Around Mount Taranaki by the Southern Side

April 14, 2021
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IN MARCH 2021 I decided to do the Around the Mountain Circuit around Mount Taranaki, which shouldn't be confused with the otherwise very similar Round the Mountain Track around Mount Ruapehu.

I suppose one begins with A and the other with R so that clerks working for the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) don't misfile the leaflets. A pretty good idea, actually.

Mt Taranaki this March, with Fanthams Peak / Panitahi to the let

I only got halfway before falling into a ravine on the way north and injuring myself, so the northern side will have to be written up some other time. But meanwhile, here are some thoughts on doing the southern side. Which is what you miss out if, like a lot of people, you only tramp around the northern side of the mountain, handy to New Plymouth, where the popular Pouakai Track and (Northern) Summit Route are located.

I decided to set out in a clockwise direction from Dawson Falls. I went to a nearby DOC office and the staff there told me I didn't need a topographical map, only the DOC brochure for the Around the Mountain Circuit. The brochure included a map, reproduced here.

From DOC, Around the Mountain Circuit (brochure), June 2014, CC BY 4.0. North at top.

I was planning to stay at Lake Dive Hut. Fortunately, the DOC staff told me that Lake Dive Hut had burned down in September 2020. This wasn't yet updated in the Brochure. On the web page for the Around the Mountain Circuit there is an alert that tells you the hut is no longer there, along with other alerts, but you can still download the brochure separately as of mid-April 2021 without being advised. The signs hadn't been crossed out either.

Sign at Dawson Falls

I decided to go up to Syme Hut, next to Fanthams Peak/Panitahi. Syme Hut is named after the founder of the Hāwera-based Mount Egmont Alpine Club, Mount Egmont being the old colonial name for Mount Taranaki.

There is a Mount Taranaki Alpine Club in New Plymouth, so I suppose the two names help to differentiate the clubs. The two clubs each have lodges, and look after tracks, on the northern and southern sides of the mountain respectively: the Tahurangi Lodge (Mt Taranaki A/C) and the Kāpuni Lodge (Mt Egmont A/C) respectively.

The Konini Lodge on the map is a DOC facility. That's another option for staying on the mountain in slightly better conditions than just in a hut.

The original Syme Hut on Fanthams Peak/Panitahi was built in 1930 by the Mount Egmont Alpine Club, before being replaced in 1988 by the current DOC hut. The Mount Egmont Alpine Club website includes a link to a silent 1930 film about the opening of the original Syme Hut.

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Check out the scene at about 3 minutes in, called ‘A precarious vantage point atop Fantham’s Peak’ — I wonder if it’s still there?

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A composite of two scenes in the 1930 film as the camera pans downward. You can see the edge of the national park behind the cloud, and then beyond that, the coast.

.This was the view on the way up, with Fanthams Peak / Panitahi at the left.

This was the view looking back down, which was even more amazing. You can see the clearly-delineated edge of the National Park:

As you get higher, the vegetatiion becomes more heather-like.

Selfie in the mountain 'heather'
Near the top of the bush, with tussock grassland above, then bare rock and shingle

On the way up, I met a committee member of the Mount Egmont Alpine Club. He warned me that the tracks on the south side of the mountain had become overgrown, because the membership of the Mt Egmont Alpine Club was becoming a bit elderly and no longer so keen on track maintenance.

Also, DOC were putting all their efforts into creating a new Great Walk on the northern side of the mountain, from the Taranaki/Egmont National Park Visitor Centre through to Pouakai Peak, which is off the map above on the northern side.

DOC has been severely underfunded for years, and has apparently only just got back to its 2008 level of funding, after allowing for inflation, after cuts that were made in 2012.

I also met a woman who told me that the reason the membership of the Mount Egmont A/C was now biased toward retirees (fit ones, I presume) was that they did everything mid-week, while young people are generally only free at the weekends. She knew some young people who had been put off by this.

I reflected on these observations when I came to wooden steps that were rather overgrown and in a headlong state of disintegration.

Syme Hut is at 1,970 metres, well over 6,000 feet, which is well above the natural treeline in New Zealand. Indeed, above the everything-line. The last bit, following a poled route over increasingly Mars-like terrain with the mist rolling in and obscuring things, was possibly not for the nervous.

Anyway, Fanthams Peak, or Panitahi ('the orphan all alone') was amazing. I took a whole lot of photos at dusk and again at dawn.

