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To the Top of Taranaki: In the footsteps of Tahurangi

Published
January 15, 2022
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This January, I took another trip to the wonderful province of Taranaki, this time from the north along State Highway 3, past the tiny village of Uruti.

A map of Taranaki and Whanganui, from the area just north of Uruti on the coast, and Taumarunui on the Whanganui River, southward. North at top; forested areas, mostly native bush, are shown as green.

I wasn't in a rush, so I stopped at Uruti, some forty kilometres out from New Plymouth, to have a look around.

It would be a mistake to drive through Uruti without stopping. And that is because Uruti is the gateway to the scenic Uruti Valley, where the film The Last Samurai was made. You can still visit the film set there.

The other thing the Uruti area is famous for is the fact that there is still quite a bit of lowland native bush, or forest, remaining. Again as you can see from the map above, the forest goes all the way down to the sea in those parts, and that is really unusual for New Zealand.

This really lush forest was logged, just about everywhere else that it existed, in the 1800s and early 1900s. There is a list of trails that you can hike and places to see in that area, here, and I also took a photo of an information panel while I was there.

 

Uruti Road, which leads into the Uruti Valley

The Uruti Valley

Uruti Heritage Trails

After Uruti, I got to New Plymouth and took a hike along its wonderful, award-winning coastal walkway.

 

The New Plymouth Coastal Walkway, with Paritutu Rock and the power station chimney at the far right

New Plymouth is a city I never get tired of visiting! After strolling along the walkway, I went to a Dave Dobbyn concert at the magical Bowl of Brooklands. This was just like pre-Covid days, made possible by vaccine passports and the fairly low incidence of the disease in New Zealand. Omicron might stuff this sort of thing up again for a while, though.

The sound stage at the Bowl of Brooklands

Myself in a long hippie dress!

It’s a place that gets even more magical after dark.

 

 

Then I decided that I was going to try and get to the top of Mount Taranaki by the Northern Summit Route. To get to where that route starts, you head up Egmont Road, which starts at an intersection with State Highway 3 just east of the New Plymouth suburb of Fitzroy, between Fitzroy and the satellite town of Bell Block.

Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map (14 January 2022), CC BY 4.0. North at top.

 At the other end of Egmont Road, things are considerably less suburban.

 

Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map (14 January 2022), CC BY 4.0. North at top.

I parked at the road end, near the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC)’s North Egmont Visitor Centre. You pass through a place called Egmont Village on the way to the road end, but the road end is practically a village itself.

 

A map of the facilities at the end of Egmont Road on Mount Taranaki

There are lots of tracks that branch off from this point.

 

There is a large cafeteria and a great place to stay called the Camphouse, which has showers and only costs NZ $25 a night. Here is a photo of the Camphouse.

 

The Camphouse

A short hike further away is the Maketawa Hut, itself also hugely popular.

You could not see the top of the mountain from the Visitor Centre when I was there, as it was wreathed in cloud. It would stay like that for my whole trip.

A view up Mount Taranaki from the Egmont Road End: Fine weather below, not so fine above

Luckily, there was a model of the mountain and its side peaks in the Visitor cCntre, with somewhat exaggerated vertical relief (i.e., the real mountain is fairly steep, but not quite that steep).

The massif in the middle of the model, between Mount Taranaki's summit and the Kaitake Range, is called the Pouakai Range. This is where the most famous tramp, or hike, in the area is located, the Pouakai Circuit. This is a two-to-three-day hike in which you depart from the North Egmont Visitor Centre for Holly Hut. That is supposed to take four hours, and leads through some really spectacular country, including the Dieffenbach Cliffs and the Ambury Bluffs.

From Holly Hut you head across to the Pouakai Hut via the Ahukawakawa Track, which passes through the Ahukawakawa Swamp n the saddle between the main peak of Taranaki and Pouakai, and then rises back uphill to get to the Pouakai Hut, which, on a fine day—a big if round here, as the weather around Mount Taranaki is notoriously fickle—has stunning views, both of Mount Taranaki’s main peak and of the coast. There are also mirror tarns near the Pouakai Hut in which you can see Mount Taranaki reflected in the still water.

