78. Rotorua – Okere Falls and Kaituna River

Okere Falls, less than half an hour’s drive from Rotorua, is a village that sits beside the Kaituna River. In its turn, the Kaituna River zooms through the narrow sides of a gorge, on and on until it reaches the Bay of Plenty. Okere means ‘place of drifting’ and I have to say that we didn’t see anything just drifting on the water of this village – manically ripping and bounding along is a better description!

A track leads along the river for about one kilometre, in a loop, from the old power house at one end (nearest the village end) to Trout Pool at the other.

Kaituna River was traditionally used as a source of food for it’s inhabitants, Ngāti Pikiao, who caught eels (tuna), freshwater crayfish (koura), and native galaxiids which we also know as whitebait. Whitebait is a term that includes inanga, kōara and three species of kokopu. Trout were introduced with the arrival of Europeans and took to their environment so well that people can now fish for these, but not the native ones. (You need a licence to fish in New Zealand rivers and lakes from Fish and Game NZ).

In 1984 the Waitangi Tribunal, set up to restore justice for Māori as per the criteria of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, ruled that Ngāti Pikiao were the official owners of the river.

This is a Waverley Horizontal Turbine from one of New Zealand’s earliest hydro electric power stations. The original setup held two of these turbines with a total output of 100 kilowatts. Rotorua was the fourth town in New Zealand to have power.
In the foreground of the photo lie the metal remains of the old powerhouse and flume system that brought the water to the turbines. In the background is the waterfall known as Okere Falls, same name as the village.

The water is rushing hard and fast and holds a grade 5 status for difficulty (out of 1 to 6, with 6 being almost impossible). Several tour companies run rafting trips through this stretch of gorge. It’s not a long ride, but extreme excitement is apparent – we could see this, in a couple we met who asked if we were going to do it (yikes, no!)

For kayakers, we apparently only see the easy part of the river along this walk; the challenging stuff is further downstream – really? Needless to say there have been recreational deaths on this river – in fact just a few months ago one of the more dangerous of these sections, Gnarly Gorge, was closed by the local harbourmaster after consultation with various local authorities.

If you wait long enough at vantage points along the the Okere River you can see rafters and kayakers running down. We saw plenty of signs (excited couple who had just done it, rafting company vans waiting at Trout Pool, cars with kayaks on them back at the carpark, kayakers waiting to slip into the water at the powerhouse), but no actual paddlers on the water.
The track’s first side of the loop was away from the river and led us up about 50 metres; this was the view from the highest point.
You can just make out Trout Pool centre left.
Back down at river level, the water is still rushing by though it’s obviously running through a deeper channel just here, as it’s not as bubbly and rough as before. We found a side channel that people had obviously hopped across as there was a well-beaten few steps, but, with old injuries that occasionally fail these days – Kev’s knee and my ankle – we didn’t dare to make the jump; one slip and you’d be whooshed into that water with some decent turbulence remaining between yourself and the quieter Trout Pool.
This bridge took us to the other side of the river which gave a different vantage point of the turbulence of this mighty little river.

We were surprised when we learned that wallabies are common in the Rotorua district – they are a real problem down south as well. Guess they’re everywhere!
Trout Pool Waterfall from the bridge.
Walking upstream just a little way on the other side, we looked back on the bridge and the Trout Pool beyond.
Trout Pool, relatively calm and peaceful, where you can watch trout keeping their position below the water if you’re lucky.
We spent quite a while enjoying the grandeur of the thundering water, and the quiet of Trout Pool, before heading in our loop back through the bush alongside the river. It seemed like a lot of the bush was regeneration, so it was nice to see a few old trees, like this rimu.
At Tutea Falls we were able to drop down on stairs to this vantage point of the falls. This is a main viewing spot where, if you wait for long enough, you can watch rafters and kayakers tipping over a 7 metre drop – reputedly the highest commercial rafting drop in the world.
Then we dropped even further on the track, down Hinemoa’s Steps on the face of the bluff, to Tutea’s Cave. Māori women and children used to climb down to a cave using vines and ropes, and into one directly behind Tutea Falls, at times when they needed to take refuge from tribal wars. It must have been daunting with that water rushing by below, but obviously a better option than the violent alternative. Chief Tutea was buried in the cave behind Tutea Falls so that’s where his remains still lie.

The steps were built in 1907 under the direction of the power house engineer, and used for tourism purposes. There’s apparently no local link between the Hinemoa who swam across Lake Rotorua and this Hinemoa; the steps may have been named by the engineer or someone connected to him as a romantic gesture to the story of Hinemoa and her long swim.
This cave goes in a circle, with it’s entry and exit several metres apart. You can see how the water has shaped it as a keyhole, the top part only being carved out in times of higher water.
Climbing back up Hinemoa’s Steps.
This is blocked off, but leads to the other entry point of Tutea’s Cave.
Back at the carpark and powerhouse site we noticed a set of steps leading down; these are probably where the turbines and other equipment was lowered to build the powerhouse.
At the bottom of these steps the river rushed past, washing our shoes – nice to have the barricade there. Turns out the stairs lead down next to where we had our first sight of the river; we can see Okere Falls from here (the waterfall not the village).

I wish we’d seen a raft or couple of kayaks on the river; I’ve just been watching a video on youtube of a kayaker making a long run on the river and realised how much the river means for extreme adventure seekers. These people are collectively known around here as the River People.

And possibly we would do the raft trip after all. Oh well, too late now, how sad *giggle*

This day has shown us another great sight – and re-affirmed that wherever we go in New Zealand, we find these unexpected, tucked-away places; environments that have great meaning for groups of people who both care for and use them – once found, easy to fall in love with.

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