Peter Dragicevich tackles the Pouākai Crossing, helped by cheese-wielding locals.
The alarm went off at 5am and, after a bleary-eyed scramble, we hit the road for the 100km drive from somewhere deep in rural South Taranaki to the far side of the mighty maunga. The destination was the trailhead of the Pouākai Crossing, a 19km route skirting the slopes of Taranaki and its sister volcano, Pouākai. In 2017, Lonely Planet heralded the track as a worthy alternative to the busy Tongariro Crossing. Although it has grown in popularity as a result, it's still nowhere near as overcrowded as the Tongariro conga line.
My hiking buddy was artfully selected. Suzanne may be an Aucklander nowadays but she hails from a huge Catholic family that's related to half of South Taranaki, so I knew that accommodation and other arrangements would be sorted. And given we're straddling 50 and of similar levels of fitness (not-bad-for-our-age would be the kindest description), I figured we'd be fairly evenly pegged. Additionally, she and her family share a healthy appreciation for cheese, whisky and robust conversation – which clearly makes them the best kind of humans. Sure enough, a quick call and niece Michelle was on the case, putting us up, packing us lunch and even pouring us a shot of whisky to facilitate a good night's sleep before we set out.
Traversing a volcano
Conversation in the car inevitably turned to the impressive volcano filling the horizon before us. Kiwis are nothing if not territorial and I swiftly learned that everyone from Taranaki has "their view" of the maunga, which is better than all of the other views simply because it's the one they grew up with. As an Aucklander, I knew instinctively not to argue with this logic.
Rather than doing the two-car shuffle, Michelle had booked a shuttle to collect us from the Mangorei Rd trailhead car park and drop us at the other end of the trail. It turned out to be an excellent call, as the car park at the Taranaki/Egmont National Park Visitor Centre was already full at 8am.
With a spring in our step we headed up Taranaki, pausing to take in the views over New Plymouth from the platform near the beginning of the track. We needn't have bothered, as similarly sublime vistas would accompany us along the route. Before too long the mountains of the Central Plateau came into view and I was reminded of the old story of how lovelorn Taranaki wandered westward after losing a battle with Tongariro over beautiful Pīhanga.
The path continues up the Razorback Ridge and then arcs along the scalloped tops of several valleys, offering views of sheer rock faces and out to sea. Aside from one brief scramble over an avalanche zone, the track is well-formed and fairly easy going. About 90 minutes in, a passing Dutchman with a GPS tracker informed us that we'd passed the highest point of the route: 1357m.
Buoyed with this knowledge, and the fact that Pouākai itself was now filling our field of vision and looked considerably lower than we were, we progressed enthusiastically – presuming we had the worst of the climbs out of the way already. We were wrong.
We practically gambolled along the 2.5km descent to DoC's Holly Hut, which was buzzing with day hikers, overnighters tackling the full two-day Pouākai Circuit, and an annoyingly fit middle-aged couple, who were running the entire circuit in a day. After feasting on Taranaki cheese, topping up our water bottles, availing ourselves of the vault toilet and lathering ourselves in sunscreen, we ventured back into the midday sun.
The next leg started easily enough, with a clip-clop along boardwalks across the mossy Ahukawakawa Swamp. But we were soon exchanging anxious glances as it dawned on us that the track didn't skirt Pouākai, as we had anticipated, but headed steeply up the ancient volcano.
An unexpected climb
I'm not going to lie, the next 90 minutes was a real slog, exacerbated by scorching sun and a paucity of shade. But eventually we crested the saddle and New Plymouth snuck back into view.
From this point, it's well worth taking the 15-minute detour to the famous Pouākai Tarns – for the amusement factor alone. All of those interchangeable Instagram shots of Taranaki reflected in a mirror-like lake are taken here. In reality, the "lake" is barely the size of a suburban swimming pool and lined with dozens of wannabe "influencers", desperately hoping for the clouds to clear the summit and the wind to stop rippling the water long enough for them to snap the cliched shot.
They were still waiting anxiously when we left them 20 minutes later to make our long descent through lush native forest and back to the car. We reached it at about 6pm, footsore, but with the smug satisfaction that inevitably accompanies the completion of such an epic hike, and the sure knowledge that more cheese and whisky were awaiting us back at Michelle's.