Around Mt Taranaki – fast-pack

Date: 30-31 December 2021

Distance: 47.5km

Time: 20hrs

As mentioned previously, Gerry and I usually try to get away from civilisation and into the mountains around Christmas and/or new year. This would normally involve a five day tramp or something similar. This year we opted to go further and faster, by looping both Mt Ngarahoe and Mt Ruapehu in three days, followed by looping Mt Taranaki in two days.

And so, four days after our our first loop, with 90+ very technical and challenging kilometres in our legs, we started our second loop – clockwise from Dawson falls.

We arrived in New Plymouth the evening before, spending the night with friends. The plan was to start walking at 06:30 and we still had an hour’s drive to get there, so it was going to be an early morning. Nina was joining us, and opted to only leave from Glen Oroua (a bit south of Sanson) in the morning, which is a three-hour drive. I didn’t sleep much, for some unknown reason, but we managed to get everything ready in time and arrived at Dawson Falls at about 06:15. While parking, Nina also arrived, and after getting ourselves ready we set off at 06:40.

In the week (and months) leading up to our fast-pack, it rained heaps in the Naki. North Egmont Visitor Centre measured 1165mm for December. The runoff of the rivers and streams around the maunga is apparently quite fast, so we were not too worried about river-crossings. What I did not consider, however, was the vast amounts of mud on the track.

The Mt Taranaki Around the Mountain (ATM) Circuit is really a track of two halves. The northeastern side and the southwestern side. Northeast is where all the action is; the Pouakai Crossing, Wilkies Pools, Boomerang Slip, Dieffenbach Cliffs, Enchanted Forest Loop, Manganui Skifield, North Egmont and Dawson Falls Visitor Centres, etc, while the southwest side is, well … overgrown (some tracks are closed permanently and others are nearly impassable), mud, mud, lots of mud, trenches, very steep ups and downs, clambering over rocks while hanging onto tree roots, and did I mentioned mud? During a wet spell, slipping and bum-sliding is what you’re in for.

The first almost three kilometres follows a well formed path up the mountain to Kapuri, a private lodge. Imagine such a thing. Everything was wet from all the rain, and being reasonably overgrown, our bums (and higher) also got soaking wet. The wind was picking up and the fog turned into a light rain. From the turn-off to Kapuri Lodge the track continues uphill for another 300 metres before turning left to sidle around the mountain. Straight ahead is the path to Syme Hut. Once above the tree line and splitting off from the private lodge track, things got a bit more challenging. By then the wind was fairly strong (30km/h) and the rain got more persistent. Worryingly, it also got quite cold. The further we went the more things turned nasty and the more we started thinking about turning back. By then we’d passed a few hairy bits, the kind you don’t want to do a second time in challenging weather. All along we knew that once we passed Bobs Bluff, we would be back in the forest and more sheltered from the weather.

At about five kilometres from the start we reached the turn-off going down to Lake Dive Hut. If the hut hadn’t burned down, it would have been very tempting heading that way.

At some point the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see the next marker. We went further up, but soon realised we were off track. Each time we stopped to check the map or the GPS, we were shivering like sticks. It did cross my mind that we could potentially pitch the tent and wait for the weather to improve. Or turn back. Weird how your mind automatically starts to figure out alternative plans when things seems bleak. And when this happens, trying to figure out at which point to do what (like setting off a PLB) becomes tricky. This is probably why so many people get into trouble – by the time you reach the point that you need to call for help, you might already be hypothermic and not thinking properly.

We decided to keep moving forward, while all along we were getting wetter and colder. Eventually we reached Bobs Bluff (at about 8km) which included a few very sketchy sections, scrambling over (wet!) rocks, and tree stumps, bum-sliding, past the bluff. But once we were there, I knew that we’d be heading back down and into the forest where we would be sheltered from the wind and rain.

