Dawson Falls to Waiaua Gorge Hut
The dark sky is fading to a blue grey twilight as we park at the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre. It’s not quite light enough to forego head torches but we can make out the shapes of other vehicles, information panels, vegetation and crucially, the snow dipped cone of Mt Taranaki looming promisingly in the distance. The air feels like hot chocolate warm, thick, steamy and sweet smelling. Everything is moist, a leftover from the last few days of intermittent rain. Puddles pave our way. Water drips off trees and shrubs. Ascending the Fantham Peak Track initial attempts to keep trainers dry and mud free are soon abandoned in favour of more efficient stair climbing. The stairs appear to have been designed specifically to trap water and mud. It will take more than a bit of mud and moisture to dampen our excitement though. Everyone wears big grins, happy feet and high spirits as we tackle the stair master. Over our shoulders to the east the sky starts to lighten and brighten in earnest illuminating the black and white outlines of Ngaurahoe and Ruapehu. As I watch the chameleon sky switch from grey to candy colours I’m reminded of the story behind Taranaki’s location.
Taranaki is incredibly handsome for a mountain. He possesses one of the most symmetrical cones in the world. He once resided in the middle of the North Island with the other big male mountains all of whom fancied a pretty hill named Pihanga situated just to the north of Tongariro. It seems that Pihanga being female did her best to get on well with all the males around her by emphasising each mountain’s good qualities and sharing her attention round in roughly equal proportions. Inevitably the male competitive instinct plus a desire to dominate, control and possess meant that the status quo became untenable. There was a big domestic stouch over who got to hang out with Pihanga. Basically Tongariro won and the other mountains lost.
Judging by his subsequent behaviour Taranaki did not take his loss well. In fairness it must have been particularly galling for the beautiful Taranaki to lose Pihanga to the short, not exactly gorgeous Tongariro. But perhaps Tongariro possessed a more attractive personality or possessed more sophisticated social skills than his rival. One thing is certain, of all the losers Taranaki appears to have been the one least equipped to cope with rejection although he did show a commendable ability to access his feminine side. Feeling angry, sad and humiliated and not afraid to show it he stormed off westwards crying all the way. His tears formed the Whanganui River. All the losing mountains shifted, some more emotionally intelligent mountains like Ngaurahoe stayed close so they could build a solid friendship with Pihanga and Tongariro. Not Taranaki though. Taranaki travelled as far as he could till his way was blocked by the Pouakai Range and dawn broke freezing him in his tracks.
As legend has it Taranaki may have moved on geographically but emotionally not so much. When Taranaki is shrouded in mist or rain as he so often is he is said to be grieving for his lost love Pihanga. When Taranaki is lit up by spectacular sunsets he is showing off for Pihanga. Any blowing off of steam by Tongariro is allegedly a warning to Taranaki not to think about returning east.
As we climb I ponder different endings to the story. Would we be bothering to run round the mountain if it were Tongariro? What would have happened if Pihanga had been more assertive and simply exercised her freedom of choice regarding her companion? Has Taranaki seen anyone about his anger management issues and unresolved grief?
The Fanthams Peak Track heads uphill past the Hooker Shelter and the Hillary Memorial step to the Kapuni Lodge junction where we turn left as we plan to head around Taranaki in a clockwise direction getting the biggest climb and the technical rainforest sections of the roughly forty-four kilometre round the mountain high route out-of-the-way first while we are fresh. We continue our ascent to the Upper Lake Dive Track as the sky turns blue and the sun gives the tussocks a warm copper glow. We follow this new route till it meets the main south summit route where we branch off left again amongst the glowing copper tussock traversing to join the Brames Falls Track.
This track climbs gradually in and out of small gullies then we ascend steep scoria slopes to our high point of the day at around 1500m. Below us on our left the sun drenched green Taranaki Ring Plain stretches like a wrinkly picnic blanket or a poke marked pool table – the green is improbably green. We spot Lake Dive nestled at the foot of the upper Beehive, a cumulo dome created when lava welled up and congealed before it could burst through the earth’s surface like a boil.
