The calm between the storms

Dorota in her kayak. Photos: Alina Suchanski
Dorota in her kayak. Photos: Alina Suchanski
In its moments of calm, Lake Hauroko invites adventure, writes Alina Suchanski. 

Hauroko, New Zealand's deepest lake (462m), has a reputation for sudden gale-force winds. Its very name means howling wind in Maori, and the lake lives up to this at times. The wind, funnelled by the steep surrounding hills, can create huge waves in a matter of minutes.

Hauroko's ill fame was enough to put me off taking my kayak to it. But when a Christchurch friend, Dorota, visited me one spring day with a kayak on the roof of her car, I knew we were in for an adventure.

The forecast for Lake Hauroko looked good for the next three days, but we were still apprehensive, so we visited Bob, a Te Anau tramping club friend, for a download of his recent four-day solo trip on the lake. He gave us a map and shared his No1 safety rule: "keep close to the shore".

Alina in front of Teal Bay Hut.
Alina in front of Teal Bay Hut.
On the day of our departure we rise at 7am, most of our gear already packed the night before and our two kayaks securely fastened on the roof of Dorota's 4WD. It takes us two hours to drive to Lake Hauroko, 120km south of Te Anau, the last 30km on a gravel road.

When we arrive, a group of people are boarding the Wairaurahiri Jet for a river cruise down to the South Coast. They are to be the only people we meet on this three-day trip.

Sandflies descend in droves as soon as we open the car doors, but the lake is as flat as a millpond when we launch our kayaks, loaded with food and gear. Our destination for today is the Teal Bay Hut.

On our right is Mary Island, known for the burial site, discovered in 1967, of a Maori woman who is known as "the lady of the lake" by Southland locals. The burial site, dated to the 17th century, is in a cave on the eastern side of the island, where the woman's body was placed in a seated position wearing a flax cloak with a dog skin and weka feather collar, suggesting she was a high-ranking member of her tribe, perhaps a chieftainess or a princess.

Bob said he saw the burial site, which remains on the island with a grille of steel and wire mesh to protect the woman's remains from intruders.

Beautiful forest on the track leading to the Hump.
Beautiful forest on the track leading to the Hump.
We ponder whether to take a look at the lady of the lake, but not wanting to disturb Maori tapu, we opt against the visit.

Hauroko is a beautiful lake, long and narrow, the shape of a thunderbolt, surrounded by bush-clad mountains. But unlike most of Fiordland's predominantly beech forest vegetation, the flora here is varied and includes matai, totara, kowhai, rata, punga, kahikatea and rimu. It is spring, the kowhai trees are in full bloom and the bird chorus is louder than ever, with lots of bellbirds and tui singing, and wood pigeons swish-swooshing through the air.

The weather is perfect and the air is still, so we have nothing to worry about when we cross large expanses of water, ignoring Bob's advice and cutting corners whenever possible.

Two and a-half hours of paddling without a break takes us to a gold-sanded beach with a wooden sign announcing "Teal Bay". The 12-bunk hut is on a clearing surrounded by tall tree ferns and pittosporums.

We have lunch at the hut and decide to go for a paddle around a small island off the shore of Teal Bay. During the 20 minutes it takes us to circumnavigate the island, the wind suddenly chops up the glassy surface to the extent that even the short distance to the shore is a challenge to cross - a sobering reminder of the treacherous nature of this lake.

Dorota pointing at Lake Poteriteri, barely visible among the clouds.
Dorota pointing at Lake Poteriteri, barely visible among the clouds.
The next day we get up early after 11 hours of sleep! The plan is to walk up the Hump (1066m), the mountain that lent its name to the Hump Ridge Track (the latest addition to the Department of Conservation's Great Walks).

Leaving the hut at 8.30am, we follow the lake for 40 minutes. The track is in need of maintenance, overgrown and often blocked by windfall. There are plenty of deer and pig signs. This must be hunters' paradise.

We come to a fork where the left branch leads up the Hump and the right one follows the lake to its only outlet, the Wairaurahiri River. We turn left, enjoying the mountain's medium gradient for about an hour, before the terrain becomes steeper.

The long spur we are on flattens at times, giving us a welcome break from climbing. It takes three hours to reach the bushline, then another half an hour to arrive at the first peak at 1006m. We have lunch here, remembering the forecast for heavy rain in the afternoon. From our lunch spot we can see the top of the Hump with its amazing rock formations. The Okaka Lodge on the Hump Ridge Track is just below, on the sea side of the peak.

Looking in the opposite direction we see a panorama of snowy peaks of Fiordland National Park between two levels of clouds. A large hole in the clouds reveals part of Lake Hauroko and in the distance to the west a glimpse of Lake Poteriteri. Another layer of high cloud is slowly moving towards us from the north. Time to head back down to the hut. The track to the bushline is well marked by waratahs, and a large orange triangle marks the entrance to the forest.

It only takes us two and a-half hours to get down to the fork and we have enough energy for a 10-minute sidetrack to check out the three-wire bridge across the Wairaurahiri River. A strange contraption in the middle of the bridge turns out to be a possum stop-gate. The river is clear, framed with golden sand beaches on both sides.

Returning to the hut is a bit of a drag, as we are pretty tired, but once we get there, a cup of tea and chocolate quickly cheers us up. At 5pm, torrential rain washes over the hut and the surrounding bush, but it doesn't last long. An hour later loud birdsong announces the end of the downpour.

The following day we leave early on a lightly rippled lake. As we reach the turn off near Mary Island the lake becomes glassy, reflecting the magnificent mountains and the bush. Perhaps the glorious weather is the princess' gift for not disturbing her?

The beauty of this place is unreal. After three hours of leisurely paddling we reach the ramp and the road - our umbilical cord to reality. We don't want to leave.

If you go 

Access: Follow State Highway 99 to the Lake Hauroko turn-off. Turn west and follow the gravel road for 30km to the Hauroko car park.

Grade: kayaking, easy to hard, depending on the wind; hiking, moderate.

Distance: Hauroko car park to Teal Bay Hut 14km (2.5hrs kayaking).

Teal Bay Hut to Hump Ridge 8km (4-5 hrs walking).

Accommodation: Teal Bay Hut (12 bunks).

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