Walking (sliding) down the spur, the mountain scrubs made way for taller trees, so the wind was less, but everything including ourselves were soaking wet. And since the track doesn’t seem like it’s maintained much, the undergrowth makes sure to keep everything thigh-high, wet. And walking on the edge of shear drop-offs remains a scary thing for me.

After what felt like an eternity, we finally passed Brames Falls (12km) and were at the low-track junction (13km) to the now burned down Lake Dive hut (wonder if it will ever be replaced?) to the left, and Waiaua Gorge Hut to the right. Splashing through puddles, slipping and sliding along the track, we finally reached Waiaua Gorge Hut (14km) where we had lunch. An elderly dad and his two grownup sons also arrived for lunch before heading back out to their car. He also talked about a track that he used to walk with the boys when they were still kids, that has long since seized to exist.

From Waiaua Gorge Hut going clockwise, a section of the track was taken out by a slip. The detour that was put in place is really quite horrible after heavy rain. The dad called it ‘rough’. At four kilometres long (2km more than the original route) it took us an hour to slip and slide through that section. By then we had given up all hope of making it to Holly Hut, and instead took the turn-off (21km) going uphill to Kahui Hut (23.4km)), which added a few kilometres to our round trip. It was about six o’clock in the evening by the time we got there, wet, cold and tired.

Even though it is a hut without a fireplace and just a trickle of water (no gutters and no tank – presumably the water comes from a small stream?) we were warm enough once we could take off our soaking wet shoes, socks, pants, knickers, everything, and replace it with reasonably dry clothing from our packs. Unfortunately, no fireplace also meant that we could not dry our only set of clothes before the next day.

Despite having my sleeping back in a drybag, in my backpack covered with a splash cover, it was wet on the one side. Even Gerry’s watch fogged up and is still buggered more than a week later. My feet looked like prunes and I was cold enough that I spent the the entire evening huddled up in my sleeping bag.

We cooked dried mash potatoes with ginger flavoured tuna and red onion for dinner (this is becoming a fast-packing staple), followed by a cup of tea before heading to bed.

Each time having to go to the toilet meant getting wet all over again, since the grass around the hut(s) was also uncut and tall. And of course it meant getting back into wet, cold shoes – not a nice experience at any time, least of all in the middle of the night.

After a good night’s sleep and not having to worry about packing up wet tents, we left at 06:40. Having to put on soaking wet shoes on a pair of dry socks was a laugh. Of course said socks were immediately wet, and any thoughts of trying to rock-hop over streams were immediately abandoned. Avoiding the mud baths were pretty much out of the question anyway, and so we could just slosh thought the sludge of the southern side of the mountain. On the other side of the Kahui Hut detour (2.8km into day two) we saw a sign on the lower track advising trampers that the path is overgrown and uncared for, emphasising the lack of maintenance. 

Heading into the ‘civilised part’ of the ATM Track, conditions were improving so we were able to pick up our pace. By 11:10 we reached Holly Hut (10km). We signed in, topped up water bottles and chatted to a tough as nails-looking elderly lady who mentioned that when things get tough, just remind yourself that you do it because you love it. From here we were truly back in civilisation. And while overly groomed tracks and paths with lots of steps can also be uncomfortable to walk/run on, the slipping and sliding in dangerous spots is no fun either. I don’t might the mud or the unkempt tracks so much, as long as this is not the cause of someone tumbling off the mountain. And we passed plenty of spots where this could potentially happen. Or am I being overly dramatic?

Even though we had a longer day (25km as opposed to 22.5km the previous day), it was far easier walking. The paths were dry, steps were in place on steep areas, and evidence of extensive track maintenance was visible all around the track.

At Tahurangi Lodge we stopped for lunch (17.5km). What started as another misty rainy day, turned into a beautiful day. While having lunch, fog was drifting up the valley, and a few people who summited the mountain approached from higher up the valley. A group of three went up at three in the morning to watch the sun rise on the last day of the year.

