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Upstream to the natural dam

Upstream to the natural dam
 
 
   
   
 
 

I WATCHED the sunrise from the bridge spanning the Wairoa near its mouth. The old Portland Island lighthouse stood at the end of the bridge, shining its bright light downstream. It had been moved here in 1961 upon the installation of a more automated lighthouse. The bridge was built in 1990 following Cyclone Bola, a massive cyclone that hit the town in March 1988 dumping nearly 900 millimetres of rain over a couple of days creating devastating floods. The old bridge was washed away during the storm and the one I was standing on was rebuilt to bridge the two halves of the town.

Sunrise on Wairoa River

Sunrise on Wairoa River

Wairoa is the Maori name for long water, no doubt a reference to the river now silently meandering its way through the town to the nearby sea on the North Island’s east coast.

It is now a town of around 4200 people at the northern end of Hawkes Bay. Europeans initially settled in the area as it was a good whaling station where they also traded mainly flax with the Maori. Although steadily declining in recent decades, efforts have been made to revitalise the town, particularly with the new space program soon to send satellites into low Earth orbit using rockets launched from the nearby Mahia Peninsula. Otherwise it is an isolated town well off the North Island’s main tourist routes.

Looking upstream towards lake

Looking upstream towards lake

The sky was mostly overcast with mid-level cloud soft from the north westerly bringing rain onto the west coast of the North Island but as usual, drying out as the clouds cross the backbone of mountains stretching from Wellington north eastward to East Cape. Today we were heading inland towards this mountain backbone, but staying on the eastern side.

The sun suddenly broke through a narrow gap in the cloud on the horizon, brilliantly lightening up the clouds of the eastern sky strong yellows, oranges and browns. The spectacular light reflected perfectly off the almost mirror smooth water of the river as it slowly mulled its way towards the sea. Too early in the morning for pleasure craft to break its surface, the flat water passed undisturbed.

Sun rising downstream

Sun rising downstream

Looking upstream the sky remained grey apart from some small low clouds hovering about the triangular hills of mudstone baked with brown grass. The hills above Takitimu Marae were glowing a rust colour as were those clouds.  The Marae stood hidden in trees on the river's bend.  For a few minutes the sun shone bright through the gap in the clouds, but I knew this was the last sunshine I was going to see for a while – perhaps a few days. Quickly the brightness ahead of me dulled as the sun continued rising through the gap beginning the near equinoctial late summer day. It was the last day of summer – a leap year day, occurring only once every four years.

Red hills at dawn

Red hills at dawn

The street lights over the bridge were still dimly illuminated guiding the occasional early worker either into the middle of the town just past the lighthouse, or northwards to a small suburban area and on towards Eastland the other way. The town was hardly spectacular with most of the commercial buildings rising only a single storey above the streets with a scattering of two storey buildings. The bridge ended in a roundabout with the main road heading south towards Napier bypassing much of the sleepy town centre.

Early morning in Wairoa

Early morning in Wairoa

The minivan pulled into the hotel around two hours late. A temporary bridge in a road works site had accidentally moved causing our driver to be stuck in a remote location away from mobile phone access with nowhere to go – either forward or backward to the camping ground where they were based. By now drizzle had started falling in Wairoa. Thankfully the office had eventually been able to make contact with my hotel and finally the van arrived, the driver in her bright pink top rather apologetic. There was an older couple with us in the van starting the other end of the track to us. No doubt we will be passing pass them at around the half way mark in about two days’ time.

Road up to the lake

Road up to the lake

After the long wait it was good to be leaving Wairoa behind us and following the river upstream towards the lake. Once out of town a sign said 55 kilometres to Waikaremoana and 218 kilometres to Rotorua along the road, one of New Zealand’s most remote highways. A long straight stretch took us across the floodplain to Frasertown at the junction of the Wairoa and Waiau Rivers. From here the rivers turned off along heading in either direction along the base of the foothills. We crossed the Wairoa River and turned left to follow the Waiau River westward before reaching the Waikaretaheke River at which we turned northwards to Lake road and follow into the hills.

