Where: Pouakai Circuit, Northern Mt Taranaki
Distance & Time: Three days of hiking, between 2 to 5 hours each day
Take: Sleeping bag, food, water, hiking clothes. Weather on the mountain can change quickly, so be prepared.
Amenities on route: Huts with mattresses and water.
Cost of the walk: Pouakai Hut and Holly Hut are $15 each, per night
The Pouakai Circuit is one of the best multi-day hikes I’ve ever done. The views are phenomenal. The huts are great. Sunrise from the Pouakai Tarn was stunning. The track is technical enough to be interesting. It’s not super full of people. The terrain varies greatly. The only downside were the many, many, many stairs that had to be climbed on day one (but more on that later).
We did the Circuit in the opposite direction to how most people do it, primarily because we wanted to get the longest day done first as we had to drive four hours home after hiking on the final day.
We drove up to the mountain early on Saturday morning and had the only negative moment of the journey before 7.30am! We arrived at the info centre carpark to be told by a self righteous guard that we weren’t allowed to park overnight there as all the camping carparks were already full and only day hikers could park there. We tried to tell him we weren’t camping there overnight, we were wanting to leave our car while we did a two night hike but he wasn’t listening to us and we were getting frustrated so we drove back down to the lower carpark which we had read on numerous forums and been told by many people was a target for thieves (which you’d think that if that was the case, the Council would hire security guards/make that carpark more secure!) Anyway, we parked there, and hoped the car would still be there when we got back two days later.
The Pouakai Circuit is 25km and most people do it over two nights/three days. However, it could easily be done in one night/two days and some people even do the whole circuit in one day! The first day was 13km and started with a very rooty, branch-strewn hike through bush. We caught glimpses of Mt Taranaki every now and then and we lucked out with weather as when we had arrived the day before we couldn’t even see his head as he was shrouded by cloud, but we all must have pleased the weather gods somehow as over our three days of hiking we had the most spectacular weather and views and as soon as we were off the mountain on day 3, the cloud came back!
The first couple of hours passed in a blur as we passed hardly anyone on route. The hero moment of our trip came though when Jess realised her glasses had fallen out of her pocket! Paul gallantly retraced our steps (thankfully we knew they were between where we were and the shelter that we had stopped at briefly) and was able to find them – success!
While in the bush we started climbing the stairs. Oh, the stairs. I was already feeling over them when a couple passed us walking in the opposite direction. I made the rookie mistake of asking them how many more stairs. Their answer? Lots more. So many more stairs. Just what I wanted to hear!
In fact, I think they may have even underestimated it. There were lots, lots, more stairs. And there was no break, they just kept going on and on and on. Every so often I’d stop and look back at all the stairs we had climbed and look on ahead to where the others were still climbing. But everything had an end and eventually we came to the top of the stairs, hurrah!
The summit of Henry Peak was our lunch spot, and we came across another walker here who was doing the entire Pouakai Circuit in one day – go her!
After descending from Henry Peak it wasn’t too long before we came to the Pouakai Tarn. We passed another couple of walkers who advised us not to worry about stopping there as there were loads of people around. So when we arrived we ended up just walking the boardwalk, seeing what all the fuss was about, and then continuing on up to Pouakai Hut. My biggest takeaway from the Pouakai Tarns? The view is pretty rad but the tarn is tiny! We decided that we might try and come back in the morning when there would hopefully be less people around.
Holy moly Pouakai Hut was popular. We arrived mid afternoon and managed to snag four beds (there are 16 beds in total at the Hut). At 8pm that night there were still people arriving hoping for a bed. In fact, a party of 10 people showed up then hoping for a bed – you’ve got to be kidding! The ranger turned them away as there was absolutely no room in the hut, with people sleeping on the kitchen floor. Fortunately the road end was only 2 hours away, or they could walk on to Holly Hut which has more beds available.
The next morning quite a few people got up to see sunrise at the tarn. Paul woke me up at 6.30 and we headed up to try and avoid the mass of sunrise seekers and his plan worked perfectly. As we arrived there was only one other couple there, one of whom happened to be a professional photographer! They had walked up from the road end at 3am to catch the sunrise.
It was quite peaceful sitting there so early in the morning. We watched the photographer and his partner taking some photos before I thought to ask whether he would possibly be able to take some photos of us? Thought we may as well make the most of the opportunity.
Amy’s Advice – don’t bother stopping at the Pouakai Tarn on your way up. It will likely be full of people and you won’t get a good photo. You’re better of getting up and heading up first thing in the morning (not for sunrise as that’s another popular time). We got there about 30 minutes after sunrise and had the place to ourselves and one other couple. The tarn is more likely to be still in the morning too, so you will get THAT shot.
After heading back to the hut for breakfast, we had our shortest day on the trail ahead of us, down to Holly Hut. We were the last ones to leave the hut as we weren’t in a rush with only a couple of hours of walking ahead of us and we knew that Holly Hut was unlikely to be super busy on a Sunday night (we hoped)
The walk down to Holly Hut was fairy easy as it was downhill most of the way. More stairs (much easier to go down than up!) and then we were in the Ahukawakawa Swamp, with the walk mostly comprised of boardwalk to protect the fragile environment here. You can spot Holly Hut fairly easy from this walk, it’s surrounded by bush and tucked into its own little clearing. The track down to Holly Hut off the main track crosses over a river which when we were there, was dry but I could imagine in the depths of winter or after heavy rain it wouldn’t be so easy to cross!
After settling into Holly Hut we decided to do the side trek up to Bells Falls. I contemplated just doing the walk in my jandals but thank goodness I put my boots back on. It’s not a gentle walk! You will also have to cross a river and get wet to get up to the falls, it looks as though there used to be a path up to the top to view the falls from above but it is now closed. The others went up to the waterfall while I stayed in the river and just had a wee soak (I couldn’t stay in for long though, the water was rather chilly!)
Back at Holly Hut, Paul nursed a young bird that had flown into one of the hut windows and dazed itself. After sitting with it in the shade for a bit the wee bird found its way back to its parents – success! The hut wasn’t too busy which was nice, and there was plenty of grass and deck outside to relax on and soak up the last of the sun. Everyone also pitched in to help put away the load of firewood that had been dropped there – team work for the win!
The next day we woke to more amazing weather (honestly, we must have done something right for the weather gods) for our final day on the mountain, as we had just over three hours of walking ahead back to the North Egmont Visitor Centre. This is the only day of the walk that we were actually ON Mt Taranaki too, and the higher we climbed, the more it felt as though the summit was getting closer and closer to us.
We could see Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe towards the north super clearly, the views were absolutely spectacular. Could imagine that from the summit they would be even more so! The walk back started with a relatively gentle climb that just kept going. And going. And going. There were a few slips and rockfalls that we had to scramble across on the way, but nothing too extreme.
Once we started the downhill part of this walk we started to see a lot more people coming up the opposite direction. There’s a relatively easy short walk from the visitor centre up to a lookout point, and this is also the access point for people attempting the track to the summit.
Back at the visitor centre we were relieved to find that our car was unscathed, thank goodness! After taking a look around the visitor centre, and a quick change of clothes, we jumped in the car to head back down into Stratford to find food. And you wouldn’t believe it but the moment we got back into Stratford, cloud came back over the mountain, obscuring the summit from view again. Hopefully when you do this walk, you’ll have the weather gods smiling on you like we did!
The photos of me were taken by Paul, and Loretha, Jess and I took the others!
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