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Hiking the Manuoha Track, Lake Waikaremoana

After such a brilliant week hiking high in the rocky Ruahane Range my next objective was to immerse myself in the lush rainforest somewhere. I decided to go to the Te Urewera National Park and Lake Waikeramoana, which I could get to by bus and then hitch-hiking on the gravel road, which keeps the visitor numbers down. Te Urewera national Park has the largest area of forest in the north island. This region is the ancestral home of the Maori tribe Ngai Tuhoe – the children of the forest, who have lived there for centuries and kept foresters and farmers away. There are more than 650 types of native plants found there, some nationally rare, along with nearly every species of North Island forest bird can be found there. The lake was formed only 2,200 years ago by a massive landslide, which blocked a narrow gorge along the Waikaretaheke River. The water backed up behind this landslide to form a lake up to 248 metres deep. The vegetation of the Waikaremoana area is ever changing through disturbances by volcanic activity, fire and storm damage, and deer, pigs and possums that have had a major impact on the ecology of the forest and its bird life; consequently hunting of these animals is encouraged by the Dept. of Conservation. Kiwis have been decimated to a tiny proportion of their original numbers with predation on the chicks by invasive stoats being the main cause. Traps have been laid for stoats, possums and rats.

Many people go to Lake Waikeramoana to do one of New Zealand’s Great Walks that circuits the lake, but I wanted to get as far into the wilderness, and as high up in the time and with the food that I had available so I selected the Manuoha Track that undulates along a long exposed ridge, with the Manuoha Hut at 1,392 metres as my destination. I took the bus to Wairoa and hitchhiked from there but there was very little traffic so I had to be very patient. I managed to get to just before the lake in three rides, and walked the last few miles before getting a ride with a policeman who took me to a campground on the lake where I had my first encounter with the notorious New Zealand sand flies, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they are nowhere near as bad as the tropical sand flies that I’m only too familiar with. They are just as annoyingly persistent but easier to see and the bites don’t sting or itch as much, although I wasn’t experiencing the plagues of them that I’ve seen in videos. The next day I walked around the lake to a nicer spot to camp where there was a lot of pampas grass and lupins growing, beautiful but more introduced species. It rained the next day as I was walking to the Waikaremoana Campsite but when I arrived soaking wet I discovered that I wasn’t allowed to use my jungle hammock for fear of damaging the trees ????, but not to worry because I was given a very comfortable cabin room overlooking the lake for a good discount so I had a bit of luxury before I set off from the visitor’s centre at Aniwaniwa the next day.




I first took photos at a nearby picturesque waterfall and then set of at a brisk pace along the Ruapania Track on the way to a small lake called Lake Waiareiti through some lovely groves of tree ferns. I have always loved tree ferns having first encountered many of them in Madagascar. They are so primeval and conjure up images of huge dragonflies buzzing around and giant amphibians crawling out of swamps. It was wonderful to be entering a primary forest largely unaffected by human activity with many ancient trees towering above me and festooned with moss and epiphytes. Beech forest of the small leaved southern hemisphere genus of Nothofagus dominates much of the area around Lake Waikeramoana, comprising either red beech (tawhairaunui, Nothofagus fusca) or silver beech (tawai, Nothofagus menzesii), or a mixture of the two. They are sorted altitudinally by pure red beech forest of giants at lower altitudes and silver beech occurring above 1000 metres creating the “goblin forest” (squat, gnarled trees covered in moss and lichen as a result of wind exposure and snow falls, prevailing high humidity and frequent cloud and rain) that I was very much looking forward to experiencing higher up on the Manuoha Track. Other species include black beech found in small patches and strips on sunny well-drained sites along the lake margin, and the ancient Podocarpacea family, the largest of the trees that emerge from the forest canopy with predominantly endemic rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) towering above the red beech and also miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea), matai (Prumnopitys spicata), totara (Pododcarpus ballii) and kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydiodes). Another common canopy emergent of the rimu-broadleaved species forest is rata (Metrosideros robusta). This tree is not in the podocarpacea however but is a member of the Myrtaceae (myrtle family). Tawa (Bielschmiedia tawa) is the main broadleaved tree in the canopy but kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa), hinau (Eleocarpus dentatus) and the various tree ferns are also commonly seen. Forest dominated by red or silver beech tends to be less diverse in its understorey composition compared to forest dominated by rimu and other non-beech species. Both beech forest and rimu/broadleaved forest are mature climax forests. In the absence of human induced or natural catastrophe or climate change they will continue to maintain themselves much as they are at present.












