Date: 29 December 2018 to 2 January 2019
Distance: Approx 52km
Time: 5 days
Circumnavigating Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) has been on our radar for quite some time. Somehow, there’s always something else that gets priority, but this year we decided it is now or never.
Taranaki Maori legend has it that “While Tongariro was away, Taranaki wooed and won Tongariro’s wife, the graceful Pihanga. Tongariro returned at sunrise to find the guilty pair and in the struggle that followed Taranaki was banished. Taranaki retreated to the west coast of the North Island, carving the course of the Whanganui River as he went and filling it with his tears. He then moved North to his present location.
To this day, Taranaki gazes silently at his lover and his river. Pihanga still loves Taranaki and sighs when she thinks of him. Taranaki, when covered in mist, is said to be weeping for his lost love. Meanwhile, the enraged and jealous husband, Mt Tongariro smoulders with fury”. [Ref. Manky Maps]
It is also true that the mountains of New Zealand holds great importance for Maori and are seen as sacred. Mt Taranaki is to Maori and Iwi an ancestor and it is therefore disrespectful to stand on the highest point/summit of the mountain, as it is the head of the ancestor. The streams and rivers are his blood and the rocks and ridges his bones. The plants and trees are his cloak and serve to protect him from the weather. Apparently a lot of ancestors were buried around the mountain, and it should be treated as a graveyard. So no pooping anywhere you like, or washing in the streams, and definitely don’t take a BBQ to the summit to cook up as storm as one bunch of unknowing souls once did. The same group later also took a couch up the Pouakai Range, again claiming ignorance.
On the morning of our trip to New Plymouth, we started packing. The day before I figured out possible menu options and we bought a few items. Sorting through the pile of food stuffs for our four main meals took a bit of time – not something we had in abundance. Everything had to be measured and re-packed for two people. Also the day before our trip, I decided to make rusks for breakfast, which had to dry out overnight, so it was still warm when it had to be packed. At least it is a bit more exiting with coffee than frooze balls in the morning.
Arriving in New Plymouth, we stayed with friends who treated us to a fantastic meal of roasted leg of lamb, and (in my case) far too much bubbly and wine. After a huge chunk of pav followed by coffee, we stumbled to bed quite late.
It was rather warm during the night and in the morning a beautiful day made promise of a good walk. Our friends dropped us off at North Egmont Visitor Centre (952m) where it was a few degrees colder than in town. We signed in, bought hut passes and a map for $1 (which is pretty much useless), before filling our water bottles and getting ready to wander up the mountain.
North Egmont Visitor Centre to Waingongoro Hut (900m)
The first few kilometres are uphill all the way along a gravel road. Even though we started off with fleece tops, we soon were too hot and already drenched in sweat. About two-thirds up the gravel road, the incline became even more steep and a two track cement road called The Puffer, took us all the way to the Tahurangi Lodge (1182m). Shortly before the lodge, there was a public toilet (long-drop) next to the radio tower, all above the tree line. On bad weather days this area is very exposed and could be unpleasant, but apart from a light wind, we had overcast and cool weather.
The Northern Summit Route also starts here, and droves of people were making their way to the summit (2518m), some of whom looked pretty ill prepared in terms of emergency gear.
Following the contour clockwise (bear in mind that contours are 20 metres apart in elevation, which means you can go up and down for roughly six storeys all along thinking it should be flat!), we reached Manganui Lodge and ski field when it started to drizzle. Actually it was only a few spits and within a few minutes it was over. We took shelter under the porch of the lodge where we had lunch.
Next to the ski lodge, we scurried down and across an eroded valley, followed by a little tunnel and a short walk to the Stratford Plateau carpark. The track then returned to the forest where we opted to walk the long way around the Enchanted Forest. Pretty as a picture, but looked the same to me as all the other foresty areas.
About 300 metres before the hut, we crossed a swing bridge that, at 24m, is the highest in Egmont National Park. We reached the Waingongoro Hut late afternoon with a lovely view on Mt Taranaki. After a quick wash-up we boiled some water for a cup-a-soup starter and to soak our dried veges.
