Thick cloud descends on the Pouākai Crossing, renowned for its spectacular views of Mt Taranaki on a clear day. Photo/Getty

The Pouākai Crossing makes a worthy alternative to the Tongariro Crossing

Joanna Wane celebrates her birthday on the Pouākai Crossing, a day walk that remains one of Taranaki’s largely undiscovered gems. Rumours of a mountain somewhere in the vicinity remain unconfirmed at this time.

All great missions begin with a chunder.

This is what’s known in the trade as a killer intro – and grudgingly, I have to admit my husband had nailed it.

That’s the problem about travelling with a fellow journalist; it breeds a certain competitive approach to Facebook posts. Still, at last count, my perky report (“Well, that was a pretty memorable birthday!”) was narrowly ahead on “likes”. Not that either of us is counting.

It might have been the result of a little over-indulgence at my splendid pre-birthday dinner at Social Kitchen in New Plymouth the night before, where the evening was bookended nicely by a “Juno Know What I Mean” cocktail to start, made with locally distilled Juno Gin, and a baked cheesecake with torched marshmallow and lemon curd to finish. Or it might have been the way I catapulted out of bed like a bolt of lightning when the alarm went off at 6am, and spent the next hour feeling a little odd, with my sense of balance decidedly off-kilter. Either way, the poor shuttle driver transporting us to the drop-off point had barely navigated a couple of inner-city blocks before I had to exit the van, stage left – neatly redepositing my breakfast into the paper bag from whence it came.

Our guide for the day, Katrina Shepherd, must have wondered if she’d need the rescue helicopter on speed-dial, or whether it would be possible to piggy-back me out if I collapsed somewhere along the trail; I suspect she’d probably have managed it. Ahead lay a 19km hike up and across the flanks of Mt Taranaki. The only positive thing about the weather was that the forecast for the next couple of days looked even worse.

I’d pitched the idea of a story on the Pouākai Crossing as an alternative day hike to the spectacular but increasingly overcrowded Tongariro Crossing, which I’ve already done twice. Tramping is so much more appealing when all you need to carry is a day pack. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to do it on my birthday?

Left, moss drips from trees in “goblin forest” on Mt Taranaki’s lower slopes. Photo/Getty. Right, Top Guides’ Katrina Shepherd. Photo/Phil Taylor

Translated from te reo, Taranaki means “shining peak”, a reference to the often snow-topped summit of one of the most perfectly symmetrical mountains in the world; it doubled for Japan’s Mt Fuji in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. It’s also one of our deadliest, with more than 80 climbing fatalities recorded, second only to Mt Cook National Park, and is so technically difficult Ed Hillary used it to train for Everest – although the sub-alpine day crossing ventures no higher than 1450m.

“Some places are exposed to wind and exposed to height [a sheer drop off the path]; in those areas, stick together,” warned Shepherd while the clouds closed in around us, obliterating the horizon, as we steadily climbed through the bush. Unable to get my bearings, it felt as if we were somehow suspended in space. “The biggest hazard here today is getting too cold. And even though it’s raining, keep that fluid intake up.”

For the next eight hours, the mountain skulked behind an impenetrable shroud. “More like The Shining,” I muttered, as the wind whipped up a passing squall. Later, as we traversed its flanks, I looked up to where Shepherd was gesturing towards a wall of white and tried to imagine Mt Taranaki’s mighty presence looming over us. “I love that it’s so big and yet so quiet,” she said.

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Shepherd isn’t driven to climb in pursuit of a goal; she’s ambivalent personally about standing on top of Everest. For her, being in the mountains is about connection and respect. She likes the way Māori talk of Taranaki as an entity that has moods and personality, “not just something to be conquered”.

“Every time, I ask the mountain if we can go on it, and it definitely tells you whether you can or not. You do the risk analysis – the weather, the terrain, the route, the fitness ability of your clients – everything goes into the equation. But at the end of the day, sometimes it comes down to instinct, the inner feeling you get, that makes the final call.”

In his days as a search and rescue volunteer, engineer Ross Eden recovered more than a dozen bodies from the mountain. He says the weather at altitude is so capricious it can close in within minutes on a bright summer day.

Eden has been climbing Mt Taranaki since the mid-70s, when he and a mate would steal their big brothers’ ice axes and head for the hills. Like Shepherd, he feels a spiritual connection – “a sort of belonging” – to the mountain beyond its physical presence. “To me, it has more than just geological status. Sometimes my wife and I will be walking up and something about the weather won’t be right; it’s the mountain telling us it’s time to go.”

[Jo] strode boldly into that charcoal day… soldiered on into the wind and rain, gaining strength and resolve with each passing hour.

Writer Joanna Wane and husband Phil Taylor experience less-favourable conditions. In clear visibility, you can see Mt Ruapehu from here. Photo/Katrina Shepherd
Fortified with a sachet of Raro powder Shepherd poured into my water bottle and a few squares of dark chocolate, I had largely recovered my equilibrium by the time we reached the first hut, a couple of hours in.