A couple more hours on the sunny, dry side of the mountain, and we were back at the start, a bit before four in the afternoon. Nina still had the long drive back, and we had the hour’s drive back to New Plymouth in time for a bubbly to celebrate New Years. We spent the weekend with friends, and were treated to wonderful food, wine and desserts galore.

The previous time we walked around the mountain, I thought to myself that I will never do that again. This time it did cross my mind to never do it again, but I also believe in giving everything at least three chances. Haha. Who knows, maybe I might still be able to get around in one day. The secret will be to pick the best possible weather day of the year, preferably following a long dry spell, so late February/March might be more optimal.

Tongariro Northern Circuit and Southern Circuit

Date: 23-25 December 2021

Time: 3 days (34:15 hours)

Distance: Approximately 90km

Mt Ngarahoe only just showing his head.

Christmas time is usually a time for family. And while we are ‘orphans’ in our new home without any family to share the holidays with, we usually try to get into the mountains and away from the hustle and bustle of this time of year.

A good “gettin’ away from it all” for us is usually at least a five-day tramp. But this year we decided to do five days of fast-packing and hence cover more ground. First up is something I’ve been wanting to do since the first time we walked around these mountains (2010, 2013, 2016, and 2018) – a continuous trip around both Mt Ngarahoe and Mt Ruapehu, cutting out the stretch of shared track between the two mountains. The first question was, should we go clockwise, or anticlockwise. We opted to go clockwise.

We had two main reasons for our clockwise decision: one was to get the Tongariro Alpine Crossing out of the way on a good weather day, and the other was to avoid wet feet until the last day. We knew that the last section has a tonne of stream crossings, some of which are impossible to cross dry footed.

Although we tried to pack as light as possible, having to take a tent, food and clothing for three days, including catering for a potential sudden turn of the weather, meant we were still carrying heavier packs than what I was hoping for. My pack weighed around 7.5-8km and Gerry’s was around 10-11kg. This did not include a mattress of any kind, but we did take a tarp and space blanket incase it got too cold from the ground up. We both wore the same shirts and pants for three days, and a second pair of tops and bottoms for the evenings and nights. I was never going to compromise on socks and knickers, so had 3 pairs of each.

We made the trip to National Park Village late afternoon the day before, and by the time we arrived it was already quite late. We stayed at the Discovery Lodge just down the road from Whakapapa Village (about a 10 min drive) and were, apart from another pair in a campervan, the only people there. It remains one of the cheaper, albeit basic, places to stay close-by for adventures in the mountains. Leaving home after three in the afternoon, it was lucky we had leftover food from the previous night (asparagus pie and soup). After using up some valuable time trying to check-in last minute, with COVID-issues and being late, we could finally have a quick dinner before going to bed by 10pm. 

Day 1 – Whakapapa Visitor Centre to Mangatoetoenui Stream via the Northern Circuit

35km – 11:15hrs

At sunrise we made some tea and started getting ourselves ready for the adventure. Drove to Whakapapa Village, parked the car, made a quick last pee stop, and were on our way by 06:30. Apart from a very light breeze and some cloud in the morning, it ended up being a beautiful warm sunny day. We didn’t see a lot of other people, but approaching the Mangatepopo Hut (08:45), we could see some day trippers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing coming from the carpark. We were slightly ahead of them, but eventually they caught up with us. We also caught a few others who were ahead of us, and all the way up to Red Crater we were passing and catching up with each other, chatting, taking photos and just enjoying the beautiful day and fantastic scenery. I’d guess there were about fifteen others on the crossing. Not the usual droves of people we’ve become accustomed to. The first set of toilets (09:30) that used to be at the bottom of the steep rocky climb to get to South Crater, have been moved to a spot just around the corner, so to not be as visible anymore when approaching from the hut. A second batch of three loos (new since the last time we were there) have been placed higher up, right on the edge of South Crater. 

We were going great, making good time going up and through South Crater and further up Mangatepopo Saddle to the highest point on the route next to Red Crater. By then the sun was out and it was very hot. 

