With a week off work and still stiff from a tramp on Sunday, I plan an adventure on Monday morning, pack the car and drive to Stratford in Taranaki, 4.5hrs north of Wellington. Tonight I hunker down in my tent at the Stratford Holiday Park.
“Hope you have a good sleeping bag” the host cheerfully says, as she takes a very reasonable $18 for my stay.
Despite making use of their excellent showers and lounge area, eventually I must retire. It is cold in the tent; only a combination of my camping sleeping bag, tramping sleeping bag, tramping insulated thermarest on top of my camping plush double jobby has me feeling temperate. Discovering my hot water bottle in my camping gear bag lifts my spirits and temperature as the rain batters the tent.
The morning is bitterly cold, but today I begin the Pouakai Circuit, Taranaki’s ‘fancypants’ tramp – 25km of mountain views on and around Mt Taranaki.
The forest park surrounding the mountain is a perfect circle. The only roads in are carved straight in from the edges, so to access the trail head, I drive north then up the mountain to the North Egmont Visitor Centre (950m). My homespun jersey must suggest I am a competent outdoorsperson – the ranger on duty assists me with queries, without once telling me it’ll be cold. The standard track is closed due to a slip, so the track deviates about the Kokowai track instead.
I begin the trail at the lower carpark at 10am (760m). With last nights’ rain, it is instant bog, but well tended and with almost every stream bridged.
I catch a glimpse of Mt Taranaki, our mini-Fuji, 20min in at the Waiwhakaiho River bridge.
Rising to 2500metres, Mt Taranaki is an active volcano, last belching in 1860. The perfect volcano shape is a challenge when reading the topo map. Generally there’s a gentle climb to the peak, but here and there are great fissures where water (and/or lava?) have cut channels, at times leaving surprise impassable cliff edges. This bridge is situated to span one such cliff:
I turn left (SE) and begin the climb up Kokowai track. It climbs 440metres fairly gradually, and feels like ‘regular tramping’ – this isn’t the normal circuit path, so hasn’t been subject to high foot traffic (for long, anyway!) I pass uncomfortably close to huge bluffs and am treated to great views of the mountain as I draw up and closer.
Leaving the bushline at around 1:30hrs, I walk in colourful alpine scrub and tussock suited to the volcanic soil.
At 12:30 I reach the Holly hut track intersection (2:30hrs). I’m surprised to find myself the only one up here; the ice in the puddles is all mine to crack.
I enjoy a leisurely stroll to the hut. At every puddle I stop to play with the ice – the sound of cracked panes of glass under my boots has me feeling mighty.
The weather is so nice, I revel in the beauty of the place. From the small mountain plants to the grand vistas, it all enthralls.
A bridge crosses a small stream. The bridge is in shadow, and ice covers the lot. I attempt to cross, at my most careful, and skid about everywhere. Even holding on to the banister with both hands, it is impossible to stay upright. I drop down to the stream and cut across there instead, dragging myself up the other side.
Mt Taranaki is the current in a series of volcanic peaks in Taranaki. Pouakai is the earlier volcano a few kilometres north, having been active some 250,000 years ago. Taranaki and Pouakai are separated by a small swamp (see below). Even earlier than Pouakai is Patuha, then the pointed rock of Paritutu on New Plymouths coast – a lasting remnant of a bigger crater, 2 million years ago. A whole chain, heading south – watch out Hawera in 500,000 years, the lava’s coming for you.
All too soon I swing around into a small valley and reach Holly Hut at 2:15, (4:15hrs, 980m). Holly is a big hut (32 bunk), serviced, and even has solar lighting. I am the only visitor.
I settle in, then decide to shoot down to Bells Falls. It’s a 50 minute round trip, and I figure with the ice it’d be better to do it now than attempt it in the morning. I pack my emergency kit into my pocket and dash down the track.
It’s an over-grown track, with wooden stairs that would be hideous in ice, but the falls are nice. If waterfalls were having a party, Bells Falls would be the bell of the ball. Unfortunately I forgot to bring a light with me, and worried about the coming darkness, I scurry back without enjoying the spot too long.
I return to Holly to find I am still alone. Will my first night in a hut alone be this 32 bunk, great-walk quality behemoth? I try to gain some insight from the visitor book, but can’t find it. it’s probably burnt in the fire – there’s no paper anywhere but a goon bag box.
Fortunately there is a tonne of fire wood and a kindling splitter. I get cracking, and with a firestarter of my own, soon have a comforting fire roaring.
The night is spent looking into the fire. I read a little, but mostly I watch the fire. It’s roar is enchanting, and the hut creaks with the interface of hot and cold.
I put a bit of wet pine on the plate to dry it slightly. Sap oozes from it and vapourises, soon filling the hut with the smell of freshly cut pine.
As the night wears on, I am loathe to retire. The sky is clear, the stars are spectacular – but the ice is already forming. It is cold – I don’t want to leave the fire. I shovel a load of coal on for a slow burn, fill my hotty (thanks camping gear bag!) and jump in liner, bag and thermals. I am surprisingly comfortable, for a time.
