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.

Pouakai hut, Holly hut and back, with a twist

For some time now we’ve been keen to walk this stretch in the Egmont National Park with friends who live in New Plymouth. Gerry and I have walked this twice before, but each time coming from the mountain side, walking out to the carpark. As we know, doing the same route in the opposite direction often proves to be a different experience. But, as it turns out, the mountain looks exactly the same as the previous times – rainy, windy, cloudy and cold! Again, we did not see the mountain’s reflexion in the tarn on the way in, or out two days later.

Day 1

Since the walk up from the carpark (522m) on Mangorei track to the Pouakai hut (1129m) is only 6.7km (some sources has it as 6.9km), we opted to have a late start. We still had stuff to tend to at home while our friends also had prior commitments for the afternoon.

We left Palmy in the morning for the three plus hour drive to New Plymouth. It was rainy on the way with some heavy, dark clouds looming in the distance. It rained quite a lot in the area during the past week, and while we were having lunch at home still, another cloud burst threatened to derail our plans. After a cider and lunch while catching up, Deon dropped the three of us off at the start of the track, and we only started walking after 4pm.

The whole track from the bottom to Pouakai hut, apart from a few spots around trees, is now a boardwalk. Only a few metres into the walk, another shower of rain made us stop to put on rain jackets. The air was cool, but humid and warm enough that a T-shirt was fine. When walking uphill one usually warms up nicely, so we did not really notice how the temperature has dropped with the elevation gain.

After a while the rain stopped and we had to take our rain jackets off again as it was too hot and sweaty. But a few minutes later, it rained again. And so it went until not too far from the hut, when the rain became more persistent and the temperature also dropped considerably. When we reached the hut just after 6pm it was cold and very windy. Even though it is uphill all the way it is an easy walk to Pouakai hut which took us only two hours.

We quickly swapped our wet clothes for some dry, warm layers, and hung the wet items above the fireplace. Luckily another group (two mums and three children) as well as a DOC worker were already settled in and had the fire going making the hut cosy and warm.

A kettle and a pot of water were boiling on the fireplace all evening, and was for everyone’s use. We immediately made some Cup-a-Soup to warm up our numb fingers and cold bodies. This was followed with jaffles (mince and cheese) which we also heated on the fireplace. After coffee, rusks, whiskey, tea and some chocolate through the course of the evening we were ready for bed. We stayed in the room outside the hut, with an outside door, and even though it is all part of the same building it was a fair bit colder than the hut itself.

I had a water bottle filled with hot water with me in my sleeping bag and was warm enough through the night. The rain persisted, as did the gale force winds. All night long the door rattled in its frame and the hut rocked in the wind. At times I was quite worried that the roof, or the entire hut, might blow off of the mountain. In the dark everything seems more dramatic. I spent hours listening to the rain, wind and gusts hoping it would ease, while all along it felt like continuous earthquakes were shaking the hut.

Day 2

According to the forecast, the weather was meant to improve. Instead, it looked worse than when we started the day before. The low hanging clouds were closed in all around, the rain continued and the gale force winds cooled everything down quite quickly.

We decided to brave the weather and push on to Holly hut (975m). It was a 2.5 hours walk (according to DOC) and we managed to do it in 1:55 at a fairly leisurely pace. Granted, we did not stop anywhere as the wind and rain made it somewhat miserable.

A lot of work had been done on the path since our first stint through this section when it was super muddy and terrible to walk through, and is still in progress as is evident from the amount of wood and equipment strewn in the wetland area, and en route to the tarns. A whole new boardwalk is in progress through the swampy area which will help with both wet feet and erosion.

Although the path ended up being a little stream with puddles everywhere from all the rain, including the hollowed out stairs, we could manage to keep our feet semi-dry for the first hour or so, apart from the rain that ran down our clothes onto our trail running shoes. But eventually we had to give up the ghost and just go for it. While we were reasonably sheltered most of the way down the mountain on the back of the Pouakai Range, we were blown sideways through the exposed area of the wetland.

