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A tramp of two halves

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December 2023 Issue

Taranaki Maunga’s Around the Mountain track is tough, rutted, muddy on one side and of Great Walk standard on the other. It’s brilliant.

It’s been a classic track for decades: Taranaki’s Around the Mountain Circuit is one of those trails that sooner or later is on the ‘to do’ list of most North Island trampers. For those who have done the Great Walks it is considered ‘second tier’: a walk with tracks and huts but requiring a little more effort and experience than the easier tracks. 

I did it over 30 years ago. In the interim, a lot has changed on the maunga. DOC and local groups have significantly upgraded the track on the eastern side between Dawson Falls and Holly Hut, which connects with the track over the Pouākai Range to Mangorei Road. This through-route, dubbed the ‘Taranaki Crossing’, is now of Great Walk standard, with both Holly and Pouākai huts in the booking system.

In stark contrast, the circuit’s western and southern parts have received little maintenance These tracks involve strenuous tramping on often rough and muddy going with several unbridged streams, and ladders to negotiate steep sections. In addition, Lake Dive Hut burnt down in 2020, creating a gap in the hut network, and in 2022 floods wiped out a large section of forest in the Stony River, including the track – although it’s still negotiable for experienced trampers.

With the completion of the Taranaki Crossing, more resources may become available for DOC to improve the western and southern sections of the circuit. At present, however, it is very much a tramp of two halves – easy and graded in the east and north, hard and rough in the west and south. 

Last spring, my friend Darryn and I tramped around the maunga. We set off from Dawson Falls late in the afternoon. With Lake Dive Hut gone, we’d decided instead to deviate off the circuit and stay at Syme Hut, atop Panitahi (Fanthams Peak) – one of the most spectacular hut sites in the country. Maybe we might even squeeze in a quick trip to the summit?

Streaks of snow lined the mountain’s midriff, while higher up the volcano still wore its white winter cap. We emerged into the subalpine zone and paused at Hooker Shelter. There we met a fit-looking older woman with short, grizzled hair and sinewy, tough limbs. Obviously a local. She spotted our ice axes and gently inquired about our plans.

“We’re doing the Around the Mountain Circuit,” I replied, “but thought we might go to the summit en route.”

“Have you got crampons?” she asked politely. “I’m headed to the summit myself tomorrow, but I expect the snow higher up to still be quite hard.”

An off track shortcut passing Bobs Bluffs proved delightful travel. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

“No crampons,” I admitted. “We didn’t want to carry them all the way around the maunga.”

“Understandable,” she said. “You look pretty experienced,” she continued tactfully, “but you might want to consider skipping the summit.”

Good advice. A stunning morning dawned at Syme Hut, and we watched the woman crampon her way methodically and strongly up the maunga’s southern slopes. Both of us had climbed the mountain several times and knew we should listen to advice from a local. I later found out she had ascended the maunga hundreds of times.

To rejoin the Around the Mountain Circuit, we could either backtrack down Panitahi to its intersection with the Upper Lake Dive Track, or try an off-track shortcut directly onto the Brames Falls Track, alongside Skeet Ridge. We chose the latter option, and it proved to be a delight: rocky moderately sloped terrain festooned with buttercups and other early-flowering alpine plants. The sun shone, the wind stayed away, and travel was mostly downhill.

Soon enough we saw Lake Dive, which occupies a narrow scoop in front of the mound-like Beehives, and then entered vigorous tussocks growing at lower altitude. Here we intercepted the circuit and were soon edging along the narrow track beneath the impressive lava bluffs of Bobs Ridge, festooned with great clumps of green and yellow moss. I can think of few other tracks where constantly changing vegetation provides such a vivid demonstration of the ecological principle of ‘stratification’ – the layering of plants to where they’re best suited. We passed through a band of sub-alpine shrubs dominated by leatherwood before the forest gradually gained more mass in a colourful mosaic of Hall’s tōtara, horopito, koromiko, kāmahi and Astelia.

Brames Falls are huge. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Downhill is not always easier. As we skidded over muddy rutted sections, more than a few times we were lurched off-balance by the sudden shifting of our pack weight. We felt like characters from the Monty Python sketch ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’.

Brames Falls tumble as a thin ribbon of whitewater over a bluff and drop into an impressive forested amphitheatre. The map didn’t show the falls’ height (even Google is silent on the subject), but I guess well over 100m, which is a decent waterfall for the North Island.

We encountered our first ladder at Waiaua Gorge and climbed it to reach the nearby hut, perched on a ledge facing the maunga. That evening, cloud toyed with our view, but we were partially compensated by a great rainbow that arced right across the volcano, and lingered for nearly 40 minutes.

Unlike the track, Waiaua Gorge Hut has benefited from some good attention recently and boasts a new roof, stainless cooking benches and double-glazed windows. The hut is  reasonably well used, but I suspect the current condition of the track puts many trampers off.

Our third day was going to be a long tramp to Holly Hut, so we woke early. The low-angled sun scraped its way over Panitahi and the maunga’s higher slopes. Kererū performed their characteristic display flights, soaring upwards before stalling and diving, while tūī whirred noisily through the forest, using their specially adapted feathers to exacerbate the sound of their flight.

