One of the hard things about hiking in New Zealand is there are plenty of places you're not allowed to take your dog. That can lead to all sorts of feelings of guilt, betrayal and separation anxiety which are no fun for anyone. Cue the Hakatere Conservation Area. The Te Araroa Trail runs straight through it and at only 90 minutes drive from Christchurch it's perfect for finding overnighters that are K9 friendly. Head south to Mt Somers before turning inland towards Lake Clearwater, turn right onto Hakatere/Heron Road and drive 3-4kms until just before the bridge where there's a small car park at the side of the road. You can also access Mystery Lake from Lake Clearwater and if you want to walk in and out the same way I'd recommend starting from the Lake instead. We planned to complete the loop from the lake, over the saddle to Boundary Creek Hut and out past the west side of Dog Hill so parking here made more sense.
As work commitments meant not leaving town until 1pm and stopping for fuel and lunch on the way, we didn't actually get on the track until three in the afternoon. For some stupid reason both of us were confident in walking 16km from the car to Mystery Lake in the less than three hours of daylight we still had left - more on this shortly. The track begins by crossing the wide open grasslands of what used to be a high country station and the gradient is only very gradually uphill all the way to Paddle Hill Creek. There was plenty of water here at the end of April so I imagine it's running all year round. The heat was well and truly getting to our four legged companion at this stage so we had to rest up and let her cool off in the stream as we watched the sun dip even lower in the sky.
Once we were underway again we had to pick up the pace as we hadn't really planned on looking for a tent site in the dark. Again the track is relatively easy to follow here but it would be an interesting challenge in the dark or with snow on the ground so keep this in mind when planning your trip. You follow the Te Araroa Trail until the junction with Mystery Lake Track. These junctions are well sign posted with track distances and times which are pretty accurate for the average hiker. DOC suggests 5 hours into Mystery Lake from the road end and we took just under 3 at a pace that may as well have been jogging. The last section of track has a few short hills and then you pop out at the East end of the Lake. The low lying areas are quite swampy but there are some ideal tent sites just to the sides of the track about 50m from the lake edge. It was basically dark when we arrived so we didn't spend too long choosing somewhere to set up camp for the night.
It was a crystal clear night which always means two things - breathtaking starry skies and bloody freezing! I made the most of practicing my night photography, downed a re-hydrated gourmet feast and tried to make the dog a bed out of something that wasn't my sleeping bag before retiring for the night. Staying right next to a lake with a Labrador was a fatal mistake and she was soaking wet by the time we got her in the tent which in turn made my sleeping bag soaking wet. I didn't get a lot of sleep in the end and as I write this a semi-new four season sleeping bag may have replaced my trusty but somewhat tired three-season version. In the morning we climbed up the hill with a hot cup of coffee to catch the sun as it rose and thaw out a little.
Once the tent was packed away we headed east and up over the hill behind the lake. This links up with the Potts Hut Track after about a kilometre and takes an easy climb up to the top of the saddle. If you are coming up from the Boundary Creek side then you're in for a bit of a gut buster, give yourself plenty of time and take lots of water in summer. After dropping down and taking a slight detour to the hut we stopped for lunch and some shade by the river. The hut had been full of hunters overnight and a couple were still there when we arrived. Having to keep the two dogs apart we didn't hang around too long and hit the track again heading for the car early in the afternoon. The way back to the car from here is essentially a four wheel drive track although you would need good clearance to make it through. DOC puts the walk out at 5 hours and we shaved a good amount of time off that due to not really stopping the whole way. We were back at the car just after two with one seriously tired dog and a strong desire for fast food.
All in all a cool little circuit with beautiful sweeping views and a stunning campsite. Easy hiking but long distances so give yourself plenty of time on both days.
In New Zealand we don't go hiking, walking or frolicking in the wilderness - we tramp.