Just a short walk beyond the wetland, and two stream crossings, we reached Holly hut. We were soaking wet by then. No one else was there, so we quickly made a fire, changed into dry clothes and fired up the billy for some warm coffee. It was pouring outside, when I noticed that the water was just streaming from the damaged gutter at the back of the hut. Perhaps this might explain why there is at times a water shortage at this hut, as alerted to in the warning notice on the DOC website? It was only lunchtime, so we still had the whole afternoon to relax, which is such a rare thing in this crazy old world.

Late afternoon I started to soak the lentils and peas for our lentil curry, with eggplant, onion, garlic, spices, and rice for dinner. We poured a tipple and had a lovely evening sheltered from the elements, chatting and contemplating life. The drizzle persisted on and off, but the gale subsided for a light wind. The tip of the mountain even peeked briefly through the mist which I did not think could possibly happen.

The night was cold again, and I again had a warm bottle of water with me in my sleeping bag. We had fingers crossed for a better, sunny, open day in the morning, as was forecasted.

Day 3

As we knew it was only a short walk back to Pouakai hut (about 4.5km) we decided to get going by 9am. Although it was mainly uphill, we were confident that we would be there by 12pm. Deon was going to walk in from the bottom to meet us for lunch.

When we woke in the morning it was still rainy and clouded over. The wetland valley briefly opened up to give us a glimpse of its vastness. I love this open area, as one forest looks like the next to me, and most tramps in NZ are in forest areas, unless you brave the open, exposed tops of the mountains which can often be treacherous.

Shortly after 11am we were at the hut. Gerry and I and decided to leave our packs and quickly run to the tarns. We knew that there was no way that we would have good views of anything, but decided to go see where the infamous Taranaki-reflected-in-the-tarn photo was taken anyway. You cannot go past there three times and not make a trip to the tarns. The finished parts of the new boardwalk to the tarns make the going fairly easy. The famous tarn turned out to be slightly disappointingly small. I imagined something far bigger. The boardwalk went right around the tarn and our hope that the clouds might quickly open up, was just a dream.

What struck me on this trip was the vast amount of traps all along the trail. And most of them had dead rats in them, apart from two stoats, identifiable by their black tip tails. I had to wonder if the rodent population is completely out of control, or whether the traps are not serviced that often.

Back at the hut Deon had arrived with a lovely spread of fresh salami and cheese sarmies with tomatoes and celery on the side, bananas, good coffee and Easter eggs for dessert.

We started walking back to the carpark a bit before one in the afternoon. We were chatting away, contemplating the Royals and the Oprah interview at a leisurely stroll down the mountain when things suddenly took a turn for the worse.

A twist in the tail

With two kilometres to go I heard something crack behind me, thinking my friend stepped on a twig, but this was followed by the sound someone falling and hurting. When I looked around I immediately noticed that Henriette’s foot was stuck behind a tree root on a step higher up and was twisted at a very weird angle to the side. It was obvious it was severely broken. She was on the ground, but managed to pull it out, and I imagined her being in shock and a lot of pain. As a medical doctor, she knew exactly what to do, so casually mentioned, as if instructing herself, that she was going to turn her foot back into place, pointing forward as it should.

Now, it has to be said that I have a very keen interest in medicine and all things concerning the human body, but emergencies are definitely not my strong suit. I was frozen in place, unable to move or help. As if transfixed, I could do nothing but watch as the movie was playing out before my eyes. When I saw her twisting her foot back into place, all along breathing consciously perhaps not to pass out (I assumed), I suddenly felt warm, nauseas and like I was going to pass out. To distract myself, I managed to get out a bandage and buff while Gerry called 111. For me to pass out then would have been very bad timing, so after a while I sat down for a bit while this movie was repeating over and over in my head. And as with dreams, only a few seconds feels like ages. Henriette instructed her husband to quickly take off her shoe before the swelling got too much. She was certain that both the fibula and tibia were broken, while Deon was quickly searching for something to use as a splint. Without quickly finding something, they managed to put the bandage on, placed her foot on Deon’s small backpack to elevate it somewhat and get her into warm clothing. She took a strong pain tablet that Deon had brought along for in case (!) while Gerry was still on the phone trying to explain where exactly we were, as well as provide information about the patient and the accident. Little did I know that we were actually on the Mangorei Track. I always just thought about it as being the Pouakai track or crossing.