On the steep down scoria section from Red Crater, I slipped and fell. ’Skiing’ down is not as easy as it looks, especially with a still heavy-ish pack. The guy next to me mentioned that he fell four times last year and that he’s trying to improve on that. Haha. A few more manoeuvres and near slips, before we reached Emerald Lakes at 11:30 where we turned right towards Uterere Hut. Everyone doing the one-day crossing were, of course, going straight towards Blue Lake and down the mountain.

Still descending past Emerald Lakes and walking through the volcanic landscape, we stopped for lunch at Uterere Hut (12:45) where we had a yarn with a funny man (who was wondering if Gerry is making me do these things and whether I needed saving. Haha). After 45 minutes we were on our way again to Waihohonu Hut, the mansion that is shared between the Northern Circuit and the Round Mt Ruapehu circuit (colloquially known as the Southern Circuit). On the way there, the Uterere Hut warden was making her way up the hill. By then we were cooking in the blazing hot sun. Already sun-burned, the sunblock we applied at lunchtime didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I was also running out of steam a bit, and we started to move slower than I’d hoped. 

By 15:45 we were at the hut, which we passed, thinking we might spent the night near the Ohinepango Springs. The only other people we saw for the afternoon was a pair of elderly men whom we chatted with for a few minutes shortly after the Waihohonu Hut. At the spring (16:10-16:30) we sat down trying to figure out our next move, and also to get some water. It was still reasonably early and we thought we may as well push on to the only other place I was aware of that would have water – the Mangatoetoenui Stream. It was only another about 4km, but being quite sore and tired by then, it took more than an hour to get to the stream. It was reasonably easy terrain with only a few scrambles up and down some erosion trenches. At 17:45 we pitched the tent and fired up the stove for some soup, tea, and food later on (dried mashed potato with ginger flavoured tuna, and a chopped red onion).

I was quite warm during the night (as I was all day) and it soon became clear that we might have over-catered in terms of warm and wet clothing, but you never know what will happen in the mountains, and so it is what it is.

Day 2 – Mangatoetoenui Stream to 1km past Ohakune Mountain Road 

28km – 12hrs

I was not as quick out of the starting blocks in the morning, but we managed to have a snack, some tea, and had all our stuff sorted (the tent still somewhat wet from condensation) to leave at 07:30. We had a reasonably good night’s sleep, despite only having a tarp and the tent bottom between us and the ground. Not being used to distance training of any kind, I was well aware that I’d covered 35km the previous day on very challenging terrain. 

The roughly 3km from the stream goes all the way uphill to the gravel ski road, with the last bit being the steepest. From the Tukino Ski Road (08:15) it is a lovely undulating walk to the Whangaehu River (Lahar Valley). I can’t believe I just said ‘lovely’ and ‘undulating’. Usually when we get to that point, going counterclockwise, I’m so buggered that everything feels hilly and challenging, and there’s not much lovely about it. The bridge in the lahar valley is as daunting as ever. Perhaps the noise from the raging stream far beneath add to the scariness. 

At 10:15 we were at the Rangipo Hut where we filled our water bottles and signed in (as Gerry had done at the other huts we passed).  

Not long after, we reached the Waihianoa Gorge and River which is the second unnerving bit for me on this stretch of the track, as always. A rather imposing gorge with a steep and slippery down and uphill keeps you on your toes. Maybe I should add that I have a very vivid imagination and have played off in my mind many very elaborate scenes of tumbling down the mountain, breaking bones and knocking heads open like coconuts on the way down. Haha, see, no shortage of dramatic effect in my mind’s eye.

I was reminded again that this is a track. With track I mean some waratahs or pegs, adorned with a lovely orange triangle to show the way, whacked in every so often. You find your own path between these poles. If it’s very foggy, you might have difficulty spotting the next marker. Apart from the odd boardwalk or stairs to help protect the environment from erosion, the ‘path’ goes where you want it to go. Within reason.

