New Zealand, as we well know, is pretty blessed in the natural wonders department. It’s got snow capped mountains, beautiful beaches, and water for days. So choosing which places to visit and which places to leave for next time can be a really difficult task. With so many inland waterways to choose from (not to mention all those miles of coastline) how on earth do you choose?
Well look, I’ll be honest with you, it’s near on impossible. But the best way to make an informed decision is to be aware of what’s out there. And it seems that many people are not aware that Lake Waikaremoana even exists at all.
So where is it?
Lake Waikaremoana is found deep in the heart of Tūhoe country, hidden in among the forests of the Te Urewera, in the central east of New Zealand’s North Island. It can be accessed travelling south east from Rotorua (which I gather is a relatively remote, predominantly gravel road) or like we did, travelling north from Wairoa.
The road from Wairoa is sealed most of the way, with only the last section turning to gravel. As with many New Zealand roads, it is steep, narrow, and winding in some places, although we had no trouble towing in our 16ft caravan. You do lose mobile phone reception not long after leaving Wairoa, and never really get it back except in random patches at certain places.
The lake itself stays hidden among the trees until you are right upon it, when it is suddenly revealed only in small patches between the greenery, and then just as quickly hidden again. Lake Waikaremoana is roughly 54km², which may not seem a lot compared to it’s much larger cousin Lake Taupo to the north (616 km²!) particularly if you only manage to catch glimpses of it through the trees.
But if you find your way up one of the lookouts in the area you’ll soon realise its vastness, and absolute beauty.
On a calm day it can be like glass, and surprisingly clear. But as its name suggests, the wind can quickly pick up and turn it into a sea of rippling waters. Over the three days we were there the wind turned Waikaremoana from a sea of calm to turbulent white spray and back again on multiple occasions.
Lake Waikaremoana also sits at around 600m elevation, meaning conditions can be cold, variable, and in winter there is likely to be snow. We were lucky and had fantastic conditions, but as in many parts of New Zealand, be prepared for things to be changeable and not always favourable.
What can I do there?
Well, it’s a lake, so your usual water sports are available; boating, swimming, and fishing – in fact the area is known for its trout fishing. And we saw some people snorkelling in the surprisingly clear water. But as well as activities on, and in the lake there are plenty of outdoor attractions to keep you busy on land, too.
In fact one of the main reasons people are drawn to Lake Waikaremoana is that it plays host to one of the North Island’s Great Walks. The North Island has only three such Great Walks – Lake Waikaremoana, the Tongariro Northern Circuit, and the Whanganui Journey, the last of which is not in fact a walk at all, but a multi-day canoe journey. The Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk is 46km one way, and most people do it over three or four days. Like all of NZ’s Great Walks, it has options to camp or stay in huts, and can also be very popular so booking is essential.
But if you’re not quite up for a 46km multi-day hike, then there are plenty of other shorter options. We travelled with a six year-old and a new baby, and still managed to explore the area with the kids in tow.
If you have limited time, and only manage one walk then we suggest hiking up to Lou’s Lookout. Approximately 45 minutes return, this steep but manageable walk leaves from the road, and returns along the same track. You’ll find yourself in dense forest all the way until you reach the top and the full vista of Lake Waikaremoana is revealed in all its glory. Definitely worth the trek, this one. And if you’re camped down in Rosie’s Bay you’ll get a bird’s eye view of your campsite from the top.
If you like a bit of exploring, and don’t mind caves (I’ll be honest, they’re not my favourite thing) then definitely check out the Onepoto Caves. They claim to be two hours return, and I’m sure they could be, but if you want to take your time and really explore, then you’ll need to allow longer.
We took two hours one way, then sent Dad back along the road to grab the car and come pick us up (which only took about 20 minutes). The track here is not always well marked, and can be steep and slippery. We attempted it with a baby in a front carrier which wasn’t ideal, and not something I would recommend (and hence why we only went one way). But it was perfect for our six year old – he loved exploring the caves with his Dad. Just watch kids closely for safety, and make sure you pack a good torch!
Looking for a quick waterfall fix? Then this is the spot! You can drive almost the entire way, park your car, and just take an easy two minute walk to these beautiful falls.
This is an easy 30 minute loop walk that takes in the picturesque Āniwaniwa Falls from across the river. Or if you’d like to see them a little closer then there is the Āniwaniwa Falls Track across the river, another easy 20 minute walk.
This huge Rata tree, thought to be between 800 – 1000 years old is well worth a look. We had no idea what a Rata tree was, so got a pleasant surprise to find such a majestic tree. You’ll find it on the Ngamoko Track around 15 minutes into the walk, up a relatively steep, but not particularly difficult track. From there you can check out the tree then turn around and come back down, or if you’re feeling energetic you can complete the more difficult seven hour trek to the top of the Ngamoko Range.
More information about the above options, including their locations (which aren’t always well signposted) can of course be found on the CamperMate app.
Where should I stay?
This is a relatively remote area, and accommodation options are limited. The main option is the Waikaremoana Holiday Park which has both powered and unpowered camping options, as well as cabins and chalets available, with a good range of amenities. Or if you’re travelling in a Certified Self Contained vehicle there are a couple of other limited options available that can be found on the CamperMate app.
We chose to stay at Rosie’s Bay for two reasons; firstly it had excellent reviews, and secondly our baby girl is called Rosie, so of course we had to check it out! And we’re so very glad we did – so far, it’s one of our all-time favourite camping spots in New Zealand (a big call, I know!).
You’ll find it down a narrow, sloping dirt track, and it’s literally just a small area at the bottom of the track, right on the lake. There are no facilities other than a drop toilet a little further back along the track. A toilet that probably meets all the very worst stereotypes for bush toilets – it’s dark and dingy, and comes complete with cobwebs, mould, and big fat scary looking spiders! Needless to say, we were glad to have our own toilet on board.
But the facilities (or lack of) were not the reason we loved this camping spot so much, it was all about the location. We genuinely opened our door and took three steps out to the lake, which was fantastic. We spent our days taking occasional dips in the water, and watching the pair of swans that call the bay home. Absolute bliss.
This spot is understandably quite popular, so arrive earlier in the day if you want the get the prime positions. Our 16ft caravan managed to get in okay, but I’d be hesitant about taking anything larger – when it fills up there’s not a lot of room to turn around, and the road in is narrow. Of course as there are zero facilities you will need to be Certified Self Contained to stay here.
Lake Waikaremoana is not only beautiful all on its own, but with plenty of gorgeous walks, lookouts, waterfalls, caves and one of our all time favourite free camps, it’s definitely worth a visit in our opinion!