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Ladders! Bridges! Fires!

Mt Taranaki and Pouakai Tarn. Photo: Ricky French

Tramping with kids is more exciting than you might think, as Ricky French discovers when he takes three children around Egmont National Park’s Pouakai Circuit

On paper, it looked like an impossible brief. Find a tramp suitable for kids and adults; some experienced, some novice. Strike a balance between adventure and comfort, excitement and relaxation. As adult trampers we often just throw ourselves into the elements and deal with whatever comes at us. With kids it’s different. You are responsible for shaping their early impression of tramping. And first impressions last.

So, challenging and interesting for adults and easy enough for kids, but not so easy they’d get bored. It must be no longer than three days and include spacious, comfortable huts. A loop would be good. The tracks must be easy to follow and free of excess bog or dangerous, exposed ridgelines. A mixture of bush, tussock and mountain tops would be ideal. It should have emergency or bad weather escape options. It must feature interesting diversions and activities other than walking. There should be enough climbs and descents to give a small taste of hardship, but not to exhaust anyone to the point of swearing off tramping for life. Rather, it must plant the seed that will grow into a desire to continue tramping. And lastly, it should feature something completely unique and spectacular, something you won’t find anywhere else. It must be memorable.

I traced my finger over the map and it headed west to Mt Taranaki. We had our answer.

The Pouakai Circuit is a two-night, three-day loop in the Pouakai Range, just north of Mt Taranaki. It seemed to tick all our requirements.

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Cricket at Holly Hut. Photo: Ricky French

There would be three kids and six adults. We decided on a slight variation, starting and finishing at a small car park before the North Egmont road end, to avoid a long walk out on the last day – the only day where the forecast hinted at rain.

Our destination for the first night would be Pouakai Hut. We’d get the longest day done while enthusiasm was still high.

The kids tore off alone down the bush track. We didn’t see them for about half an hour, but with a wide track and simple instructions, there was no danger. We caught up with them at a swingbridge near the convergence of Ram and Kokowai streams. Swingbridges are always exciting and the kids loved the novelty of the swaying as they steadied themselves on the wire mesh. The bush section of the Pouakai Range is particularly beautiful; with ferns and kamahi rain forest saturating the surroundings in all shades of green, highlighted by sudden bursts of sunshine between tree trunks. We had our first major rest stop at the site of the former Kaiauai Shelter, now a grassy clearing offering views to our first challenge, Henry Peak. A quick headcount confirmed no losses.

The climb up Henry Peak was to be our biggest ascent of the trip, but it’s a pretty modest one. The bush section steepens and gives way to shrubs that would be impenetrable had the track not been subjected to rigorous clearing, effectively providing a corridor through the vegetation. The party began to spread out, with some of the more encumbered adults drifting back, the weight of supplies taking its toll.

The kids were finally slowing, too. Henry Peak was putting up a fight. Motivation was needed here more than any other time on the trip to propel the troops. All strains of leadership speeches were tried. ‘I know it’s hard, but you just have to keep going,’ morphed into, ‘I know it’s hard, here’s some chocolate, you’ll get more if you keep going.’

But experiencing the rapid heartbeat of a climb, and the fatigue and the pain were essential ingredients if we wanted to paint a realistic picture of tramping. The adults knew it only too well. I took comfort in the knowledge that kids bounce back to life quickly, and so proved to be the case when the summit of Henry Peak was finally conquered and views of the range opened up. The kids chowed down on more snacks and cheered the arrival of each bedraggled adult as they hobbled slowly up the hillside.

It’s well-known that Mt Taranaki is shy about showing its pointy head. Dawn and dusk are usually the best times to catch it when it’s not draped in cloud. But even if the main prize is kept under wraps, the view of the Pouakai Range is nothing to be scoffed at. Our next day’s destination, Holly Hut, was spotted nestled into Taranaki’s northern slopes, and in the foreground the remarkable Ahukawakawa Swamp glowed orange as the sun forced its way through the cloud.

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Crossing the bridge near Kokowai Track road end. Photo: Ricky French

Restored by the knowledge that the major uphill of the tramp was now behind (and below) us, we left our lookout and tackled another oddity of the circuit: the Henry Peak rafts. At one time, the climb or descent of the north-west side was a steep, muddy affair, with erosion cutting deep, slippery gullies into the hill. Today it’s a new experience, with 2200m of wooden rafts (you could also call them ladders) laid, protecting both the landscape and the composure of trampers. The kids loved them, and from the bottom the string of ladders looked like a staircase to the clouds.

A gentle climb along a ridge brought us to one of New Zealand’s most famous photo vantage points, the Pouakai Tarns. If you ever gushed over a photo of Mt Taranaki reflected in a fetching tarn high on a mountain, the photo was taken here. We threw off our packs and walked a lap of the main tarn. It’s a wonderful spot, even when the mountain isn’t showing its face. A lone photographer stood with his tripod, waiting. He’d been there for two hours. With no clearance in sight, he folded the tripod and trudged off philosophically. Pouakai Hut sits a short way down from a rocky plateau, only 15 minutes from the tarns. It’s easily accessed via the Mangorei Track to the north, with the road end less than two hours away. It makes a good escape option should you run into trouble, an important consideration when planning a trip with kids.