Walking along the road

Walking along the road

The swift flowing river ran through a narrow valley between low and steep grassy hills of mudstone with deciduous trees lining the banks, so I saw little of the river. When I did see it, the crystal-clear water was cascading over boulders. The vegetation grew almost right down to the water giving away the obvious sign that it drained from a lake.

Rolling hills of the rising lowlands

Rolling hills of the rising lowlands

Most of the trees growing along the river were exotic weeping willows introduced by the early European settlers in their effort to make the lost world Gondwanaland remnant New Zealand more British. Scattered among the willows were a few large native trees hundreds of years old that had somehow survived the clearing of over a century ago when farmers first settled the area. The steeper banks of the hills were covered in tree ferns, but most hills were covered in long brown grass. Some of the hillsides were covered in pine plantations.

Mangahohi Bridge road works

Mangahohi Bridge road works

The light rain continued falling as we continued heading up the valley. The hills grew taller and the valley closed in. The winding road continued until we reached a sign saying Mangahohi Bridge replacement. We slowed down entering the road work area and upon turning a tight bend we could see the road diverted to the temporary bridge which had been moved by a truck this morning causing the delay in our pick up time. A bus was slowly crossing it and fortunately made its way across so we followed suit, passing several men in bright orange working and a large digger clearing the river base to the left ready to install the new bridge.

Digging new bridge foundations

Digging new bridge foundations

Past the bridge the valley widened for a couple of kilometres before we crossed the Mangapapa Stream where the sealed road turned to gravel. Although we were still following the Waikaretaheke River, we were already over a hundred metres above sea level. The gravel road climbed a little steeper heading up the side of the valley with a couple of farm houses tucked away. Although drizzle was falling, a vehicle travellign in the same direction some distance ahead of us was leaving us in a cloud of dust. As the road rose up the side of the valley, we could see across it to a dark range rising against the cloudy skyline. The low cloud was tugging against the rounded summits of the range. This was the Panekire Range, which we will be following the top of today and early tomorrow.

First view of Panekire Range

First view of Panekire Range

The road dropped to cross the cascading river before beginning an ascent of the valley on the other side. After two kilometres of gravel (or metal as they call it in New Zealand), the road became sealed again in anticipation of the long ascent of the great landslides. We crossed a single lane bridge over the river and within a kilometre the road reverted to gravel as we began the long climb up the hill.

Gravel road following the river

Gravel road following the river

The road briefly turned to seal again as we reached Tuai, the village centre of the Waikaremoana Power Scheme. A side road to the right headed to the power station about a kilometre away in the valley. By now we were three hundred metres above sea level, just over half the altitude of the lake’s surface but still about forty metres below its deepest point. From the village the road quickly returned to gravel and continued climbing the hill.

Tuai

Tuai

We stopped at the camp base of Big Bush Water Taxi in a small gully at about 375 metres above sea level. There were several cabins and the office from where the van had set off this morning. Following the briefest of stops where we picked up another couple who were starting from the far end of the track, we continued heading up the hill along the sealed road passing through scrub with tree ferns poking out of it – the first signs of the magnificent ancient forest we were going to encounter. Forest had once covered the enormous landslide, but it had been cleared when the Europeans began settling here.

Pocket of farmland on the slope

Pocket of farmland on the slope

Once more the road turned to gravel at the Kokako Junction just past the camp base, the driver saying the highway remains gravel all the way across the ranges to Murupara mainly as a measure to keep this a quiet road. Te Urewera is one of the most remote places in the North Island, and the locals want to keep it that way.

Lake Kaitawa

Lake Kaitawa

Heading further we reached Kaitawa Junction at around 490 metres above sea level. Looking over the edge of the valley from the van we could see a couple of small lakes below us, with power stations and pipes heading into each one. The small one nearby was Lake Kaitawa at 450m and the much larger Lake Whakamarino at 255m. The lakes were the outlets of each power station.  The view was clear apart from the dust kicked up by a bus limping up the valley ahead of us on its way across to Rotorua.

