents of our packs would have been ruined without packliners. However, our gaiters and hiking boots were effective in protecting our feet which remained dry. We had both opted for activewear tops with waterproof jackets, a relatively breathable combination.
The Waikaremoana track is renowned for its beautiful view points. However, when we arrived we were enveloped in a thick cloud that obscured the water and birdlife we could hear below. We didn’t know it then but these were to play a big part in our journey.
Lesson Two: River Crossings
The English countryside; little white feet slipping and sliding over slimy rocks; splashing, shrieking and giggling. These things sum up my childhood memories of rivers. I had no adult experience of rivers until New Zealand and I hadn’t been filled with confidence since Fraser had taken me to the famous Rere Rockslide of Gisborne. The slide is comprised of steep, slippery rocks over which I had to slide on a boogie board and pretend to have fun. My inner, uptight Londoner was truly exposed.
My inexperience of natural bodies of water is only a partial excuse for events at Waikaremoana; we were also very naïve. The most important thing is that we’ve learnt from our mistakes!
Our decision to camp on the beautiful lakeside resulted in us tramping off-trail and bashing through the bush. We popped out on a riverbank and sent dozens of swans squawking; white juveniles hurried after their black-feathered parents. Crossing the river appeared to be the easiest way forwards. The water looked knee-deep and had a island conveniently situated in the centre. Having learnt my lesson in the Tongiraro I was now equipped with waterproof gaiters. I felt confident.
Fraser went first. When he made it to the island a nesting swan hissed warningly at him but remained perched on her eggs. I followed, encouraged by his success. With a squelch I sunk up to my knees in the mud and water rushed down my gaiters and into my boots. I was metres from the angry swan and tried to free my legs in panic. Remembering I did not have a waterproof packliner I threw my bag onto the island.
I heard a sudden splash and saw Fraser lying face-down in the mud by the shore. He tried to scramble up the riverbank but kept sinking back into the mud, buried up to his waist. My instant reaction was to laugh hysterically. Fraser eventually succeeded in army-crawling up the bank, covered in thick mud. Still laughing I wiggled my legs until they slowly came loose. The sixty seconds this took felt like an age. I’m certain that if I’d been buried up to my waist like Fraser, I would not be able to get myself out.
The crossing was an eye-opener and demonstrated how a simple obstacle can become dangerous. Unknown to me, Fraser’s face had been pushed into the mud by the weight of his pack, almost submerging his mouth and nose completely. He had been unable to lift his upper body without removing his pack and throwing it. Although he was only a metre from shore he struggled to get onto the riverbank. The mud felt like quick-sand and we narrowly avoided serious trouble.
Lesson Three: Freshwater Lakes
Lake Waikaremoana is a beauty to behold. Fraser and I camped by its edge for two nights. We had arrived at the lake dripping wet and caked in mud. It was bliss after our arduous tramp. The water was invitingly cool and clear in the thirty degree sunshine. I took an unexpected plunge into it after being chased by a belligerent bumble bee and slipping on the smooth bottom of the shallows.
The lake stretches kilometres from shore to shore but there was an island not far from our camp spot. It seemed like a great idea to swim out to it. I was overconfident; as a recreational swimmer I regularly swim fifty laps in the pool without breaking a sweat… But I’d never swam across a lake before.
The lake shelf gradually disappeared into the depths as we swam, making it hard for me to keep a nervous eye out for fish. I wasn’t expecting the shelf to suddenly vanish. As we swam past the drop-off I felt the first pangs of panic. The water stretched deep blue and black beneath me. I felt incredibly vulnerable and my immediate concern was what might be swimming underneath me. The only experience I can liken this to was my dip into the Blue Lagoon of the Amazon Rainforest where I discovered the water was teeming with wildlife such as camen and anacondas. My dip didn’t last long.
Wildlife worries were wiped from my mind as my attention turned to my progress. I noticed how thick the water felt against my body. My limbs were tiring and it felt like I was swimming through syrup. It was then I remembered that fresh water lacks the buoyancy of salt water and is notoriously hard to swim in.
A thought struck me: What would happen if I was too tired to make it? I had no idea how far away the island was. In fact, I had no idea how far I could swim without stopping; I usually pause between every lap in the pool to catch my breath.
I looked forwards: the island looked far away
I looked backwards: the shore looked far away
I looked down: the lake stretched blue and black beneath me
This tale has a happy ending but I learnt a brutal lesson. Bodies of water are not to be taken lightly. Do not overestimate your own abilities, or even guess them. There’s a reason why tourists, many English, wind up lost or injured in the New Zealand wilderness. I was lucky to have Fraser with me and we both made it to the island safely.
Lake Waikaremoana was the first hike to expose me to the truly unforgiving nature of the wilderness, its indifference exceeded only by its beauty. Trying new things proved more dangerous than anticipated and we were fortunate to hurt only our pride. I was like a fish out of water.
I should have expected no less from the sea of rippling waters.