On Sunday I laze in the sun reading a Wilderness magazine. ‘The benefits of solo tramping outweigh the cons’ encourages one article.
I look at my calendar. I look at the weather. I decide to embark on a grand work-avoidance tramping scheme, departing on Tuesday to walk the Around the Mountain Circuit (AMC), the 4-5 day loop around Mt Taranaki.
Driving the five hours to North Egmont, I pop into the quiet visitors centre for some last-minute intel. The lady is lovely. ‘People call that route “proper tramping”‘ she tells me – it’s a nice surprise. I had expected it to be a bit more popular with travellers, but they seem to be more focussed on climbing the Maunga than circumnavigating it.
I start my walk at 3pm. Though the great mountain was shrouded in cloud on my way here, it’s blessedly cleared for my walk – and it stays like that for the next four days.
The Holly Hut track has been re-opened since the slip that had blocked my route on my last visit here walking the Pouakai circuit. It winds up the mountain to stunning views beneath towering cliffs, a popular route that is well-tended with drainage channels and boardwalks where needed.
There’re stoat traps dotting the route, right alongside the track. Most have been set off but there’s nothing in them, and I suspect some twit has set them off with their hiking pole all along their route, simply for their own selfish jollies – some people right!
I cross paths with two older chaps, sweat dripping from their noses, descending back to the carpark after their ascent of the mountain.
I skirt around and gain views to the Ahukawakawa Swamp and the Pouakai Range, the remnants of a volcano some 250,000 years older than Mt Taranaki. Beyond is the point of Paritutu in New Plymouth, the last bit of un-eroded volcano even older than that. I find the volcanic chain quite fascinating to view, and the knowledge I’m wandering around the current vent a little disconcerting.
Mt Taranaki is the centrepoint of this whole walk, the centrepoint of the whole Taranaki region. So here’s some interesting info:
“Mt Taranaki began forming about 130,000 years ago and moderate to large eruptions have occurred on average every 500 years with smaller eruptions occurring about 90 years apart. The last major eruption of Taranaki occurred around 1854… We are in an unusually long (although not unprecedented) lull in activity. Recent research (2014) estimates an 81% probability of at least one eruption by 2065.” – Civil Defence Taranaki
It’s not far from my mind much of the walk – if this is the week it goes, I’m toast.
Thoughts of melting aside, I reach familiar 32 bunk Holly Hut to find a warm reception (3.5hr day). There’s one European guy staying in his tent, and a couple of older Brits who are into birds in a big way. As we hang out I find they’re my kind of people. “How did you sleep?” – ‘I just closed my eyes’ kind of people. It’s nice to spend the night with them in the hut, because it is the creakiest bloody hut! I had thought it was due to my fire dying down last time I was here, but no – even on a warm night, the place sounds like gunshots and kicked-in-doors all through the night. BANG! A terrible sleep. I had thought the man with the tent was a wally to avoid a nice empty hut at 1000 metres, but considering he hasn’t even woken up when I leave in the morning I expect the only wally here is me.
Day two sees me continue counter-clockwise to Bells falls and on to Waiaua Gorge Hut, a 7.5hr day. I quickly get wet feet in the various stream crossings; it may have been possible to keep them dry a lot of the time but while travelling alone I just don’t think it’s worth it. And it’s so stinking hot my feet don’t complain about the repeated cool dousings.
The streams on the map out here don’t seem to match the reality of Mt Taranaki. Some large catchments are dry, and others considerably wet, and not even on the map. Don’t expect the blue lines to be where they are, or for the gullies without streams marked to not have something quite substantial running through them!
The Stony River Route is a lovely wander through the relatively flat bush, all ever-so-slightly downhill for me – making a speedy, enjoyable stroll. Down at the Pyramid Stream, I cross the river and turn to view the mountain only to see a walker heading the opposite way, crossing up stream. The only person I’ll see most of the day and we didn’t say hello – it seems weird in this distant, isolated area.
The track follows the river a bit before shooting off into the bush. It’s pretty well sign-posted with multiple big orange triangles. The route down the Stony River is closed ‘because of erosion’ and all walkers are encouraged onto my route, the Kapoaiaia Track route some 120 metres higher up to reach the river here again. Closing a river route seems interesting, especially when the place is so dry – but DOC have their reasons I am sure!