Holly Hut to Pouakai Hut via the Ahukawakawa Track. Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map (14 January 2022), CC BY 4.0. North at top.

And then, from Pouakai Hut, you hike back to the Egmont Road end.

 

Mount Taranaki from the Pouakai Range. Photo by Stefan Marks, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,via DOC.

 If you just want to spend a day on Pouakai for the views, you can hike up to Pouakai Hut from the end of another road called Mangorei Road, via the Mangorei Track. That only takes about an hour and a half if you are fit.

The Mangorei Road End to Pouakai Hut, via the Mangorei Track. Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map (14 January 2022), CC BY 4.0. North at top.

You can also do the one-day Pouakai Crossing from the Mangorei Road end to the Egmont Road end.

This time around, I wasn’t planning to go to any of those places but rather, to try and climb Mount Taranaki. I was going to spend the night at the Taranaki Alpine Club’s Tahurangi Lodge. This was a ninety minute to two-hour hike up from the Visitor Centre, via the North Egmont Summit Track and a steep final section known as the Puffer! The Lodge sits atan altitude of 1,492 metres or 4,895 feet. This makes it an ideal base for hiking to the summit, which is 2,518 metres or 8,261 feet above sea level.

A sign part-way to the Tahurangi Lodge

The view up the Mount Taranaki Northern Summit Track from the sign in the last photo, at left in this photo. You can see that the summit is wreathed in cloud. This was the easy bit!

The Tahurangi Lodge is close to a microwave tower called the Tahurangi Translator Tower. In the next photo, you can see the tower and some cliffs to the right which are known as the Tahurangi Bluffs (the word bluff is used interchangeably with cliff on Mount Taranaki: they mean the same thing. There are lots of these sorts of bluffs, or cliffs. on the mountain. Some of the best known, on the track that leads from the Egmont Road end to Holly Hut, are called the Dieffenbach Cliffs, after Ernst Dieffenbach, the first climber to have officially ascended Mount Taranaki, or Mount Egmont as it was then, in 1839.

Looking toward the Puffer and the Tahurangi Translator Tower, from the easier part of the Northern Summit Track

Many of the bluffs, or cliffs, on Mount Taranaki and its side peaks are made of columnar basalt, like the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland or the Organ Pipes near Dunedin. They are also one of the greatest hazards for climbers on the mountain, as it is easy to go sliding on the steep bits, and if you slide for long enough you run a good risk of going over a cliff. Even on the comparatively easy Northern Summit Route, it thus pays to have the equipment and skills needed to a arrest a slide, if there is the slightest risk of icy conditions.

The last few metres of the Puffer, with the Tahurangi Lodge in view. The tower is out of this photo's angle of view.

I spent the night at the Tahurangi Lodge, which was first built on its present spot in 1968 and extended in the 1990s. The Tahurangi Lodge is named after a tribal ancestor who, according to the story, pre-empted Dieffenbach by several hundred years, lighting a fire in the crater to claim possession of the mountain for his people.

Tahurangi Lodge has a well stocked library

The main room at Tahurangi Lodge

The view from one of the windows at Tahurangi Lodge

The sun peeping through black, rain-sodden clouds in the next photo reminds me of Petrus van der Velden, a Dutch artist who painted stormy scenes in old-time New Zealand. It was as though he thought that nature, here, was much more violent and harsh and primeval than in the Netherlands. And maybe he was right.

The Translator Tower from the deck atTahurangi Lodge

The Taranaki Alpine Club was founded in 1930, and for a time, its members were in the habit of bringing in the new year by lighting a fire in the crater as well. Their first hut, opened in 1935, was named after Tahurangi, and although the present Lodge is on a different site, the name was retained.

I've heard that the custom of lighting the fire died out in the middle of the twentieth century, after most locals came to understand that Mount Taranaki, a volcano of the Mount Vesuvius type, was by no means extinct. Thereafter, the sight of flames and smoke at the top was bound to raise a false alarm and waste the time of the emergency services.

Another of the club's customs is to hold an 'Open Climb' each New Year, in which a great mass of people ascend the mountain all at once via the Northern Summit Route.

