New Zealand: The Pouakai Circuit

On the road out of town I caught glimpses of crusty snow lined ravines. This was as good as the view had been of Mount Taranaki since I arrived in New Plymouth. Most of the mountain remained tucked away in the clouds. In the trailing wisps, cliffs and bluffs emerge. Ominous, inviting. The weather window I was waiting for was predicted to land over the weekend. My intention; to hike the Pouakai Circuit. The perfect cone of the mountain is lost in the details. Rugged, exposed edges glint in the afternoon sun. I dropped in to North Egmont Visitor Centre to advise the Department of Conservation staff of my intentions, to check the forecast hadn’t changed. Things remained good. I spent the afternoon in the carpark, cleaning my boots, pulling my bag together. As the day drew on, other vans arrived, gear spread out around open doors. I met Augustina and Matthew, who were also doing the circuit but in reverse. Old mates Pike and Kelly had warned me against doing this. My attention was constantly caught by the shifting visibility on the high slopes of the mountain. I started to wonder, can you see the top from around that corner? From over that ridge? The entirety of Mount Taranaki emerged almost dead on sunset. The imperfect slopes lead up to the icing sugar snow, thickening into a crisp white layer around the top. I hoped for conditions this good tomorrow. As I made dinner a group of exhausted hikers stumbled into the carpark. “What have you fellas been up to?” I ask. They explain; they’ve done the full Pouakai Circuit in one day. They were going to stop at the hut but it was full. “What time did you get there?” I was worried now. “Midday.” Shit. I’m going to have to get moving early to stand a chance of a bunk. At least there’s only one of me. There’s five of them, that’s a quarter of the bunks. They fell into their car, heading home. As the temperature dropped, I crawled into bed hoping for a restful night.

In the morning I didn’t hesitate. No time wasted on the scrolling pocket screen of doom. I knew I had to get moving. I put the final things I knew I’d need in the top of my pack. Toothbrush, down jacket, flip-flops. I checked the time as I started up the Holly Hut Track. 07:15 isn’t the earliest I’ve ever been on the trail but the earliest on this trip. A little bit of motivation goes a long way. Steps make the climb up the Razorback easier. For a while the going up is relentless. As I break out of the bush line into the sub-alpine zone the trail turns. No longer going up, going around. Clouds swirl above the snow line. New Plymouth sits under blue skies no bigger than a smear on my glasses. The visitor centre a series of white dots amongst the green of trees. At my feet, to the side of the trail I spot foam. Only it isn’t foam, it’s patches of ice. A dark stripe rides around the edge of the mountain, the thin strip of the trail cut out of the plants. Wow, I think, I’ve never hiked anything like this before. Forgetting only 18 months ago I was in Patagonia on trails just like this. I passed beneath stacked lava columns of the Dieffenbach Cliffs. Frozen white arms reached out of the clouds, clawing down the mountain side. They don’t get far before they melt, trickling down the exposed rocks. I come to the Boomerang Slip. Pumice rubble turning to sand as black as the beaches. Ahead of me I can see the Pouakai Range, the remains of an older volcano on the site. Behind me, there’s the 2.5km high peak of the current volcano; Mount Taranaki still shrouded in cloud. 

The track begins to descend. Between the old mountains and the new is the Ahukawakawa Swamp. From this distance the golden tussock looks like fields turned to pasture. I reach the turn off for Holly Hut, the bigger hut on the trail with 32 bunks and apparently the added luxury of solar lighting. This isn’t my stop. I reach the boardwalk crossing the swamp. The wooden boards feel like they’re built to float. For the most part they’re under water. I reach a platform where a group of three other trampers are taking in the surrounding scenery. I can’t believe someone set off before me. “Hey guys, did you stay at Holly Hut last night?” I asked. They had. “Many of you in there?”, fishing for information. “It was about half full, about 10 of us are headed to the Pouakai Hut tonight.” I did the maths, me plus the seven others somewhere ahead of me is half full. I tell my fellow hikers the bad news of yesterday. “The hut was full yesterday at midday so I’ll see you there!” I leave them on the platform, sloshing through the swamp. Getting ahead of them reduces the competition for a bed. I slip-slide along the waterlogged planks of the boardwalk. I impress myself with the placement of one foot in the surface water, I manage to spray water up the inside of my shorts.

