Monday, December 13, 2021

Touring the Lakes

Originally I had planned to tramp a circuit in the Kawekas near Hawkes Bay, but there was a weather bomb coming through and the route was far too exposed, so change of plan. Stu suggested going paddling around Lake Tarawera near Rotorua and when I looked at the map I could see that I could devise a loop trip and paddle a circuit of six lakes. And we all know how much I like a circuit!!

Day 1 Blue Lake Top 10 to Hot Water Beach campsite 16km

Just south of Rotorua is Blue Lake/ Tikitapu. It has a Top 10 caravan park, so I glamped it in one of their tents and left my car there until my return. After leaving my car at the back of the caravan park I walked across the road to Lake Tikitapu, the first of the lakes. Although there was a walking track beside the road the more scenic option was to paddle the 1.5 km to a carpark at the southern end. There I cleaned my raft, packed it up and climbed the steps to the carpark.

From the carpark I followed the road downhill, past lake number 2, Rotokakahi, which is privately owned and pakeha are not welcome. Since it was such a tiny segment anyway, it made no sense to unpack the boat, so even if I'd been allowed to paddle it, I wouldn't have.

I joined the Tarawera Trail at the huge carpark, these days empty but for one car, a young Wellington couple doing a day trip to Hot Water Beach and taking the water taxi back. They soon overtook me on the track as it meandered down to the lake and then around a couple of headlands before arriving at Hawaiki Beach.

After an early lunch I inflated Lola and off I paddled. There was no wind, so it was pleasant paddling, watching all the birds and the occasional jumping fish.

It took about 2 hours to paddle to Hot Water Beach.  There's a peninsula to paddle around, that sure beat lugging my gear over the hill instead!

As I paddled in to the bay I could see steam rising from the water, and the surface water was surprisingly warm. I kept well away from the hot water and beached Lola safely on a nice grassy patch before checking out the campsite. Since I was the only person staying the night, the caretaker, who was there painting site pegs, said I could choose whichever site I wanted. I'd booked and paid for a different site, but in the end took a nice spot by the beach, separated from other sites. Apparently there was a school group turning up the next day.

After setting up camp I went for a swim. The hot water comes out through numerous vents in the rocks and creates a very hot water layer on the surface, which you need to mix with the cooler lake water. It's kind of like when you have a shower mixer and you can't get the water just right. It's either too hot or too cold. Overall somewhat unsatisfactory. But still a nice swim, the lake temperature being quite pleasant anyway.

The evening was uneventful. Just a gentle breeze coming off the lake to keep the sandflies away. After dinner there wasn't a lot to do. A few games on the phone and an early night!!

Day 2 Lake Rotomahana day trip 14km return

Even though I got up early and didn't need to pack up, I got away just before 8. The mist and steam coming off the water at dawn was pretty special.

It was a short paddle into the next bay over, where there's a jetty and a big shelter, neither of which look well used. I packed up the boat into my backpack, changed into my trail shoes, and walked the short track over to Lake Rotomahana. It's a pretty track, through Manuka and ferns, with a memorial to those who died when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886.

There's a ramshackle jetty at the end of the track. I inflated Lola, leaving my shoes and backpack there rather than stowing them inside the raft. Then I began my paddle along the lake shore.

Lake Rotomahana used to be a much smaller lake, and was said to be the birthplace of NZ tourism, because there used to be pink and white silica terraces beside the lake. People came from all over the world to see them, but when Tarawera erupted they were buried and the much larger Lake was formed. It's said that the terraces may still be there, deep down in the depths of the lake….

The Waimangu Valley was also formed during the eruption, and features a number of crater lakes, but that's on the other side of the lake, and is a commercial concern run by local iwi. The lake itself is public property so I paddled down to the Steaming Cliffs, where numerous fumaroles vent steam straight out of the rock.

There's at least a kilometre of geothermal activity along the lake shore, so after visiting the most intensive area I paddled slowly back the way I'd come.

Back at the jetty I had lunch, packed up the gear and strolled back over the low saddle to Lake Tarawera. It was quite warm, so I used the spacious shelter to inflate Lola, then it was a short paddle back to the campsite.

I was back at camp by 2 pm, the school kids yet to arrive. An easterly was beginning to pick up, but not enough to make paddling impossible. I had toyed with the idea of moving on to the next campsite, but the paddling would be much more pleasant in the morning….