“Goblin forest” is what locals call the lush, twisting rainforest on the mountain’s lower slopes, where shawls of moss hang from kāmahi and tōtara trees, before the bush gives way to alpine tussock and shrubs. The Pouākai Range erupted some 250,000 years ago and is no longer active, unlike neighbouring Mt Taranaki, a sleeping volcano that erupts every 500 years or so and is overdue for a blow.

In Māori mythology, pouākai were giant birds – possibly the now-extinct Haast eagle – said to feast on small children and the large moa that once roamed here. The chief Tahurangi is reputed to have lit a fire on the summit of Taranaki in about 1420 to claim the land for his tribe.

Early European explorers cut the first climbing tracks in the 1850s, some of which are still in use today. In the early 2000s, the Department of Conservation began upgrading 25km of existing trails into a 2-3 day tramp known as the Pouākai Circuit. Rob Needs, who then owned a local store selling outdoor gear, had watched the growing popularity of the Tongariro Crossing and seen it become a victim of its own success. He began lobbying for a day walk on Mt Taranaki, to create a “world-class experience” with a few key advantages over its rival on the central volcanic plateau: it would be accessible through winter, and close to both an airport and a decent-sized city able to cater for tourists – and reap the economic windfall.

A route was decided on, using existing tracks, but with no funding to upgrade or promote the trail, it largely flew under the radar until Lonely Planet put the Pouākai Crossing on the map. In 2017, the global travel guide ranked Taranaki in second place on its list of the world’s top 10 regions, describing the one-day hike and the Len Lye Centre as “unmissable experiences”. Shots of the mountain’s perfect mirror reflection in the Pouākai Tarns, alpine pools accessed via a 20-minute detour from the crossing, have since featured on its book covers.

The trail descends to the golden tussock of Ahukawakawa Swamp, created by the basin formed between Mt Taranaki and the Pouākai Range. One of the main attractions of the day hike – and at roughly the midpoint – it’s one of the highest wetlands in the country, with a unique ecosystem that’s home to some plant species found nowhere else in the world. Photo/Phil Taylor

A $3.4 million injection of funds from the government followed, part of a tourism infrastructure package that will go towards upgrading the trail and facilities. An additional $13.3 million from the Provincial Growth Fund has been earmarked for the 30km Taranaki Crossing project, extending and upgrading a network of tracks through to Dawson Falls.

The Department of Conservation is liaising with local hapu Ngā Māhanga a Tairi, which has mana whenua over most of the Pouākai Crossing. DoC strategic projects manager Carl Whittleston says the possibility of rerouting the track directly past the tarns now looks unlikely due to the ecological impact.

“For the crossing to be put into the day-hike portfolio for DoC, it does need to be of a better standard – parts of it are still on alignment with the old bridle track, which pre-dates the national park [created in 1900],” says Whittleston, who remembers walking the trails for the first time 17 years ago, lugging his toddler son. “Trying to train for something or other... It was a real slog.”

Developing a range of tramping options on Mt Taranaki’s lower flanks allows people to experience the mountain while diverting them away from the summit route, he says. A boardwalk runs along sections of the track, and a wooden “floating raft” cuts through the Ahukawakawa Swamp, at roughly the midpoint of the day hike. One of the highest wetlands in the country, it’s home to 80% of the species endemic to the mounga (an alternative spelling of “maunga” or mountain, used for Mt Taranaki to reflect the local dialect).

Still, the Pouākai Crossing is no walk in the park. The ground is uneven and often muddy, if not ankle-deep in water (the planned upgrade to the track should keep trampers’ feet reasonably dry). And as a young volcano, Mt Taranaki is prone to slips. “You have to be confident you can be on your feet for the whole day, and moving for most of it,” says Whittleston. “So you need to be reasonably fit.”

There was even a little birthday cake at Holly Hut… And of course, there was the presence of the mountain through whose territory we were privileged to pass. No, it didn’t show itself. But we heard it laughing its arse off with every sodding and sodden step. 

A hiker is dwarfed by the mountain on a blue-sky summer day. Photo/Jeremy Beckers
Due to a detour caused by a slip (now cleared), and with better weather forecast early in the day, we tackled the crossing in reverse, from the Mangorei Rd end, which is closer to the tarns. But visibility was already so poor by then we squelched straight on past, through the sphagnum-moss wetlands and up to Holly Hut, where there’s a one-hour return side trip to the 30m Bells Falls. We gave them a miss, too.

A few years ago, Ross Eden sold the guiding company he ran on the side to Rob Needs. Shepherd, an outdoors instructor for secondary school students, does guided tours on contract for the company, now called Top Guides, and Needs also runs a mountain shuttle service. He reckoned the view shafts from the flanks of the mountain are magical in the mid-morning sun – right across to Mt Ruapehu on a clear day. Rain brings a special quality to the landscape, too, sending a cascade of waterfalls down the Deiffenbach Cliffs. “And if the wind is blowing, you get upside-down waterfalls,” he laughed.