I was already discovering that there isn’t very much wildlife, notably birds, left in the forest probably because of the predation of invasive species, but I did hear the distinctive call of kiwis for the first time when I camped the first night near a tiny lake called Ruapani. I went out on a night walk but was disappointed not to find any insects and in the daytime I couldn’t get near the frogs that I could hear croaking around the lake but I found a dragonfly sloughing its skin. The only other notable insect I encountered was a large green moth that flew into my hammock attracted by my head torch, but sadly it was a fatal attraction because I got out of my hammock to look for it and couldn’t find it, but the next morning discovered it squashed beneath the hammock, so I must have sat on it getting out. I was gutted about that and offered up an apologetic prayer. I also saw a pair of geese landing and taking off from the lake. There is an extensive sphagnum bog around the lake with large patches of insectivorous sundew. From there I passed more wetland areas before reaching Lake Waikereiti where the track undulated sharply across stream gullies around the lake. There were some fantastic trees overlooking the beautiful little lake with several islands. I was hoping to stay at the Sandy Bay Hut at the end of the lake but it was already occupied so I pressed on to a large wetland area with ponds before the track started to ascend more steeply until it was nearly dark and I found somewhere to camp with a small stream for water.








The next day was one of the most exhilarating hikes of my life up and down the meandering ridge to the Manuoha Hut. I was leaving the forest giants behind and entering the creepy world of the “goblin forest”; from statuesque columns that drew my eyes skywards to gnarled and stunted hunchbacks draped in moss without any conformity; every one growing in its own idiosyncratic manner to combat the harsh elements that roam at will along the exposed ridge. All manner of creatures of my imagination emerged from the tangled timber as I plodded on like a hobbit through the ever-shrinking forest. I could peer down the slopes on either side and see the giants that I had left behind clinging impossibly to steep inclines. Where there was any view through the trees I could see how far I had come from the lake and how much unbroken forest there is in all directions. It really felt like being back in Southeast Alaska again in the Tongass National Forest with so much unspoilt natural wilderness, but without the profusion of wildlife. It seemed like the only abundant creatures were the swarms of large flies that descended on me every time I stopped to sit down for a rest. I could only surmise that they could be the product of the poisoning of deer and creation of a lot of carrion for the flies to breed so prolifically when I observed very little other insect life. A cold fog swept up to swallow up the trees and enhance their creepiness. My imagination ran riot with ents and trolls as it always used to when I used to draw such things on a regular basis before my photography took over. I started to hear birds singing for the first time, and had to stop to listen to the sweet heart-warming sounds permeating the damp inhospitable forest. When I finally reached the Manuoha Hut there was much work to do trying to find some dry firewood in such a saturated environment.










I stayed at the hut for a day to make the most of such an amazing location surrounded by such characterful trees. It was foggy again shrouding the trees in paused animation, their silhouetted gnarled mossy branches knotted and grappling. They appeared to be standing back to allow me to pass along the winding mossy path among their ranks. Everywhere I looked I was hallucinating but with what was really there….I think haha. It was one of those locations that every photographer dreams of where no matter where you looked there was an image crying out “take me, take me!!” But there was still the challenge of finding some order in among the chaos of growth dictated by the harsh environmental conditions. The only colours on view were brown and predominantly green and yellow with so much moss, and saturated by the moisture and glowing with an inner luminosity in the gloomy light. This was my kind of visual heaven, so ripe for my imagination and full of richness of colour with a stark contrast between the cold hard dark wet wood with crusty bark wearing jackets of vivid green and yellow soft spongy luxuriant moss. I could have stayed there longer in that cosy little cabin with the biting wind and cold fog swirling around outside, but I had limited food and I still had one more forest destination to head for after this. It was a wonderful descent observing the changing of the trees in reverse from stunted to majestic. It was long and quite an arduous trek with the track going up and down, but it really galvanised me all the way from start to finish. It was the perfect forest trek to follow on from my perfect mountain adventure in the Ruahine Range.



















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