It’s the West Coast’s largest lake and Brunner bursts with summer holiday happiness, writes Mike Yardley.
The West Coast’s Lake Brunner is warmly tinged in many happy family holiday memories for me. Maybe such sentiments make me biased, but I’d happily rate Brunner as one of New Zealand’s greatest lakeside escapes. Among many Coasters, they consider the brilliance of Lake Brunner as a cherished local secret. Gouged out by a branch of the Taramakau Glacier, the deep inky waters of the West Coast’s largest lake groan with wild brown trout, lending itself to year-round fishing. Most of the brown trout in this lake simply die of old age – or so the locals will tell you. Bracketed by unblemished views of the serrated peaks of the Southern Alps, they alpine vistas are sharply reflected in the lake’s dark and inky mirror surface.
Rest assured that ink-like appearance isn’t a sign of pollution, merely the presence of very high tannin levels, leached from leaves. If you like your water sports, Brunner purrs with possibilities. Jet boating, yachting, swimming kayaking and paddle-boarding all play out in this vast body of glass-clear water. The water can reach 25 degrees Celsius in summer because the 120-metre-deep lake is mountain fed, not snow fed. The tannin-stained darkness of the water helps absorb the solar heat. Come nightfall, everything is so still. You could hear a pin drop. Stand and gaze up at the Milky Way. Listen out for swans on the lake and morepork resting in the forest. The Māori name for the lake is Kotuku Whakaoho, meaning the ‘sea of herons’.
The lake is named in honour of the intrepid Thomas Brunner who, in 1848, became the first European to see the lake during his epic 550 day exploration of the region with Kehu and other indigenous guides. Brunner and Charles Heaphy both rated Kehu as the Māori guide extraordinaire, an exceptionally talented bushman and instinctive navigator, who was based in Motueka, and guided early European explorers across the wider West Coast, in search of good rural land. Kehu was was enslaved by Ngāi Tahu at the age of 12 after they killed his father in an inter-tribal battle in 1810 on the West Coast. Brunner credited Kehu and his wife for saving his life, after he fell ill with paralysis on that mighty 18-month long expedition of the region south of the Buller River as far south as Haast. They remained lifelong friends.
The lakeside township of Moana is as cute-as-a-button, ensuring modern comforts are within ready reach, while enjoying a taste of the wild. With only 80 permanent residents but 300 holiday homes, Moana is a byward for holiday haven. The centrally situated Moana hotel (Hotel Lake Brunner) is a hospitality hotspot with live entertainment and excellent modern cuisine. Directly opposite the Moana Railway Station, the Stationhouse Cafe is another inviting destination for with a la carte evening dining, genuine West Coast tucker or a more casual blackboard selection for lunch.
The Thai chicken is a big-seller but you can’t go wrong with their whitebait fritters. Speaking of the railway, the TranzAlpine calls into Moana to and from Greymouth, on its day-return excursion from Christchurch. The elevated alert levels temporarily suspended the TranzAlpine service, but all going to plan, the fabled railway journey will be back on track over summer, along with Kiwi Rail’s other scenic rail services.
But what I love most about Lake Brunner is the stirring platter of walking tracks, leading you deep into the heart of its podocarp forested grandeur, edged by the wondrous lake, in addition to the wetlands and abundant birdlife. The track network is divided into the lake’s southern and northern sections, with the northern tracks starting from Moana. The 2km-long Lakeside Walk is a great introductory, threading its way around the pebble beach to the fabulous swing bridge across the Arnold River, which is the lake’s outfall.
The Velenski Walk is an ever shorter track, starting just past the motorcamp, leading you to a lookout point with views of Orangipuku Valley, Mt Te Kinga and the Hohonu Range. The track ascends through regenerating bush to a ridge of original forest, cloaked in mature stands of rimu, miro and kahikatea. Start your walk at dusk and keep an eye out for small clusters of glowworms. Remember to take a torch! Another great option is the 30 minute return Rakaitane Track, which includes the Arnold River swingbridge.
This walk is a botanical treasure with dramatic changes in the flora and fauna over a short period. At first it runs through Kamahi forest and rises to a terrace covered in a regenerating forest of tall, slender kahikatea with dense mats of moss and fern adding to the charm. From a lofty viewpoint, the tranquil Arnold River is enrobed in a setting of massive miro and rimu trees. The track then loops back through more mature podocarp forest, with groves of tree ferns completing a winning sequence of botanical theatre.
The Southern Section of walks is headlined by the one hour return walk to Carew Falls. The Carew Creek waterfall has a year round flow however in the late spring it’s spectacular with winter runoff. Enormous water sculptured granite boulders are sun warmed natural seats to relax and take in the views. The lake’s western edges can be viewed. Old pipes seen along the track are from a small hydro scheme that once provided power for the Mitchells Hotel (now Lake Brunner Lodge).
But my absolute favourite is the Bain Bay Walk. The full circuit is 7km long, but even doing a chunk of it will reward you handsomely. Before stepping out, check with the locals about the lake’s water level because it’s impassable at higher levels. For the first kilometre, the track runs around the swampy lake margin mostly on boardwalk, with the option of walking on the lake beach in between. Both the track and boardwalk can be immersed and impassable when the lake level is running high. The track leads you into incredibly dense forest, studded with giant ancient trees including kahikatea, matai and rimu, along with tall tree ferns and tangles of vines to tantalise your inner-Tarzan. At Bain Bay, the boardwalk gives way to a gravel track running close to the lake edge and those bewitching dark inky waters. Return via the same track.
Where to stay? Lake Brunner Lodge is the lakeside legend, beginning life in 1868 as Mitchell’s Hotel, rebuilt in the 1930’s and recently refurbished. Lake Brunner Lodge boasts the classic architecture of yesteryear with the comforts and furnishings of today. Comprising 8 ensuited rooms, you’ll be basking in luxurious accommodation, graciously blending old world charm with contemporary comfort, wrapped in breath-taking scenery. Bag a lakeside room.
The in-house bar and restaurant will ensure you never go hungry or thirsty. A range of dine and stay packages are on offer from November for the summer season. The same water that drops from the nearby Carew Falls powers the lodge, via the Arnold River Dam. The lure of wide open spaces and wilderness escapes is going to hold extra-appeal this summer.
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