Of course, we didn’t see the cliffs or waterfalls. But the wind-swept golden tussock of the Ahukawakawa Swamp was magical in the swirling mist, and the forest glistened, illuminated with that particular quality of light that comes with a break in the storm.

Without the distraction of sweeping views, our immediate surroundings came into sharper focus: a black-and-white moth at the side of the track that looked for all the world like a scrap of lichen; bursts of colour from tiny spring flowers; a plump robin with toothpick legs twittering in the bush.

More than 100 robins, plus a clutch of whio (blue ducks) and North Island brown kiwi, have been released as part of a 20-year conservation project, Taranaki Mounga, covering the 34,000ha national park and aiming to create a biodiversity “halo” by controlling pests and weeds, and reintroducing lost species.

From Holly Hut – named after the native holly that surrounds it – we traversed an exposed ridge, then faced a gruelling downhill slosh through mud and tangled tree roots. By the end of the final push, we were so drenched water had pooled in my tramping boots. It had taken the equivalent of an eight-hour working day but apart from my screaming calf muscles, I’d loved almost every moment of it.

Back up at the hut, Shepherd had magically produced a lemon cupcake she’d made for my birthday, topped with tangerine icing. I huffed at the candle before the wind had a chance to snuff it out and made a wish, then thanked the ghost of this inscrutable mountain for giving us its blessing.

 Homemade birthday cake at Holly Hut. Photo/Phil Taylor

What to do, where to stay and what to eat

Pouākai Crossing

A challenging but rewarding 19km one-day walk across the flanks of Mt Taranaki, rated an advanced tramping track. See “Pouākai Crossing” at doc.govt.nz, and check the weather forecast and trail conditions at the Egmont National Park Visitor Centre, at the southern entrance to the track, ph (06) 756-0990. The trail is clearly marked for independent walkers, but for a richer experience and insight into the history and ecology of the area, Top Guides runs guided trips. Shuttle transportation can also be booked separately.

Taranaki Thermal Spa

Take a post-hike soak in a private pool ($32 for two) while sipping on artesian water from a well first discovered by prospectors drilling for oil at the turn of the 20th century. A bathhouse opened on site in 1914; massage and beauty packages also available.

8 Bonithon Ave, ph (06) 759-1666, pureone.co.nz

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre

A new exhibition featuring more than 300 artworks opened on 7 December to mark the gallery’s 50th anniversary. The Len Lye Centre, with its rippling stainless-steel facade, is a stunning artwork in itself. $15 entry for visitors from outside New Plymouth; $25 per person for a 45-minute guided tour.

42 Queen St, ph (06) 759-6060, govettbrewster.com 

Inside the remarkable Len Lye Centre. Photo/Ken Downie

Taste of Taranaki

A half-day behind-the-scenes tour sampling the wares of some of New Plymouth’s boutique producers, such as an artisan bakery and a traditional chocolatier (see “other highlights” below); mānuka specialists Egmont Honey ; Proof & Stock, a roastery and coffee bar operating from a converted suburban garage (Instagram: @proofandstockcoffee); and the innovative husband-and-wife distilling team, Jo and Dave James, behind Juno Gin. $175 per person.

Ph (06) 758-5459 or (0800) DISTAR/347-827, discovertaranaki.nz

Social Kitchen

The motto of this lively bistro – “Meat dreams are made of this” – and mounted animal heads on the wall give “fare” notice of what’s on the menu. Situated in the former Salvation Army citadel, its centrepiece is a Mibrasa charcoal oven; the cocktail list includes a charcoal salt margarita. Large plates, easily enough for two, from $36. Open seven days, noon till late.

40 Powderham St, ph (06) 757-2711, social-kitchen.co.nz

Other highlights: the burgers at Frederic’s (34 Egmont St); the coffee at Ozone (47a King St); the sourdough bread and pastries at Billow Bakery (Quarter Bank, 91B Devon St W); handmade chocolates at Giles Chocolatier (169 Saint Aubyn St); brunch at Chaos cafe – lots of vegan and gluten-free options (36 Brougham St); and dinner at Monica’s, “inspired by the life and spirit” of Monica Brewster, the Govett-Brewster gallery’s founding benefactor (cnr King and Queen Sts).

King & Queen Hotel Suites

Directly opposite the Govett-Brewster/Len Lye Centre and a block from the Coastal Walkway, this boutique accommodation is super-stylish, but with a chill, friendly vibe. The artwork alone is worth a viewing. Part of the West End Precinct, it has a charge-back partnership with nine eateries (plus special discounts for hotel guests), free access to Jetts gym and complimentary bike hire. Rates from $190 per night; luxury one- or two-bedroom suites come with full kitchen facilities and a private balcony.

Corner King & Queen Sts, ph (06) 757 2999, kingandqueen.co.nz.

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.