A tail in three parts – Pouakai Crossing

Date: 9 June 2017
Distance: Depending on the source, 18.4km or 19km

Since Lonely Planet named Taranaki “the second best region in the world to visit”, while highlighting the Pouakai Crossing as “one of two unmissable attractions”, I’ve been keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park has always been on the to-do list. We’ve only done short walks in the area, and “knocking off the bastard” remains on the to-do list.

Trying to find a date that would suit both us and our friends in New Plymouth to walk the crossing, proved very challenging, but we finally settled on a day last weekend. The weather seemed best on the Friday, so by Thursday night, Gerry and I were packed and off to the Naki where a lovely warm dinner was waiting for us. Unfortunately, both of our friends were unwell (with colds and stomach bugs), so we made some loose arrangements over dinner and coffee in terms of the time to start, what to wear and take with, and whether they would walk all the way with us or turn around earlier. But for the most part, we decided to play it by ear.

Part one
Shortly after seven in the morning we drove up to the Egmont Visitor Centre to park (950m), and watch the sun rise over the horizon, before starting off at a brisk pace. Frost covered the grass outside the building and the temperature could not have been more than a couple of degrees. With the first few kilometres all going up the Razorback Ridge (to about 1400m), we quickly warmed up. Coupled with the beautiful, sunny, windless start, we could not have asked for a better day. Apart from some minor cloud, we had stunning views over the farms, New Plymouth and the sea towards the north. Unfortunately, it was too hazy to see Mt Ruapehu or Mt Ngauruhoe.

After about two hours’ walk, traversing Mt Taranaki above the cloud line, we passed the lava columns of the Dieffenbach cliffs. In a rocky stream (or was it a slip?) we decided to make some tea and have a snack. The moment we stopped, it was evident that the temperature was still in the single digits. Donning gloves and multiple top layers not to cool down too quickly, as the steam from our warm bodies, and condensation already had our beanies soaking wet. After we got going again, our friends walked a few more minutes with us, before they decided to call it a day and head back to the car.

Once we crossed the Boomerang slip, I felt more comfortable that we’d covered the most dangerous part. Luckily there was no snow on the slip. The path is quite narrow in parts, but clearly visible. It might be a different story if everything was covered in snow, as there were no markers/poles to indicate where the track might be, as is usually the case in alpine terrain. We could clearly see the red water of the Kokowai Stream far below us, caused by manganese oxide oozing from the earth. The moment we rounded the mountain more towards the western side, the wind picked up and we realised that the first section of the walk was quite sheltered. By noon, we reached Holly Hut, originally built in 1900, but replaced by the current building in 1975. It sleeps about 26 people and a couple of tents can fit on the grass in front of the hut. The Minarapa Stream just before reaching the hut can be impassable after heavy rain, but was completely dry. Two long-drops were a few metres from the hut, and these will have to be cleaned soon, or risk overflowing.

An hour return trip, takes you to the 31 metre high Bells Falls/Te Rere o Tahurangi, a waterfall feature we had to give a miss, as we were pressed for time with the short winter days.

After leaving the hut, we followed the path downhill with beautiful views across the wetland, until we reached the Ahukawakawa Swamp/Wetlands. A narrow wet boardwalk takes you across the wetland. Stepping off of the boardwalk (to pass or be passed) might seem solid, but it is in fact a very wet soggy sponge.

Part two
During our crossing of the wetland and Story River/Hangatahua Stream (the one that’s also responsible for the waterfall), the clouds came rolling in and a misty spray made us stop to put on rain jackets. A steep climb up the Pouakai Ranges for the next couple of hours, with a million steps and very muddy conditions under foot, took us through misty mountain cedar forests with unfortunately no visibility in any direction apart from the few metres ahead of us. Totally opposite to what we had up until the first hut. It was very cold and I was glad we carried all the extra clothes as we wore everything we had by then.

Covered in mud, we reached the Pouakai Hut after about two hours. Another side trip takes you to the Pouakai Tarns where on a good day, you can see a reflection of Mt Taranaki in the water. Or tackle the Pouakai Trig (1440m) – about 1.5hours return. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see anything and opted to skip the outing. Another hiker who thought she’d take the chance, incase the cloud opened up while she was there, came back quite disappointed. It was still cloudy and rainy and the tarn was so small, it takes (according to her) about two minutes to circumnavigate. And obviously no sign of any mountain, let alone a reflection. As Graeme pointed out the last time we did an event in the Naki – if you can’t see the mountain, it’s raining, and if you can see it, it’s going to rain. So, I figured the odd chance of having a good day as a tourist passing through, is next to nothing. You would probably have to do multiple crossings before you might be lucky enough to have a good day.

We stopped at the hut to boil water for soup. It was freezing outside on the porch, but we were too dirty from the mud as well as wet from the rain to go inside. After some hot soup, corn cakes, biltong, cheese and a couple of pieces of dark chocolate for desert, we were ready to head down the mountain. We nearly got a glimpse of what the view might be like from Pouakai Hut when the clouds almost opened up for a brief moment, just enough to see the farmlands way below.

Part three
From Pouakai Hut, the path meanders downhill all the way on a proper wooden boardwalk. Starting off in freezing temperatures, we could feel the air getting warmer the further we descended. The vegetation became thicker and finally you enter the forest again. The change in altitude also makes for a change in vegetation with the totara trees fairly far down towards sea level. It was still cloudy and therefore we had no view of Mt Taranaki, but the change underfoot makes this a totally different experience. Where the previous stretch was almost all uphill in ankle deep mud, this section was all the way downhill on a decent boardwalk. Total opposites.

Deon and Henriette kindly fetched us again at the bottom on a farm road. After a warm shower and clean, dry clothes, we were treated to lovely food, cosy by the heater.

The Pouakai Crossing (not to be confused with the Pouakai Circuit which is partially on the same tracks) is a nice one day hike. Maybe if we went in summer instead of winter, and maybe if we were lucky to have good weather, it might have been a different story, but truth be told (and at the risk of being a stick in the mud), I don’t think it is comparable to the Tongariro Crossing, or some of the Great Walks, as numerous news clippings and articles claim. I my view, and despite former Prime Minister Helen Clark‘s comment “it has the potential to rival the country’s Great Walks”, I don’t think it is quite in the same league as the others. Still, it is a nice walk, and worth the effort.

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