At the intersection of the Puniho track, I head uphill and follow this straight-line trail as it moseys through low bush up to an abrupt 90 degree turn. ‘This facility is closed’ states a permanent DOC sign on the corner – all rather mysterious. I turn my 90 and head south to 6 bunk recently re-furbished Kahui hut and a group of day walker retirees from the New Plymouth Tramping Club having lunch.
They are a wonderful bunch. I have a good yarn with their leader about plane wrecks and he tells me why there’s a 90 degree turn – it’s the intersection of the old Around the Mountain circuit, which went across the top of the Pyramid creek etc. before huge amounts of erosion forced everything down to the low route.
He tells me of the predator control work going on to make Egmont National Park predator free. It’s a pretty huge effort and so interesting to listen to. They’ve eliminated all goats and don’t have any deer, pigs or random cattle so it’s such a unique place; I’ll be reading more into it later. I’m so curious about how the recreational hunting groups handle that kind of thing – I spoke with a hunter later in this trip and he said he hunts on the central plateau. Egmont National Park is really dense off-track (and there’s nothing to hunt anyway) so it’s better going elsewhere.
Being pig-free, my irrational boar-tent-harassment fears should mean I’d be fine running about off-track in the park without a care in the world, and there’s plenty of trap-lines – but the terrain is so formed by lava channels, so many steep-sided canyons, I’m not so sure it’d be a great idea.
After lunch, I head downhill and turn onto the Oaonui Track. I reach a short section where you go along huge boulders, part of the floodplain of the Okahu stream. I hate getting across these huge boulders, very wary of one false move and not trusting my grip on the rocks – but the DOC ranger has done a stellar job with great 5m tall lancewood poles holding the big triangles high above the surrounding vegetation.
I rest on a little perch above the Oaonui stream, delighting in some fruit jubes to get me through the last bit of the days hiking, when I hear the sound of vegetation rustling. Is it some kind of animal? I keep quiet, wondering what it might be. Unexcitingly it’s just a guy, and I do call out before he gets to me because I don’t feel like scaring the crap out of him. He’s a big German lad, sweat tripping off his nose. He started on Tuesday like I did, but really wanted to summit as well – so he went up, down the southern slope and stayed at Syme hut, and now he’s off to Kahui for the night from there before getting to North Egmont tomorrow. No matter what you do there’s always someone else doing something more epic! I say something to that effect to him, my route feeling rather tame in comparison. “Oh don’t say that, I’m just mad!” he says.
I wander up the stream past an old hut foundation, then round the bend and reach the very charming 16 bunk Waiaua Gorge Hut.
There’s a Dutch lady tiredly smoking on the deck. Her and her partner are walking the circuit clockwise, and took the Taungatara Track (low-route) from Lake Dive hut yesterday. With 800 metres to go, they were in darkness so rolled out their bedrolls and slept in the bush last night – sounds mad to me. The track sounds hard work, but it also sounds like they took their boots off for the creeks most of the time – that would have taken FOREVER.
The hut has a great outlook with nicely-cut lawn to a helipad, presumably the gorge, then the grand view of Mt Taranaki. A wonderful spot to spend the eve – and I do so with a book and a bit of company. I feel a little bad for the local chap who made the 1.5hr walk up with his date and don’t have the place for themselves.
I sleep like crap for no reason so I get up at 5:30am. Sipping my coffee on the deck in the moonlight, looking at the great mountain, I feel so very small.
I leave at 7am, and have barely warmed up before I come across this bloody thing:
I am not a fan. There are a bunch of ladders on the circuit, but none as tall or imposing as this one. It’s the safety cage that really shows how high it is; I gingerly ease my way down, still semi-asleep.
Once down, it’s the climb. I’ve opted for the Brames Falls Route up the mountain today. The official route includes Lake Dive hut, but I’m up early and having read a few trip reports before I left, I think I’ll skip it and head straight to Dawson Falls.
Brames Falls is fairly distant and unspectacular when I get to its lookout point – the whole park is fairly dry and maybe it’s a stunner at other times. I continue on, walking up what is presumably an old spur of lava – there’s a bloody great 50+ metre drop to my left and it pays for me not to look down in places.
It’s quite gentle going – beautiful going in the morning light – and is such for about 300 metres of climbing. Then it gets steep, and steeper, and leads me up to the base of some cliffs.
Claire warned me of these cliffs, and the route has me mildly concerned. But it’s not too bad – it’s hard going in places and there’re one of two spots that leave me scratching my head as to how I’ll navigate it, 5 minutes for 1 metre of travel type stuff – but soon enough I pass through and no longer have the unsettling wall of rock towering directly above me.