We were again by ourselves for the biggest part of the day, and only saw two other couples a few kilometres from the Mangaehuehu Hut. Not being able to reach the second hut in time for lunch, we stopped in the shade of some trees, as soon as we finally reached the trees (13:45-14:15). At the hut an hour later (15:15) there was a gentleman by himself. We filled water bottles, drank some electrolyte and chatted for fifteen minutes before heading on our way. In the final stretch before Ohakune Mountain Road, another three youngsters were making their way to the hut for the night. 

What felt like forever, finally brought us to the Ohakune Mountain Road (18:15). We contemplated sleeping at the Waitonga Falls (1.5hr before the road), but I knew that that would mean a very long last day – something I was hoping to avoid on Christmas day. My pace already diminished since the previous day, and there was no hope of going any faster on the third day. So we slogged up the mountain road (3km) to reached the turn-off back onto the track by 19:30. We walked down the slippery slope to the stream to get water for the night, before walking some more to find a suitable spot away from the track. It was after eight by the time we could pitch the tent and start making dinner.

Watching the sun set while having dinner, I was wondering how I would still make another 25km day on challenging terrain. 

Day 3 – 1km past Ohakune Mountain Road to Whakapapa Visitor Centre

25km – 11hrs

Another good night’s sleep and we were ready to start the day at 6:45. Cresting the ridge through rocky terrain, we reached the cascades. We’ve been down there before, but going up always feels somewhat easier. Fortunately it was dry and sunny which made slipping a bit less likely. Even the little stretch I remember so clearly below the cascades that meander through a narrow little path in a side stream, was dry enough to not get wet feet.

We reached the Mangaturuturu Hut by 08:00 where we spent some time having a snack, topping up water bottles etc, to leave there again at 08:30. From there the track cross the big Mangaturuturu River which can be a problem when it has rained lots or with snow-melt. This was, again, dry enough to rock-hop across. After a big climb we reached Lake Surprise while still gaining elevation. A few more up and downs (more than I care to remember), river crossings (one which we couldn’t avoid getting partially wet feet – my one foot was half wet and the other nearly dry) and negotiating eroded trenches, we reached the Whakapapaiti Hut by 14:00 where we stopped for lunch. I was out of steam and annoyed that I couldn’t go faster, which meant that we were again going to finish fairly late (on Christmas day). We were yet to find a place to stay for the night, and worried that places will not be open that time of a public holiday. 

From the hut (leaving at 14:40), another dodgy stream crossing in wet times, could again be crossed by rock-hopping. Almost all the places I remember as wet and muddy were reasonably dry. It was our third day without so much as a hint of rain, but some occasional clouds helped with the heat. This last stretch from the hut back to Whakapapa Village felt very long. I was going as fast as I could, but wasn’t moving very fast. It reminded me of something I read in Bryon Powell’s book (Relentless Forward Progress) about the later stages of an ultra – it goes something like this: move faster, because you’re going slower than you think. (And at the beginning stages of an ultra, the advice is to go slower, because you’re going faster than you think). 

When we reached the wetlands area some time before five in the afternoon, Gerry made an on-line booking for the night at the Discovery Lodge, so we’re going full circle. We thought of staying elsewhere after the trip, but didn’t want to book in advance, incase we might need another day to get around the mountains (we had extra food and were prepared to do that if needed). 

We finally reached the turn-off to the Silica Rapids, and after another long while we reached Whakapapa Village at 17:45, where we saw the first people for the day. It was quite weird to walk the whole day without running into anyone else. People obviously have other things to do on Christmas day.

Glad to have made it in one piece, even though I had some intense niggles on and off during the three days, we drove to our overnight spot for a well-deserved and much-needed shower. Needless to say, all eateries within striking distance were closed, so we cooked the potatoes I packed for ‘incase’, fried some ‘incase’ onions, and added the ‘incase’ can of baked beans. The cucumber that stayed in the car was still fine despite the heat, so with a warm bubbly in the one hand and a pan of oily, salty, fried goodness, we spent a lovely evening outside while dark clouds loomed in the distance.