Walking in circles

Around the Mountain Circuit, Te Papakura o Taranaki (Egmont National Park)

Sam Harrison
17 min readApr 13, 2024

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One mountain stands isolated on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Taranaki Mounga ascends from the sea toward the heavens, a volcano with a distinctly conical shape, blemished only by its secondary cone Panitahi. Circling the mountain is a network of trails that together make up the classic ‘Around the Mountain Circuit’ (AMC). It seemed to be the perfect plan B for Regan and I when a storm laid waste to our original Easter plans to head east. We would start at the carpark at North Egmont before heading west to Kahui Hut. The next day would be a short one to Waiaua Gorge Hut, before a big 1,500m climb up to Syme Hut on our third day. The last day would would take us through Dawson Falls and back to our car.

The Camphouse

1. Easter trading

North Egmont to Kahui Hut

Regan picked me up after work on Thursday. We had an uneventful drive to North Egmont where we would be staying in the Camphouse.

The Camphouse has an interesting history. It was forged in Melbourne in 1855 before being imported and installed on Marsland Hill in New Plymouth to serve as a barracks for imperial troops that were stationed in New Zealand due to increasing tension between pākehā and māori over land sales. Following the departure of imperial troops in 1870 the barracks were used to house immigrants among other purposes. In 1885 local farmer Harry Peters pioneered a new route up Taranaki via North Ridge. This route soon overtook the established route over the Pouakai Range, creating a need for campsite on the edge of the bushline. It was from here in 1890 that Harry Peters led 72 year old ex-premier Sir William Fox on a marathon 18 hour summit of the mountain. In 1891 the redundant barracks on Marsland Hill was dismantled and was sledded up to the camp to be installed as accommodation. It’s been there ever since, gun-ports and all.

Rising on Easter Friday all was well with the world. Regan packed his bag and I ambled around the barracks leisurely sipping my coffee. It was only when I went to take a photo of the mountain with my DSLR that I realised something was wrong.

NO SD CARD IN CAMERA

Oh shit. How will people know that I walked around Taranaki if I can’t take photos? Things did not improve when I realised that because of Easter trading no proper shops would be open. Regan and I rang every petrol station within a 50km radius with no luck. I asked every passing tramper if they had a spare but to no avail. The ladies in the visitor centre were no help either. I decided to take the nuclear option — I posted on the Tramping in New Zealand Facebook group. I did not like my chances, especially when the first person to comment informed me that the mountain I was standing on was actually called Mt Egmont (since 1976 the mountain has officially been known as Mt Taranaki / Mt Egmont, and following collective redress with ngā iwi o Taranaki the name will soon be changed to Taranaki Maunga). Then my saviour, Guy from Stratford, responded saying that he had an SD card I could borrow. We raced down the mountain to Stratford, thoroughly thanked Guy, before zooming back to North Egmont. We finally set off at 11am.

Above Tahurangi

The one upside of our late start was that the weather had improved markedly. We climbed steeply up to Tahurangi under the the watchful gaze of the snowcapped summit. This was hard work and soon both Regan and I were puffing. From Tahurangi the track began sidling the slope to the west till it met with the AMC track.

Continuing west we passed under spectacular volcanic columns and hopped over rocky lava shutes on our way to Holly Hut. Cresting a rise we began our descent to hut, our stomachs grumbling.

Dropping to Holly Hut, Ahukawakawa in the distance

It was nearly half-past one by the time we plonked ourselves down on the hut deck. Thus far all our walking had been on the well groomed frontcountry trails surrounding the visitor centre. Signs now warned us that the Hangatahua / Stony River Route was closed. We mulled what might lay ahead over a well-deserved lunch.

Holly Hut

At quarter to two we were off again, waving goodbye to a hardy looking couple who were also travelling in our direction. The track towards Te Rere-a-Tahurangi / Bell Falls was surprisingly well cut, making our descent towards Hangatahua a swift one.

Just after two we reached the closed section of the track. Yellow DOC tape was strung up between the trees on either side of the path. A tatty looking sign proclaimed that the track was closed. We conveniently ignored this, scooting around the obstacle before continuing down what was now a much more overgrown trail. Despite the abundance of foliage we found the track easy to follow and as a result we soon found ourselves out in open next to Peters Stream.

Peters Stream

The next section passed through what I could only assume was once open river flats. I say ‘once’ because the route soon progressed through dense thickets of tutu which hide many holes to put your foot in and made navigation a bit more difficult. Post-tutu we climbed away from the river, crossing several mineral rich creeks before discovering our first bit of erosion (which could be easily skirted through the bush).