Even though everything happened quickly, it felt much longer, but within minutes help was on the way. Gerry and I decided to take all the backpacks down to the car, and also to wait for the medics at the bottom in case they needed more information.

Just as we arrived at the car, the yellow helicopter from the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust was flying overhead. They tried to locate her but the forest was too dense. Deon apparently also tried to draw attention by waving a bright yellow survival bag, but to no avail. They couldn’t spot them, called Gerry again to get more details, but after another failed attempt decided to land in a nearby paddock on a farm from where the farmer brought the two paramedics (Theresa and Ben) on a side-by-side to the trail head. We accompanied them back up to where Henriette was still sitting, while in the meantime LandSAR was also alerted to the situation, and given the coordinates. On the way up the helicopter rescue guys were still searching for a spot to winch her out, but being in the forest made it impossible. It was more than an hour before we reached her again, and I cannot imagine how my friend must have felt by then. Theresa replaced the bandage with a splint and also gave her pain meds in the form of something that looks like a vape, instead of a drip.

After a while of not being able to do much else but wait, Henriette suggested she could perhaps start to hop down on one leg with support from someone. With Deon on the one side and Ben on the other she started working her way down on one leg. She is one tough lady. After a while Ben suggested that he and Deon hook their hands/arms together to fathom a sling/seat of sorts on which she could sit while they carry her. Each time they could only go a short bit before having to take a break. At some stage Gerry suggested that she be piggy-backed, which Ben then did. As a rather strong young bloke, they made good progress alternating between piggy-backing and the arm-sling carrying.

By the time they had covered more than a kilometre the LandSAR guys arrived with a stretcher, which they assembled and attached onto a massive wheel. She managed to get onto it and the convoy of about 12-14 people (2 paramedics, 1 pilot, 7 or 8 LandSAR volunteers, Deon and us two) slowly started moving down the trail. With the seven or eight (?) volunteers from LandSAR to alternate and carry the load, they could take turns to get her safely to the bottom.

It was half past five by the time she was airlifted to the hospital. The police was also there taking a statement as I believe LandSAR falls under them. It was about four hours from the time of her accident until she was at the hospital, which I guess is not bad going, but when you feel anxious for someone to get the medical help they need, it feels like an eternity.

What struck me most was the super heavy, what seemed like an archaic and impractical stretcher and wheel contraption that was used, which is perhaps not meant for the mountains? It all seemed to weigh a tonne and I could not help but wonder if a more lightweight aluminium structure and perhaps sleeker wheel would have made the process far more manageable? The very basic third world stretcher used on Mt Kilimanjaro, the “Kili ambulance” almost seems a better, lighter and more manoeuvrable alternative, and works on the same principle. But, I will admit to my ignorance and that there is most likely good reasons for using the heavier LandSAR equipment.

X-rays later the night revealed that she had in fact fractured the fibula, as well as the medial malleolus (ankle bone) of the tibia. She had to stay in hospital for a few days for the swelling to subside before she could be operated on. The operation finally happened almost to the minute, exactly one week after the accident. Everything went well and she should be able to go home after nine days in hospital.

Luckily she knew what to do right after the accident: not to eat or drink in case she needed  to be operated on immediately (I always thought one has to feed and hydrate and injured person), and also had the strength, acumen, and gumption to turn her foot back into position as with blood flow cut off due to the weird angle, things could have been far worse.

This was a timely reminder that a PLB is an absolute must when one ventures out in the sticks (or even on a well-trodden track as was the case here) as it could so easily have happened on the way to Holly hut where cell phone reception was very patchy. But that said, if the accident happened higher up above the tree line and in the open, it would have been easier and quicker to airlift her out (weather permitting, of course).

I am half relieved that it was “just” a couple of broken bones, and not something far worse. Fingers crossed she will make a full recovery and be back on her bike, or out walking or tramping soon enough again.