Te Urewera is one of the largest and most scenically spectacular of New Zealand's thirty-eight national and forest parks. It is also one of the least visited by tourists.
The reason for this can only be because Te Urewera isn't on the way to anywhere, unless you count the remote and sparsely populated corner of the North Island to which my friend John B has eccentrically retired, though his emailed directions on how to reach him put even that in doubt. "If you are feeling foolhardy," he said, "you could try coming through the national park. It looks half the distance on the map but it will take you twice as long. There are places on this road where you don't want to drive too quickly."
He must have known that would be all the encouragement I would need. After all, there are places on any road where you don't want to drive too quickly, and his warning excited my interest, not to mention my foolhardiness.
We checked the map. Te Urewera doesn't look far off the beaten track, being only about 50 kilometres from Rotorua, which we intended to visit anyway but where we didn't really want to stay, since it has the reputation of being a tourist trap.
We looked on the internet for somewhere to stay on the way up from Rotorua towards Te Urewera. Nothing was apparent. But the map showed a town called Murupara ideally situated on the threshold of the national park. By sheer persistence with International Directory Enquiries, my wife tracked down a motel in Murupara. A breezy Antipodean called Simon answered the phone.
"Do you have a swimming pool?" asked my wife, who likes to cool off after a long journey and believes in coming straight to the point.
"Well, you could take a dip in the river, I suppose."
"And do you do meals? Or is there anywhere to eat locally?"
"There's a fish and chip shop down the road. Or you could bring your own food if you wanted."
So that's what we did. Murupara is a run-down little town in a small area of farmland reached after half an hour's drive through unbroken forest. Simon's Flaxy Lodge Motel is a small (four room) basic affair, but clean and well maintained, and at NZD75 (£27) our cheapest stay in New Zealand. We liked him and his wife Arna. The next morning we stood with him outside the motel and looked appraisingly at the looming range of hills stretched like a barrier across our way to the east.
"That's real bush up there," he said, "but it looks as if you're lucky with the weather."
Being lucky with the weather could be important to enjoying Te Urewera. Often, I understand, the mountains are cloaked in cloud. When this happens, the atmosphere in the wet woodlands must be ghostly and haunting, while the dramatic longer vistas will be lost in white haze. In mist or rain, travelling through would be difficult and much less rewarding.
The point that marks the start of the ascent into the hills is quite distinct, as the flat farmland ends and the road snakes into the first of many upward turns. Two signs follow in quick succession:
"Bends for 120 km," says the first. "Unsealed road for 97 km," says the second. This means dirt-track, through it is frequently gravelled to fill in potholes and prevent it turning to mud in wet weather.
To each side of the road the forest reasserts itself. This is not yet the unkempt primeval forest that covers most of the park. Introduced conifers are still predominant, but it already feels wild compared with the cultivated plantations that line the route along which we came the day before from Rotorua.
Here tree-ferns and tall tufted pampas grass are interspersed with the clumps of trees. Perched lilies and red and yellow mistletoe decorate the higher branches of the native evergreen beeches. Pale blue starbursts of wild agapanthus fringe the roadside, together with verbascum and blood-orange crocosmia.
As the road rises, we pause frequently to take in the scenery and absorb the atmosphere. It is a hot day, but the air tastes clean and fresh. Although there is little passing traffic, the forest is not silent, but pulsates with the sibilant hiss of cicadas. An occasional falcon soars far overhead. These forests harbour numerous native birds that are now rare, including the kiwi, though the kiwi is nocturnal and we know we stand little chance of spotting any. But the whio, or blue duck, is frequently seen wherever there is water.
About fifteen kilometres in we cross a bridge and see farm buildings in a cleared area beyond - the first habitation we have come across since leaving Murupara. Although surrounded by the national park, much of the road is technically outside the boundaries, and such settlements as exist are found along its route. They are few and far between, however, and only one amounts to more than an isolated house or two amid the trees.
This is the village of Ruatahuna, which we reach after about two hours. There is a dairy here - a dairy in New Zealand meaning a mixture of general stores and café - with a rusty pair of petrol pumps outside. A friendly Maori lady sells us two mugs of coffee, or hot milky brown liquid anyway, and some biscuits.
Evading a herd of seemingly wild horses on the outskirts of the village, we drive on. Elsewhere, we do not see much of the wildlife, though we know that the forest is infested these days with introduced species - deer, possums, feral cats and rats - some of which are seriously depleting native vegetation. At first we think the furry corpses we encounter on the road are those of cats, but soon realise that they are in fact possums, whose defensive instinct of "playing possum" has served them ill. I doubt locals make any attempt to avoid them, considering that their hunting is actively encouraged in an attempt to reduce their numbers and contain the damage they cause.
The road climbs further, towards a highpoint of nearly 1000m where it crosses the Huiwarau Range, becoming ever more rugged as it goes. The rolling blue-green ridges become increasingly sharp and steep, the valleys deeper and darker in between. This is stupendous country and our enjoyment of it is heightened as well as diminished by the knowledge that from the road we are barely penetrating it at all - diminished by the thought of what we are missing, heightened because it is good to know that there are still hundreds of square miles that can only be reached on foot, pristine forest where no vehicle has ever been.
From the top of the range, the ridges ripple gradually down to the shores of Lake Waikaremoana, the largest lake in the national park. The initial views of its glistening waters from high in the hills are fleeting, though the trees, but it soon dominates the scene. Particularly memorable are the Mokau Falls, which form a 40 metre high column of water that is revealed from varying heights and angles as one rounds the inlet into which it cascades, until the road eventually bridges the river above the head of the waterfall itself.
