Monday held another big day of driving, via Hamilton to drop Anna at her parents, on to Rotorua to leave valuables at Andrew & Kate's (I don't rate the security of my car) & the mission that is the gravel road to Waikaremoana. Adele managed to drive most of that, so it was good to have a break; with the weather closing in, it started to sleet & then snow on us - much to Adele's surprise ("this is the North Island, it's not supposed to snow down here"). At the motor camp we decided to change the direction of our walk to start at the flat (ish) end as the forecast wasn't looking fantastic & so we would have a bit more company than just each other (a German couple - Anna & Thomas - were the only other people we saw for three days). A much better packing of our gear was called for & then it was off to bed with the snow falling outside - this was possibly the coldest night of the trip & we hadn't even started walking yet.
When we got up on Tuesday morning it wasn't much warmer & walking to breakfast the snow started falling again. Looking out of the dining room it was quite easy to see the snow settled on the trees not so far away. Well packed & our hut passes changed the four of us loaded our packs on to the water taxi for the ride across the lake to Whanganui hut (we had to start here as there was a impassable landslip blocking the track close to the end). Well rugged up on the back of the boat it wasn't too cold & the lake was so wonderfully flat I was dreaming of a waterski; however the cloud was still low & I would have taken a lot of persuading & a thick wetsuit to jump in.
Landing, the water taxi took off & left us to ourselves in the middle of nowhere. The sun even managed to come out long enough for me to drag my sunnies out of my pack - & then promptly disappeared. The first morning of the tramp was a mixture of ascending & descending - nothing too high or steep & a mixture of rain and then snow. At this stage we were still quite excited by the sight of snow at such a relatively low altitude in the North Island. Thankfully we didn't have to walk all the way around one of the peninsulas (not that the track even went that way - but it sure looked like quite a circuitous route) - there is a relatively recent kiwi sanctuary there. Being day time & all we didn't see a kiwi, but did manage to spy a rather impressive predator fence. For an early lunch we arrived at the brand spanking new Waiharuru Hut (it replaces one that was removed closer to the kiwi sanctuary). It is actually two pretty large buildings - one kitchen & dining, the other thirty odd bunks - a sign of just how popular the track is in the summer; a common remark during trip was how glad we all (all four of us) were to be walking such a beautiful track in the solitude brought on by winter - the place must be teeming in summer. Nice and close to the lake with great views of Panekeri Bluffs & some sunshine by now made for a great lunch stop. We reached our overnight hut (Marauiti) by 2 pm and proceeded to do nothing all afternoon - that's not quite true, I did nothing much, Adele tried to study. Dinner over & done with we gathered around the gas heater (luxury! - when I was a child we used to have to sleep in a lake) & attempted a game of Who Am I? - Twenty Questions. This proved a bit trickier than normal as ze Germans had little idea of NZ celebrities and we ignorant Kiwis had even less idea about famous Europeans (don't mention the war, I did once, but I think I got away with it). Sherlock Holmes proved to be the trickiest of the night & Obama the easiest - although we never quite got over Adele thinking his first name was Frank & the game ended slightly after that & it was off to bed at the late hour of 8 o'clock.
After easing in to the tramp with a nice five hour day first up, the plan was for the second day was slightly more ambitious. It was supposed to be eight hours to Panekerie Hut & we wanted to do an hour detour to a waterfall to have a look. Leaving earlyish (nothing compared to starting work at 5 am though) it was more of the walking close to the lake and going up, over & down the odd ridge. By this stage we were beginning to see just how ravaged the bush had been by recent high winds & high rain fall. Still we managed dry feet & enjoyed the brilliant sunshine that was to be with us for the rest of our walking. Lunch in the sun again at a campsite & it was off to the waterfall. Thankfully it was only about twenty-five minutes up the river to the falls - but there was one good crossing over the swollen river using big slippery boulders as stepping stone, aided by a cable strung across the river. We had to stand in the river a couple of times (still dry feet), but thankfully no embarrassing & chilly falls. Quick look at the small falls & it was back to pick our packs up again & carry on. Beginning to realise it could be quite late & dark by the time we finished, we blitzed the next section to the next hut (another really new one) and from then on it was pretty much (I've got one word for you, Kim) vertical. It wasn't too long before we had climbed long enough to be walking through small patches & then large patches of snow. Round a corner after three hours climbing we were pleasantly surprised to see the hut (we were expecting another hour) & it was packs off & time to admire the wonderful view of the lake & the setting sun. Off to the east the lights of mighty Wairoa started to flicker against the much mightier Pacific. A much quieter night after such a long day - the gas heater was a complete let down; Adele did manage to spend twenty minutes standing outside in the freezing cold balancing on a bench wishing Mum a happy birthday after she found her phone worked up there.
Sun was the order of the day again for our last day - unfortunately, we didn't feel quite as radiant - Adele sick & my knees aching strangely. Away early with more great views & walking along (more up & down really - the down playing havoc on my weak knees) the bluffs we could really admire the amazingly still lake. Not much more of note except beautiful lunch spot perched on a rock on the edge of the bluff & a slow descent - almost forgot, all the snow that was quite fun to walk through. Still we were nicely early for the water taxi & that gave us (more me really) heaps of time to read the displays about the hydro scheme flowing from the lake - strangely, the lake was lowered five metres (I'm not sure I've quite worked that out yet) - and the track - it was built in the '60s & '70s by high school students (it probably wouldn't happen like that nowadays). Back at the motor camp it was straight in to the car for the drive back to Rotorua & then Te Puke. The ninety kilometres of gravel sure made it easy to spot all the ice on the road (c.f. tarmac) - this was despite all the sun; at least icy gravel is not too slippery.