From here I just wander along, following the old snow-poled route up to 1500 metres before intersecting with the Lake Dive turnoff.
The views are incredible. The Egmont National Park boundary was defined through a whatever-circumference circle from the maunga summit, and looking out you can see the edge, the farmland, and the coast. All children of the mighty volcano.
I continue on toward Dawson Falls. Lake Dive to North Egmont is an eight hour tramp, and I need to drive home afterward – if I push on today I can shorten my final to something more reasonable. I learnt from the New Plymouth Tramping Club that the Konini Lodge is actually a DOC lodge, and bookable. It’s got fridges and a ZIP water heater, and hot showers – all for the low cost of $25. So I use DOC’s incredibly un-mobile-friendly booking website (WTF DOC?) and book a bunk in there.
As I round ridge after ridge, more civilisation starts to appear before me. The south-western side of the mountain is just nothing, but this north-eastern side has a big ski-field car park, the Dawson Falls complex, the North Egmont complex and a couple of easy-range huts that’re great for families. A helicopter is going to-and-fro and I suspect they’re airlifting full toilets about.
Around one point, before me is a wooden boardwalk – the route up to Syme hut (perched on Fanthams Peak some 500 metres above me). 1.5hrs each way apparently. I could pop up I suppose, the views would be stellar – but I save it for another day. The views are stunning here too. I have not seen a soul all day and the busy-track infrastructure kinda bums me out, but I’m happy to be nearing the end of my day.
When I reach Konini Lodge, it’s just me and one other dude in this 38 bunk lodge built for big groups. I say hi but he’s not interested, so we keep to ourselves. My socks dry into solid planks you could brain someone with.
The cafe up the road is selling ice creams but I forgo the opportunity – it feels so wrong to have this comfort in the middle of my tramp. I’ve still got another day to go!
As the temperature drops, Konini Lodge creaks like Holly Hut – whip-cracking, door-kicking, terrorising timber bangs that ripple through the building at all hours.
I surprise myself by sleeping like crap again despite being so very tired and the snibbable lock on the cabin giving me a little security. I rise at 5:30am again, and head off at 6:30am – right on sunrise.
Just past the Dawson Falls carpark is a bunch of nice grassy spots, perfect for quiet free-camping. I have myself thinking maybe I should have tented instead.
I wander up the mobility-scooter-quality trail to Wilkies pools bridge and on and up to the Plateau. There’re a bunch of young campervanners here, most preparing or already having left to go climb the summit. Unfortunately I get in sync with a couple of them, so I find myself plodding along in a convoy of eight daywalkers, missing the quiet peace of this whole circumnavigation to this point.
We walk through a little ski field and on over to Tahurangi Lodge at the base of the Northern Summit Route to the summit of Mt Taranaki.
This whole summit climbing area is comparatively heaving. Folks want to knock that mountain off. I’m not feeling it – the 360 degree views must be something, but I dunno. I spent a bit of time with this mountain, the desire to whip in and knock it off feels a bit crass. A bit lame too with so many people doing it in a little catepillar, a bit like the Tongariro crossing these days. I might still do it, but if I do it’ll be with very keen others and it’ll be starting at 3am or walking up at night or something to avoid the pod.
I rest briefly with the climbers, then start wandering down the Puffer. It is quite clear early on that I should have learnt from those old blokes and gone down the Holly Hut track – it’s a bitch on the knees, fire on tired toes, and not much fun seeing so many daywalkers wandering up to tick this off, say they’ve ‘done Mt Taranaki’.
Eventually I get to the bottom, tell the DOC centre lady that German guy made it down the Southern route on Tuesday, get KFC at Hawea and am back in Wellington for tea.
Summary: Wonderful circuit! Surprisingly quiet on the western and southern section. If I were to do it again, being a Wellingtonian I’d start and end at Dawson Falls instead. The fit could walk it in two nights if you did that, going 8hrs to Dawson > Holly, then Holly > Kahui > Waiaua Gorge, then finish up on day 3. Still got a hell of a drive, but could share or stay at Konini or in your car before heading home properly. But that’s just logistical musings. The real treat of this place is the Maunga, the birds, the amount of work that’s gone in to make this something so enjoyable is incredible. What a great Taranaki experience – thanks DOC and all the predator workers! A+ would 4-day procrastinate working again.