Every 2-3 hours, the fire begins to fade. As its heat dissipates, the hut creaks with splitting gunshot cracks, startling me awake. The first few times are a treat; I get up, chuck some coal on the embers, pop my head outside to survey the ‘icening’ and head back to bed. But at 4am, the cracks are so heavy and my mind so tired and anxious, I decide that crack was the door – there’s a sneaking late night visitor, with ill intent. There’s a tiny bit of moonlight, I’m without glasses, coccooned in straightjackets of gear in a sleeping bag, and some creepo has just come into the hut. Against all logic my heart shoots into high gear, I am panicking. Absolute fight or flight freakout, trapped in my bag with nowhere to go. It’s a horrid moment. I tell myself it’s illogical, I know it is, but I can’t help the response. I am blind terror.
I don glasses and venture into the main area ready to get clobbered. I find just one temporarily insane person and a very sad fire. I fuel it up again, and the roaring flames are an illogical comfort. They wouldn’t save me from that particular demon, but they do something for me.
My last few hours sleep are fine, washed out as I am from the panic, with the increasing creaks of a heavily fuelled fire soothing me. My morning face says it all really – what a fucking night!
It’s bloody cold in the morning, but what a relief it is for it to arrive and find me alive.
I had not foreseen the hut tap freezing solid, but I have just enough water in my water bottle to make a coffee and porridge. If I hadn’t it’s a 5 minute walk to the closest proper waterway. I leave a note about the freezing taps on a soup packet and pin it to the noticeboard, then head on my way (9am). I had intended to potter about today, dawdling the 3hours to the Pouakai hut and spending the night there. But after last night, fuck that – I am completing this circuit and getting out of dodge.
As I breakfast, cloud moves in and obscures all views. It makes my decision less spineless, for which I am grateful.
Rejoining the main Pouakai circuit track, the rest of the path is generally reinforced with boardwalk. This is great for the environment given the volume of foot traffic, but not so hot when its wet and frozen. The boardwalks become ice slides – I have no choice but to guiltily straddle against the edges.
I pass an American guy heading the other way. Pouakai hut was rammed with a big Korean party and various others last night, he took off early to escape the bedlam. What a different experience we had.
The Pouakai ridge is a nice walk, but it’s clouded in. I enjoy the textures of old trees, cracking the ice and other small-scale gems.
I forego the 1:30hr detour to Pouakai summit due to cloud and wander on to the hut. It’s not windy until the last few minutes when I arrive at Pouakai Hut at 11 (2hrs).
The fire is absolutely roaring in Pouakai hut, a 16 bunker a bit cosier than Holly. The two Americans with DSLRs weren’t too worried about conserving firewood and are just loading it up on full airflow before heading off to get their postcard tarn-taranaki reflection photo. I boil up a soup and enjoy my lunch.
The visitor book is a crap read; you must be able to get here easily as a day walk and get that darn tarn photo.
As I eat, four students arrive wearing baseball caps and jeggings. They whinge about friends with rich parents getting the student allowance while they can’t – some things never change.
‘Do you know where the lake is?’ asks the dude.
I can’t see any lake. I hand him my map to take a look. ‘I don’t know how to read these’ he replies. These are the kind of unprepared wallies who die in the mountains.
It’s windy over here, and chilly. There’s nothing to do but plug along. Gaps in the cloud come and go, and every reveal of Mt Taranaki is as spectacular as the last.
I pass an information board before climbing Henry Peak, which explains why there’s a boardwalk and stairways the whole way. There’s a photo of the human-depth chasm that was the track – a muddy slide, made deeper with every footfall. It’s good context, as I feel a bit naff walking on a manicured boardwalk like some old dear. As I climb the surprisingly strenuous Henry Peak, I enjoy spotting the old chasm next to the boardwalk and ladders, hiding amongst the regrowth.
Dropping down into the bush now,the track continues to be manicured. I don’t really like the stairs thing, but I understand why it’s necessary.
I think this entire trip down will be like this, but it isn’t. It’s proper bush track eventually, not thrashed too badly either surprisingly.
At 2pm I reach Kaiauai Shelter; a simple 3 walled shed built to shelter those waiting for the Kai Auahi stream to drop. I am surprised to find it redundant now – there’s a fancy new bridge crossing the chasm (not on the topo).
From here it is a nice, relatively flat bush amble back to the car park. Like in the alpine section I enjoy looking at the human impact, the 2-boot-wide naturally formed cuttings from decades of use.
I pass the site of the old Kaiauai goat-cullers hut (1960s), removed in 2001. I think about how the foot traffic on these paths isn’t all worn by tourists, but these hard-nut frontiersy types too.
I’m back at the car at 3:45pm, 6hrs 45 on the track today. What an adventure!
I am surprised the Pouakai Circuit isn’t a ‘Great Walk’ – it must be absolutely rammed in Summer. DOC and Taranaki have evidently spent a tonne on the boardwalks and those fires are probably roaring 24/7.
I needed to spend a night alone in a hut at some point. I am not sure a freezing Holly Hut was the best one to start with, but I don’t think I’ll forget it!