Taranaki and the Pouakai circuit

I arrived in New Plymouth on Saturday, late in the afternoon, after a comfortable four hour bus journey. It was a relaxing break from hitchhiking, and much faster. I had a bed in a dorm booked for that night, in a small hostel in a central location, but I wouldn’t spend much time there: I was off to the national park close by, North Egmont National Park, early in the morning. I did take advantage of my stopover there to resupply. That hostel was located just above a bar and there was loud music playing until about three o’clock that night. Not nice when you need to get up at six for a long hiking day…

North Egmont National Park spreads around Mount Taranaki, a 2500 m high dormant volcano, popular to climb up. The area also offers numerous walks, from short panoramic strolls to challenging multiday tramps around the volcano. The weather conditions were particularly good that day so I decided to climb up the mountain, despite the presence of ice on the route up. Then I would carry on with a 25 km hike in the Pouakai range just at the foot of Taranaki, spending a night in a hut on the way, and finally finish off with a short walk to Matekawa hut for an extra night in the wild. 

Mt Taranaki is sacred for the Maori and all locals respect and fear the mountain. The summit climb is challenging: the route climbs up a steep unformed track of slippery scories, and the weather conditions are known to change drastically, causing the occasional emergency rescues or even deaths… So I was especially cautious on this trail. Even before starting the climb I was rewarded by stunning views of the perfectly cone-shaped mountain: I was in luck, as it is well-known to usually hide behind thick clouds. 

As I slowly made my way up the steep slope, I noticed I had a view of volcanically active Tongariro National Park, hundreds of km from there: Mt Ruapehu was easily recognisable as the highest peak and just next to it lies Ngauruhoe, also known as “Mount Doom” since the Lord of the Rings was partly filmed there. I’ll be going there next week.

I made it quite a bit up and probably could have carried on, but clouds were rapidly building up below me. It was time to turn back, in poor visibility it can be easy to get lost, and I wouldn’t get any good views so there was no point in risking it. Going down was a bit tricky on the slippery loose gravel, it didn’t help that the ice had started to melt. Here’s a picture of the route (with the actual angle, it’s pretty steep) just at the beginning of the ascent, so you see it was quite icy most of the way.

But the trip was well worth it. I had left my big pack at the visitor centre to avoid carrying it up Taranaki, and recovered it before heading off on the Pouakai circuit. It’s a short 25 km loop with views on Taranaki and the range around it, and I was heading to the first hut for the night. Despite the mist I especially enjoyed that part of the trail: the temperatures were cool but pleasant and there was no wind nor rain. My only disappointment was that Taranaki was invisible, its presence unnoticeable if it weren’t for some lava pillars, witnesses of the volcano’s past eruptions. The views on the Pouakai range in the mist were, on the other hand, great, there was an eerie look to them in the evening light.

As I got to the hut I had a great surprise when I saw it had solar panels (so light! No need to go to bed at 7), and there were quite a few people staying there. We played cards and sat around the fire, just simply enjoying the peaceful surroundings.

The next morning as I started walking most of the Pouakai range was burried in the clouds. No views 😦 The trail first crossed a swamp, and then ascended to a peak overlooking the swampy on one side and the forest on the other. Just as I reached the summit the clouds briefly parted to reveal Mount Taranaki. Then, it was just downhill into green humid rainforest, all the way to the visitor centre, crossing a dozen streams and rivers on the way. 

Once at the visitor centre, I could even have a warm cup of coffee before heading back out into the forest for a second night in a hut. It was just a short three km and the forest was beautifully overgrown, sometimes making the track difficult to follow.  Two girls I had met the night before joined me in Maketawa, they were also after an extra night out of civilisation.

This was a lucky coincidence for me. The next morning the weather was especially bad in the national park but they gave me a lift down to a small town where I could hitchhike from. Three lifts later, including a huge truck and a biker who hadn’t shaved for seventeen years, I was in Wanganui. There’s nothing special to do in that town but I found a cheap single room, it was a convenient stop on the way and I bought tons of food, not really knowing what would happen next because of the bad weather forecast.

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