The exit from the swamp is immediate. A new staircase straight up the side of the Pouakai Range. I climb the early flights fast, insistent on putting distance between myself any those behind me. Coming the other way I’m passed by trail runners doing the full 25km circuit in one day. “You, lot, are, mental,” I managed to squeeze out as I scrambled for air. I could hear them laugh as they took two stairs at a time. As the climb continued I slowed. The flattening I was hoping for never seemed to arrive. Between the peaks I found some flat ground. Looking up I could see two people coming down. If the junction to the hut is between me and them I needed to be there first. I picked up the pace. The trail now turning to thick mud. I pulled my feet out to put them back in. The two men came passed, no junction. They were out for the day, no intention of stopping for the night. Two less to worry about. “How much further is it?” I ask, knowing I don’t really want to know but I’ve got to be close. “Ah from here maybe 20 minutes to the hut.” Not yet midday. I’ve given myself the best chance. I reach another peak, up ahead is a rocky plateau with a huge group of people pulling on jackets. I hope they’re leaving. I really hope they’re leaving. Behind the ridge I can see the corner of the hut. Smoke already billowing out of the chimney. At least there’s some good news, the fire is already burning. The group disappear into the next valley. I turn off the main circuit. The roof of the hut comes into view. I’ve made it. The couple on the deck ask me “are you staying the night?” “I sure hope so,” I replied. “Great, there’s plenty of room in here.” I open the door to the first bunk room, only two taken so far. Relief washes over me in an awesome wave. I’ve made it and I’ve got a bed for the night. 

I unpacked my belongings, making my bed, moving my kitchen into the communal room of the Pouakai Hut. The huts of New Zealand are all marginally different. The Pouakai Hut is the smallest I’ve stayed in so far, with only 16 bunks. The main room has a fireplace, sinks without taps and a few tables. The taps are outside for what I assume is convenience for washing your hands after visiting the toilets. For some reason this hut operates on a first come, first served basis. This is odd. Being on one of the most popular trails in the Egmont National Park, the hut often fills up quickly. One of the horror stories tells 60 people attempting to stay over one night. Part of the problem is the car park at the end of another track, a cruisey 2 hour hike. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to work too hard to get here. As of November, the Department of Conservation will move the hut on to the booking system. While this means no more waiting for a good weather window, it will remove the anxiety of not knowing whether or not you’ll get a bunk for the night. I settled in, talking to my fellow guests. Matt and Eva are the experienced trampers, reminding me these are still the early days of my hiking “career”. The three people I’d passed on my way through rolled in. Sam, Shay, and Kayla as pleased as I was to find plenty of room. Augustina and Matthew arrived much later, having spent the last hour climbing up Henry Peak. We split off into groups, playing cards, popping out to stretch our legs, to check whether the mountain had come out to play. Nothing so far, but we had plenty of time before the sun set. Matthew went out as a scouting party of one. Not long after he appeared on the slope above the hut, gesturing with thumbs up and both hands forming a triangle. Waving at us through the window, let’s go, let’s go. The clouds had lifted. The mountain has emerged. There’s a mad dash to pull boots on, for layers, to grab the camera. We race up the steps to the plateau. The oh wows fall out of almost all of our mouths.