Well the school party never arrived, just a few random boats and one chap in a row boat. All were day visitors, though the chap in the rowboat was perhaps staying on a bigger boat around the corner in the bigger bay. There seemed to be quite a few boats headed there each evening.

The wind dropped and the clouds came in, making it muggy, and sandfly heaven. So I had no choice but to retire to my tent. Thankfully I had a good book!

However...., it was very warm in my tent, because not only had it been a warm day, but the ground beneath me was also warm. First time I've had underfloor heating in a tent!!

With the fly open and just using my silk bag liner I managed to not fry overnight, or get eaten by bugs. In fact I slept quite well.

Day 3 Hot Water Beach to Humphries Bay campsite 23.7km

I left around 7:30 am, knowing there was an easterly forecast. My paddle out of the bay and into the main lake was on glassy water, but as I paddled down towards the outlet I had a mild tailwind. Which meant it was a no brainer to cut off a few bays and paddle a more direct line. There were lots of water birds around but they all flew off before you can get close. I guess that's a reflection on the people around here.

The paddle to the outlet took 2.5 hours. There's a large campsite there, but completely empty because the road access is closed. The only access is by boat, or via the track from the Tarawera Falls carpark, but to get there you need to pay for a permit. Having a packraft certainly makes life easier…

I paddled across to a jetty on the other side of the outlet from the campsite, choosing to leave Lola there rather than the more obvious spot near the campsite. Not that there was anyone around, but I figured if anyone turned up they would likely not use the jetty but park on the beach. I carried Lola up off the jetty and then deflated her so I could get my walking shoes out. I made no attempt to hide her, but just being up off the water was enough. All my important valuables were in my bow bag, which I can turn into a backpack with the use of some webbing and a carabiner. I normally use the latter for tethering myself to my boat, so it's a great multi use item. Also good as a clothesline!

The walk to Tarawera Falls is along a well maintained track, following the river most of the way. The river starts off looking very mellow, but soon becomes something quite outside my pay scale. Grade 3,4 and 5, plus a few trees right across the river, and then there's a few big waterfalls. And that's before it all disappears into the ground.

And comes back out again at the 65m falls. Pretty spectacular!!

I had lunch at the falls and then walked back to my boat, checking out the empty campsite on the way. My original plan had been to stay there, but I'd figured I could just keep going around the lake to Humphries Bay and camp there instead. Then I could clean and dry my packraft that evening, ready to schlep it over the hill to the next lake.

I was expecting the easterly to have strengthened, but aside from a little wind on the initial paddle from the outlet, the wind died and it was almost glassy again. The landscape on the northern side of the lake was beautiful, with rocky shorelines, pohutakawas starting to flower, and lots of tree ferns. And the water was impossibly blue!!

I saw some hikers at one of the beaches, but otherwise saw no one all day. A few small boats trawling, but none on the side of the lake I was paddling.

Humphries Bay campsite is a basic spot, with a clean composting toilet, and toilet paper. I've been pretty impressed with the toilets around here, all have been clean and well supplied. Unlike those boat accessible campsites in Marlborough Sounds! I always bring my own anyway, but it's great to feel you are at least paying for something.

This year DOC made available a yearly campsite pass, so I purchased that. I still have to make bookings for some places but I don't now need to have exact change to pay as I go. I'll now be able to use those coins to pay for hot showers. For some bizarre reason lots of commercial campsites don't include hot showers in the camping fee, so you have to pay extra for a hot shower. Since one of the main reasons I stay in a commercial site is to have a hot shower, I find it particularly annoying!

I went for a quick swim once I'd set up camp and then changed into my camp clothes, had dinner, watched the sunset then hit the hay.

Day 4 Humphries Bay campsite to Okataina Lodge

There's intermittent cell coverage on the lakes, so I'd been posting pictures to FB. One of my friends from Geraldton commented, suggesting I visit his brother at Okataina. So I took him up on the offer, or rather, I asked if I could camp at his place and he agreed.

The logistics for the next few days had become a little difficult. From the head of Lake Okataina there is a walking track that comes out at Lake Okareka, near the DOC campsite. It's about 17km long, so I had planned to stay at the campsite then paddle across the lake and walk back to my car at Blue Lake. But the citizens of Lake Okareka, who jointly manage the DOC campsite, had decided to close the campsite whilst they work out how to manage the new COVID regulations. Which are that you need a vaccine pass to stay at a DOC hut or campsite from December 15th. And since it's not yet December 15th, I don't understand why they can just shut the campsite whilst they work out what they will do. I suspect they can't legally stop me camping there, but with the option to stay at Lake Okataina and leave first thing in the morning with a dry boat and gear, I'm certain I can get back to my car easily in one day.