We descend treading carefully on the rocky path under the dramatic Bobs Bluff which towers on our right like a line of scrub coated venetian blinds that have been stacked the wrong way up. The venetian blinds could come from any Kiwi home with poor insulation. They harbour a serious dampness problem though no mould will grow as there is plenty of ventilation. Everything is coated in a generous layer of moisture and moss. Shady spots harbour frost.
Situated as it is on the west coast Taranaki accumulates rain which drips and trickles off leaves, branches and rocks accumulating in puddles, pools and swamps like golden syrup. Up to about 900m lichens and moss grow on the Kamahi trees with their stooped demeanour and tangled trunks giving the forest its’ nick name – Goblin Forest. Fifty shades of green. Mud and tree roots mix and mingle sociably. As is the case with the west coast tracks in the South Island track maintenance is not a great use of scarce resources because the next big rainstorm will undo all the hard work.
We wind our way down beside the Waiaua Gorge occasionally pausing to admire the trees, shrubs and epiphytes around us and below us. I am a big fan of the mountain cabbage trees that grow in Taranaki National Park so stop often to admire them. Due to its comparative isolation and maritime climate the Park is home to many locally adapted plant varieties with its own special mountain daisy and tussock species though it lacks some classic Kiwi mountain species such as beech. On the other hand the Rimu and Rata are thriving. Either local pest eradication programmes have been hugely successful or all the possums drowned, froze or starved to death while stuck in the mud.
A couple of hours into our run we climb the ladder out of the wet forest to a small clearing embraced by Waiaua Gorge hut. The hut sits bathed in sunshine affording a view directly across to Panitahi/Fanthams Peak the European name honouring the first women to climb the peak Fanny Fantham. We can also see Taranaki’s snow coated south face. We pause to refuel and take a few pictures then it is into the rainforest once more following the Oaonui track which will eventually link up with the Kapoaiaia track. Iain who has taken note of the progress of yesterday’s runners and is keeping careful account of our own progress reckons we have at least two hours more of rainforest trails to run through before we reach Holly Hut. He is spot on.
Waiaua Gorge Hut to Holly Hut
We were warned that the south-west rainforest trails bear a striking resemblance to the infamous Marchant Ridge in the Tararuas and I do get a similar feeling of time standing still as I run along the Oaonui track to a soundtrack of squelching trainer on mud with a birdsong chorus. While the trails are mostly flat the terrain is technical so a fast pace is neither possible nor advisable. A sprained ankle now would be inconvenient. This is the most testing section mentally and I’m in awe of our companions who completed it at the end of their round the mountain circuit the previous day. I’m glad to be getting it done relatively early in the day.
Later on the Kapoaiaiai track I catch up to Martini and John who are taking a break. Together we break out of the rainforest to the much-anticipated Stony River Junction. From the boulder strewn banks of Stony River we finally have views other than rainforest although this doesn’t last as we are soon heading back into the forest. The forest is losing its damp, muddy accessories though as we reach further north where the rainfall is slightly less. We scramble through slippery streams coated in silica giving them a pale orange colouring. There are many small ladders now indicating we are getting close to Holly Hut and the track is less eroded making travel easier.
John and I take a small detour to check out the highest waterfall in the Park, Bells Falls. At 31m this waterfall is impressive, more so because it sits beside the 160m lava cliffs of the Dome. From the Falls it is just 30 minutes to Holly Hut and this section is a lot of fun as we traverse on rock slabs with a precipitous drop off plus clear views across to Mt Taranaki on our right and the tall walls of the Dome on our left. At Holly Hut I munch on cold pizza and marvel at how hot it is. It is 1.30pm and it could be summer. Mt Taranaki is behind the hut so you can’t see it while sitting on the verandah the way you can at Waiaua Gorge hut but the building rests in a small clearing and has a pleasant aspect.
