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December 2020 Issue
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Is Pouakai Tarn an asset or a liability?

Visitors to Pouakai Tarn illegally launch a drone to take selfies. Photo: Matthew Cattin

On a trip to Pouakai Tarn, Matthew Cattin finds stunning beauty and immense disappointment

The outrageously popular Pouakai Tarn, in Egmont National Park, might be the most disappointing natural landmark in New Zealand.

I recently walked the Pouakai Circuit over three days and was blessed with a clear, golden afternoon at Pouakai Hut, so for several hours I enjoyed the tarn with new friends from the hut, admiring the way the sinking sun deepened shadows on the mountain’s slopes, a scene perfectly reflected in the tarn. It was an idyllic reward for the tough six hour tramp up and over the relentless Henry Peak to Pouakai Hut. We took photos here and there – it would be rude not to – but mostly, we sat, we stared, and we remarked at our luck, for the shy mountain had been hidden all morning and here it was putting on a show.

Beside us, a group of half a dozen daywalkers had monopolised the prime photography position – the larger platform at the base of the tarn – and for two hours we witnessed a staggering display of narcissism and disrespect.

The fashionably-dressed women robotically struck each and every pose you can think of, all captured by relentlessly hardworking boyfriends who lay down for low angles, stepped off the boardwalk and illegally launched a drone to mosquito through the peaceful air. It was Wilderness meets Vogue.

As entertaining as it was watching the vanity parade, it was disappointing. The daywalkers hadn’t walked two hours to see the mountain – they were there to frame themselves in front of it. In most photos, the subjects had their back to the beautiful maunga, and not once did they stop to simply sit and appreciate it. In their quest for Instagrammable images they’d failed to be present, and broken well-signposted rules in the process.

I breathed relief as they eventually filed off back to the carpark, but on came the next onslaught of photographers – two very serious men looking to either capture the sunset or launch artillery at the mountain, judging by their hefty tripods. Either way, they’d spent a lot of money to capture the exact same image as tens of thousands of others, and their sleeping bags suggested they would be there well into the night, snapping the same scene over and over.

With just minutes to go before sunset, I was hit by a maddening anxiety to leave. With tarn photos already, I realised I’d be robbing myself of so much variety if I stayed put. My partner and I headed up onto the ridge to enjoy the sunset from different vantages.

The next morning, we met a disappointed photographer at Pouakai Hut who had walked to the tarn four times for sunrise shots and never once seen the mountain because of poor weather. He was so dejected, I feared he would cry.

I don’t want to sound like an elitist – it’s great that people are getting out and enjoying nature – but when the only goal of getting outside is to take photos, I worry people aren’t taking anything else away from their experience. On top of that, so many come away disappointed when they can’t replicate the photos they’ve seen on social media.

I’ve heard that darn tarn gets so busy, people queue for an hour to get ‘that photo’ – a waiting time that’s more mall Santa than maunga. It’s just one small gem on a beautiful circuit, and it’s a real shame that so few experience the rest of its treasures. But then again, maybe that is a blessing in disguise.