When we arrived, we were happy to find only one other guy (a young Israeli tourist) who was asleep in the hut, but after a while two French couples with three young boys between them arrived, and the peaceful evening went to shit.
We decided to cook and spend the evening outside. The youngsters (as small boys do) were running inside the hut, outside the hut, on the porch, chasing each other and screaming as far as they went, until there was crying involved, followed by quiet for a few seconds before the process repeats itself. Somewhere between 8pm and 9pm they finally passed out, but by then I was also ready to pass out. We chatted a bit with the one dad and the Israeli guy before turning in.
Waingongoro Hut to Lake Dive Hut, via the lower track passing Wilkies Pools, and Dawson Falls Visitor Centre.
When strapping on a heavy backpack and sturdy boots, your agility levels instantly drop to minus 40. It is far more difficult and dangerous to traverse this way in the backcountry than running with trail shoes and a light pack. Steep, slippery ups and downs, sidling and clambering over stuff is way more of a challenge with a heavy load. The slightest misstep or slip can send you flying or cause serious injury. Add to that sore and fatigued muscles and you have a recipe for disaster. Luckily, nothing of the kind happened and apart from some hotspots, chafing, the odd thorn, some bumps, bruises, and scratches, we came off unscathed.
Another beautiful morning with lovely views on the maunga was a welcome start to the day, but by the time we have had some rusks and coffee, it was clouded up and the mount was gone again. Just as well, as the day turned out to be quite hot.
The circuit around the mountain has two different options for each day – a low track and a high track. The high track warns of alpine conditions and the low route of overgrowth, windfall and impassable river-crossings after rain. It is basically a toss-up each day between two evils.
Looking at the map and the fact that the low track on this particular stretch was closed due to windfall, it seemed like a good options to do the high track on this stretch of the tramp, and the low track the following day. Even though the high tracks promised better views, we were keen to experience at least some of the low track as well.
We started off shortly after 9am on a gentle uphill. After a bit more than an hour, we reached Wilkies Pools. There were tonnes of people, including the busy French boys, so we didn’t linger and moved on to Dawson Falls Visitor Centre.
As Gerry was going inside to buy more hut passes, another couple started chatting and when we explained our intentions of walking high on this day and low the following, they informed us that the low track was fine, as they’d just come through that way. And while they were chatting, another youngster chimed in by saying that the low track on the next section (between Lake Dive hut and Waiaua Gorge hut)) was horrific and it took them 13 hours to complete. I immediately thought to myself if that’s the case for a strong young man, then I have no hope of making it before dark. So we swapped our days for high and low tracks around and off we went on the low track.
According to the DOC distances and times, it was meant to be a four hour, 6.5km walk. It took us five hours, with a half hour lunch break. We were going very slow making sure not to trip or fall off the mountain or something, but I still doubt the distances given by DOC.
By lunchtime the clouds had disappeared and the few bits where the sun came through the forest were very hot. At least 60% of the track was very overgrown and although it was meant to follow the contour, to me it seemed that the whole day was a non-stop up and down affair. The only flat bits were the tiny bridges across streams, as there was otherwise a million steps. Often we would walk right on the edge of a cliff, or on the spine of a ridge, and were it not for the vegetation and the trees, it would have been far more scary.
Finally the last few metres to the hut were fairly flat and my legs could get some recovery time.
The hut sleeps 16 people, but it is rather big. We had a lovely view on the mountain, but unfortunately (despite it’s name) no view on the lake. It was a little higher and away from the lake, which had vegetation all around the shore. In my minds eye, I had pictured lovely little beaches and swim spots, and maybe they are there, just not reachable in the first hundred or so metres from the hut. So a rather uneventful setting, apart from being in alpine forest with a lovely view on the mountain.