From Humphries Bay I followed the track to Lake Okataina. The track is officially closed due to a landslide, but looking at the map I knew the portage track wasn't affected. So I ignored the track closure sign and walked over the low saddle to Otangimoana Bay. It took a mere 25 minutes.

The bay was glassy, but it was protected from the northerly wind that was forecast. So initially the paddling was easy.

Soon I encountered the headwind. Only a few knots, with the occasional stronger gust, but enough to cause small waves and make paddling more strenuous. By keeping close to shore I could avoid most of it. No short cuts on this section!!

The lake shore I was following was mostly rocky rubble and heavily forested. Just a few sandy beaches backed by Manuka groves. The far side seemed to be endowed with many more beaches. Not that I was going to head across to them!

I met a few boaties, a kayak fisherman, and a family on sit on kayaks. It took me 3 hours to paddle up the lake, much slower with a headwind. But I was in no hurry.

I arrived at Okataina Lodge at 11:30. The place was deserted so I sat in the sun, cleaned, dried and packed up Lola and had lunch. Later I went for a wander and found Richelle, Nick's wife, at home packing up, because after 12 years they have sold the lodge and are moving on. Now when I asked if I could stay there I didn't know it was actually a lodge, I just thought I'd be camping in someone's back yard! On the map I'd thought there were a bunch of baches there, not a wilderness lodge!!

Richelle was surprised to see me, Nick not having mentioned that I would be turning up. I'd messaged Nick earlier, so he rang his wife to let her know. She opened up a utility room that had access to a toilet and shower, and let me set up my tent on the lawn with a lovely lake view.

Later Nick popped down to meet me and we had a wee chat, and I thanked him for his hospitality. I had a pretty chill afternoon, nice to have a hot shower and just read a book and watch the young local kids jumping off the jetty.

The clouds were gathering and the forecast was for rain overnight and all day. Not such a bad thing when you are walking with a heavy pack. 

If I did this trip again I would pack up on day 2, leave the gear at the shelter at the isthmus track whilst visiting Rotomahana and then paddle on to the outlet campsite. Day 3 you could easily do the falls and then paddle to Humphries Bay and through to Lake Okataina, with a good looking stealth campsite at Maori Point. Or cough up for a room at the lodge.

Day 5 Okataina to Blue Lake Top 10 18.3 km

It began raining around 3:30 am as expected and I woke to grey skies and light drizzle. I packed up my wet tent, had my usual morning coffee and hit the trail around 7:30. It was a fairly steep climb up to the main Western Okataina track and then some slightly unpleasant walking up what is very obviously a mountain bike track to the turnoff to the trig. There I met a friendly local training for the Tarawera Ultra and we chatted for a short while before going our separate ways. I didn't bother doing the trig detour, there would be no views today.

The forest was dense and green, and great walking in the rain. There were no views at all along the entire ridge run, or maybe there were when the clouds weren't so low.. I met a few mountain bikers, and some more trail runners, more people than I'd seen in days!!

It took me 5.5 hours to get to Lake Okareka, as it's a couple more kilometres down an unsealed road from the trailhead. The campsite was closed, with a barrier across the access road but that's easy to walk around and get down to the lake. There was a really nice shelter with picnic tables, perfect for unpacking my backpack and sitting out a few heavy downpours.

Then it was onto the final lake. Mel had told me about the caves with glow worms in them, which weren't far from the campsite, but it was too light to see them glow, though I could see their little filaments hanging down from the roof. It was really pretty to explore the numerous caves along there, definitely somewhere to go back to at night.

There was minimal wind on the lake so once I'd had enough of the caves I just paddled straight across the tiny lake to the jetty at the far end. Then I packed up Lola and walked in the rain up and over the hill. There was a small embankment and a fence that I could easily jump over, so I got myself a good shortcut back to my car parked right up the back of the park. I literally took my pack off and threw it on the front seat, on a tarp, and strapped it into the seatbelt. Then I popped in to the office to let them know I'd arrived back a day early and treated myself to an ice cream.

What a great five days. Highly recommend the loop, just gotta jag it for good weather!

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