Saturday, 21 October 2017

Auckland to Wellington - Hiking Taranaki, Cycling New Plymouth to Whanganui.

Hiking Mount Taranaki was the centre-piece of this particular trip.  I was gutted that I missed out on it last time, so it was a must-do.  The problem was always going to be the weather.  Taranaki sticks out of the West coast of North Island, and with a height of over 2500m, it obviously attracts a lot of cloud from an already cloudy and rainy part of the country.

I had covered a lot of ground on the first 3 days of the tour, not only to give me time, but because the weather had looked promising on the long-range forecast on day 4 of the trip.  However, as I looked out of the window in New Plymouth in the morning, things didn't look so pleasant.  Upon checking the forecast for the mountain, the window of possible good weather had shrunk significantly.

I decided to ride to Egmont village, where the road turned towards the visitors centre 15Km away about 900m up the mountain.  Things weren't looking good.  Ever since I arrived in the Taranaki region, you wouldn't have known there was a mountain there at all.  The weather forecast was also grim for the next day, so I eventually decided to just ride on.

Yep, there is a mountain there.  It finally became visible from the road.
The new plan was to ride about 100Km to Patea on day 4 and then onto Whanganui after that,then leave the bike in a reliable hostel - which I had frequented on my previous trip to New Zealand - and then take a bus back when the weather looked a little better.  The only difficult part was getting up to the mountain and back again, as I really didn't want to pay for an expensive shuttle bus up there.

Shipwreck on the beach at Patea.
First then, the journey from New Plymouth to Whanganui.  I was preparing myself for a bit of a boring couple of days, especially compared to what I had been doing.  I was on main roads in dull and dreary weather, and also was pretty spent from the first 3 days of the trip.  The cycling was dull, but the free camping in Patea, as well as the gorgeous black sand beach and sunset there made up for it.  An added bonus was that there were working public barbecues in the free camping areas, as well as seating areas, which made for quite a comfortable evening.

The next day I only had about 60Km or so to get to Whanganui.  I was going to stay at the same hostel as I did a year previously, as they were fairly laid-back and I knew they'd keep my bike safe for a couple of days.  60Km was more than enough as I was feeling pretty beat-up and I had a headwind for most of the day.  I arrived, bought loads of food and booked my bus back to Taranaki for later the following day.

My plan was to stay in a hut near the Dawson Falls visitors centre on the Monday evening, then hike to the start of the Pouakai Circuit (the most famous long distance walk in the park) on Tuesday morning and stay at a hut on the circuit on Tuesday night, finally finishing the hike after lunch on Wednesday (the weather was supposed to be at its best on Tuesday and Wednesday).  About 36Km of hiking in total.

One of the great things about the huts in New Zealand is that they usually have plastic mattresses in them, meaning you don't have to bring something to sleep on, just a sleeping bag.  So I stuffed my smallish bag with a good sleeping bag and food, and pretty much nothing else but water and one set of dry sleeping clothes.

I caught the bus back to Stratford then, on Monday, but I still had to get to the visitors centre at Dawson's Falls, about 25Km away.  The only way to do it was hitch hike.  Because of the bus being delayed, I actually got to Stratford a lot later than planned which meant there would be less people going up to the Falls.  After about 45 minutes of trying, a kind soul eventually picked me up and took me the whole way there, leaving me just enough time to have a look at Dawson Falls and then make it to the hut before sundown.

Taranaki at sundown from the hut.
I was the only person in the hut that night, and it was quite nice, although a little cold.  I set-off early the next morning, strolling through dense forest on a slightly dodgy track that hadn't been maintained for a long time.  There were quite a lot of trees down across the path and it was generally ill-defined, keeping me on my toes to avoid getting lost.

The mountain fleetingly came into view between the trees and on the stream crossings as I made my way to the other side of the mountain.  After hiking for most of the morning, I made it to the visitors centre and the start of the Pouakai circuit.  After a spot of lunch, I was expecting a harder hike uphill, but easier underfoot, as this was a popular track and must be well maintained.  I was wrong.

Last year, Lonely Planet named the Taranaki region as number 2 in their top ten places to visit in the world, naming the Pouakai Crossing one of the best day hikes in New Zealand, and an underrated region generally.  Since then the mountain has seen a lot more visitors, although mainly in the summer months, the mountain was quiet while I was there, with few people hiking the crossing or the circuit.  My problem wasn't crowds but the state of the track.  Churned-up and eroded by people over the summer, the recent rain made it muddy and super wet.

To save weight and space on the trip, I had only packed my minimalist running shoes, so this made a hike to the summit out of the question, although the weather was very windy anyway, and a trip to the summit might have been unwise, especially alone.  I think the footwear actually worked in my favour.  There was no way anyone was keeping their feet dry anyway, and my shoes dried a whole lot quicker and were much lighter.  Still, it was slippery, muddy, and to be honest quite an unpleasant walk in some sections.

The swamp and surrounds, shrouded in morning cloud.
I stayed overnight at Holly Hut, with a few others and a roaring fire, perfect for drying all my wet clothes.  I got there with a bit of time to spare before bedtime, so I had some long chats with a few of the people who were also staying there.  It had been sunshine and showers all day and everyone was pretty wet, both from the weather and the state of the trail.

It was again cloudy the next day, which was disappointing as I felt like the views around me would be spectacular.  Fortunately, just in time, the clouds cleared and the mountain showed itself once more with the swamp in the foreground.  Absolutely spectacular.  Taranaki is an almost perfect cone volcano, and with snow near the top, it was picture perfect.

The clouds finally cleared for a fantastic view.
I had been lucky enough to get great views just before I descended into the forest again, making my way back to the visitors centre.  Once I got on the road, I was looking again to hitch a ride, this time back to New Plymouth.  Luckily, I succeeded first time; a nice old man and his granddaughter gave me a lift as far as the city park.  It was just a short walk from there to another hostel for the night.

Lovely city park in New Plymouth
I had an early bus to catch in the morning back to Whanganui, and I was feeling pretty satisfied that I had done what I'd set out to do, despite some complications with the weather.  The bus was again delayed, this time because of a clip holding parts of the engine at the back had broken, leaving a trail of sparks behind the bus, unbeknownst to the driver.  Fortunately, someone driving behind called it to his attention upon making his first stop.   After a frustrating wait for a replacement, it was another couple of hours before I was back at Whanganui, it was a quick lunch and back in the saddle again for the final section of the trip.

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