On the slopes of spectacular Mt Taranaki, the Pouakai Crossing - New Zealand's newest guided walking trail - is a thrilling one-day hike exploring a varied volcanic and alpine landscape that has a significant cultural history.
Mount Taranaki and Egmont National Park, near the coastal city New Plymouth, is the central geographical feature of New Zealand's Taranaki region. This fertile farming region is famed for its many internationally significant gardens, major arts collections and cultural events, and alpine to surf adventures.
The Pouakai Crossing has just been added to that list as the 19-kilometre (12 mile) wilderness trail showcases a curious primeval landscape circumnavigating the picture-perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (2518m).
Mt Taranaki is a spiritually important landmark for Māori, and historic Māori pa (fortified villages) throughout Taranaki tell stories of the region’s culture and history.
Taranaki means 'Gliding Peak'. Māori legend recounts how Taranaki - who once lived with the other great volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe) - was banished after falling in love with Tongariro's wife Pihanga. As Taranaki travelled west towards the setting sun, his tears carved out the Whanganui River. According to legend, Taranaki is hiding his tears when cloud covers the mountain.
The Goblin Forest
The Pouakai Crossing is a great way to experience the diversity of New Zealand’s landscapes. It only takes a day to complete but, unlike some of the most popular walks, the walking traffic is still relatively sparse so you really can get away from it all as you discover a New Zealand that (apart from the well-formed track) is little changed from ancient times.
The crossing begins in a dense forest filled with the curious twisted forms of ancient trees and lush native plants. The track is lined with ferns and moss that eerily creep up the trees – providing good marker points to help navigate this remote and rugged rainforest.
Towering lava cliffs
From the native forest, the track passes through an impressive reminder of past volcanic activity in the form of towering lava cliffs. While Mt Taranaki hasn’t seen any volcanic activity since the 1860s when a lava dome was produced in the crater, it is still classed as an active but quiescent stratovolcano. This means that the mistical mountain has been in a dormant state for a long time.
There are a variety of wetlands on the Pouakai Crossing where you can watch communities of native wildlife -from small reptiles to beetles, huhu grubs and rare birds – thriving in the untouched natural habitat as you continue your walk.
The Ahukawakawa Wetland is a highlight. At an elevation of 920 metres, the wetlands were created about 3500 years ago when lava and debris blocked a river that ran through the area. The alpine wetland is home to more than 260 species of plants, many of which can withstand the cold climates in winter due to the acidic soils. Mount Taranaki’s wetlands are also the habitat of an ancient carnivorous giant land snail which eats worms and can grow to nine centimetres in length.
Another interesting feature on the journey is the Kokowai Stream where the water is a rich rusty red due to manganese oxide and high concentrations of iron oozing from the earth into the stream. Taranaki's Māori people continue, as they have for hundreds of years, to use the Kokowai to dye garments, carvings and other adornments.
The Dieffenbach Cliffs
Beyond the uphill stretch on Razorback Ridge and down beside the Waiwhakaiho River, walkers pass into the shadow of the giant Dieffenbach Cliffs.
The cliffs are named after the young German explorer Ernst Dieffenbach who, in 1839, organised one of the first European summit climbs of the mountain. After many setbacks and failed attempts, Dieffenbach finally made it to the top, but didn’t have anything to write with so couldn’t leave proof of the expedition. On a clear day from the top there are spectacular views of New Plymouth city and sometimes Mount Ruapehu in the distance.
Extra for experts
If you’re hungry for more adventure, there are many extra routes to choose from as you explore the Pouakai Crossing.
For a stunning waterfall vista, opt to add an hour return to your trip and check out Bells Falls. The falls are surrounded by forest and look like they have come straight out of a movie set.
Other optional extras include the Pouakai Trig (two hours return), which showcases the Taranaki coastline from the highest point of the range, and the Henry Peak (one hour return) with a magnificent 360-degree view of Taranaki, for a real on top of the world experience.
An easier deviation is to wander around the tussock-covered plateau from the Pouakai Hut as far as the tarns (mountain lakes) where, in good weather, you’ll be rewarded with the classic postcard view of Mount Taranaki reflected in the water.
Huts and restplaces
The Pouakai Crossing has two huts where you can stop and refuel, ready for the next part of the walk, or break the trip into a multi-day adventure.
The Holly Hut offers spectacular views with the mountain as a backdrop and Pouakai Hut has a sunny deck that looks out across the vast green Taranaki landscape to the Tasman Sea. The Pouakai Hut is about 120 minutes from the end of the Crossing, so depending on how fast your pace was earlier, you may be able to relax and soak in the view for a while.
Talk to your transport operator and you may even be able to organise staying on at the hut longer to enjoy the sunset, before being guided to the end of the crossing by torchlight.
After Pouakai Hut, it’s all downhill - past the popular 'Photographic Peak', and historic Maori rock carvings. En route, you may also notice protective cages installed by New Zealand's Department of Conservation to defend endangered species of flora.
Booking the Pouakai Crossing
Top Guides offer guided tours of the Pouakai Crossing and other walks on Mt Taranaki. This business is run by experienced mountain guides who know Mt Taranaki like the back of their hand (a few of them are even search and rescue volunteers) and can tell you all of the track’s hidden stories.
To save having to arrange transport either side of the crossing, Taranaki Mountain Shuttle offers an easy transport service where you get picked up from any New Plymouth central location in the morning and dropped back at the end of the day.
The Pouakai Crossing is also a self-guided walk, following a well-marked and signposted track.
It’s a good idea to line up transport to and from the trail ends. As you head to the starting point of the Crossing, if you book with a transport operator, your driver will be able to give you the full details of the walk ahead plus a guide book and map outlining points of interest, flora and fauna and safety tips. You’ll also be given a contact number to call if there are any emergencies or if you need to be picked up earlier than planned.
While the day isn’t overly technically challenging or dangerous, it will test your stamina. The many aspects of this day-trek are hugely satisfying and you will be glad you made the effort.
Read about safety tips for walking and hiking in New Zealand's great outdoors.