As promised entirely too long ago, here’s my take on the two day adventure in Egmont National Park, Pouakai Circuit.
Nothing is as demotivating as a crushing hangover combined with the anxious certainty that you will not complete this hike with any kind of enthusiasm. I was dealing with both of these things as I shrugged on my 25lb backpack in the Egmont National Park Visitor Center. I’d already drank an entire 2L reservoir to lighten the misery, and was determined to at least start up the trailhead, so I took a resigned breath and set off.
The first hour or so is consistently uphill on an easy path that travels up the north side of Taranaki and isn’t really all that steep.
I almost turned around.
I can be stubborn though, so I decided to rest and regather myself, and eventually felt surprisingly decent when it finally leveled out. The next hour consisted of traversing slightly uphill across the vast base of the beautifully conical Taranaki. Though the upper two-thirds of the mountain were shrouded in clouds, deep greens and browns, punctuated by the occasional sheer cliff face, made up the landscape along the track.
One section that stands out was a 30m wide scree slip (I later found out it’s called “Boomerang Slip”) that had signs on either side urging only one person, using extreme caution, to cross at a time. Not sketchy at all. I moved carefully though, and the rocks stood their ground, so I’m still here to tell you about it.
After a bit more of a walk, the track descends briefly and splits at the Ahukawakawa Track junction. I enthusiastically took a left turn because of a side trip to Bell Falls I had read about. That track leads into a nicely maintained grass opening with Holly Hut to the left and the “30 minutes one way” track to the falls.
Here’s the thing about this estimate – the 30 minutes the Department of Conservation is referring to is the hike TO Bell Falls, which is almost entirely downhill, even steeply enough for stairs at several points. It was on one of those stairs where I began to regret my decision.
I knew that the turnoff to Bell Falls was about halfway to the hut, and I also knew that it wasn’t going to be flat the for the second half. In chasing this waterfall, I was adding 45-60 minutes of uphill to an already strenuous hike.
The things we do for love.
So I continued my descent, eventually coming upon the rock-strewn river that Bell Falls crashes into, which is where the trail unexpectedly stopped. I stood on the bank and looked right, up the river, to where I could barely see where I should be (next to the waterfall, ideally). And yet, there I was, decidedly NOT next to it. After briefly checking to make I hadn’t just missed that the trail continues on the other side of the river, I shrugged off my pack and prepared for a bit of boulder-hopping.
Getting across the river was going to be the hardest part. While my side of the river was impassable, I could see that the other side had a thin strip of fairly solid pebbles and sand. With some interesting and creative twists, stretches, and jumps, I made it across completely dry save my left shoe, and practically skipped the rest of the way to Bell Falls.
After being thoroughly misted and replenishing with a granola bar, I reversed my course, picked up my backpack, and trudged uphill until I reconnected with the main trail.
At this point, the journey was brought out from the foot of Taranaki, instead turning north and overlooking a vast swamp, which is more beautiful than it sounds, I swear.
And so began the descent into the swamp. Because of the delicate nature of the vegetation in the swampland, and also the fact that precisely zero people want to walk through something that wet and squishy, there was a nice, wood-slatted walkway that snaked its way down and across to the other side.
It was a soothing, but brief respite, and though I desperately tried to gauge just how much elevation I had to gain on the other side to get to the hut for the night, I seriously underestimated the suffering the Pouakai Circuit had left to give me.
I began the ascent with a mantra of sorts that I tell myself from time to time when I feel like the best option is to lie down and accept my fate. It’s a trick I learned from my mother when she so patiently attempted to teach me how to run in high school. Something along the lines of
“You can do at least 10 more steps.”
“Okay, get to that tree and there’s a nice dirt patch where you can sit to allow the darkness to consume you.”
“JUST KEEP HIKING, JUST KEEP HIKING.”
“GODDAMMIT HOW IS IT THAT THIS HILL JUST KEEPS GOING. WHOEVER MADE THIS TRAIL IS THE SPHINCTER OF THE EARTH.”
And so on.
Finally, after what seemed one eternity and an endless conveyor belt of stairs later, I rounded the corner to the glorious site of the Pouakai Hut.
Sweaty, smelly, and exhausted, I slogged inside and picked one of the few beds left. After a quick dinner with two Germans and a Dutch couple, we went outside to see the sun set over Taranaki, then I crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out.
The clear skies did not last through the night, and the next morning misery was all that greeted me. I’m sure the second day is just as beautiful and interesting as the first, but I didn’t see any of it. Instead there was a haze of fog all around as I ascended Henry Peak with the couple from the hut, and a relentless view of grayish white at the top. The placard signifying the summit kindly reminded us that on clear days, the view of Taranaki is unbeatable.
The rest of the circuit leads through dense forest along a river of snow melt from Taranaki, and finally ends with about 45 minutes of travel along the road to the visitor center. Sore and probably fairly smelly, I had a long drive down to Wellington ahead of me, where I would catch the ferry to the South Island in just two days time. There was plenty left on the North Island that I wanted to do, but the Pouakai Circuit was a fantastic last adventure for now.