The track closing erosion…

A spur (and the odd ladder) led us down from the eroded section of the track till we met once again with Hangatahua, this time at its confluence with Pyramid Stream. The river was now a much different beast, being full of sediment from the eroded northwest catchments of Taranaki.

Hangatahua

We made good progress along the sandy riverbed. I had been concerned that the exit out of the river would be eroded, but this proved to be unfounded. A short shute led us back into the bush without much trouble at all.

The track exits to the left where the bush dips

The track climbed lazily toward Turehu Stream. It was about this point that Regan began to complain that he had run out of water, and that he was in the grips of terminal dehydration. I rolled my eyes and suggested that there might be water in Turehu Stream. Turns out there wasn’t any there, nor in Maero Stream either. Woops.

Nothing to see here…

I decided that maybe a snack would cheer Regan up, so we had a break where when we reached the end of the closed track. Selfless as I am, I also gave Regan the last of my water. Compared to what we had been walking on the track from this point was a highway, having been cut only a month or so prior by the New Plymouth Tramping Club. A small murky trickle of water down the track forced us to stop as Regan pulled out an empty packet from some lollies and used it as a scoop to drink the puddle water from. Satiated, we continued.

The old Pyramid Route (2003 Egmont National Park map)

After climbing 250m the track took an abrupt left turn. Pre-2004 there had been a high track that branched off at this point over, skirting under Little Pyramid to Holly Hut. Ongoing issues with erosion had spelt the end of that trail. We turned to the south and crossed a series of streams full of beautiful clear water. I couldn’t help but smirk. Kahui Hut soon presented itself to us in all its glory.

Kahui Hut

The hut was a welcome sight. Although needing a bit of TLC the hut was cosy enough, really not bad for something built in 1958 (although sadly lacking a fire). Gear was soon flung from our packs and we settled in for the evening. Just as we were finishing dinner the sound of boots could be heard outside the door. Rather than the couple we had seen earlier we discovered a group of four Brits in the twilight. From thenceforth the hut was filled with raucous laughter as we swapped tales in the flickering candle light. It was an evening that demonstrated the best parts about meeting strangers.

North Egmont > Holly Hut (2 hrs) > Kahui Hut (3.5 hrs)

2. Mincing south

Kahui Hut to Waiaua Gorge Hut

The majority of the hut rose at 7am. I say majority as Regan continued to happily snore through the flurry. I sipped my coffee as our new British friends prepared themselves for departure. They left at half past eight and I returned to my pit to read my book. An hour later the snoring stopped and Regan rose from his slumber. Preparing ourselves we were about to leave when the couple from Holly Hut appeared. We proceeded to have a chin-wag for a quarter of an hour before finally setting close to 11am.

Our walk that day was only meant to be 3 or 4 hours so we were not in a rush. Despite this, we made excellent time down from Kahui, with the freshly cut track proving to be a highway. In half an hour we reached the junction with the Oaonui Track which signaled a resumption of our traverse. Our route passed through lush forest fed off rich volcanic soils, an avenue through the web of kareao that surrounded us. The number of bridges, boardwalks and ladders took us by surprise - bridging many a spot where a gully or swamp might have otherwise slowed us. On occassion we stopped to clear light treefall, making good use of my silky saw and a bit of brute force.

One of the many ladders

Sometimes the track climbed a bank, necessitating a clamber up tree roots. On one of these sections I turned just in time to see Regan tumbling down the track, a look of indifference on his face. A few seconds of scrambling like an overturned turtle later and he was back on his feet and going again. Two hours after leaving Kahui we descended to the bed of Oaonui Stream. On the far side of this we discovered the stout remains of the old Oaonui Hut, a vermin control hut built 1958 that has long since been reclaimed by the bush.

The remains of Oaonui Hut

The track used to go east from here, crossing a bridge over the north branch of the Waiaua Gorge to the Waiaua Gorge Hut. This route is now more or less impassible, being obliterated in a storm in the 2010’s.

Old route to Waiaua Gorge Hut with annotated new route (1991 Egmont National Park map)

Instead we followed the track west, dropping a seemingly endless amount of elevation before we reached the new turnoff to Waiaua Gorge Hut. From here we travered along a muddy route through the bush until we emerged on the stony river bed of the Waiaua.

Below the Waiaua River Gorge

I could only presume that on a good day our vantage point might have afforded us a mighty view of the maunga. However we had no such luck, Taranaki being cloaked in a regal cloak of cloud. Upstream we reached the where the forks of the Waiaua met. Here the track goes into the forest where it becomes more of a quagmire. We then began climbing steeply to gain the spur, and in turn the hut.