If I may indulge myself in some negativity: the ATM circuit is a bit of the strange one. With access points all around, carparks and visitor centres, the hope and chance of “getting away from it all” is zero. All the huts are reasonably close to the road, resulting in heaps of day walkers and trampers spending just one night. And at this time of year it is a massive problem. Nearly all the huts were over-crowded and rumour around the track had it that Pouakai hut (sleeps 18) hosted 36 people a couple of nights before. Which begs the question – why doesn’t DOC allow bookings? At $30 for the two of us, it really isn’t that cheap anymore and the least they can do, is to not have double the amount of people staying in a hut. That would just be super unpleasant for everyone. The first-come-first-serve basis is also not fair. What if you are a slow walker like me? I will most likely arrive after the hut reached its capacity, so would always have to carry a tent, making me even slower.
Even though I was sore in a lot of places, we spent a lovely evening at the hut, with nine others who were all mostly minding their own business.
Lake Dive Hut to Waiaua Gorge Hut via the high track.
We woke up in a thick mist, had breakfast and were off heading up the mountain. The first hour or so goes all the way up through the forest until you eventually pop out above the tree line. And in this case also above the mist with lovely close-up views of the mountain where we reached the junction with the high track.
Turning left we continued in our clockwise direction. The partially snowy mountain with streaks of snow running down the valleys was towering to our right in all its magnificence. Below us mist was rolling in and out of the valleys and across the lower ridges.
The going was tough over very difficult terrain and like the mist we were also crossing ridges and valleys. A blistering sun evened out the cold breeze. This section entailed a lot of clambering over rocks with some scary sections.
Eventually we got to Bob’s bluff, sidling just below it over some huge rocks. Twice I had to slid down my bum over a massive rock, and I could not imagine how I would get up them had we walked the recommended anti-clockwise direction. Past the bluff, we started making our way down along a ridge where we stopped for lunch. Some very slippery sections in muddy trenches made for tough going, but eventually the gradient became a bit less severe, and for the first time we could walk semi-comfortably downhill without steps and rocks to clamber over. We passed Brames Falls and could get a glimpse of it through the trees and up the valley.
After we reached the junction with the low track the terrain went pear-shaped very fast again. Lots of muddy and boggy sections with very steep ups and downs. At a tricky stream crossing trying to get over dry-footed, Gerry slipped and ended up calf deep in the stream.
We clambered out the other side and ended up walking another 45 minutes straight uphill. When we finally reached the hut at 4:30pm, no-one else was there. We could wash and make a cup-a-soup as well as a fire, before two more couples arrived. I thought we were very lucky not to have huts filled over capacity. At the visitor centre, Gerry chatted to the DOC ranger about sleeping at Syme Hut, when he informed us that they were expecting 20 people there that night – the hut sleeps 10.
We spent a lovely New Year’s eve by the fire, having a tipple and feasting on a good meal, while clothes and shoes were drying above the fire on the clothes rack. Such a cool invention and a very useful part of hut-life.
Waiaua Gorge Hut to Holly Hut via the high track
We left the hut at 8:30 to face a lot of muddy sections in the first few hours. It was the first time since we started four days ago that the route was fairly flat. In most instances, when going up or down a hill, it would go straight up or straight down. None of this switch-back nonsense to make life a bit easier.
We chose to again do the high track, but on this stretch of the route, a big part at the start and the finish are the same as the low track, and in the forest. It is only a bit in the middle where the two tracks split where we got a wee bit of the view on the high track. The high track goes past Kanui Hut (880m), which seems to be one of the older huts. While all the others we passed were made from wood, this one was made from corrugated iron. It also didn’t have a fire place. As was the case with Syme Hut. It is unfortunate, as Syme is the highest of them all and by far in the coldest area right next to Phantoms Peak at 1966m.
Winding through the forest on an enjoyable, walkable stretch, we reached another huge uphill that just seemed to be going on forever to finally get to Kanui Hut where we stopped for lunch. Soon after, another solo guy also arrived, and just as we sat down by the table, a local whanau from granddad to grand children arrived on a day-long family outing. We chatted about where we’re from and growing veges in Palmy and the Naki, and got offered some very yummy fruit cake.