Lake Whakamarino

Lake Whakamarino

There are three power stations, with the water gravity fed from the lake to reach the turbines at high pressure generating electricity for the local area.

The three power stations generate enough electricity to supply 55,000 households. At the time of its completion in 1948 these supplied about a quarter of New Zealand’s electricity. Over the decades, the population and demand for electricity has greatly increased and numerous larger power stations have opened throughout the country. As a result, these power stations now only generate about 1.5 percent of New Zealand’s power. It is still able to keep much of Eastland and Hawkes Bay fully supplied with its electricity needs should the national grid from the South Island be cut off.

Dusty road up the giant landslide

Dusty road up the giant landslide

The road left the valley entering thick scrub over rough terrain where the sandstone slip would have come down from the Panekire Range on top of the mudstone slip. Rain began falling again as we passed through the scrub and occasional large tree. The area had obviously been cleared though as 2200 years is enough time for a forest to fully establish itself.

Top of the great landslide

Top of the great landslide

We reached a junction where we turned off to the left crossing over  The main road continued would shortly reach the lake and follow its edge around to the far end of the track and continue over the mountains towards Rotorua. A hundred metres or so the road goes over the Onepoto Caves, some hollow formation overhangs naturally occurring from enormous boulders brought down in the great landslides.

Through the bush to Onepoto

Through the bush to Onepoto

The road we had turned off crossed over very low saddle across the top of the great landslide before gradually descending along its’ rim for a hundred metres or so to a junction with the obvious dark green sign with golden yellow writing. 200 metres to the right was the Onepoto Boat Ramp where we will be ending this adventure in a few days’ time. The road to the left led 400 metres to the start of the track.

Onepoto

Onepoto

The narrow gravel road passed through a tunnel of overarching tree ferns and scrubby forest to a small clearing at another junction where the road to the right headed down to the lake which we could now see for the first time. The bluish grey waters were ruffled to a choppy swell under grey clouds sweeping in from the north west. It was no longer raining though. Rising from the east side of the lake was the steep scrubby cliff of the Panekire Range, towering about six hundred metres above the surface. The range swept back so we could only see the first section of it to Te Rahui Point, above which stood a 964 metre high peak on the range. Beyond the range the rest of the lake was framed with low rolling ranges of soft mudstone emphasising the dramatic rise of Panekire.

Intake vents

Intake vents

The bay sweeping around to the start of the range was Sandy Bay, named after the sand from the crushed sandstone brought down by the landslide. We were currently directly above what had been the bottom of the gorge before the landslide. Now below us this part of the lake was the intake of the power station where the pipes run through the lip of the lake below us. On the other side of the road were two concrete surge towers, square in the base and rising nearly double the height as the length of the base. These had vents out of them where water could escape if needed to prevent any damage to the turbines or fittings down at the power station. Behind the towers the thick scrub concealed the 743 metre high Raekahu Hill (rising about 150 metres above the lake) which collapsed off the Panekire Range during the great landslide.

Mum at start of track

Mum at start of track

The road ended in a small circular car park from where a one-lane wide grassy path led about fifty metres to the entrance to a gazebo looking like a Maori shelter. A large sign beside the path confirmed this was the start of the track. With bold letters “Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk” and underneath the sign said “Lake Kiriopukae Armed Constabulary Redoubt” indicating the area was once used for police and military training. Behind the sign was a large stand of New Zealand flax, indicating the ground here was quite swampy. A smaller newer sign on the other side of the path also said “Waikaremoana Great Walk”.

Me at the start of the track

Me at the start of the track

After posing at the large sign we headed along the only flat section of today's track to the small shelter. It contained information about the power scheme, the track and the wildlife. We were now on our way.

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29 February 2016

 

Hawkes Bay

New Zealand

 

39°00'S
177°10'E

0 - 615m ASL

 

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