Waiaua Gorge Hut

Waiaua Gorge Hut was built in 1984 by the national park board. It was palatial compared to Kahui, with a large living space in front of two bunk rooms. A stately fireplace dominated the centre of the hut. I could already tell we wouldn’t be cold that night. I was most impressed by the huts location. Some 20 metres out the front door is the edge of the gorge, which yawns as a vast bush-clad chasm. Behind this was the hidden cone of Taranaki.

Waiaua Gorge below the hut

Given it was only half past one when we arrived we had plenty of evening to fill in. The first matter on our agenda was lunch, before settling into a bit of reading. Trampers slowly began to filter into the hut over the course of the afternoon. No two groups were alike, there was the hard-looking couple from Holly Hut, a man in battle fatigues and his partner, a Auckland Tramping Club party, a father with two daughters and a solo tramper. Perhaps the most notable incident of the night was when the father accidentally served the solo tramper a healthy portion of left over mince. The tramper looked at his place with a growing horror.

“Oh…. I’m a vegetarian”

I enjoyed the mince.

Kahui Hut > Oaonui Hut ruin (2 hrs) > Waiaua Gorge Hut (1 hr)

3. It’s the climb

Waiaua Gorge Hut to Syme Hut

Day three had loomed large on our minds for the entire trip thus far. Our destination for the night was Syme Hut, sitting on the cone of Panitahi at 1966m. That was approximately 1600m higher than Waiaua Gorge Hut. It was clear that it would be a bit of a grunt. With this in mind we rose early, waking in the darkness of 6am to get prepared. Just before our departure I voiced to the father (of mince incident fame) that I had been mulling climbing the western slopes of Panitahi to reach Syme. He warned that the top of the cone of Panitahi was hardened volcanic rock which might be best avoided by climbing to Rangitoto Flat instead. Equipped with this info we set off as the sun rose, the weather unsettled. It soon became very apparent why the old track to Oaonui was closed, the track disappearing into nothingness above the eroded stream.

The track used to go here…

We ventured on and soon reached the ladder into the Waiaua, the only ladder out of the many that we traversed to actually be marked on the map.

The marked ladder had an annoying cage

We then crossed the Waiaua before climbing steeply out of the gorge. After some 80m the climb relented and we began ambling up a curving bluff along the Braemes Falls Track. This was easy going albeit slightly overgrown. The view of Braemes Falls left me slightly underwhelmed but beautiful nonetheless.

Braemes Falls

Above Braemes Falls the climb became steeper and the track was more overgrown. The advantage of this was that at least it went some way to preventing us from overheating. I was fortunate as Regan was clearing all the moisture off the overhanging greenery for me though. We emerged from the bush around the 1100m contour and the temperature dropped significantly. Harsh wind blew up from the valley below and we made the call to rug up.

Climbing to the bluffs on Bobs Ridge

In front of us loomed a large series of bluffs, shrouded in mist. A bare and muddy track through the scrub led us to the base of these bluffs. From here we began to traverse east in the shelter of the cliffs.

As we traversed the cloud slowly began to part, revealing a bluebird day beyond. We soon emerged out from under the cliffs and onto tussock slopes. In front of us Panitahi jutted out from the flank of Taranaki. The climb looked imposing but really quite doable.

Panitahi in the distance

Poles led us down into Mangahume Stream. Here we delayered, now warmed by the sun and sheltered from the wind. After a few snacks we climbed out of the stream onto gentle boggy slopes. It wasn’t long until we were staring up our potential route to Rangitoto Flat. After a quick scout we discovered nothing that raised our alarms so we decided to proceed up this western flank, following a prominent volcanic spur.

Bobs Bluffs

We gained altitude rapidly as we navigated the mossy spur. Soon we were looking out over a vast blanket of cloud which covered the Taranaki plains. When the spur became more difficult to follow we traversed to our left, climbing up a broad rocky field of debris.

I was most surprised by the total lack of scoria or scree. It was only when we crossed back over the rocky spur to reach Rangitoto Flat that we encountered anything of the sort. We quickly gained the flat and made the final ascent to the hut just after 1pm.

Our route to Syme Hut (2003 Egmont National Park map)

From Panitahi we had an excellent vantage of the impressive snowy façade of Taranaki, now shimmering in the heat of the sun. As with the night before trampers arrived in drips and drabs and the hut’s bunks slowly filled. The afternoon was spent outside in the sunshine, reading books and making friends.

