Te Urewera has always enthralled me. It draws you in with its rich history and unique landscapes. For centuries Te Urewera has been home to the Tūhoe people or the 'Children of the Mist', in reference to the legend that they are the offspring of Hine-puhoku-rangi, the celestial mist maiden. It has been hard fought for over the years, however, after some negotiations it’s now back where it belongs. Tūhoe traditions are strong and their links with this land run deep.
I’ve wanted to explore this remote part of Aotearoa for a long time. Traveling by bike would allow me to take in the scenes and connect with the people of the land. Over the past few years I’ve found bikepacking the best way to get into these parts of New Zealand. Being able to stay for a few nights in these areas can often feel like a lifetime. Sometimes, this is all I need to unplug from the digital grid.
My plan was to ride in and out of Lake Waikaremoana. Now, before you start reminding me that this isn’t a loop ride, I’m going to stop you right there: I hear what you’re saying about having to traverse back on yourself. But, with its remoteness, Te Urewera isn’t the easiest place to run a loop around. What with the sheer steepness of the land and the abundance of native forest, there’s not a ton of roads that connect to it. Basically, once you’re in Te Urewera, you’re in! You can do a longer five to six-day loop if you feel inclined, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. Plus, it was the middle of winter, so I didn’t have much daylight to play with.
I would start in Ruatahuna and ride to Waikaremoana, then return back to Ruatahuna the next day. There would be a few offshoots and detours but ultimately, I’d stick to this route. The mileage isn’t huge on paper, but I like to be able to take my time, take in the scenery and enjoy the adventure, rather than racing from A to B. Not to mention, this allows you to be more explorative on the ride, as you’re not constricted by time.
The shortest day of the year was lurking in the Southern Hemisphere. Some email correspondence with the kind lady at Te Urewera Visitors Centre revealed the following: “Please keep an eye on the weather, it is not shy to snow here, and the wind can pick up beautifully”. I ensured I packed some of my best winter woolies! As I climbed onto the bike in Ruatahuna, the temperature hovered around eight degrees. The small village is home to just over 200 residents. I looked over at one of the houses and wished I was inside - the curtains were drawn and the chimney was smoking. However, the mahi needed to be done.
It didn’t take long for the road to break into gravel, with stray horses wandering across it. To say this road is unrelentingly is a bloody understatement. No matter which way you ride it, there’s a ton of elevation. I found this out quickly, as the road soon tilted up, zig-zagging its way up the Taupeupe Saddle. The trees were shrouded in moss and the old Rimu stood tall as the darkness of winter crept in. The sun’s rays created blotches on the road as it came and went. I was still ascending and pushing against the road’s harsh granite rock. The people who carved out this road must have been built tough. The same goes for anyone living in Te Urewera; it’s not for the faint hearted. It’s a hearty area that has a ton of texture. The climb started to level out as the Taupeupe Saddle reached 900 plus metres above sea level. I was now high in the mountains and the temperature plummeted down to three degrees! As I looked around at the vast views and sheer steepness of the terrain, I spotted a tramper coming out of the bush in his blue Swannie (Swanndri) and his bursting backpack. Then, a hunter pulled up in his Ute, looking a little jaded. Turns out he’d been in the bush for three days, hunting. We yarned for a bit but most of his spell was mumbled, he was still coming to grips with not begging in the bush. However, he wished me well and we went our separate ways.
I wrapped up warm for the descent. The flowing corners and tight switchbacks eventually gave way to the road, meandering along the Hopuruahine Stream. The Orangihikoia campsite was an ideal place to get water; I pulled out my water purification bottle and nearly froze my hand in the steam. Nothing beats drinking fresh water from its natural source. The gravel road continued along on - old bridges, raging rapids, cliff faces, beautiful waterfalls – all met with constant ups and downs. I eventually got a slight peek of Lake Waikaremoana, but it didn’t want to show its whole self. As I mentioned earlier, this place is not for the faint hearted and will make you do the mahi (work) in order to receive the benefits. Such is the case with seeing the lake: the road is so densely clad with native bush, it’s hard to see it, but after another few climbs the road opens up - and wow, what a magnificent sight. I had to stop to take it all in. Little inlets and deep blue coloured water surrounded by bush ranges was on offer. I decided to head past my accommodation for the evening and pedaled a bit further to check out the best view over the lake: Lou’s Lookout. It was almost dark and it wasn’t even 5pm, but the dark views over the lake, surrounded by the native bush, made it more spiritual. I looked out and reflected on my journey before heading back in the darkness, with my headlight gleaming, to my cabin for the evening - nestled on the shore of Lake Waikaremoana. The cabin fit right in with its natural environment: wooden with a few bunk beds, a small kitchen, a heater (much needed) and a warm shower. I swiftly got outta’ my kit and jumped into the shower - you can’t beat that feeling as your body starts to heat up after a long day in the cold. The body was tired, but I felt satisfied as I sipped a dark beer and cooked up a few snarlers (sausages). It was lights out shortly after that.
Words: Liam Friary
Photography: Cam Mackenzie
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