We sit by the Pouakai Tarns for almost 2 hours. We do nothing but watch. We watch the day-trippers come over the hill, make bizarre poses, take their photos before walking back over the hill. We watch the light play across the ancient lava flows, casting shadows over deep gouges. We watch the mountain. Eventually, the sun drops below the highest ridge. The temperature crashes. I can no longer feel my feet. The sky turns purple. I drift back to the hut, the smell of woodsmoke floating up into the peaks. The central room is warm, the fire burning brightly. I join a game of dice with Matt and Eva before retiring to bed. The bunk room isn’t cold. I’m comfortably cocooned in my sleeping bag. Yet sleep remains elusive. In the top bunks a group of five squeezed in late in the evening. Do all of them snore? Do only half of them snore? Between them, they make enough noise to prevent a restful night. They’re up for sunrise. I look out the window to see nothing. A total whiteout. I’m not going anywhere. In the end I accept I’m awake so I might as well get up. I boil water for coffee, for oats. I pack away my sleeping bag. The sunrise crew come back. “How was it?” we ask, ironic smiles on our faces. “We couldn’t see a thing.” Ah well, never mind. We got the late afternoon, the early evening. Any more might be asking for too much. I don’t get out as early as day one. I don’t need to be. Back to the van where the availability of the bed is guaranteed. Across the next two peaks, Maude and Henry a boardwalk is built over the fragile ground. The morning is quiet, my boots hammer out a steady beat over the wooden planks. A steep ascent follows steps that become ladders. The views from the top might be spectacular but today they’re obscured. From the top of Henry Peak the path descends, the relentless climb Augustina and Matthew experienced yesterday. The drop doesn’t stop until I’m back beneath the canopy of the dense forest of the foothills. 

I pass many of my single serving friends on the way down. Good to see you, enjoy the rest of your hike, see you next time. The huts provide a brief, intimate evening with strangers. We all have these things in common; the love of being outside, enjoying the struggle of getting somewhere spectacular, the work making the journey more worthwhile. I never feel like we leave as strangers. Beneath the tree line the mountain is lost to me. I won’t see it again. The boardwalk disappears. Roots hold mud, sometimes they don’t and my feet slip out from under me. The track coils up, twisting along stream banks. Falling into gulleys, climbing up embankments. I lose the trail on several switch-backs, following the footsteps of others who have made the same mistake. I come to a stream I realise I’ll have to jump over. This seems a bit much. Again I’ve lost the trail. Turn back try again. Often the act of turning around is enough to find the orange triangle, the path folding back on itself. I reach the penultimate junction. I have two options. Walk out to the road and follow the asphalt back to the car park or remain in the bush. I’ve come out to do the circuit, I stay in the bush. The Ram Track provides a final, crushing blow to my motivation. The last climb to return to the visitor centre. I haul myself up vertical drops, scrambling over wood and dirt. I hear heavy machinery, I must be getting close. The rotary blades of the helicopter sending wafts of spinning wind through the canopy. The forest roars in response to the hum of the helicopter. I hope nobody is need of a rescue. I eventually find myself turning off the Ram Track on to the Veronica Loop. As is my way, I assumed being this close to the visitor centre the trail would be easy, family friendly. Instead the track continues as before, climbing ridges, dropping into ravines. Finally, I arrive in the car park. A silver four by four stops ahead of me. Sam leans out the door to wave goodbye. They’d got to the road and hitched a lift back to the visitor centre. I laugh at them, those filthy casuals. I unload my bag, pull myself into the driver’s seat and leave the mountain behind me.

As the road carries me downhill, the weather changes as dramatically as the season. The clouds break as I enter New Plymouth. A bluebird sky lies over the city, over the coast. I pull into the campsite, into the sun. I get out of the van and plant myself infant of the bumper. The sun feels warm on my face, I take great pleasure in not having to worry about maintaining my own body temperature. The peace is broken by my phone. My lights have arrived, I can collect them tomorrow. Brilliant. I won’t lose any more time. I phone the local garage who tell me I need an auto-electrician. I’m given the number for an auto-electrician who decides I don’t need him, I only need a local garage. He gives me another number and I’m relieved to find someone who understands the words I’m using and can take the van in after I’ve collected the lights. With a hike complete, with the van back in one piece I’m finished with New Plymouth. I don’t think I’m finished with Mount Taranaki. The thought of making a summit attempt in the summer appeals highly to me. I make a mental note to come back this way as soon as I can.

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