We set our packs down and did the usual things you do when arriving at a hut: gathered firewood, put the billy on, unpacked the cricket bat. My family is sports-mad, and the obsession isn’t put on hold when we go tramping. A plastic bat tied to a pack where an ice axe would normally go is a common sight in our party. After walking six hours, the kids still had energy to burn and with no breakages or lost balls recorded, it was considered a successful game.

Evening arrived and the clouds vanished in a puff. We pulled on our boots and strolled back to the tarn to take in the evening light on a now fully revealed Mt Taranaki. The air was still and warm, the tarn like marble. The Pouakai Range wore a tussock beard and rising out of nowhere was that magnificent, dominating snow-capped mountain, now reflected obligingly in the water. It was the money shot; a perfect, unique and never-forgotten moment. Even the kids shut up for a few seconds.

We dubbed the second day Casual Friday. Total walking time: two hours. A gentle amble down a well-graded track led to Ahukawakawa Swamp and a bridge over a pristine stream, where the kids took the lead and raced off ahead to Holly Hut. Giving the kids independence to go on ahead and follow tracks and signs was a major part of the trip, and on the Pouakai Circuit there’s not much that can go wrong. The kids loved the independence and trust given.

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On the track between Pouakai Hut and Holly Hut. Photo: Ricky French

Holly Hut could be the most family-friendly hut in the country. Tucked up against the side of Mt Taranaki, the mountain’s summit bulges out and provides a stunning backdrop for the most picturesque sports field, on the front lawn of the hut. A short walk means the day can be dedicated to activities around the hut.

With the sun out, a few hours were spent battling it out with shirts off and spirits high. Then it was off for a walk to Bells Falls, a perfect diversion on a hot afternoon. The falls are accessed via a side track around a hill called The Dome. It ends with a riverside scramble up the headwaters of Stony River, where Bells Falls tumbles spectacularly into a deep pool, spraying water over the warm rocks and giving a welcome shower to sweaty bodies.

Back at the hut, the evening was spent making an open fire in a dry river bed. The kids collected sticks and experimented with making their own small fires, comparing techniques and results. The magic of fire can keep kids entertained for hours, but we didn’t have hours to spare, as dinner and a table tennis tournament awaited.

As with cricket, table tennis is an easily accommodated tramping activity, suited to a variety of conditions. All that needs to be carried in is two bats and a ball. A stick balanced on two rocks (or if you prefer, two cans of beer) makes the net. We must have been an odd sight for the three other hut occupants: a motley bunch of kids and cricketers, torn clothes and wet towels, impromptu fires and table tennis.

Our last day began dark and foreboding. Breakfast was eaten quietly as the rain began a persistent and ominous patter on the roof. Packing in the morning – the solemn process of walking repeatedly about the hut identifying items that belong in your pack – always focuses the mind on the day ahead, and today had but one aim: get out before the worst of the rain hit.

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Evening campfire near Holly Hut. Photo: Ricky French

We decked the kids out in various qualities of wet weather gear.  We climbed the terraced track that snakes up the folds of Mt Taranaki’s northern slopes. The rain had set in earlier than forecast and would only get stronger. Everyone was wet through within an hour. In a way I was glad the kids got to experience a bit of wet weather tramping, as it will surely be a recurring theme if they continue the pursuit.

We reached a junction where we could choose to skirt higher on the mountain, taking in some more adventurous terrain and eventually dropping out at North Egmont visitor centre, or descend along the Kokowai Track, back into the bush. The cold was starting to bite and wind was whipping up. It was a no-brainer; we had to get off the mountain.

The Kokowai Track was a more traditional tramping track, narrow and slightly overgrown, but still easy enough to negotiate. On a fine day, the walk off the tops into the bush beside Kokowai Stream would have been a treat, for the bush is lush and dripping with colour. But today it was just dripping, and the kids were increasingly losing patience with sodden shoes and pants. At a couple of points, tears were shed, but the message got through that the only way out of this mess was to walk out of it. When the swingbridge first crossed on day one was reached, we knew the end was nigh and spirits once again rose.

Our choice to park at a car park affording no shelter meant no chance of getting changed, so it was into the car with wet gear, but it didn’t matter, we had made it.

The kids quickly forgot the hardship of the previous hours and laughed at our drowned rat state. To deflect attention from the fact we were sitting in wet underwear, we listed the best things about the tramp, and the kids shouted over each other: ‘The waterfall! The cricket! The chocolate! The fire! Running along the track! When you fell in crossing Stony River, dad! The food! Playing near the tarn! The bridges! The ladders!…’

When we pulled into the backpackers in New Plymouth to finally get into dry clothes the list was still going.

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