Pouakai Circuit: I Swear It’s Worth It, 2 Day Loop

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.

Twice.

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.

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The traverse took up a good portion of the first day, and wow was it beautiful
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I ended my day encompassed by the peaks in the distance
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If only I had some climbing gear…

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.

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Just some loose rocks, guys. Not even a thang.

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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.

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So far away
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A serene little spot I found searching for the continuation of a trail, unsuccessfully

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.

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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.

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That flat part is the swamp

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.

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Coming to the end of the swamp, the hill straight ahead is a liar, it is way taller than that

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.

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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.

(not pictured)

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.

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Taranaki deciding to show itself
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The Germans had Santa hats on because why not
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Some trail friends
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Hello beautiful
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Taranaki is the most volcanoey volcano in all the land

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.

Remarkable New Zealand Waterfalls: North Island

Unlike stairs, waterfalls are THE BEST.

After the loss of my home of 5 weeks, I was stuck in limbo. Between finding another van, selling Grandpa Jimmy, searching for a short term job, and finally working said job (apple thinning), I was craving a hike and sorely out of shape. I left the orchard as soon as I had gas money in my bank account and headed for the Kaimai-Mamatu range for some socially acceptable torture. (Also known as hiking up a freaking mountain).

Two hours of crossing and re-crossing the Waitengue stream and 45 minutes of practically crawling uphill later, I stopped mid-labored breathing and was filled with aw at the sheer power of what I soon discovered was a 106 meter high waterfall in the middle of pure wilderness.

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The view that inspired me

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Hey ma, I’m on a waterfall!

With the feelings of elation and beauty brought forth from this liquid column fresh in my heart, I began my search for all the waterfalls in the North Island.

I had time for 4.

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My first stop after Ananui was another, taller fall in the same mountain range: The Wairere Falls.

The hike to this massive 156 meter waterfall was much shorter (45 minutes) and therefore, had significantly higher traffic and nicer walkways. I felt spoiled from my solo wilderness adventure as a I lined up with all the schmucks who came to such a developed, touristy waterfall. Naturally I didn’t consider myself a schmuck, as I was so clearly enlightened.

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On the way to Wairere Falls
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The falls in all their glory

But then, maybe there’s a reason it’s so popular. Not only was the viewpoint spectacular, the falls perfectly draped themselves to look as wild and stunning as possible, with the wind blowing smaller sections into a veil across the cliffs.

I could get used to waterfall hunting.

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Waireinga, or the much less interesting “Bridal Veil Falls”

Ah the ol’ Bridal Veil Falls. I’m pretty sure there are at least 20 of these in the US alone.* I much prefer the Maori name for it, Waireinga, which means “leaping waters,” and is far more accurate a description.

*Possibly an exaggeration

I would hardly consider getting to this water faucet a hike. To reach the base of the falls (55 meters below) takes less than ten minutes, and marching/struggling your way back up the stairs shouldn’t take much longer. The really fascinating thing about this waterfall, and what makes it unique, is the way the cliff and rocks that surround it are formed. According to the DoC (Department of Conservation) brochure:

The spectacular cliff face of Waireinga was created some
2.5 million years ago when molten lava from a volcanic
eruption flowed down a river course, pooling in a valley.
As the lava slowed, the top and bottom started to cool and
shrink. Cracks and joints appeared, running directly down
from the surface of the flow. Because the hotter and semi-
liquid part of the lava was still moving, the joints developed
a distinctive curve.

 

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Damn gurl, you got some nice curves

The final waterfall in my North Island excursion was Bells Falls in Egmont National Park. I consider this a bonus fall, because I had planned to hike the 2-3 day Pouakai Circuit, and there just happened to be a side trip to another cliffriver (I’ve renamed waterfalls to sound as intense as they really are).

The DoC brochure informed me that the track to the falls is 30 minutes one way. What it neglected to say is that the entire 30 minutes is spent going downhill.

*sigh*

Since I had already spent a little over 2 hours in intensely steep and rocky travel before arriving at my little side adventure, I was not excited to discover that the path just. kept. descending.

When I finally reached the bottom, this was the pathetic site that greeted me:

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Tip to DoC: you could take the track a little closer

Well now here was a dilemma. I had traveled all this way and made so much extra work for myself, there’s no way I was accepting this as my view of Bells Falls. So I did what any self-respecting cliffriver enthusiast would and set off determinedly up the rocky terrain, sans pack.

Many slippery boulders and several body-contortioning moves later, I was all up in that waterfall.

But not literally, because that water comes down frighteningly hard.