Below the falls, the road finally finds it way down to the lakeshore and the visitor centre at Aniwaniwa is reached. Here we learn something of the history of the park.
Te Urewera is the ancestral home of the Tuhoe people, known as the 'Children of the Mist' from the tradition that they are the offspring of Hine-puhoku-rangi - the celestial mist maiden. They lived by food gathering, environmentally sustainable so long as their population stayed small. Their religion and culture was based on a sense of oneness with Tane, the spirit of the great forest.
The late 1800s brought friction and conflict with encroaching European settlers. Despite intermittent success with guerrilla warfare conducted from the shelter of the wilderness, inevitably the Tuhoe were beaten back, the best of their land confiscated and their numbers diminished by hunger and disease. By the early twentieth century it seemed inevitable that their forest home would succumb to logging and sheep farming, as other parts of New Zealand had.
Te Urewera was saved by its very inaccessibility, which made it a low priority for exploitation, and by the emergence of the New Zealand conservation movement. The national park, embracing over 2126 km² (rather larger than Nottinghamshire, for UK reference) was incorporated in 1954, and has been under the care of the NZ Department of Conservation ever since. The DOC does an excellent job of maintaining New Zealand's natural heritage, and Te Urewera is one of its success stories. Would that we had an equivalent body in Britain.
From the Aniwaniwa visitor centre several walks are possible, some easy, others challenging.
One track goes down to skirt the shores of the main lake, Waikaremoana, though to walk the whole way round is a major undertaking, requiring days. This is just one of several long-distance walking trails through the national park.
An hour's trudge up a steeply-rising track brings one through beech forest to the smaller Lake Waikareiti. The name means "hidden rippling waters" in the native dialect, and the lake could not be more fittingly described as it grudgingly reveals itself, its far shores occluded by islands. Up here, the only sound is that of the wind in the trees around the shores. The road does not reach here, and outboard motors are banned, although canoes and rowing boats can be hired for those who wish to go out onto the lake.
Another trail takes us a couple of kilometres up to the Papakorito Falls, a wide curtain of water pouring over stark rock in the midst of the bush, the view of which we have to ourselves while we enjoy a picnic lunch.
While we eat, I study the map yearningly, tracing the paths of the longer routes that traverse the forests over ridges and along river beds, far from human habitation. Maintained by the Department of Conservation, these tracks have huts for the use of walkers, who have to carry their own food and cooking equipment. To use the huts, it is necessary to apply to the DOC in advance and pay a fee, which is used for the upkeep of the tracks. I don't know whether I'd still be capable of such demanding route-marches - and in any case we didn't have time - but it's pleasant to imagine them.
Back at the shores of Lake Waikaremoana, we walk to a rocky headland and take a last look over the landscape before driving on.
There are at least two explanations for the existence of the lake. One (quoted here from the official website) is that it "was formed 2200 years ago by a huge landslide, which blocked a narrow gorge along the Waikaretaheke River. Water backed up behind this landslide to form a lake up to 248 metres deep."
The other is that the great chief Maaho-tapoa once dwelt at the site with his family. There was no lake in those days, and one day Maahu asked his daughter Hau-mapuhia to fetch some water from a nearby sacred well. She refused, and in a fit of fury Maahu seized his daughter and dragged her off to drown her in the well. The terrified Hau-mapuhia called out to the gods for help and they transformed her into a taniwha, or water god, immune from drowning. The only problem with this was that sunlight would be deadly to her. In a panic as the dawn broke she tore at the earth and gouged out the depths that are now the bottom of the lake. Sunrise turned her to stone as she lay face down at the southern end of the valley, blocking the river's escape.
Take your pick as to which you prefer.
Whatever the true explanation of its origins, the lake is a splendid spot to sit and contemplate nature, despite the fact that there are now several camp-sites around its shores - the only places except for the walkers' huts where one can stay in the park itself - and even a hydro-electric scheme that has reduced the water level by several metres. None of the hydro-electric workings obtrude on the view, though, being located down the valley at Camp Kaitawa after one has emerged from the national park. Below Kaitawa is Tuai on Lake Whakamarino, where there are streets and houses and even places to stay. By most standards, Tuai is a tiny hamlet, but after just a day spent in the wilds of Te Urewera it seemed like a metropolis.
Do I recommend a visit? Yes, of course I do. Not easily accomplished, I know, but for anyone visiting New Zealand and touring around it is not that difficult either. If you are planning a route down through the North Island from Auckland taking in Rotorua and Napier - as many tourists do - a diversion via Te Urewera will only add a day to your journey and will pay great dividends. Or you could decide to walk one of the routes across the park, in which case it will add a week and pay enormous dividends.
The dividends are to be found in scenic splendour, in the geological and botanical interest, but above all in the sense of escape from civilisation and reconciliation with nature. There is also a sense of the continuing presence of its sometimes sombre human history. I do not believe that, as a foreign visitor briefly flitting through, one understands more than the most superficial aspects of the Maori traditions that imbue the place. They are nonetheless pervasive in the atmosphere, and they make Te Urewera like nowhere else that I have visited.
As the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, who was deeply involved in the conservation movement in the early 20th century and who loved Te Urewera, wrote:
"It's all so gigantic and tragic - even in the bright sunlight it is so passionately secret."
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, March 22nd 2005