Syme Hut looks onto the Southern slopes of Taranaki

By the time the sun began to set there were 15 people to squeeze into the 10-bunk hut (plus one in a tent). I had other things to think about though, as the world was plunged into an amber glow by the sun’s fading rays. The sun drifted below the sea to the west, casting a long shadow behind the maunga. It was hard not to be awe-struck by the sight.

The temperature dropped as soon as the sun disappeared. This was not so much of an issue as the hut was toasty warm once it was crammed with 15 bodies!

Waiaua Gorge Hut > Syme Hut (5.5hrs)

4. Crossing the green

Syme Hut to North Egmont via Dawson Falls

The second part of the visual feast was of course the sunrise. The golden orb of the sun rose behind the volcanic peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Traditional Māori stories recount that Taranaki was once together with those mountains, before falling in love with Pihanga and being driven away by Tongariro.

Syme Hut

A hut was first built on Panitahi in 1930 with construction funded by the national park board and labour was supplied by the newly formed Mount Egmont Alpine Club. The hut was named after Rod Syme, a foundation member of the club and driving force behind the new hut. It took 150 trips to carry the materials for hut up to the peak, but just three days to assemble the pre-fabricated building. The climate of the peak was harsh, with snow depth of up to three metres recorded on top of the roof. by 1986 the hut had suffered from 50 years of exposure and snow loading, becoming badly distorted. The present hut was constructed in 1987 to mark the National Parks Centennial Year.

After watching the sunrise we had our breakfast before getting ready to leave. It was just before 9am when we left the mayhem of the hut. Poles led us off the flat top of Panitahi before dropping down the scoria slopes on its northern side.

Scree scree

It was quick and efficient travel down to the 1500m contour. Here we found a newly constructed wooden staircase that wound down the mountain in an endless stream of steps.

We took the opportunity to check out Kapuni Lodge before beginning our descent into the bush. Soon we dropped below the cloud layer and the temperature plummeted. We assured those on their way up that there was indeed a beautiful day to be had somewhere up there. Our descent seemed to drag on for some time but eventually we emerged at the busy carpark next to Dawson Falls. Regan almost capitulated at this point with the possibility of a ride to the car but I forced him on. After an investigation of the historic powerhouse (the oldest continually used generator in New Zealand; which ironically wasn’t in use) we set our sights on Waingongoro Hut. This was not strictly necessary for our route but being toxic hut baggers we just had to visit. We reached the hut just before 12 before turning around and heading back up the hill. More interesting than the hut was the swingbridge over the river nearby, which hung quite a distance up in the air!

View from the bridge

It was about a 200m climb to rejoin the AMC Track. The track had recently been upgraded with new bridges, steps and additional cutting bringing it up to ‘Great Walk’ standard. This was all part of a project to create a Taranaki Crossing to rival the Tongariro Crossing. It seemed the rivalry between the two mountains lived on. On this well-maintained track it did not take us long to reach the road at the Plateau. Pushing passed the crowds we continued on the 4WD to where the goods lift spans the Manganui Gorge to the skifield.

Dropping into the Manganui Gorge

A half-built suspension bridge stood adjacent to the lift, part of the same improvement project as the rest of the track works. Given it still did not have a decking we continued down into the gorge before climbing up the far side to reach Manganui Ski Field.

Manganui Skifield

The well-groomed skifield was an odd sight on the mountain, a large manicured lawn resembling a golf course with lift towers to one side. We stopped here to eat lunch. As we did so more cloud blew in, hiding the mountain once more. Once the last of our food was finished off we set off, traversing the side of the mountain and climbing an endless number of stairs in the process.

Many stairs and a few grumbles later Tahurangi emerged from the fog. The ‘Puffer’, an impossibly steep 4WD track made out of reinforced concrete, took us down from here. On the lower portion the gradient relented and gravel took over from the concrete. It was a bit tedious nonetheless.

Dropping to North Egmont

Around 4pm we stumbled into the North Egmont Visitor Centre carpark, our weary legs glad to be done.

Syme Hut > Dawson Falls (2 hrs) > Waingongoro Hut (1 hr)

> Manganui Skifield (1.5 hrs) > North Egmont (2.5 hrs)

The Around the Mountain Circuit is a little rough around the edges. But that’s its charm, a journey around the quieter western side of the maunga, away from the crowds. Sure, the huts might be a bit awkwardly spaced and part of it might be technically closed, but I reckon it’s the best way to experience the national park. Who knows, you might even make some friends along the way!

Our route, with overnight stays marked in yellow.

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Sam Harrison

Tramper with something to say about tramps (of the walking variety).