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“WHOOOOSHHH” ~ Bells Falls
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So close I no longer needed a shower

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Three Days on A Great Walk, Day Two

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Waking up is consistently the hardest part of my day, made infinitely worse when waking up to a warm sleeping bag surrounded by a cold, unforgiving hut. Fortunately, my hiking partners and I only had a three hour walk ahead of us, so I was able to laze my way through the morning ritual.

With knowledge of yesterday’s clothing requirements, I stuck to two light layers and a wind shell for today’s hike. This turned out to be the right choice, and even a little much at times, since the weather was much calmer and the sun decided to stick around more permanently throughout the day.

Like the weather, the track section from the first to the second hut was much milder. We made our way up and over several dunes and valleys, all while under the distant, watchful eyes of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. The peaks of the sleeping giants were perfectly visible at last, making for stunning contrast against the scrubby volcanic desert below.

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So much scrub

The last push is definitely the most difficult for this relatively short jaunt. The trail runs into one of the only two forests we encountered on the circuit and steadily climbs up and out of the forest for a good 30 minutes, emerging at the top of a hill from which the Waihohonu hut can be spotted down below. I descended carefully due to some knee pain that started about an hour before, and was glad to only have a three hour day.

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Hut Day 2

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The Waihohonu hut is practically a resort. Built in 2010, its common area is massive, with two clothes drying racks operated by pulley system, five 6-person tables, and two separate kitchen areas. With so much time to waste, Sydney, Averie and I spent time alternately napping (Averie), speculating how the pulley systems could be improved (Sydney), and sitting in the sun reading random New Yorkers left in the corner (me).

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As afternoon turned to evening, other hikers started trickling in, leaving the entire common room completely filled. Our tiny group connected with two kiwi guys who shared their whiskey and chocolate with us, and we spent the night discussing travel plans and absurd American politics. It was almost enough to make us forget how miserable the forecast was for the following day…

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Mt Ruapehu looming in the distance
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Mt Ngauruhoe from afar

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Three Days on A Great Walk, Day One

New Zealand, you have me hooked. Though I’ve been having fun, this past month wasn’t entirely convincing – what with your vast, suffocating rainforests and constant dampness. Not to mention all the winding gravel roads that, while quaint at first, cost me two busted tires and a lot of road fatigue. I was feeling tired, lonely, and deprived of the awe inspiring mountains of Colorado.

You took my uncertainty as a challenge, and you rose above and beyond the call of duty.

My experience on the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day One

Having traveled south from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula, then through Waitomo for a job interview, I found myself in the city of Taupo – a bustling oasis in the middle of endless wilderness. Taupo is located on the northern side of a lake of the same name, is known for free random hots springs, and has a multitude of adventures, from kayaking to rock climbing. I stopped for a few nights at a rare free campground by the Waikato River called Reid’s Farm.

Disappointed after losing a promising job opportunity to timing issues, I spent the weekend listless – wasting hours in the Taupo library on free Wifi, or reading to forget my woes in Grandpa Jimmy, my best and only friend. I had accepted my fate as a lonely vagabond, and was well on my way to cutting off civilization entirely, when a fantastic couple (Averie and Sydney) I had met from Seattle informed me they were planning to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit and asked if I was nearby. What luck! The great walk was just south of Lake Taupo, only about an hour drive away.

Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know
Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know

I drove down and met them the next morning (Tuesday October 20th), having restocked my food supply and washed my weekend vagabond clothing.

The weather did not look great. The best time to complete the crossing (the highest point of the circuit) was that day, likerightnow, so we didn’t have much time to plan. We threw together our packs, mentally prepared for the worst, and set off.

Our idea was to start from Mangatepopo and travel clockwise over three days, hoping to hit the worst of the weather on a relatively easy section of trail. We kept my van at the Whakapapa Visitor Center and drove Averie and Sydney’s rented car to the Mangatepopo parking lot.

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Map of Tongariro National Park. The circular track is the Northern Circuit.

The first section of the hike is incredibly flat and easy. The three of us stopped several times to de-layer, having over-prepared due to warnings of gale force wind and rain. The day was gorgeous but chill, with white puffy cumulus clouds passing quickly overhead, the sun playing a frustrating game of hide and seek. As we hiked, we caught up with a middle-aged man from Denmark, who had flown down to surprise his 25 year old daughter for her birthday and was exploring the country while she celebrated with friends. We continued on, but he hiked with us on and off as we arrived at, and slowly ascended, the Devil’s Staircase. It wasn’t the worst staircase I’ve been on (that title goes to The Incline in Manitou Springs, CO), but with the wind constantly stealing what little warmth my exertion was producing, it was a continuous battle between needing to rest and wanting push upward and onward to stay warm.