John and I have studied the map and reckon we are about half way around the circuit with the most technical and steep terrain done. We are feeling pleased with our progress and in good spirits. Martini appears tired and unimpressed with our pronouncement that the midpoint has been reached. He is not short on flexibility though. When he accidentally drops one of his gels through the slots in the verandah he manages to shoe horn his big frame into the small gap underneath and returns triumphant a short time later, gel in hand. All those yoga classes are paying off.
Holly Hut to Monganui Lodge
I’m not sure where the time went but when we leave Holly Hut we’re a good 40 minutes behind Iain, Mark and Mary. We are now briefly on the well maintained Pouakai Circuit. The track is benched and manicured. There are steps, drains, interpretive sings and viewing areas. As we ascend above the rainforest we immediately acquire a sense of space and scale that was lacking when we were enclosed by trees and crowds of other plants all desperately climbing towards the light. Bright sunshine and a big cloud dotted blue sky compete with sweeping views of alpine scrubland and rocky cliffs. The vista west and north across the beautiful Pouakai Range to Maude and Henry Peaks and the rusty Ahukawakawa swamp in front are the highlight on this side of Taranaki and will be familiar to most people who visit the Park to go tramping. I am keen to return and explore the sphagnum bog and tarns and to view the rare plants that reside down there at closer quarters. But for now we have a lot of distance to cover and the trails are runnable so we push on traversing towards the North Egmont Visitor Centre. John and I are determined that we will stay high and not drop down the Puffer Track all the way to the Centre only to have to come back up.
From the north the Taranaki has a cobbled poke marked texture. Most of the snow has melted off leaving it green and strangely bare – most mountains take on a brown or grey hue when snow is stripped back to reveal the crumbly rock beneath but possibly due to the warm, moist maritime climate round it Taranaki has lush tussock and other grasses growing high up its flanks. After stair climbing reminiscent of our early morning start we encounter relatively flat trails winding their way for kilometres around the side of the mountain. We pick our way across the Boomerang Slip glancing nervously at the huge boulders balanced precariously above us and under the massive Dieffenbach cliffs that mark the crumbling end of an old lava flow. These cliffs are 140m tall and impose themselves onto the landscape. They are named after the first white guy to climb Mt Taranaki, Ernest Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach and buddies were bold, persistent, resilient and indefatigable all traits common to explorers from those days. It took his party four days just to walk to the base of the mountain from the New Plymouth coast line. They climbed Taranaki on their second attempt.
We are ticking of iconic landmarks thick and fast now as we spot the Jacobs Ladder Track and break the news to Martini that the only way is straight up the stairs and back onto a north eastwards traverse. We can see the North Egmont Visitor Centre shining below us in the late afternoon sun along with the urban forms that make up New Plymouth on the northern horizon. The green blanket of the Taranaki Ring Plain is coming back into view. The temperature starts falling as we encounter a light southerly breeze and fading light. Some late afternoon cloud rises around the mountain’s upper slopes but for the most part the views remain excellent.
After stopping to put on another layer of clothing and check the map we see the television tower that signifies Tahurangi Lodge is close. The Lodge is named in honour of the first Maori to climb Taranaki. As we traverse closer the Lizard Track which marks the most popular and easiest route to the summit of Taranaki comes into view. Past Tahurangi Lodge the mountain’s east ridge is visible. This is of personal interest as this variant on the standard north ridge route has been on my Spring “to do” list for a few years now. Beyond the east ridge we catch a glimpse of the skifield buildings and Manganui Lodge. We have reached the mountain’s eastern touchstone. While waiting for Martini to catch up we chat to a French girl, the only person we’ve met all day. She kindly takes a team photo before we tackle the final traverse through the ski field tunnel, down the road and into the final forest section that leads us back to Dawson Falls.
It’s nearly 5pm and we are keen to finish the run in daylight. Knowledge that the end is close provides an energy boost as we each take our own paths back to the Visitor Centre running at a decent pace now. Our circumnavigation of the beautiful cone is completed in spirits at least as high as when we started the just as dusk’s curtain falls revealing the city lights on the fringe of the ring plain. We’re reminded that while Taranaki may be an outlier peak separated from his brethren here on his flanks we are in fact close to civilisation.