First up was negotiating a re-routed section of track in the riverbed where the old track had been wiped out by floods. The track beyond was reasonably flat and easy, although muddy and somewhat overgrown. I was amused by old and mossy Lands & Survey signs which must be nearing 40 years old and date from the pre-DOC era. Curiously, on this section we needed to ford the larger streams while several smaller ones had footbridges.

At the junction with Kahui and Kapoaiaia tracks, we had to make a decision. The most direct route would be to avoid Kahui Hut, but we had been warned the Kapoaiaia Track was in particularly poor condition. So we opted for the Kahui Track, which is twice as long. It climbs through an increasingly stunted ‘goblin’ forest dominated by wonderfully twisted and mossy kāmahi.

Ascending a ladder near Waiaua Gorge. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Kahui Hut, the oldest and smallest on the circuit, lies in a small grassy clearing with views of the maunga. We had a brief lunch before pushing on, conscious that we were only halfway to Holly. Above Kahui Hut, once again in the sub-alpine zone, there were prolific garlands of large white clematis flowers decorating the low shrubs, and the equally prolific rosettes of mountain foxglove lined the track. Pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo) announced their recent arrival from the Pacific, and I felt for the poor wee riroriro (grey warblers) that would soon have one of the interlopers’ eggs laid in their nest. After hatching, the cuckoo chick might heave the warbler’s own egg or chick out of the nest. Nature can be vicious.

More ladders helped us negotiate several bluffs before we suddenly emerged into the bright sunshine of the Stony River Valley, right on the edge of the devastation caused by the 2022 floods. Logs, branches and whole trees littered the silt-covered boulder debris, evidence of the colossal amount of water that must have surged through the area. We picked a route along the true left of Stony River, following poles and the occasional cairn, until we needed to ford Pyramid Stream. Here it became apparent just how much erosion had occurred; the land in the headwaters was eaten away in great chunks, exposing steep escarpments of eye-popping size.

Tramping in mist beneath Ambury Bluff on the much easier travelling northern side of the maunga. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Past the wiped-out section and back on track, the going was slow as the narrow overgrown trail climbed steadily up-valley, crossing several small tributaries, some ochre-stained. The ridges radiating from the summit of Taranaki Maunga have been likened to the spokes of a wheel, but to me this suggests a non-existent order. However symmetrical it seems from a distance, up close the volcano is a complex and vast terrain of bluffs, ridges, gorges, knolls and slips, the sum of events both recent and ancient.

Despite not really having the energy, I took the 20-minute detour to Bells Falls for some photographs while Darryn sensibly went on to Holly Hut.

When I finally reached Holly Hut, tired from nearly 20km of tramping on a rough route, I collapsed onto a seat. Generously, Darryn made a brew then cooked dinner. We ate outside, enjoying an utterly still and serene evening. The last birds called, the planets showed first, the stars emerged, and the Pouākai Range lay outlined before us in silhouette.

We had noticed others’ gear in the hut but there was no sign of anyone until it was well and truly dark. Then two goat-cullers turned up, having been waylaid in the nearby scrub and swamp. “That route wasn’t what the boss said it would be,” one of them quipped.

From Holly Hut we were finally on the ‘other half’ of the circuit. Significantly upgraded with new boardwalk, gravel and signs, was the upmarket Taranaki Crossing. Easy, smooth, fast tramping compared to the last three days. I had enjoyed the rough western side of the maunga but was grateful for the high-quality track now, as the weather was closing in. By the time we reached Tahurangi Lodge we were soaked by a chill rain, and visibility was down to 30m. We sheltered in the entrance of this private locked hut, eating lunch with two other trampers, then plodded on. Past the Manganui ski field, over the gorge, through a tunnel, now arcing back towards Dawson Falls to complete our circuit.

We had one last stop, a night at Waingongoro Hut, before pushing on to visit Wilkies Pools – delightfully sculpted volcanic rocks of a curious blue-grey hue. The last gradual downhill to Dawson Falls car park was on a wide boardwalk with a mesh surface to guard against slipperiness. I thought back to our Ministry of Silly Walks two days ago, and reflected that it had certainly been a tramp of two halves.

Which direction?

This tramp was done clockwise, but there is considerable merit in doing it in the opposite direction, beginning from the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre and spending the first night at Holly Hut.

This option offers an easier introduction when packs are at their heaviest. Additionally, if the Stony River section, beyond Holly Hut, proves impassable or too difficult, trampers have the option of continuing on the Taranaki Crossing over the Pouākai Range to exit at Mangorei Road.

Distance
46km
Total Ascent
3161m
Grade
Moderate / Difficult
Time
Dawson Falls to Syme Hut, 3–4hr; to Waiaua Gorge Hut, 6–7hr; to Kahui Hut, 4.5hr; to Holly Hut, 4.5hr; to Dawson Falls, 5hr
Accom.
Syme Hut (standard, 10 bunks), Waiaua Gorge Hut (serviced, 20 bunks), Kahui Hut (standard, six bunks), Holly Hut (serviced, 20 bunks)
Access
Dawson Falls Visitor Centre. East Egmont and North Egmont roads provide alternative access options
Map
BJ29

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