The high altitude route around Mt Taranaki
3-6 January 2008
There are several road ends from which access to the ‘Around The Mountain Circuit’ may be gained, but as we had a half day drive from Wellington, North Egmont was selected as it offered an interesting mid afternoon tramp to Holly Hut and secure car parking. After completing formalities at the North Egmont Visitors Centre we started our tramp in sunny conditions through wonderful bush on a very well maintained and graded track. We soon had our first encounter with steps, which are a feature of the park. Most of the steep to moderately steep sections have steps which seem to have minimized the potential damage of water erosion on the young and some what fragile volcanic soils. It seemed to take no time at all before we were able to enjoy our first views of Mt Taranaki. Mt Taranaki is a classic cone shaped andesite of the same rock type as Ruapehu and the other volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park, but the andesites of Taranaki are distinctive. Mt Taranaki is the youngest volcanic centre in an area of southward-moving volcanic hot spots which started about five million years ago at the now eroded Kaitake, then moved to Pouakai and finally to Taranaki, where eruptions first occurred about 150,000 years ago and most recently about 250 years ago. The mountain is surrounded by a ring plain comprising volcanic debris and material from lahars and avalanches. The ring plain has been deeply eroded and tramping around Mt Taranaki often involves sidling in and out of rather deep ravines which separate the radiating volcanic ridges.
The high altitude route tends to minimize the magnitude of the ravines.
The track from the visitors’ centre follows the Razorback to an altitude of about 1260 metres, when the track drops onto a gentle sidle which includes several striking features such as the columnar Dieffenbach cliffs and the Causeway, a spectacular erosion feature. Further on one can see chemical weathering forming the orange-coloured headwaters of Kokowai Stream, then the Boomerang slip, which was rather straightforward after a recent trip over the slips on the Penn Creek Track. Leatherwood is also found above the bush line on Mt Taranaki, but it is a different genus and species from the Tararua variety and lacks serrated leaf margins (Brachyglottis Elaeagnifolia). At 1240m, the Holly Hut Track is joined by the Kokowai Track, then sidles in and out of some rather gentle water courses before descent via a wooden staircase with good views of the eroded volcanic peaks of the Pouakai volcanic complex and the Ahukawakawa sphagnum moss swamp. The Holly Hut Track is joined at 980m by the Ahukawakawa Track which accesses the very popular Pouakai circuit. Holly Hut is reached after an unbridged crossing of Minarapa Stream and is an impressive structure which sleeps about 30 and has solar lighting and a wood burner, but no gas for cooking. It was a full house at the hut but we were all able to secure a bunk and enjoyed a comfortable night. A youth SAR party from Hamilton was enjoying an end-of-course six day tramp.
The track from Holly Hut sidles around The Dome, as the high level to Kahui hut is closed due to very serious erosion. We did a side trip to Bells Falls and then continued along the Stony River Track, which during periods of heavy rain would pose a few problems judging by the size of the side streams and lack of bridges. It is joined by the Puniho Track after crossing two deeply eroded streams and climbs to about 960m then sidles to Kahui Hut.
Once in the sub alpine scrub belt low cloud veiled the top of the mountain so the expected views failed to eventuate. Kahui Hut is one of the older huts on the circuit but it is spacious and very well maintained. From Kahui Hut the track has a gentle 260m descent to link up with the Oaonui Track, which gently sidles to the junction with Ihaia Track. From there a minimally -marked track follows the terraces of the left branch of Oaonui Stream before entering the bush and crossing a small branch of the Waiaua River prior to Waiaua Gorge Hut. This large and roomy hut is located on the true right of the spectacular Waiaua Gorge. The Brames Falls Track leaves the hut at an altitude of 600m and climbs to the high level track at an altitude of 1400m. A short distance from the hut is a ladder which descends to the bottom of
the Waiaua Gorge and is followed by a rather grunty climb out of the gorge. The next part of the track is rather steady climb and offers a good view of Brames Falls. Once above the bush line there is a saddle followed by a rather steep climb to a sidle around some cliffs below Bobs Knob. The descent into Punetu Stream is followed by a testing scramble up and out of the water course to start the descent to the Lake Dive Track. On the descent the low cloud which had prevailed earlier lifted, giving good views of the mountain and Lake Dive Hut, Lake Dive and Waiaua Gorge Hut.
The Lake Dive Track turn off was a good place to have lunch in the sun and to consult the map, which showed a gentle climb to 1500m under Phantoms Peak, where we would intersect the summit track and descend to Dawson Falls. The track from here on was mostly benched and very easy travel in mild and mostly sunny weather. The summit track that follows consists mostly of wooden steps for the 600m descent. At Dawson Falls we treated ourselves to a very comfortable night at Konini Lodge for the very reasonable cost of $20-00 each for an 8 bunk room.
From Dawson Falls the graded Ridge Track climbs steadily and then sidles to The Plateau at an altitude of just under 1200m. The Plateau is at the East Egmont access to around the mountain circuit; it is not a good place to leave a vehicle but it would be an ideal starting point if a drop off could be arranged. From The Plateau the route goes along the track to the Manganui Ski Lodge and crosses an avalanche path in the headwaters of the Manganui River, all quite spectacular. The start of the track has a pedestrian tunnel to offer protection from falling rock debris. A flying fox offers easy access for skiers to the lodge, but not for trampers outside of the ski season. The track passes in front of the lodge and sidles through sub-alpine scrub followed by tussock and reaches the high point of the track, a little over 1500m, just past Tahurangi Lodge and The Puffer. Before we reached the lodge, the cliffs of Warwick Castle towered above us, and in this area we met two trampers who advised us not to go down The Puffer unless we had a passion for steep concrete roads, which we didn’t. Avoiding The Puffer involved continuing sidling until we came to the Razorback, the top of which was marked with a cairn and had an obvious foot pad, but none of the usual sign posts. To be sure that we were on the right route, we continued on sidling past the impressive Humphries Castle and back to the Holly Hut Track, thus completing a true high level circuit. It was now time to reacquaint ourselves with wooden steps as we descended to the North Egmont Visitors Centre. On our arrival a DOC officer came to us to ask if we were starting or finishing and advised us of a heavy rain warning for the next two days - good timing or management on our part to beat the rain and to have enjoyed four great days of fine warm weather.