The sun rising over Mount Ruapehu, approximately 130 km toward the east

Pinky blue skies, just like in the 1980s pop song!

Mount Taranaki at dawn, from the area of Syme Hut

One of the most uncanny things about Mount Taranaki, rising to a final height of 2,518 metres or 8,261 feet above the surrounding plains, is that it casts a shadow at dawn and dusk which is like that of a celestial body: not so much a shadow, as an eclipse. In the video, you can spot a bit of hoar frost that formed between the red rocks overnight, as well.

From Syme Hut, I took the poled routes to the beginning of the Brames Falls Track, which I then followed down to the Waiaua Gorge Hut.

Basalt columns are clearly visible here. Somebody told me this ridge is called Bracken Ridge, though I can't find the name on a map

Descending through a ravine: see marker pole and track at left

Basalt-column outcrops above the beginnings of the bush

The gnarly wood of an exposed tree

Brames Falls

Once I had left the 'Mars-scape' of the upper poled routes, descending through tussock grassland and an epic gorge into more bushy vegetation on the Brames Falls Track once again, I did start to notice how neglected and overgrown the track was. I was frankly a bit shocked that there weren't any track markers, either, until I was within 15 to 25 minutes of the Waiaua Gorge Hut. The recommended time from Syme Hut to the Waiaua Gorge Hut was eight hours, but it took me ten, from 8 am till 6 pm. DOC also said that there would be water on the way, but there wasn't.

Brames Falls Track: Encroaching Vegetation

Just before the hut I had to descend a really big metal ladder. That was quite something.

The ladder

By this stage I was in dense rainforest, and there were a few places where it was possible to have got lost, in view of the track condition.

Dense vegetation near the Waiaua Gorge Hut

Waiaua Gorge Hut

The hut was quite nice, and I was there all by myself. There were twenty or thirty complaints in the log book about the overgrown state of the track, though.

My plan, after spending a night at Waiaua Gorge Hut, was to spend the next night at the Holly Hut on the north side of Mt Taranaki, and then finish up back at Dawson Falls. Unfortunately, the next day, in view of the terrible state of the track, I missed the bit where the path turned downhill on one of the tributaries of Oaonui Stream and kept going up and down the locally rather confusing braid of streams for two hours looking for the track in vain, falling over slippery boulders and injuring myself. I had to get a helicopter out in the end, my locator beacon proving vital once again.

Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map, CC BY-SA 4.0. North at top. Links live in original blurred at bottom right.

One of the streams that I was stuck in

I did come across one interesting thing in this off-piste area, untrodden by humans apart from lost ones.

Namely, a small flock of about five pairs of the rare whio or blue ducks: the ones that disdain stagnant ponds and only live in clear streams, increasingly hard to find in a New Zealand now populated by lots of cows and sheep. There are about a thousand breeding pairs of whio left. But, these days, the total is divided up into small and isolated populations of mountain-dwellers, which makes the species even more endangered.

I did my best not to disturb the ducks, perhaps a good chunk of all the whio still remaining on Mount Taranaki, and left them to their dabbling in peace.

But all in all,  I was starting to feel as though I had swapped the Around the Mountain Circuit for an expedition to discover the source of the Orinoco, except that I'd forgotten to bring my machete. Or, for a testing cross-country survival exercise with Bear Grylls, except that he wasn't there to help me either.

You'd think that a track billed as the Around the Mountain Circuit would be up to a better standard.

Anyhow, there is perhaps one final point that's worth knowing about, which is really on a completely different note and less of a grizzle. This is that you can do day-length sections of the Around the Mountain Circuit as well, because several country roads come up to the circuit, or fairly close to it. For instance, as deep in the forest as I was at the Waiaua Gorge, I was still only two hours from the end of the Ihaia Road by way of the Ihaia Track.

The same goes for several other points on the Around the Mountain Circuit.

Finally, here's a longer video that I've made, including that amazing bit where the mountain casts its colossal shadow. For some reason I mispronounce Fantham as fathom, but it does have an 'en'. And the very last scene is filmed inside the gorge that I fell into, whence my rather pointed closing remarks! I wrote a letter to DOC about all this poor track maintenance and, as of the date of this blog post, they are looking into it.

Anyway, I'm planning to come back and finish off the circuit, maybe this winter. I hear that there is a very good section in which you walk on volcanic rocks, which I didn't get to this time around.

Finally, by the way, I've got three more blog posts about Taranaki and its famous mountain. Here they are:

If you liked the post above, check out my award-winning book about the North Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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