The thing about the Northern Summit Route, the one that I was taking, is that it involves no technical mountaineering at all. Though steep, getting up is purely a matter of putting one foot in front of another or scrambling over rocks that aren't too hard to scramble over, so long as they aren't iced up.

The main dangers are to do with steepness, ice, and the mountain's exposure to bad weather, which can sock in from any angle of the compass. More than eighty people have died on Mount Taranaki and they say that European tourists, used to far higher mountains, underestimate a peak that is 'only' 2,518 metres high.

A typical scenario would be somebody hiking to the top in sneakers and then discovering, when it is time to come down, that the trail has iced up. As I've mentioned, it you do start to slide, there are lots of nasty cliffs to fall over. Even in the very best summer weather I would say that sensible footwear and hiking poles are essential, along with warm clothing in a daypack in case you need it, a windbreaker, hat, gloves and sunglasses and sunblock. Oh yes, and plenty of water, for there is none above Tahurangi Lodge.

(There is a club history here, and also an alarming tale of a bad-weather accident on the mountain, here.)

Māori custom also forbids eating, cooking or going to the toilet at the top, which is regarded as a sacred space—basically, anything you wouldn't do in the middle of a religious service—and, in addition, standing on the very highest spot of the summit. That is also seen as a sacrilegious act.

The day I went up to the Lodge there were 65 knot winds and decidedly unsettled weather higher up, even though it was fine at the road end. You can see the contrast in one of my photos above.

 Below Tahurangi Lodge, the way up is known as the Northern Summit Track. Above the Lodge it becomes the Northern Summit Route, with numbered poles to guide you over otherwise unmodified terrain.

It pays to bring a mobile phone (they work in most places on the mountain) and to be aware of the number on the nearest pole, so that you can ring up for help and guide rescuers to exactly where you are if anything happens, such as an injury that makes it impossible to keep going.

After spending my first night at the Lodge. I left at 8 am and did the summit via the Northern Summit Route in five hours return: three hours up and two back down to the Lodge. On the way up, I spent two hours hiking up crunchy, gravel-like scree, and the final hour clambering over solid volcanic rock.

Here are some photos of my hike to the top.

Looking down at Tahurangi Lodge and the Translator Tower as I crunch my way up the scree slope, just after 8 am

The poled route, with scree below and firm, black rock further up

A safety sign along the way

Now I get to the rocky bit, and also into the mist

Permanent snow, and mist, at the top

A welcome view, as I returned just after 1 pm

Though January is the middle of summer, when I got to the top it was quite cold. I had to wear gloves and a jacket (a lot of people go up without, which is really stupid). I didn’t get any photos from the summit, unfortunately, as Mount Taranaki was still cloudy on top, as it is some two-thirds of the time in fact.

Here is a video, including time at the top in the clouds—it was so bad that I sometimes couldn't see my hand in front of my face—and a cheerful return. I did manage to get two minutes' worth of views from the top!

After returning, I spent another night at the Tahurangi Lodge, where I was greeted by a rainbow at 7 am the next morning, the 11th.

Then, I hiked out to where my car was parked at the Egmont Road end.

While I was in Taranaki, I had also planned to explore Pouakai, and then go around to the southern side of the mountain, which I had visited on earlier trips, and head up Ihaiai Road to the Waiaua Hut to try and get a really good view of some more black basalt cliffs in the area of Brames Falls and just a different view of Mount Taranaki from the south-eastern side, where Panitahi or Fanthams Peak is located.

But because of bad weather, I had to scrub both plans. That is the thing about Mount Taranaki: to reiterate, the weather is bad two days out of three, and all the calendar photos you see probably involved somebody waiting for a fine day to take the picture!

 Here are some other Taranaki blog posts of mine:

Lands of the Shining Peak: 'When death itself is dead, I shall be alive' (18 September 2020)

Climbing the Cone of Catastrophes (25 September 2020)

The Talents of Taranaki (3 October 2020)

Around Mount Taranaki by the Southern Side (14 April 2021)

See, further, wildtaranaki.co.nz/mount-taranaki.

Also, 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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