Leaving the hut, we meandered through the alpine vegetation while slowly still gaining altitude, before eventually cresting a hill to start making our way down the other side towards Stony River.
After about two (?) hours we reached Stony River, which is a massive, wide rock-strewn eroded river. Opting to stay dry, we took off our boots for the river crossing, which nearly killed my feet. Crossing a river with the heavy pack, boots around your neck, bare feet over rocks and stone is not a good idea.
Across a narrow part of the river, we bolder-hopped upstream with beautiful views of Mt Taranaki. Apart from the greenery on the sides, this stretch reminded me of the Fish River Canyon, Namibia, which we hiked every year from 1997 to 2008. We even did a double the one year by first running it and two days later starting a 5-day tramp. It remains one of my favourite places to tramp – the desolation, remoteness, the heat, swims in the river, sandy “beaches”, and a fire in the cold evenings.
After Stony River, there is still a million other stream-crossings to cater for, usually with steep drops in and out of the valleys.
Finally we reached the last uphill for the day. Thousands of steps, every single one taking you higher and higher. Nothing was flat and this carried on for another two hours before we finally reached Holly Hut at 7pm.
Rumours travelling around the mountain had it that Holly Hut (approx 1000m) was one of the over-full huts around Christmas and New Year, and we were certain there wouldn’t be a bed left. We prepared ourselves to pitch a tent so was surprised to learn that there were only six people at that stage.
Mist was rolling up the valley and two more trampers appeared from the Pouakai side. We decided to cook outside on the “lawn” in front of the hut, so after a quick scrub-down we fired up the billy with water.
After an enjoyable last night away from civilisation, we retired to bed.
This was a very long day and even though there were more semi-level, walkable areas, it still had some difficult and hair-raising sections. This is definitely not a mere walk in the park.
Holly Hut via Pouakai to the road end.
When we woke up, it was still misty and the mountain still covered in cloud. After a cup of tea and some rusks, we took on the last day of our tramp.
Due to the new slip in the same region as the Boomerang Slip, the high route, and therefore also the Pouakai Crossing, was closed. The low routes are not maintained and badly overgrown in places, and coupled with muddy and boggy section makes for very tedious going in the forest with no views, so to speak. All you see for hours and hours is forest, and they all look the same to me! 😉 So we decided to take the track out via Pouakai.
As we were getting ready to leave, it started to drizzle and the wind also picked up. Thankful that this bad weather only happened on the last day of our tramp, we slowly descended towards the bog/wetland. I got distinct deja vu from our previous Pouakai Crossing going through this area. With the mist we could again not see where we were going, and I am starting to think this is what the Pouakai Crossing looks like.
A relentless uphill followed on the other side of the bog for more than two hours. The wind was strong in exposed places, but luckily most of the track is still in alpine vegetation which formed a natural wind brake to our side.
Yet again we skipped the infamous tarn which is the inspiration for the millions of corny photos out there of Taranaki reflected in the water. Not much point when the mist is so thick that you can hardly see ten metres ahead of you.
Our friends who dropped us off five days ago, walked up to Pouakai Hut (1100m) where we had lunch together before heading down the mountain to the carpark.
Back in civilisation a much needed shower and clean clothes were as welcome as the ice cold cider that followed. We knocked the bastard off, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would tramp this again. It is too difficult and too dangerous for too little nice scenery. A huge chunk of the track is in the forest, which is good from a running point of view, as it will not be so hot, but one does get claustrophobic after a while when everywhere you look is the same. It’s like a “green-out”. There is no easy way of orienteering yourself and you can’t navigate with landmarks. Everything looks the same, and after a while you long to see a bit further than the next few trees. And even on the rare occasions that we popped out above the trees, all that was visible was the patchy, man-made farmlands as far as the eye can see.
All in all a very difficult track to tramp, and not as nice or versatile as going around Mt Ruapehu. But luckily we quickly forget the bad bits and will most certainly be back for a running jaunt around the mountain at some stage.