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At least our destination was fairly obvious

After the Devil’s Staircase, the path levels off and travels through a flat valley with Mt Tongariro to the North and Mt Ngauruhoe to the South. The views here are astonishing. Massive peaks and sharp drop-offs make for a stark and intense landscape, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since leaving home. On a summer day, when the peaks aren’t covered in snow, it would’ve been on my list to summit at least one of the impressive mountains surrounding us.

Looking back across the valley, Mt Nguaruhoe to the left

At the far side of the valley, we said goodbye to our new friend, who had come as far as he felt comfortable, and prepared ourselves for the windiest, most difficult section of the trail: the ascent to the top of Red Crater. Up until now, the path was either packed down and well maintained, or was flat enough that it didn’t matter. Here it was neither. Rising up about 600 feet, the path is steep and consists of loose gravel and a substance akin to sand. For a good portion, there is a chain drilled into the rock on your right, as a means to ensure you don’t slide to your death on the left. I was very thankful for how sturdy the chain was.

After what felt like ages, we finally hit the highest point of the trip!

The landscape made me positively giddy. Hard to believe I was despondent in a campground a mere two days before.

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Right; how Red Crater got its name, Left; the highest point of the trip

The next few hours felt like walking on air compared to the first two. We passed the Emerald Lakes, which truly live up to their name with jewel-like color, and continued down into the sparse, scrubby valley below toward the Oturere Hut.

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The pristine, still icy Emerald Lakes

The wind had died down almost immediately after passing over Red Crater. Since it was coming from the West, the crossing blocked the worst of it once over to the East. Sydney, Averie, and I took the rest of the day to enjoy ourselves and meander our way toward that night’s hut. We had four or five hours until dark and were over halfway through the estimated five hours it takes to complete the section, so we stopped along the way to scrutinize the scrubby plants, play with crazy light pumice stones, and, consequently, longingly discuss the wonders of hummus and if it would be possible to bring on the trail without refrigeration.

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Exhibit A

Having lost track of time, we eventually came over a rise in the land and spotted the hut in the distance. Spontaneous dance broke out at the thought of taking off our packs and, I think more importantly, our shoes. The next ten minutes were a determined march downward until we reached the tiny Oturere Hut and settled in for the night.

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The Oturere Hut was a cramped but welcoming space. It includes a main room, which consists of a small four top table, a sink with decent counter space, and about 12 bunks to the right, and two side rooms with enough bunks to fit five people each.

We just happened to arrive at the hut on the night the rangers were restocking and training the baby rangers, so it was packed and quite jovial. As the night waned on, we chatted by candlelight with the rangers, learned how to find south using the Southern Cross, and eventually settled in for a good sleep to prepare to continue the walk in the morning.

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Goodnight, My Love

Hiking With Stairs: A Rant

Hiking (or walking as kiwis so optimistically call it) is one of my favorite challenging activities. Along with a certain level of self punishment comes stunning views, a satisfying feeling of accomplishment, and really nice legs. Yesterday, however, as I was hiking the Coromandel Pinnacles, I came in close contact with my biggest hiking enemy.

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“Sonuva bitch”
Stairs. In every day life, they are merely an annoyance, or at best a simple choice to improve your fitness. As a hiker, with a 30 pound backpack, on a rainy day, they’re absolute torture.

I have three problems with stairs:

  1. They’re uneven. The ones above are an extreme example, but even the best laid stairs of mice and men often go awry.
  2. They’re slippery. Wood stairs, stone stairs, random rocks made to resemble stairs – IT DOESN’T MATTER. Limiting options for foot placement causes increased rubbing, which wears away at any texture that was once there, leaving nothing but a smooth surface of death.
  3. They tell you when and how high your next step is going to be. Easily the most condemnable offense, stairs offer no options for where to place your foot next. You will either stay on the same plane as your currently forward foot, or you will rise precisely how high and far the stairs mean you to. Stairs are trail dictators, and I won’t stand for it.

I don’t like being told what to do.

There is hope though. Often, alongside the very intentional staircase, is a second, more traditional path, usually created by like-minded hikers who prefer options on their trails. I like to think of these unassuming heroes as “Liberty Paths.”

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Liberty paths don’t pretend to know your hiking preferences. They realize you may want to shuffle your way to the top, or take huge distance-conquering steps, or even crawl on hands and knees if the situation is desperate. They don’t judge. Liberty paths are your friend.

I realize these paths can lead to erosion and trail damage, depending on the composition of the soil – and I absolutely try to stick to the Leave No Trace guidelines – but it seems to me the mere fact that they exist is a call to trail maintenance everywhere: Give me liberty paths or give me death.

Wait, what? That’s not where this rant was suppose to lead…shit.

 

Stairs are the worst.